The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the struggle for Russia

Angus Roxburgh
Year published

A review by Nigel Chamberlain, NATO Watch, with particular reference to NATO-Russia relations

The author’s background, accumulated experience and access to significant players provides him with the ideal mix of political intrigue, historical justifications and tantalising titbits to pull together an interesting read for people wanting insight and balance.
Angus Roxburgh studied and taught Russian and worked as a translator in Moscow before becoming Moscow correspondent on the Sunday Times and for the BBC. Later he spent three years as advisor to Demitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, and was engaged as a consultant on the excellent BBC documentary ‘Putin, Russia and the West’. 
Vladimir Putin was unexpectedly propelled into high office by Boris Yeltsin on the last day of the 20th century. He has held either the office of the President or Prime Minister of Russia through the first decade and could remain in the top post well into the third decade of the 21st century. 
Many western leaders initially “welcomed his fresh, new approach, and his willingness to cooperate and seek consensus” but Roxburgh documents how, and why, their hopes went unfulfilled. He explains how old Cold War enmities were not forgotten as the West and Russia both failed to see the other’s concerns which caused “a spiral of mutual distrust and lost opportunities”.
Increasingly, the West saw Russia’s political crackdown, the war in Chechnya, the murder of critical journalists, the growing state corruption, the invasion of Georgia and the interruption of gas supply to Ukraine as signs of a return to authoritarianism and the re-centralisation of power.
The Russians saw their positive gestures being ignored, the domineering role of the United States, their missile defence plans, the invasion of Iraq, NATO expansion and the encouragement, at least, of revolutionary movements in Georgia and the Ukraine as indications that they would not be accepted as a world power in their own right.
The Russians could not understand why their own behaviour at home meant that their neighbours continued to fear them. The Americans and their allies could not see that the Russians were upset by being cast in the role of potential aggressor. NATO's two summits in 2002 were hailed as ending the Cold War. In fact they helped to blow on its embers and start a new one. Seen from Moscow, the old Iron Curtain, running through the centre of Europe, was being replaced with a new one, much closer to home.
Roxburgh points to Russia’s pathological fear of encirclement and state disintegration when smaller nations seek independence while perceptions and misperceptions of the other side’s intentions often play a greater – and usually more harmful – role than reality. The result of which was Putin creating a top-down system – the ‘vertical of power’ – which instilled fear and stifled initiative. However, he adds that “the West’s handling of post-Soviet Russia has been just about as insensitive as it could have been”. 
One of Putin’s first acts was to try and build a productive relationship with NATO to make “Russia part of Europe” and to forge a constructive, personal relationship with the new President Bush. Bush responded by saying “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy”, but it wasn’t to last as events outlined above began to affect the mood music. 
Chancellor Schroder of Germany supported Putin’s idea of involving Russia in jointly ensuring Europe’s security, even to the extent of Russia joining NATO. The then Secretary General, George Robertson, seemed less enthusiastic and his response angered Putin. The US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was the next move which was regarded as highly provocative by Russia, coupled with the US’ determination to have facilities for missile defences based in Europe.
British Prime Minister Blair then came up with the proposal to create a new NATO-Russia Council (NRC) “to bind the Russians more closely to the Western Alliance” and provide them with ‘Ambassador to NATO status’ in Brussels from May 2002. Roxburgh suggests that the original idea – to give Russia a real voice short of membership – “got watered down in the NATO bureaucracy”. Meanwhile, NATO expansion was aggressively promoted by the ‘we won the Cold War’ camp, regardless of Russia’s fears, real or perceived.
By 2005, relations had degenerated into what Roxburgh refers to as a new Cold War as Russia reacted to the ever-increasing prospect of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO with Putin telling Condoleezza Rice, “You do not know what you are doing. You are playing with fire”. Roxburgh reveals that Angela Merkel agreed with Putin the efforts to integrate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO “would steeply raise tensions with Russia”.
Early in 2007, Putin told his aides, “I’ve had enough’ in response to news that missile interceptor bases might be placed in Poland and that a missile tracking radar might be based in the Czech Republic. He called the expansion of NATO “a provocation” and warned that a new Iron Curtain was descending across Europe.
As the incoming Russian President in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev proposed a new European Security treaty which would, in effect, replace all existing treaties and alliances thus making NATO redundant. Roxburgh says it was ignored mainly because it was divorced from reality but also hints that it had come too late in the post-Cold War realignment. Later, after witnessing stormy encounters at security conferences, Roxburgh “found myself wondering” if it might not have been more sensible to take Putin’s earlier inquiries about Russia joining NATO more seriously “rather than cobbling together compromises explicitly designed to take Russia’s view into account while pretending they did not”. He concludes rather gloomily:
To this day, no serious attempt has been made to visualise a future in which all the countries of Europe and North America might act together to ensure their security, rather than imagining that the security of some can be built at the expense of the security of others.