- - Sunday, October 25, 2015


By Steven Lee Myers

Knopf, $32.50, 592 pages

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Some traditional American allies are beginning to view the United States as a nation of lions led by a sheep, and Russia as a nation of sheep led by a lion. For several years now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently outthought and outmaneuvered a seemingly hapless President Obama on the world stage. Perceptions are everything, and Mr. Obama’s foreign policy is in tatters; it is too late to salvage that. The next American president will have to show our allies that our country still has resolve and can be trusted. To do that, our next commander-in-chief must be able to deal firmly with Mr. Putin. If knowing your adversary is key to dealing with him, our next president should read “The New Tsar,” Steven Lee Myers’ biography of Mr. Putin.

Mr. Myers traces Mr. Putin’s rise from the only surviving child of a poor Russian war hero workingman in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) of the defunct Soviet Union to the leadership of a newly assertive Russia. The author does so in a no-nonsense narrative that largely avoids hyperbole while explaining the development of the psyche of a world leader.

Vladimir Putin was a slight child with an indulgent mother. He tended to be undisciplined in his early school years to a point where he was initially rejected from the Pioneers youth group; that is basically akin to being blackballed by the Cub Scouts. However, when he embraced something, he would do so with the single-minded discipline that would mark his career in later life; such was the case with judo. Once he found his footing in martial arts, young Putin was accepted into the Pioneers and became a group leader and an acceptable student.

There are defining moments in Mr. Putin’s life. The first was a movie that he saw as an adolescent, and the second was the fall of the Soviet Union; the impact of these two events is key to understanding the man that Mr. Putin is today. The movie was “The Shield and the Sword,” a novelized version of the exploits of the Soviet Intelligence service (KGB) in the Great Patriotic War against the Germans (which we call World War II). This movie caused him to concentrate his laser-like determination on pursuing a career as a spy.

The second seismic event in Mr. Putin’s life was the fall of the Soviet Union symbolized by the tearing down of the Berlin Wall which he viewed as a mid-level KGB agent serving in East Germany as a Soviet monitor. The paralysis of the leadership of the Kremlin convinced Mr. Putin that the Russians needed a strong leader, such as Ivan the Terrible or Stalin, rather than a Gorbachev. If one understands the impact of those two events, Mr. Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria are comprehensible and predictable. That is why American leaders should read this book.

Mr. Putin was actually not much of a spy. He rose through the ranks of the KGB initially keeping an eye on his fellow Russians. When he was finally selected to attend the elite overseas spy school in Moscow, he did not excel; the reason was that he was a risk taker. The bureaucratic Soviet Union and its intelligence services did not like risk taking. That trait got Mr. Putin assigned to spying on Soviet allies in East Germany rather than to a more prestigious intelligence mission in West Germany. But the collapse of the East German government gave Mr. Putin the chance to show what he could do as an independent leader. This occurred when a German mob that had sacked the offices of the East German secret police (Stasi) attempted to storm the villa that was the headquarters of the KGB liaison office where Mr. Putin was temporarily in charge. Unarmed, Putin quietly and firmly dispersed the mob. The story of how Mr. Putin thrived in the post-Soviet anarchy takes up much of the rest of Mr. Myers’ book.

Mr. Myers was a New York Times correspondent in Russia during the seven years when Mr. Putin was consolidating power. He avoids sensationalism in detailing Mr. Putin’s faults such as womanizing and exaggerating his personal accomplishments. Mr. Myers does a good job of completing a portrait of a flawed but very dangerous man.

Vladimir Putin is a dangerous foe for two reasons. First, he sees the United States as the prime agent for the humiliation of Russia after the Soviet collapse; we Americans are a convenient excuse for Russia’s inherent weaknesses. Second, he is loyal to his friends and ruthless to his enemies. Mr. Obama has not grasped that. Hopefully his successor will.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who lectures on alternative Analysis (understanding the enemy) at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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