Book of the week: a country with coherent vision for its future

Cover of Russia Without Putin by Tony WoodRussia Without Putin

Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War
By Tony Wood
Verso Books (£20)
Buy on Amazon

Former US secretary of state Dean Acheson said in 1962 that Britain had lost an empire and “not yet found a role”. Tony Wood argues that the same applies to modern Russia. His thesis is that the contemporary view of Russia as dominated by a group of tightly knit oligarchs trying to recreate the Soviet Union lacks subtlety. The truth is that Russia has no coherent vision for its future.

Wood argues that, until the invasion of Georgia in 2008, Russia was willing to become part of the international system, and was even open to working with the US against terrorism. Indeed, Putin was initially praised for his pro-market economic reforms (with The New York Times’s columnist Tom Friedman notoriously advising readers to “keep rootin’ for Putin”). However, Russia’s moves towards co-operation were met with rejection by a US that saw these concessions as a sign of weakness. By expanding Nato to Russia’s borders, and withdrawing from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002, America essentially withdrew any incentive for Russia to behave as a responsible member of the global community.

Wood also contends that the relationship between business and power in post-Soviet Russia is a bit more complex than the popular perception of a “mafia state” and needs to be understood in the context of the rapid economic “shock therapy” of the early 1990s, when the economy was opened up to market forces. The oligarchs who seized control of assets in that period are not a homogenous bunch – there is a division between the former managers of industrial firms and the officials who used their influence to take control of resource-based companies. The reforms caused a huge amount of disruption to the lives of ordinary people, especially those who had depended on the state for a living.

This is true, but by blaming the West for the breakdown in relations, Wood ignores the fact that other countries, notably West Germany and Japan after World War II, managed to turn their energies towards productive, not destructive, activities in the wake of military defeat. It is also true the West could have provided more economic support for Russia’s transition to a market economy, but the problem is that Russia has clung to the idea that the Soviet Union’s demise was a voluntary act by Mikhail Gorbachev, rather than the inevitable (and necessary) implosion of an unsustainable system.

Those interested in the wider context of Russian economic and foreign policy will enjoy this book. However, Wood allows the detail to obscure the wider reality. He is also a bit too sympathetic to Putin and the system in which he operates.