BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Strongman’

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By Angus Roxburgh
Palgrave Macmillan, $28, 338 pages, illustrated

In June 2000, President George W. Bush and his Soviet counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met for the first time in “neutral” Slovenia. Mr. Bush was mesmerized, telling members of his party, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was less impressed, remarking to the president, “You may have seen all that, but I still look in his eyes and I see K-G-B.”

If Mr. Bush seemed a bit naive, his remark reflected the goodwill felt by most Americans for the Russian people. Over the past century, Russians had suffered under the brutal tyranny of Stalin, the gray mediocrity of his successors, the failed reforms undertaken by Mikhail Gorbachev and the economic pillaging that marked the “democratic” years under Boris Yeltsin. Were not the Russians due for a break?

Whether or not the 12 years under Mr. Putin and his docile stand-in, Dmitry Medvedev, constitute a “break” is the subject of this book by Angus Roxburgh, a longtime Kremlinologist who served as Moscow correspondent for the BBC. Mr. Roxburgh reminds the reader of the pluses and minuses of the Yeltsin years. The 1990s brought “an explosion of energies that had been pent up for 70 years of communism.” Yet, he writes, “Yeltsin’s Russia seemed to be run by thugs. You saw them barreling down the highways in their cars with darkened windows, or ordering thousand-dollar bottles of wine in the best restaurants.”

Then came Mr. Putin. According to Mr. Roxburgh, “When you shake hands with Vladimir Putin, it is his eyes that consume you. He lowers his head, tilting his eyes upwards and fixes you for several seconds.” Mr. Putin cultivates a tough-guy image, something that is not difficult for a KGB alumnus. He is shown regularly on TV bare-chested, flexing his muscles in outdoor sports, martial arts and high-risk activities such as driving race cars.

As president, Mr. Putin first tackled the flagging Russian economy. He launched a series of reforms aimed at stimulating the economy, supporting free markets and removing the last vestiges of communism. He took on the oligarchs, titans who had accumulated vast fortunes in the Yeltsin years by gaining control of the country’s oil and gas companies, industries and banks. He told one meeting of oligarchs that there would be no reversal of the privatization process on two conditions - that the oligarchs paid their taxes and stayed out of politics.

But Russia is still run by thugs. Mr. Putin, beginning his third term as president, presides over a legion of corrupt managers who, in return for their loyalty, are kept in positions of power and profit. A manager of the Ikea furniture firm has complained, “To build a big shopping center, it is necessary to get more than 300 separate permits.” In Mr. Putin’s Russia, that is expensive.

The war in Chechnya, meanwhile, has remained a running sore. The conflict was initiated under Yeltsin, who sought to bring the separatist Muslim province under control of the central government. The 1994-96 campaign failed and inspired new instances of terrorist bombings. Mr. Putin renewed the war in 2001, pulverizing urban areas with bombs and artillery. Russia maintained that Chechnya was a security operation, aimed at eliminating terrorists. But international condemnation of the military campaign distracted attention from Mr. Putin’s economic reforms. Repression in Russia undercut his attempts to portray that nation as a democracy. According to Mr. Roxburgh, “Dozens of journalists were murdered in Vladimir Putin’s [first] two terms as president.”

In foreign affairs, Mr. Putin’s policies are often reminiscent of the Cold War. He is nostalgic for communism, remarking in a 2005 speech, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geographical catastrophe of the century.” He appears to attach little importance to improved relations with the United States and has made his opposition to any U.S.-sponsored missile shield a signature foreign-policy issue.

Russia’s efforts to control countries on its periphery - a throwback to the communist era - promise continued friction with the United States. In one statement, Russia implied that former Soviet republics such as Estonia and Latvia, which are members of the European Union but contain important Russian minorities, were part of Russia’s domain. The Ukraine has been a similar target for Russian irredentism.

Energy has been a key instrument in Russia’s relations with its neighbors. In 2007, Mr. Roxburgh recalls, Russia cut off oil shipments to Estonia following a dispute over the removal of a Soviet war memorial.

With Mr. Putin installed yet again as president, the world must deal with a Russia of many contradictions, one determined to regain its place as a recognized superpower.

John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).

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