Five Book Plan: Russia, Ukraine and the West
The first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already brought appalling destruction and needless suffering to Ukraine’s people. This blatant act of aggression has prompted global condemnation across the political spectrum, as well as widespread protests within Russia itself. It is too early to say how long the war will continue, but we are clearly living through a dangerous geopolitical moment. Here are five books that shed light on some of the urgent questions the current situation poses. For this list, I have focused on books that address the Russian side of recent developments, in particular its foreign policy and the evolving nationalist ideology of the leadership; but I urge readers to seek out Ukrainian perspectives, both on current events and on the country’s history.
In several essays written across the 2010s, Budraitskis clearly identified the ideological drift of Putinism towards a more aggressive nationalism rooted in a sense of “civilizational identity”—as captured in the title of the first chapter of this book, “Putin Lives in the World That Huntington Built”. Budraitskis analyses the Kremlin’s conservative worldview as well as describing its consequences for Russian politics, society and culture. As thousands of Russians take to the streets to oppose the war, he offers a much needed critical left perspective on the regime.
How and why have tensions between Russia and the West become so heightened over the past decade? Western understandings of Russia’s foreign policy are generally framed in terms of a shift from cooperation with the West under Yeltsin to confrontation under Putin. Tsygankov tells a more nuanced story, highlighting parallel and contending strands in Russian policymaking from the 1990s to the present. While the pro-Western strand persisted for much longer than is commonly assumed—its final demise came with the annexation of Crimea in 2014—it was gradually overtaken by a “statist” line that assumed a fundamental distinction between Russia’s interests and those of the West. That distinction has now deepened into an irreconcilable incompatibility, with Ukraine the battleground.
The question of NATO expansion inevitably hovers behind all discussions of the current crisis. There is no doubt that the conflict has done much to consolidate the alliance, and we may yet see NATO take on an even more prominent role in Eastern Europe. All the more reason, then, to understand the origins of NATO’s presence there. This book documents in revealing, blow-by-blow detail how the end of the Cold War, rather than leading to a dismantling of the alliance, became an opportunity for the US and its allies to extend its reach during the 1990s and 2000s. None of this absolves Russia of its responsibility for the war; but it does form a necessary backdrop to understanding the wider geopolitical tensions that are being played out at Ukraine’s expense today.
In his speech announcing the decision to invade Ukraine on 24 February, Putin heavily criticised the Bolsheviks for their policy towards the former Tsarist empire’s many national groups in the early years after the October 1917 Revolution. Putin particularly singled out Lenin for his willingness to give peoples such as the Ukrainians the formal right to self-determination. Neo-imperial nostalgia has become an increasingly prominent part of Kremlin rhetoric in recent years, reflecting a broader resurgence of Russian nationalism. While the reality of Soviet policy towards national minorities became increasingly repressive, it is worth recalling the basic principles that were supposed to guide it: as Lenin put it in 1914, there should be “complete equality of rights for all nations” including “the right of nations to self-determination.” Lenin was also scathing about what he called “Great-Russian chauvinism,” arguing in 1922 that so-called “great” nations had a correspondingly greater duty to be internationalists. These ideas, which Putin finds so repugnant, seem all the more relevant today.
Lieven’s book should have the status of a classic, not just because it is one of the best accounts of Russia’s first war in Chechnya from 1994–96, but also because it brims with acute insights about post-Soviet politics, the Russian military, and the nature of Russian nationalism, among many other subjects. If Russia does seek to occupy all of Ukraine, it would in all likelihood rapidly turn into another catastrophic quagmire like Chechnya did in the 1990s. Lieven’s book helps us to understand the reasons for that long defeat. We will know soon enough if Russia has forgotten the lessons it learned at such cost in Chechnya, or if it is bent on inflicting a similar disaster on Ukraine—and on itself.
Tony Wood a member of the editorial board of New Left Review, and the author of Chechnya: The Case for Independence, and (his most recent book) Russia Without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War. His writing has appeared in the London Review of Books, the Guardian, n+1 and the Nation, among other publications. His latest op-ed for the New York Times is "Putin Isn’t as Strong as He Looks."
It is impossible to think of Russia today without thinking of Vladimir Putin. More than any other major national leader, he personifies his country in the eyes of the world, and dominates Western media coverage. In Russia itself, he is likewise the centre of attention both for his supporters and his detractors. But, as Tony Wood argues, this focus on Russia’s president gets in the way of any real understanding of the country. The West needs to shake off its obsession with Putin and look beyond the Kremlin walls.
In this timely and provocative analysis, Wood explores the profound changes Russia has undergone since 1991. In the process, he challenges several common assumptions made about contemporary Russia. Against the idea that Putin represents a return to Soviet authoritarianism, Wood argues that his rule should be seen as a continuation of Yeltsin’s in the 1990s. The core features of Putinism—a predatory elite presiding over a vastly unequal society—are in fact integral to the system set in place after the fall of Communism.
Wood also overturns the standard view of Russia’s foreign policy, identifying the fundamental loss of power and influence that has underpinned recent clashes with the West. Russia without Putin concludes by assessing the current regime’s prospects, and looks ahead to what the future may hold for the country.