Russia Without Putin – money, power and the myths of the new cold war

by Tony Wood. Verso £16.99.

Review by Iain Macwhirter

It's difficult to have a sensible discussion about Russia under Vladimir Putin. The involvement of Russian trolls in the Brexit referendum, as reported by the Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr, has led to a febrile atmosphere verging on paranoia. Everyone is looking for fake accounts and Russian Fancy Bears stalking social media.

Is Putin in league with Donald Trump, Julian Assange and Arron Banks to subvert democracy? Is Jeremy Corbyn Putin's useful idiot because he didn't immediately condemn the Russian President as personally responsible for the Skripal novichok attack? Is his Director of Strategy, Seumas Milne, who has criticised the West's involvement in Ukraine, in Putin's pocket?

Any suggestion that irresponsible Nato expansionism in Eastern Europe might have provoked a militarist response from a defeated post-communist Russia is likely to be portrayed as a “Kremlin narrative”, even though many US defence analysts think precisely that. Putin is the sinister bogeyman of the Facebook era, his eurasian smirk lurking like the Cheshire Cat's over every right wing, alt-right movement on the internet.

America seems almost as obsessed with Russia now as it was during the Cold War. Which is odd since, as Tony Wood points out in this convincing and cool-headed account of the Putin phenomenon, Russia is a minnow compared with the superpower of the past. In the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia's population crashed, its empire collapsed, its economy crumbled. The mighty Soviet military lost 60% of its manpower and 95% of its funding. It would've been remarkable if something disturbing hadn't emerged from that social and economic catastrophe.

Yet, as Wood tells it, Russia spent the early years of the 21st century trying to join the Western, liberal democratic club. Putin even wanted to join Nato, the military alliance formed during the Cold War to contain Communism. He appealed to Bill Clinton in 2000 to let Russia in, and the US President apparently agreed. But somehow it never happened. Instead, the West reinforced its military bases on Russia's Western border and looked to the “colour revolutions” in countries like Georgia and the Ukraine to chip away at what remained of the old Soviet Empire.

Nato's expansionism was “a fateful error” according to the US diplomat and historian George Kennan, who was the architect of the Cold War policy of “containment” of Communism. Looking back, continuing to regard Russia, all evidence to the contrary, as a strategic enemy made little obvious sense. Bolshevik expansionism was ancient history, as Russia introduced flat taxes, privatisation and dismantled the last remnants of the stalinist state. The real challenge for the Pax Americana was surely the rise of China as the next communist superpower.

It's hard not to believe that a historic opportunity was missed to bring Russia firmly into the European geo-political orbit. Just as Adolf Hitler was in part a product of the punitive thinking at the Versailles Treaty in 1918, so Putin is in part a product of Nato’s punitive response to the implosion of the USSR in 1991.

However, this is not to excuse Vladimir Putin's policies and conduct. Tony Wood accepts that he presides over a kleptocratic, authoritarian state capitalism kept alive by “imitation democracy”. Nor does he try to justify Putin's annexation of the Crimea, his support for rebels in the Donbass or his meddling in Western elections. As the Salisbury novichok poisoning confirmed, Russia is now capable of dangerously irresponsible behaviour.

But Tony Wood does not regard Putin's Russia as simply a reversion to the statist authoritarianism of the Soviet era. He says that there is nothing unique about the Putin regime and that its foundations were laid, with Western help, under the Yeltsin era. The rot set in, he argues, with the manipulation of the 1996 election, which reinstalled a drunken, discredited Boris Yeltsin as President. He in turn begat Putin.

“The authoritarianism for which Putin is widely criticised” Wood writes, “is not the product of any sinister preference, but rather an integral feature of the system he inherited and continued”. He urges us to ignore Putin's personal contribution, and look at what Russia would be without him: a bastard imitation of Western capitalism. Indeed, he suggests that, if Putin hadn't happened, neoliberalism would have had to invent him.

But this attempt to take Putin out of the picture, and reveal the mundane capitalist reality beneath, is not entirely successful. Certainly there is continuity with the Yeltsin era, and Putin's oligarchic capitalism is partly a product of the chaotic privatisation of the 1990s, inspired by Western free-market advisers. However, there surely remains something unique about Putin’s form of authoritarian populism. He has melded a kind of glitzy, oligarch neo-liberalism to a “eurasian” conservatism, which is hostile to gay rights and revives a romantic Great Russian chauvinism.

On occasion, this book reads like a repudiation of the view, popularised by the author Peter Pomerantsev, of Russia as a post-modern mafia state created by Putin's media manipulators, where “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Pomerantsev portrays Putin's Russia as a bizarre, if colourful, authoritarianism, which even its supporters don't take entirely seriously. It relies on a media-confected, and ultimately phoney, representation of democracy for its legitimacy. That does seem to be Putin's unique contribution to the political economy of illiberal democracy. It's not just capitalist business as usual.

Putin's is also a social media-savvy authoritarianism, which is now engaged in an online information war with the West. This may have been a response to the promotion of digital democracy initiatives by the CIA and Western NGOs in Ukraine, and other countries, which Russia regarded as the start of a new form of cyber warfare. It would be naïve to believe that the West has not been using social media to encourage and amplify dissent against the Putin regime. But two wrongs don't make a right.

Right now, there is a very old fashioned shooting war taking place in the Ukraine. We can only hope that it isn't the shape of things to come.