BOOK REVIEW: “Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” – an updated version

By bne IntelliNews March 23, 2015

Timothy Ash of ICBC-Standard Bank -


This book is sold as a biography, but if you want a standard chronological recap of the life of Vladimir Putin I would suggest that you look elsewhere. But Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy do a really excellent job in trying to piece together elements of Putin's past to try to understand the man –  what makes him tick, his drivers. And given that Putin has been put back centre stage this year by events in Ukraine, and by Russia's new and much more confrontational approach in terms of relations with the near abroad and the West, I think this analysis adds real value and is an essential read for anyone with interests in Russia and the region.

What is clear for me is that events over the past 12-18 months suggest Russia and Ukraine are going to have broader regional and geopolitical impact, and this book really does help in understanding that, and for Western policymakers will help in the construction of countermeasures against a new and much more aggressive and confrontational Russia. The book is in fact an update to an earlier version that now takes account of events in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and subsequent Russian intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine, so does help signal future actions therein.

The authors have a wealth of experience in covering Russia, coming from different disciplines, ie. Soviet/Russian studies/political science and Russian political economy. They both studied Russia through the late Soviet era, perestroika, the Yeltsin era – times which were important in shaping Putin the man and then president. They have also had significant interaction with Putin and his entourage, eg. through the Valdai seminars. They use these contacts and relationships very well to improve the reader's understanding of the character of Putin. 

An operator

In this work, Hill/Gaddy present an image of a man who is an archetypical "operative" or spy, whose modus operandi is one of concealment of his own ulterior motives and his tracks. There are in fact few, if any, detailed accounts of his early life as a KGB operative in the GDR in the late 1980s and through the period of perestroika in Russia. But this period appears to have been so instrumental in shaping his current view of the world and vision for Russia and the region. 

One particular lynchpin event in his own life, a fracas at a GDR/KGB office in Dresden during the fall of the Berlin Wall, has been re-spun to suggest that Putin cleverly talked down a potentially hostile crowd of demonstrators. Other accounts differed, suggesting a more confrontational approach, but the truth has been blurred by history and by spin. Similarly, the new Kremlin PR machine has built an image of a president for all Russia's people – the environmentalist, the sportsman, the security/ military man and the diplomat. But very few people really know the man, and George W. Bush's quip that he shook Putin's hand and had felt his soul, probably said more about Bush than of Putin himself. Again this was perhaps Putin only revealing to Bush what he wanted Bush to perceive, and that this was useful at the time in delivering on his objectives at the time.

The broad thesis of Hill/Gaddy is that Putin was critically shaped during the period of the collapse of the USSR, and by the chaos and centrifugal forces that emerged in Russia during the Yeltsin era. He viewed this as a real tragedy, and from his perspective it was the erosion of the state apparatus and machine that was at the core of the demise of the Soviet empire built around Moscow. The recreation of a strong state has thus been central to Putin's subsequent vision and long-term strategy for Russia.

Hill/Gaddy do though construct an image of a man who is not particularly ideological, but rather pulls elements from Russian history to suit his vision and drive to recreate a strong and powerful Russian state. They highlight that he is an avid reader of his history, and notable amongst his heroes is Piotr Stolypin, the former Tsarist prime minister and bureaucrat. 

Putin is pro-market and indeed has allowed the development of an oligarchic class, but these oligarchs are allowed to operate by the Russian state only as long as they represent Russian state interests. Large, private or indeed state-owned Russian companies that operate internationally help give the Russian state global reach, and deliver on state interests. Where oligarchs have had a different "vision" and shown greater independence from Putin's Kremlin, they have been brought down to size by the use of the very levers of the state. But loyalty is prized and rewarded by Putin –loyalty is returned.

Of note Hill/Gaddy suggest that Putin's vision of Russia is not an ethnically unified one, but he sees Russians as a mix of ethnic groups and religions, sitting under the state umbrella, and resident in the geographical location of Russia – although they do not attempt to define its boundaries, and whether from Putin's perspective this includes currently independent former Soviet states.

Putin is portrayed as a powerful man, managing an image of always being in control, having a strategic vision for Russia, and applying varying tactics to deliver on that vision. The book is by no means sycophantic, and indeed it critically appraises the way he exercises control over those around him, Russia and its foes. The publication is perhaps lacking in terms of an assessment of his potential vulnerabilities. Arguably the ongoing crisis in Ukraine presents the biggest single challenge to Putin's rule, and could well ultimately shape history’s judgment of Putin, "Great" or otherwise. And while the Kremlin is currently spinning a version of events around Crimea as being planned/managed by Putin, events on Kyiv’s Maidan and Donbas suggest that this is a much more dynamic and unpredictable process with an uncertain outcome.

“Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin”, new and expanded, by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy, Brookings Institute Press, Washington, 2015.

Timothy Ash is head of EM Research, ICBC-Standard Bank, London


BOOK REVIEW: “Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin” – an updated version

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