During my flight from LA to Sydney, I had time to read Philip Short’s more than 800 page book entitled Putin. This is an important book and should certainly be read by the younger generation of Westerners who did not live first-hand the history that shaped Putin and my generation as well.
I have worked throughout my professional life on many of the issues discussed in the book, and in my professional judgement the book provides a very helpful look at the life and times of Vladimir Putin.
As such, it provides a very good history of the times, and places Putin in the context of Soviet and then Russian developments and politics, and in his relationships largely with the United States and secondarily with Western Europe.
As we contemplate the end game to the current conflict in Ukraine, it is important to understand Putin, his motivations and his decision-making processes.
The book provides much insight into how Putin viewed the end of the Soviet Union, the role of Gorbachev, the birth of modern Russia and the need to recover Russia’s role in the world.
The author notes Putin’s attachment to the Petersburg-Baltic corridor and his concern to recover Russian influence and control in the region.
The author provides much detail on Putin’s perspective on Ukraine and its developments and his belief that the West has no right to turn Ukraine into a Western battering ram against Russian interests.
My own sense is that we have entered a new historical era in which the balance of power within the liberal democratic world is changing and doing so in the context of a growing conflict between the 21st century authoritarian states and the liberal democracies.
This is how the author ends his book.
“However it eventuated (with regard to the war in Ukraine), there was a palpable sense that an era had ended.
“The three decades since the Cold War in which the United States had been the uncontested superpower were over.
“Beijing was challenging American supremacy in the South China Sea. Russia, with Chinese backing, was contesting American power in Europe. What would follow was uncertain.
“A new geopolitical reality would emerge, but what form it would take, no one could predict.”
One of the strengths of the book is providing context for understanding Putin and his interactions with the West, and how we ended up where we are now.
The author asked the question of whether the story could have turned out differently if Putin and Western leaders had found paths to work together or whether there was an inevitability about the ramping up of conflict.
The author provided considerable detail on Putin’s views on Ukraine and how he certainly expressed his concern for any expansion of Western defense interests into Ukraine itself.
The irony for Putin is that his own actions have now created a situation in which the hardest line Western state and one of the most knowledgeable states with regard to Russia, Finland, will now spearhead a reshaping of NATO on the Northern Flank.
This is hardly a win for Putin,
But how then to end the current conflict?
How to negotiate with Putin?
For as the author points out, simply waiting out Putin does not solve the Russian challenge.
Russia will remain an “awkward bedfellow” for the West.
For my own assessment of Putin and the return of direct defense in Europe, see chapter two in my co-authored book on the return of direct defense in Europe: