Navigating Putin’s Worlds: Reviewing Putin’s World by Angela Stent3 min read
Angela Stent’s previous book, The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian relations in the twenty-first century, became the definitive source on U.S.-Russia relations the moment it was published, in early 2014. Alas, that year would end up its undoing – soon after, Russia annexed Crimea and Russo-American relations dropped to their lowest point in decades. Now, despite the book’s bluntly pragmatic tone, The Limits of Partnership feels almost naive.
Stent’s latest book, Putin’s World: Russia against the West and with the rest, broadens the scope of its subject from Russia’s relations with America to Russia’s relations with the world. Stent, who is both a widely-respected academic and a member of the U.S. intelligence community, evidently saw a need for a wider look at Russian foreign policy. In retrospect, this might be what we should have done from the start: perhaps some of the foreign policy mistakes of the past decade could have been avoided if Western scholars had taken greater care in understanding holistically all of the pressures that Russia was facing both internationally and domestically.
Putin’s World is structured geographically, with each chapter devoted to a region that finds itself cursed or blessed with attention from the Kremlin. Stent pays little attention to Russia’s official foreign policy doctrine and focuses instead on the facts of the matter: money, guns, treaties, oil. She presents as a restless analyst, collecting data from an impressively eclectic mix of sources.
What emerges through Stent’s analysis is the remarkable heterogeneity of Russia’s foreign policy – how Russia means something different to every nation that looks at it. In Europe and America, Russia is a destabilizing force, seeking to unseat the great powers that have contained it for half a century. In China, however, Russia is a source of energy, trade, and legitimacy in international bodies such as the United Nations. In the Middle East, meanwhile, Russia operates as a power broker, stabilizing precarious regimes and culling unwanted insurrections.
What might seem to some as managed chaos is in fact the main determinant to Russia’s international renaissance under Putin: a complex but well-ordered foreign policy that rejects a global diplomatic personae in favour of discrete, context-specific behaviours and initiatives.
That’s not to say that Putin’s objectives are inconsistent. In her conclusion, Stent surmises that “the core driver of Putin’s world is the quest to get the West to treat Russia as if were the Soviet Union.” While his methods vary wildly, from investment to assassination, Putin’s singular focus has been “to reverse the consequences of the Soviet collapse and renegotiate the end of the Cold War”.
On this front, Stent judges Putin rather harshly. While the Russian president commands more respect now from other world leaders than in past years, he has failed to build any concrete alliances; moreover, he has alienated important former allies such as Georgia, Ukraine, and, since the release of Putin’s World, quite possibly Belarus. Putin has indeed won the respect that he and his countrymen demanded in the humiliating years after the collapse of the USSR, but the victory is mostly symbolic. Russia’s ongoing economic and demographic woes, coupled with the rise of China and a (mostly) unified Europe, mean that Russia isn’t likely to be considered a superpower in the new world order, however it may look.