This is a good biography. It is a fair biography. And the fact that it is written by someone connected with an anti-Putin institution like Harvard University is even more remarkable. Fair analyses on Putin are hard to come by. Most of the West, be it neo-conservatives or neo-liberals, believe Putin is Satan incarnate. His Russian nationalist admirers believe he is King Arthur resurrected. So which is it?
Stuermer is an economically-oriented German political scientist. Technically, he is anti-Putin, but he also understands the moves Putin makes. As a German, he knows that his country can’t openly oppose Putin’s Russia. He knows that to best work with Putin, one must understand him and to a degree, sympathize with him.
Yes, it is true that Putin is former KGB, but there is more to the story. Most of the KGB officers weren’t the bad guys from James Bond films. Nor where they the Gestapo-like men who would drag innocent children away from Church. Yes, that happened but that’s not the whole story. In any case, that’s not what Putin did. Putin worked with Securities in East Germany. He became a Colonel in the KGB because he thought he could protect Russian from future threats. He didn’t work to “spread the gospel of Marx.”
Putin’s position gave him a good view of how Soviet economics was collapsing, and if the situation allowed, how to rebuilld Russia.
Stuermer’s analysis of Putin’s Russia is mainly focused on the triumph and difficulties of Petrodollars, with a minor emphasis on PetroPolitics. After Putin stabilized Russia in the early 2000’s, he tapped into arguably the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world. Russia became rich overnight. The problem, though, is that while Russia has political leverage with oil, other countries have to want to buy from Russia. And if other countries don’t/won’t buy from Russia, her oil becomes useless. This forces Putin to look for a more science-based economy in the future.
Putin’s most important moment was a speech in 2007. He warned the West that NATO’s days of playing God are over. The West cannot give international law the middle finger anymore. The unlawful bombing of Serbia will have consequences. If the West can defy international law, so Putin argues, who is the West to criticize Putin’s Russia on “human rights” violations? Stuermer, a Westerner, realizes the challenge and concedes the point to Putin.
Stuermer makes some interesting observations. While Russia lost millions of citizens and key military hardware in the breakup of the Soviet Union, it had the positive effect of removing a lot of potentially dangerous Muslim radicals from Russian territory.
Cons with the book:
Like any modern-day political biography, this book became dated in about 6 months. In our society events happen to quickly. A lot of Stuermer’s observation, therefore, are either wrong or irrelevant. Russia’s birthrate is not as drastic as it was 5 years ago. That tired old canard simply won’t work anymore. Russia was able to ride the recent economic crisis fairly smoothly. Stuermer criticized Russia for having troops in hot places like Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, but doesn’t NATO and the US have troops in every country in the world? This criticism is unfair.
All in all, this is a good and fair book.