The man who baffles Westerners

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   Putin:  His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash by Richard Lourie,  Thomas Dunne Books    (St. Martin’s Press), US $26.99, Pp 288, July 2017, ISBN 978-0312538088

There are signs we are entering Cold War II as Russia continues to be more and more assertive on the international scene. Russia also seems to be taking more interests in the United States and manipulating its politics. In the run up to the 2016 presidential elections, there were allegations that Russia was manipulating the presidential elections in favor of Donald Trump. These allegations keep resurfacing even after the election of President Trump although there is no conclusive evidence. Russia remains the only country that can challenge the American status of being the only superpower in the world. The man who has made Russia assertive once again is no other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, he remains enigmatic to Westerners including Russia experts. In Putin, long-time Russia expert Richard Lourie tries to understand the man we all love to hate and his country.

Lourie says that by March 2017, the nature of Russian intrusion in the American presidential election had become fairly clear. the Russian state used hackers to break into the computers of the DNC and of Democratic Chairman John Podesta and then revealed their contents via Wikileaks in an effort to tilt the election in Donald Trump’s favor. The Russian intelligence services were in no particular hurry to conceal either their favored candidate or their involvement. He argues, “Had they wanted to remain invisible, they would have. But sometimes, they prefer to send a message as in Soviet times when, after a surreptitious search of an apartment, a KGB agent would have left a cigarette butt floating in the toilet, as if to say: We were here.”

There are many reasons why America is constantly outwitted by Putin. American categories of thought about Russia are too neat and clean. Lourie says that, to the American mind, government, crime, business, and secret police are four quite different things. In Russia, they easily shade into one another and it could be argued that at various times, Putin has had his hand in all of the above. Another reason is that the US, for all its shortcomings, remains a country of laws while Russia is a more “Darwinian society” where the law of the jungle or law of the world tends to prevail. Lourie writes, “For Putin, the game of power has only three rules – attain, maintain, retain – and all the rest is nonsense and pretense. Putin views American lack of historical memory not only as the naivete of a young culture but a convenient means for eluding responsibility.

Contrary to some Western opinion, Lourie says, Putin cultivates his macho image not because he never outgrew an adolescent fascination with pecs, pistols, and espionage, but because in a Darwinian society strength is everything. In the entourage of every godfather, there’s always one man who thinks he can do a better job. In Russia’s case, it is Putin. Like every other human being, Putin will also pass away one day or leave power to someone else. His successor will have to be someone who has the same qualities as Putin or Russia will collapse. Whoever he is, Putin’s successor will have to possess a rare amalgam of qualities. Lourie writes, “He must be able to win the respect of the masses; to keep the oligarchs, the military, and the security forces in a dynamic balance; and to manage a complex foreign policy situation. He will also have to face the country’s two great unsolved problems – its dangerous dependence on gas and oil, and its failure to create a new sense of national purpose and identity.” Russia is unlikely to find such a successor.

Putin is an insightful portrait of the man we love to hate and his country. Lourie very expertly brings Putin’s personality to life. He evaluates his strengths and weaknesses and how Putin turned a demoralized country into an assertive country. Lourie also discusses the possible future scenarios after the death of Putin and why Russian may collapse after him. Putin makes Lourie one of the leading Russia experts. It is a necessary book to understand Putin and his country.