June 3, 1961:  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. [AP/Wide World Photo]

(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy)

Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine last February has not produced the results that he expected.  As the battlefield situation has degenerated for Russian army due to the commitment of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces, along with western assistance the Kremlin has resorted to bombastic statements from the Russian autocrat concerning the use of nuclear weapons.  At this time there is no evidence by American intelligence that Moscow is preparing for that eventuality, however, we have learned the last few days that Russian commanders have discussed the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.  The conflict seems to produce new enhanced rhetoric on a daily basis, and the world finds itself facing a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amidst the Cold War.

A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote

(A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote “Missile Sites” on the map and marked them with an X when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962.)

Since the possibility of nuclear war seems unfathomable the fears of many have put western intelligence agencies on high alert.  To understand how we might solve the current impasse it might be useful to turn to Max Hastings latest book, ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, but one must remember Vladimir Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev.  The author of thirty books, most of which focus on topics related to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, Hastings is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians to tackle the confrontation that ended peacefully in 1962.

Hastings recounts the history of the crisis from the viewpoints of national leaders, Soviet officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British peacemakers.  Hastings, success as an author has always rested upon eyewitness interviews, archival work, tape recordings, and insightful analysis – his current work is no exception.  The positions, comments, and actions of President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro among many other important personalities are on full display.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks before reporters during a televised speech to the nation about the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions, during the Cuban missile crisis, on October 24, 1962 in Washington, DC.

(President Kennedy addresses the American people on October 24, 1962)

Hastings offers a very thoughtful approach to the study of history while applying his immense analytical skills.  A major theme that Hastings carries throughout the narrative is that the American response to Soviet actions was based more on political considerations rather than threats to American national security.  America was not more vulnerable with missiles in Cuba because “both sides submarine-launched ballistic missiles were becoming ubiquitous realities in the oceans of the world.”  JFK is a controversial actor in the crisis according to historians.  Did he act to reassure his reelection in 1964 and burnish his anti-communist credentials  or was he the bulwark against an American military led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with members such as General Curtis LeMay.  Hastings’ conclusion is clear, JFK was a towering and inspirational figure during the crisis contributing some of its most memorable rhetoric.

The author introduces his topic by immediately delving into the Bay of Pigs fiasco which earned JFK the enmity of the Pentagon by calling off any air strikes to support the invaders.  History has shown that the decision was correct and did not allow a possible crisis to spiral out of control.  The problem that emerged is that Khrushchev could not understand the president’s lack of action.  For the Soviet Premier, the president’s indecision and indecisiveness during the invasion confirmed that JFK was weak and rife for bullying as events a year later would reflect.

Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously.  They felt humiliated  and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of.  As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges.  He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator.  He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen.  However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev.

A spy photo of a medium range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed October of 1962.

(A spy photo of a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed in October of 1962.)

Once the background historical events are pursued Hastings settles in presenting an almost daily account of the crisis.  The American response is presented through the actions of the Kennedy brothers, a series of advisors, the most important of which was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, described as the “wizard of odds;” Chief of Staff, McGeorge Bundy; CIA head, John McCone; former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson; Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs; other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a host of others.  The only foreign leader who demands a great deal of coverage in the narrative is British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who comes across as an appeaser who believed in diplomacy, an approach much different from his Suez Crisis days, and held the view that England and Europe had lived for years under the threat of Russian nuclear attack and could not accept that  missiles in Cuba was a menace for the United States.  At times it appeared that JFK humored his British counterpart, but his respect for the man evaporated quickly.

In the Soviet Union, the crisis was caused, driven, and finally resolved because of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, a man who survived Stalin’s purges and worked his way up the Kremlin bureaucracy.  Khrushchev was an opportunist who launched the crisis without considering what would happen if his plan faltered.  In foreign policy, it is quite clear that if you start something without a clear exit strategy it probably will result in disaster.  The Soviet leader’s major errors were confusing two objectives: the defense of Cuba, and his plan to project Soviet power and threaten the United States by extending the Kremlin’s reach into the American backyard.  Further, Khrushchev believed that the missiles could be hidden from American U2 flights and once the American election was over he would spring his surprise on Washington.  When things began to unravel, Khrushchev resorted to bullying and threats dealing with nuclear war or at least a move on West Berlin.  Khrushchev engaged in unbridled adventurism, and willingly took a risk that had little or no chance of success.

Hastings’ account is balanced as he also examines the role of important Soviet officials including Defense Minister, Rodion Malinovsky who prepared the strategy to place missiles in Cuba; Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy of the Soviet Council of Ministers; Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin; Alexandr Alekseev, the KGB station chief in Havana who had a close relationship with Castro; Andrei Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a number of others.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.

(President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.)

What sets Hastings’ account apart from other historians is his integration of the views of everyday individuals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.  Cuban peasants, Russian workers, and American college students are all quoted as to their reactions and emotional state during the crisis.  The result is a perspective that is missing from other accounts and educates the reader as to the mindset of ordinary citizens who would pay the ultimate price if the crisis had gone sideways.

The diplomatic and military dance presented places the reader inside the ExCom Committee in Washington, the Presidium in Russia, and the seat of the Cuban government in Havana, and interactions with NATO allies.  We witness the strain on all participants, less so perhaps for Castro who seemed to seek martyrdom, and the delicate negotiations that led to a settlement.  All the tools were used to reach a settlement.  Backchannel talks, bringing in “the Wise Men” such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, individual conversations between ordinary citizens who had influence on their governments, the role of U Thant and the United Nations, the bombastic approach advocated by the US military, and the strategic analysis of each communication are all included.  Within this context, Hastings effectively delves into a number of controversial areas including the Kennedy brothers’ distrust of the Pentagon and at times fearing they would disobey his orders, and JFK’s role in combating Pentagon pressure to launch air strikes followed by an invasion to remove the missiles and overthrow Castro.

According to Hastings JFK’s major error was expecting Khrushchev to think and act like himself.  “He assumed that the Kremlin would be deterred from shipping offensive nuclear weapons by the strength of his own public and private warnings….and its own consciousness of the USSR’s nuclear weakness.”  The debate at the heart of the crisis was JFK’s need to convince the Russian leader that his actions in fact risked nuclear war, something Khrushchev was against.  He wanted to test American resolve, not cause a nuclear conflagration.

Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.

(Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy’s naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.)

Hastings corrects a number of myths associated with the crisis.  One of the most famous was the idea that on October 24, 1962, as Soviet ships approached the quarantine line the White House held its breath as to whether they could stay the course.  In reality no merchant ship carrying weapons or troops approached anywhere near the invisible line.  Soviet ships had reversed course the previous day, only one of which was closer than 500 miles.  This was due in large part because of the weakness American naval communications.  Another area that historians have overlooked was events in the Atlantic Ocean – particularly concerning were four Soviet submarines, one carrying a nuclear warhead.  Hastings explores this aspect of the crisis, and the reader can only cringe as to what Washington did not know and the slow communication process that existed throughout the crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.

(U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.)

JFK had ample opportunity to resort to military action, but staid his hand despite pressure from members of the Joint Chiefs and others.  The president was the driver of debate and became more of an “analyst-in-chief.”  He pressed his colleagues to probe the implications of any actions the United States would take and offer reasonable solutions to end the crisis.  For JFK it seemed as if he was in a chess match with Khrushchev countering each of his moves and trying to offer him a way out of the crisis he precipitated.

JS Tennant in his review of ABYSS in The Guardian, October 16, 2022 points out that “In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, ‘the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean.’ Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted.”

The book has arrived at a propitious moment in history as once again there is a nuclear threat from the Kremlin.  One can only hope that our current crop of leaders will strive to avoid the worst with the same fervor of JFK and Khrushchev in October 1962.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pose outside American Embassy in Vienna on June 3, 1961.

(June 3, 1961, Vienna Summit)


Sesame Street Russia (1996)

As a grandfather of five all under the age of four I have become refamiliarized with Sesame Street.  Grover, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Bert, Ernie, and the gang dominated my household when my children were growing up and now I find myself reengaged as my grandchildren have become transfixed.  When I came across the book, MUPPETS IN MOSCOW: THE UNEXPECTED CRAZY TRUE STORY OF MAKING SESAME STREET IN RUSSIA by documentary filmmaker and Harvard Fellow, Natasha Lance Rogoff my interest was piqued.  Based on her own life story, Rogoff, the producer of the Sesame Street adaptation for Russia and Mexico is the perfect author to tackle such a subject.  Based on her firsthand experiences, those of her colleagues, one of whom kept a daily journal of the process, interviews, documents and photographs, the memoir is deeply researched and well written.

In 1993 the Sesame Street Workshop hired Rogoff as the lead producer to adapt America’s most iconic television program for a Russian audience.  Rogoff points out that for the United States who at the time was involved in assisting the former Soviet Union in its transition to a more representative process it was a means of making the Muppets ideal ambassadors to model democratic values and the benefits of a free market economy to a new generation of Russians.  What surprised Rogoff the most was the resistance this would trigger in the post-communist state.  The process was difficult and dangerous as Russia suffered threats of violence and assassinations seemingly on a daily basis in the early 1990s on Moscow television.  Cultural battles ensued from scriptwriting to music, to the creation of the Slavic Muppets themselves.

BUSINKA GRAMMATIKOV Businka, a Muppet of a Russian version of the popular American children's television program, speaks at a news conference in Moscow . Soon Sesame Street characters will help to teach a new generation of Russian children to live in a free, democratic society. The show moves from a New York brownstone to a courtyard in Moscow and is the home of three new brightly-colored Muppets and a Russian family. In the background is Russian series director Vladimir Grammatikov
(Volodya Grammatikov and Businka)

Rogoff tells a remarkable story laying out the challenges in creating and producing Vilitsa Sezam.  The clash of views centered on individualism, capitalism, race, education, and equality reflecting the ongoing cultural discord between East and West that is present each day.  Rogoff held strong Moscow television connections having lived in the Soviet Union off and on for almost a decade.  She realized it would be an arduous project in a country embroiled in chaos and factional power struggles.  In the 1990s Russia was a country that was in political limbo, teetering between its communist past and an uncertain future under the corrupt government of Boris Yeltsin.

As Rogoff describes her creative journey she provides insights into the obstacles that a country emerging from its repressive authoritarian past presented for anyone who was perceived to be trying to alter the accepted way of doing things.  The first major issue Rogoff faced was how to finance and produce a television program in a country with no reliable banking system, no established rule of law, and unstable currency.  Funding did come from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), but a Russian partner was needed.  Russian oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky proved to be unreliable as did Russian television executives who were usually untrustworthy.  The second major issue for Rogoff and her colleagues was the threat of violence and assassination exemplified by a 1995 coup attempt that saw the seizure of Workshop offices.  Lastly, the difficulty of finding and hiring competent Russian professionals for the project who could work together and come to a consensus on a myriad of issues.

Natasha Lance Rogoff Author of Muppets In Moscow
(author, Natasha Lance Rogoff)

Along the way Rogoff encounters and works with a fascinating group of people.  On the positive side were Vladislav Listyev, one of the most respected Russian television personalities until he is murdered.  Midhat Shilov, the Director of Cultural Programming at Ostankino television.  Robin Hessman, a brilliant twenty-two year old graduate from the VGIK Institute of Cinematography who would save the day on more than one occasion.  Katya Komalkova, a classically trained musical composer who becomes the Director of Music. Dr. Anna Genina, Sesame Street senior vice-president of Global Education.  Maria Rybasova, a creative set designer.  Lastly, Volodya Grammatikov, Chief Ulitsa Sezam Director whose sense of humor is priceless.  Other personalities were not as cooperative.  Irina Borisova, the owner of Video Art, one of Russia’s top media firms made numerous promises dealing with funding and office space who did not deliver.  Kolya Komov, a celebrated Russian puppet designer, insisted on using older Russian puppet ideas that did not fit the project.  Lida Shurova, a television writer who refused to consider using American ideas and a host of others including Russian teachers and officials who were captive to older ideas emanating from the Soviet period and who feared any change that went against Russian cultural tradition.

The issue of cultural tradition fostered many roadblocks from designing new Muppets that did not conform to American ideals.  After back and forth consensus was reached on characters such as Zeliboba, a large floppy figure who lived in a tree house exhibiting traits such as “compassion, sweetness, and a spiritual approach to life.”  Businka, a female puppet, would be uncontrollable, impulsive, but loveable.  Kubik, a puppet with outsized ambition and obstinance like a child.  The problem was that Russian members of the team believed that Soviet children were typically reared to be silent, still, and obedient-the opposite of individualistic risk-takers and energetic pint-sized challengers of authority which the workshop hoped to convey.  Gender issues and colors of puppets were finally overcome after months of debate overcoming decades of Soviet educational aims and including Russia’s diverse ethnic groupings that encompassed eleven time zones.  The nature of Russian society made targeting an audience difficult – were sets to be rural, urban, socialist realism, Stalinist architecture, apartment complexes, historical sites, or some combination of all elements.  Amazingly, Rogoff led her team in such a manner that most obstacles were overcome by assistance from the Children’s Workshop in New York, and Rogoff’s newly minted husband, Ken.

A key component and one of the most interesting aspects of the book involves puppet development, puppeteer training, and all the technical work that went into the project.  It is fascinating as the Russian puppeteers are chosen and engage in the rigorous training that they must endure.  On screen Muppets appear to move effortlessly, but Rogoff’s description provides the developing skill set that is needed to complete a successful performance.  This aspect of the book is the most entertaining as one can see the satisfaction and camaraderie that develops among American and Russian puppeteers.

The difficulties Rogoff faced are exemplified by the concept of “sadness,” as Russian advisors insisted that for the program to be authentic it had to reflect this emotion which dominated Russian life and culture for centuries.   Rogoff’s tale is one of perseverance and creativity that illuminates how even the most disparate cultures and perspectives can find common ground even while you marry for the first time and give birth to a child in the midst of all the danger.  Regretfully, all the  creativity, and sacrifice trying to take into account as many aspects of Russia’s past was destroyed by the Putin regime as the program which ran from 1996 to 2010 was cancelled.

Sesame Street Russia (1996)

MR PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin through the ages!)

As of today, Ukrainian forces have launched a successful counter-offensive against Russia in the northeastern part of the country and have liberated the key city of Izyum and have had success throughout the Kharkiv region.  For the first time there may be rumblings in Moscow concerning how the war is evolving – the question is how Vladimir Putin will respond.  An excellent source to consult is Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s thorough study MR. PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN.  The book was originally published in 2013 and updated shortly after the Russian seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014.  The authors dispel certain misconceptions about Putin and offer an analysis of where Putin’s ideas originate, how he perceives the outside world, and how far he is willing to go.  Though the book is seven years old its conclusions are very prescient and offers a psychological, political, diplomatic, and economic approach to try and understand Putin and in many cases their observations have been quite accurate.

Hill and Gaddy have written a perceptive account of what Putin really wants for Russia and how it could possibly be undone.  As David Hearst writes in The Guardian, May 2013;  “The many sources of the system he has created are amply and brilliantly clarified in this book. Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin (note the mister, not comrade) is a readable and informed portrait painted by two students of Russian history who had, at various times in their careers, a front-row view. Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution academic, spent 2006-9 as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. The economist Clifford Gaddy once advised the Russian finance ministry on regional tax and has investigated how Putin’s financial dealings relate to his KGB past.” 

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin, age 8)

From the outset the authors argue there is very little information regarding Putin that is “definitive, confirmable, or reliable.”  However, there are observations that seem appropriate.  First, Putin has shaped his overall fate.  Second, there is little documentary evidence to support the idea of Putin’s extensive wealth.  Even if Putin did enrich himself, the authors argue they do not believe that “a quest for personal wealth is primarily what drives him.”  Third, Putin likes to employ misinformation and contradictory information to create an image that is unknowable and unpredictable, and therefore dangerous – keep people guessing and fear what he might do.  Fourth, Putin likes to stage a number of outfits and scenarios to portray himself as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality.  Each outfit and scenario are designed to pay a degree of respect for certain goals and validates their place in Russian society and history.  The authors present numerous examples to support these observations.

r/ANormalDayInRussia - Putin with his daughters and wife, early 90's
(Putin with his wife and daughters in the early 1990s)

The key to the analysis presented rests on the authors breaking down Putin’s six identities which explain his actions from his rise to power, reinvigorating the Russian economy in the 2000-2012 period, controlling the oligarchs, returning to the presidency in 2013, to an aggressive foreign policy in dealing with Georgia, Ukraine and the west in general designed to restore Russia’s rightful place in the world balance of power.  These identities are; Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer.  After explaining the context of each in a succinct and thoughtful manner the authors have provided important perceptions and insights into what Putin thinks and why he does what he does. 

The 1990s, a period of chaos, corruption, and economic decline form the basis of the Statist, History Man, and Survivalist identities, and Putin’s personal narrative.  The next three identities the Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer are more personal.  The authors center on Putin growing up in a working class neighborhood of Leningrad, a city which survived the Nazi siege, starvation, and 750,000 deaths, a situation which greatly impacted Putin’s psychological and emotional development.  Further, the authors point to Putin’s years in the KGB at home and abroad, particularly his 1985-1989 years in Dresden where he missed Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and  perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Importantly, the authors develop Putin’s post-Soviet St. Petersburg activities as a participant in local government and in a series of below-the-radar positions in the Kremlin in the late 1990s allowing him to develop  a unique combination of skills and experiences that propelled him to the presidency in 1999-2000.  But, overall, Putin’s persona was as an Outsider as he was outside of Russia or ensconced in St. Petersburg away from policy makers in Moscow.

Putin old and young

An excellent example of how the authors analysis works is to point to Putin’s world view through his speeches.  The first, March 18, 2014, and the speech he made yesterday on September 21, 2022.  Remarkably, both speeches support the conclusion that Putin’s perception of the outside world has not changed in eight years and probably from previous decades.  The March 2014 speech came on the heels of the Russian annexation of Crimea a belief that he was restoring  Russia’s position as a great power and world civilization.  This was part of the Statist role for Putin in addition to that of the History Man internationally as he staked out a place for the Russian people in the great sweep of global history and has rewritten the narrative of Russia’s interactions with the outside world.  He has acted as a Survivalist who sets out to ensure that Russia can protect itself against all external threats, by preparing and deploying “every reserve or resource-even history itself-in the state’s defense.  The author’s insights are on the mark as they argue, “the operative in the Kremlin has projected himself abroad by drawing on his firsthand experiences and insights as an Outsider and the Free Marketeer, and by applying the professional tools of the Case Officer.”

(Judo training)

Putin’s rationale for his invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea, and the current invasion of Ukraine are all similar.  The European Union is a stalking horse for the West, the expansion of NATO, and western opposition to Russian actions are all designed to destroy Russia from within and without.  Putin believes that containing Russia has been a western priority since the 1700s and continues in the case of Ukraine.  Putin’s speech yesterday is a rerun arguing that Russia only pursues defensive actions to counteract western support for Ukraine.  Threats of nuclear war, calling up 300,000 reservists to complete his “special operation” emanate from the same place in Putin’s psyche.

Putin’s disenchantment with the United states developed from 1999.  The importance of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 deeply impacted Putin.  He saw it as a threat to Slavs and highlighted Russian weakness and distrust of the west.  Putin claims that he tried to improve relations with the United States by helping after 9/11 and the war against al-Qaeda.  But he was put off by the Bush administration who invaded Iraq, pulled out of nuclear arms treaties, allowed for Baltic states becoming NATO members, all reflecting America’s lack of respect for Russia.  Putin’s true feelings emerge publicly in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference where he lambasted the United States where he stressed how NATO actions were an American provocation that reduced the level of trust Russia had toward the west.  Even when the Obama administration sought a reset with Russia, Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Act which imposed sanctions against Russian officials who were complicit in the death of the crusading lawyer, further Putin was angered by US actions in Libya and Syria.

The authors correctly argue that the invasion of Georgia was a dress rehearsal for events that would take place in Ukraine in December 2013.  With Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Moscow in February 2014 after refusing to move closer to the European Union and joining Putin’s Eurasian Union protestors took to the streets in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence) Square – the Russian autocrat would have visions of Dresden in December 1989.  Putin’s assessment of developments was seen through the lens of his experiences in Dresden in 1989 when East Germany fell without a fight as did the Soviet Union upending Moscow’s position in Europe destroying the entire Soviet bloc.  In Putin’s mind if Ukrainian protests were allowed to continue then Kyiv would push toward the European Union and eventually NATO membership circumventing his economic plans for the east. 

Vladimir Putin pictures over the years.

Putin believed Western and European leaders encouraged protestors and the opposition and once again the United States and its EU allies had overthrown a regime without firing a shot.  Since Putin strongly believed that “Ukrainians and Russians were not just fraternal peoples: there were one single, united people” events were devastating to Moscow’s goals.  Putin reached into his Case Officer’s bag of tricks to punish Ukraine – cutting off $10 billion worth of trade, turning off the energy spigot, demanding Kyiv pay off its debts to Russia, the usual misinformation surrounding Ukraine’s role in World War II, and played on the fears of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.   Based on events and Putin’s raison d’etre it is not surprising that Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and subsequently invaded all of Ukraine eight years later.

The concise analysis and extensive research based on academic and government experience and delving into Putin’s speeches and writings serve the authors well in developing their narrative.  It is clear from their analysis that Putin believes his personal destiny is that of the Russian state and its past – for him it provides legitimacy.  This is Putin the Statist as he rejects autocracy and claims Russia is a “sovereign democracy.”  In addition, Putin wraps himself in the Orthodox church, and the collective people of Russia – nationalism.  Putin hates social upheaval and identifies himself as a Survivalist as he and his parents survived World War II in Leningrad.  The Survivalist moniker is very apt when one examines Putin’s life.  First, his childhood and the politics in St. Petersburg.  Second, his career as Deputy Mayor when he bungled the food crisis in St. Petersburg.  Third, the chronic food shortages throughout the 1990s.  Fourth, dealing with the economic crisis of 2008-2010. 

There are many more examples, but in all cases he emerged intact politically with a strengthened ego.  He learned new strategies particularly how to manipulate Russian natural resources to achieve his goals, something he continues to do today by cutting off energy supplies to Western Europe as a means of changing the course of the war in Ukraine.  Putin’s Survivalist actions comport with historian, Masha Gessen’s analysis in that he is proud of his “thuggish” reputation, and it is central to his public persona dating back to his childhood “courtyard culture,” and “outsider” status, i.e.., treatment of Chechnya in 1999,  today’s Ukraine, blackmailing oligarchs to submit to his will etc.

  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow's Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.(
  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.AFP/AFP/Getty Images) (Below, Anatoli Sobchak and Putin)
  • Vladimir Putin, then St. Petersburg deputy mayor, standing with former mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1994. Putin helped orchestrate Sobchak's escape to Paris when he was under criminal investigation in 1997.

If there is an area that the authors could have made clearer is when they get bogged down in the minutia of Putin’s approach to the Russian economy and industrial production.  Putin’s mantra is “strategic planning,” a concept he plagiarized from the works of David Cleland and William King’s book, STRATEGIC PLANNING AND POLICY which he lifted to write his supposed “dissertation.”  Either way the author’s final analysis is spot on – the strategic model Putin has put in place cannot work.  Putin runs Russia like a corporation, Russia, Inc., but it is a country.  Putin sees himself as a CEO, but he can never be fired.  The system he has created is built on mistrust and all decisions run through Putin as he does not accept anything but total loyalty.  People are bought off, but not in the traditional way.  First they are compromised, and loyalty is created through blackmail – Putin as Case officer! 

Corruption is the glue that keeps Putin’s informal system afloat.  With no strategic reserve of qualified people, Putin just moves people around to keep them guessing and under his control.  This hyper personalized system is a failure, and the Russian people are paying the price.  Russia has come full circle.  With his misinformation onslaught in 2013-14 (the rhetoric is similar to today) Putin managed to move Russia psychologically back to the 1980s and the Cold War with perceptions, threat, and fears of an American attack.  By engaging in this type of former KGB head and Soviet president Yuri Andropov thinking, Putin has moved Russia closer to the world view of the 1980s more than outside observers realized.  Putin’s Russia is a very different country from the 1990s and the west in general.

The book should be read by anyone seeking to understand Putin’s modus operandi, what he hopes to achieve, and the threat he presents to those who favor the rule of some type of “international accommodation,” (notice I did not say law!)  Interestingly, the section where the authors allude to future Putin actions and rationales as of today seem quite accurate.

July caused global shortages

Vladimir Putin at the plenary session of the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok


Mikhail Gorbachev
(Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev)

If you are looking for a reasonably compact review of Russian history encompassing the last three decades of the twentieth century, Princeton University historian and fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Stephen Kotkin’s book ARMAGEDDON AVERTED, THE SOVIET COLLAPSE 1970-2000 should be considered.  Published in 2008 it foresaw some of the problems we are experiencing today with Russia and looking back fourteen years later Kotkin would not be shocked by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  Kotkin has written two volumes of his biographical trilogy of Joseph Stalin; STALIN: PARADOXES OF POWER, 1878-1928 and STALIN: WAITING FOR HITLER, 1929-1941, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  Kotkin is an exceptional historian blessed with a pleasing writing style and the ability to synthesize vast amounts of historical information and documentation that the general reader along with professional colleagues can admire and enjoy.  With the war raging in Ukraine, Kotkin provides insights into Putin’s thought process and the impact of the 1970-2000 period on the Russian autocrat that explains a great deal of his actions.

ussr map 1961

A key theme in Kotkin’s monograph is his stated purpose in authoring the book; try and explain why the Soviet elite destroyed its own system with an absence of an all-consuming conflagration.  Pursuing historical hindsight Kotkin points to the importance of the 1973 Arab oil embargo as a watershed event that helped nudge the Soviet system toward economic failure.  According to Kotkin the 1973-4 embargo led to the economic collapse of Soviet industry in the late 1970s.  For Moscow, the discovery of oil in western Siberia in the 1960s coincided in the 1973 rise in oil prices brought about by the embargo which saved the Soviet economy from disaster.  From 1973-1985 oil was responsible for 80% of Soviet hard currency, much of which went for weapons procurement to equalize its relationship to the United States.  Further, Russia needed the excess wealth to pay for the war in Afghanistan; assist Eastern European satellites by offsetting energy costs; and importing the necessary technology, pay elites among other expenses.  It appeared that Russia was in a period of prosperity, but Kotkin is correct in that it postponed the inevitable collapse of the Soviet system as its industrial infrastructure continued to deteriorate.

ussr map 1939

Kotkin’s concise and analytical narrative raises many interesting points among them that the Soviet Union tried to clone satellite regimes after World War II.  The problem was that Moscow presented itself as a role model at a time of the post-war capitalist boom in the west.  The discrepancies between the two systems were clear and Eastern Europe became a thorn in the side of the Soviets as 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1980 invasions and pressure can attest to.  Eastern Europe went from a supposed Soviet strength to a vulnerability as more and more western consumer goods and loans were used to mollify populations.  Further aggravating Moscow was the rise of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese economic expansion and the cost in playing a leading role in the Third World.

It is obvious that Soviet infrastructure was on the decline throughout the 1970s and it could not compete with western capitalism, but what pushed the Soviet system over the edge was the generational leadership shift of the 1980s as the gerontocracy of Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko passed on to be replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev and his ill-fated perestroika.  The rot within the Soviet leadership is undeniable and the new Soviet leader sought to save the system from itself as Kotkin argues, “what proved to be the [Communist] Party’s final mobilization, perestroika, was driven not by cold calculation about achieving an orderly retrenchment, but by the pursuit of a romantic dream,” which Gorbachev referred to as “humane socialism.”

Kotkin raises an important question.  Why did Gorbachev’s reform agenda fail so miserably?   The author points to a number of reasons that make a great deal of sense.  First, Gorbachev’s economic agenda went halfway toward achieving a market transformation, something that was doomed from the start.  Second, oil prices declined drastically in 1986 which devastated hard currency earnings curtailing the import of consumer goods and reducing the standard of living for Soviet citizens.  Third, by pursuing a halfway approach toward a market economy it fell even further behind the west.  Fourth, the disaster at Chernobyl showed the west that Gorbachev was no different than his predecessors, being ensconced in secrecy.  Fifth, with Glasnost the public was now aware of secrets buried for decades; murder, the gulag, elite corruption etc.  Sixth, 25% of the population was under 25 years of age and were not interested in reforming socialism – Glasnost afforded unprecedented access to “commercial culture and values of capitalism.”  Seventh, party officials had no idea how to address a public reconfigured as voters or how to deal with shortages of goods, pollution, deteriorating assembly lines etc.  Somehow the Communist Party was supposed to be both the instrument and the object of perestroika.  Eighth, later Gorbachev admitted he failed to create a program for the transformation of a unitary state into a federal state and crippled the centralized party machine.  Lastly, Russia’s 15 Union republics had clearly defined state borders and their own state institutions and they began to act as independent states which they eventually became.

Yeltsin Speaking at Press Conference
(Russian President Boris Yeltsin)

To Gorbachev’s credit he kept the Soviet military out of the loop when it came to events in Eastern Europe and let events evolve.  Since the Soviet Union could no longer compete with the west he let the satellite states move on as they and most republics declared their independence.

Kotkin provides an in-depth analysis of the August 1991 putsch and the role of conservative elements, the military, and of course Boris Yeltsin.  What he describes has been repeated by many scholars, but what stands out is his analogy of the putsch, its leadership, and its result to George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM.  His presentation is priceless!  The result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union did not bring on the onset of American type affluence combined with European style social welfare but a chaotic system by which inflation wiped out the pensions and savings of the Russian people and the squalid appropriation of state functions, property, and wealth by Soviet era elites.   In addition to Yeltsin’s cronies and KGB types particularly from Vladimir Putin’s St. Petersburg colleagues and organized crime raping the wealth both monetary and physical from the Russian people.

The 1990s was a disaster and Kotkin fills in the gaps as to what occurred. He carefully explores the machinations of officials, bankers, factory management, political elites, and others who accumulated enormous wealth during the decade.  These groups developed numerous schemes from privatizations, auctions, loans for shares, bankruptcy procedures for cut rate hostile takeovers of profitable assets, money laundering, capital flight to offshore accounts leaving nothing for investment as they absconded with the wealth of their country.  The bottom line for Kotkin was “How was the incoherent Russian state going to solve the country’s problems when the state was the main problem?”

The main criticisms of Kotkin’s work comes from historian Orlando Figes who writes in the January 20, 2002 ,New York Times Book Review; “This relates to a broader criticism of Kotkin’s work. ”Averting Armageddon” plays down the importance of two vital factors in the Soviet collapse. One is the role of ideology — or more specifically the way in which it lost all meaning to the apparatchiks who deserted Gorbachev in 1989-91. Gorbachev was the last of the believers in the Communist ideal — but his party comrades, for the most part, had long ceased to believe. Their ideology had become little more than an empty slogan, a means of entry to the special shops reserved for the Soviet elite. This fact is essential if we are to understand why so few Communists were prepared to fight for the Soviet regime. The August putsch of 1991 was doomed from the start by the inertia of the middle and the upper ranks of the party. The plotters’ leader, poor old Gennadi I. Yanayev, was aware of this when, his hands in an alcoholic tremble, he read out to the world’s press a declaration of emergency.

Moscow  coup: Russian President Boris Yeltsin reads a statement during the coup, Moscow
(Boris Yeltsin during the 8/1991 failed putsch in Russia)

The other factor is human agency — or more specifically Gorbachev. He may have started out as a Communist reformer, but there must have been a moment (for he tells us there was one) when he realized the need to dismantle the regime without a violent backlash from the hard-liners. His political maneuverings were intended to avoid a civil war or a crackdown against Eastern Europe that might have led to a disastrous loss of life. He was a sort of political Columbus — setting out with high ideals to find one thing and achieving something better by discarding them. He is a hero of our times.”*

Despite these criticisms Kotkin has written a concise, readable and informative book striking a pleasing balance between tedious detail and sweeping generalizations.  He offers a practical, accessible, and informative account of the Soviet Union’s collapse and insights into the impact of Russian history and allows for greater understanding of ongoing events in the Ukraine.

*Orlando Figes. “Who Lost the Soviet Union?” New York Times, January 20, 2002.  Figes latest book THE STORY OF RUSSIA was published a few weeks ago.

(Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev)


(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

The preparation and writing of biography are truly an art form which Philip Short the author of works on Pol Pot and Mao Zedong has mastered.  In his latest effort, PUTIN; HIS LIFE AND TIMES he has written another important biography of his subject based on intensive research drawing on almost two hundred interviews conducted over eight years in Russia, the United States and Europe and on source material in over a dozen languages.  The publication of PUTIN: HIS LIFE AND TIMES comes at a propitious moment in history with the events that are transpiring in Ukraine as the Russian autocrat has placed the world on edge with his illegal invasion that has played havoc with the world price of energy and supply of grain and other foodstuffs, in addition to the destruction and casualties inflicted on Ukraine.  At the present moment this war of attrition does not appear to be anywhere near a conclusion as Putin is adamant that Ukraine is not a country and is part of what he hopes to be a reconstituted Russian Empire.  Short has done a service for anyone trying to understand Putin’s actions as he delves deeply into his personal life, career, how he rose to power, why he pursues the policies that affect the Russian people in addition to those living outside of Russia and evaluating what the reign of this autocrat will be like in the future.

Short’s work builds on Steven Lee Myers THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN published in 2015 in addition to the works of Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, Robert Service, Catherine Belton, among others.  Short’s work is the most important biography of the Russian autocrat written to this point and presents a comprehensive picture of Russia during Putin’s life in addition to integrating the roles of prominent figures such as Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Sobchak, Alexei Navalny, a host of Russian oligarchs, and Russian politicians and military personalities. As the narrative gains steam it is clear that Short believes that the United States is in large part responsible for what Russia has become and how Putin has evolved into an autocrat who controls all the levers of power in the Kremlin.

A class photo of Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, circa 1960.
(Putin, circa, 1960)

The biography begins with a discussion of the political situation in Russia in 1999.  Boris Yeltsin who has survived two heart attacks and surgery was under attack for corruption and a myriad of other fraudulent actions.  With the presidential election set for March 2000, Short speculates whether the FSB launched a series of false flag terrorist attacks in Russia which were blamed on Chechen terrorists to deflect criticism away from Yeltsin.  After careful analysis, Short concludes it was Chechens and not the FSB.  The prologue that Short sets forth has implications later as Putin is a candidate for the presidency and attacks continue with Putin’s opponents questioning a possible role for the FSB.  In addition, once Putin is in office, the tactics used by the FSB will be questioned in Chechen terrorist attacks at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow that killed 125 Russians, and the Breslan School massacre that resulted in 335 dead hostages, 186 of which were children.  These attacks and the FSB response received great media coverage which Putin disdained leading to a crackdown on the media and eventual state control of television and newspapers in Russia shortly thereafter.

What separates Short’s work from others is that he tackles many of the myths associated with Putin – as it is hard to discern myth from reality.  He mentions alternatives, then what appears to be the truth.  For example, the death of Putin’s brother during infancy in Leningrad during World War II, the role of possible FSB attacks in 1999 to create support for Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s enormous wealth, reasons behind Russian aggression against Ukraine etc. 

Short’s presentation of Putin’s childhood is important as he does so without the psychobabble that a number of writer’s conjecture.  Putin had attention issues in school and was a very aggressive child who would never back off from a fight.  Putin was home schooled for his early education and had difficulty adapting to formal schooling once enrolled.  It is important to remember that Putin was raised in Leningrad, a city that suffered over 750,000 deaths at the hands of the Nazis who starved the city resulting in extreme cannibalism as the city was blockaded for over two and a half years.  You do not have to be a practitioner of psychology to understand the impact of growing up in an environment that was still in recovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  This approach is part of Short’s attempt to place Putin’s life story in the context of Russian history.  Putin’s early teen years witnessed the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the deposing of Nikita Khrushchev, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and the impact on his life should not be discounted.

(The Putins)

As a boy Putin always wanted to be different and when not behaving as a hooligan he seemed to be an introvert, keeping his distance and thoughts to himself.  These traits come to the fore later when he assumes certain roles in Russian politics, governmental positions, head of the FSB, and then President of Russia.  He would learn to be social when needed, but this was not his forte. 

Putin was always enamored with the life of a spy as he was a risk taker by nature and would try to volunteer for the KGB as a teenager.  His path was clear as KGB minders had their eye on him and he was offered a position in 1975 as a Junior Lieutenant.  At the time Yuri Andropov was the head of the KGB and believed in “stamping out dissent,” who wanted to derail the west’s ability to weaken the Soviet Union – a mantra Putin would follow his entire career.  Short’s description of how Putin was recruited, trained, and integrated into Russian counterintelligence was indicative of the author’s point of view and how he had unearthed essential details that contributed to his narrative.  Short raises an important question – did the KGB create Putin or were his character traits already in place before he was recruited?  His character fit the kind of work the KGB did.  He liked to stay in the background and observe others, and not attract attention to himself.  He was disciplined and pragmatic and was able to concentrate on whatever the priority was at the moment, and never let his emotions dictate his behavior or thought pattern. 

putin sobchak
(Anatoly Subchak and Putin)

The watershed moment for Putin as he has stated many times was his KGB posting in Dresden and watching helplessly as the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 with no guidance from Moscow.  This would create a formative memory that proved to Putin the overriding importance of maintaining a strong state and the dangers that an angry population could pose to a previously entrenched regime.

The most important figure in Putin’s rise to power was Anatoly Sobchak, a former law Professor at Leningrad State University, a liberal reformer in parliament, who became mayor of the second largest city in Russia.  In 1990, Putin was assigned by the KGB assigned to surveil Sobchak as an assistant vice-rector at the university.  As Putin gained Sobach’s trust he was placed in charge of trade negotiations which were highlighted by barter deals that allowed him to enrich his KGB colleagues and set a pattern as to how Putin would operate in the future.  Most importantly, Putin’s relationship with the KGB and organized crime in the city was a training ground and a source of compatriots when he himself assumed power later on.   During this time period the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that saw Boris Yeltsin emerge as a hero, according to Short, saw Putin’s as playing a “none role” in these events.  But Putin had learned how to make himself indispensable which is a major reason for his success.

A key chapter that Short offers is entitled, “The Gray Cardinal” which delineates the corruption and crime that was endemic in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.  The borderline between the criminal world and legitimate business was tenuous at best.  To conduct business bribery was a standard practice and it was a situation that benefited Putin greatly based on his position, though in an ode to objectivity Short argues that many anecdotes of Putin accepting bribes are fabricated.  In this, among many other cases Short gives Putin the benefit of the doubt.  Putin learned a great deal from Sobchak, and it provided him with an education for him to apply later.

apho via Getty Images)

Grozny, Russia besieged by the Russian army in August, 1996.
(Fighting in Chechnya)

The concept of “Near Abroad” was key for Putin’s foreign policy ideology developed while being in charge of foreign affairs under Sobchak.  He began thinking about the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, the key to “Near Abroad” which he felt precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union when it declared its independence.  He could not accept that Crimea, the home of the Black Sea fleet, was gone, 1.8 million Russians lived in Crimea, in addition to the massive debt that Ukraine owed Moscow gnawed at him.  These beliefs would stay with Putin, and we can see the results today with the current war of attrition.  While serving in St. Petersburg Putin’s ideas about NATO, relations with the west, Russia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the need for a strong centralized government which would unify the country were all reinforced.  By the time he assumed the presidency in 2000 his mantra was set. 

Putin’s assumption of the presidency is spelled out by luck, skill, and the ability to ingratiate himself after Sobchak’s political career ended with Boris Yeltsin.  Short dives deeply into this process and in the end Putin provided a need that Yeltsin craved, loyalty to Yeltsin as well as his family.  Putin would rise in importance in Yeltsin’s eyes over a five year period culminating in his appointment as the head of the FSB and shortly thereafter as Prime Minister.  Once he was head of the FSB in 1998 he would purge the organization and bring in his cronies from St. Petersburg.  When Yeltsin decided not to run for president in 2000 he chose Putin as the candidate to replace him.  Yeltsin decided not to run because the war in Chechnya was not going well, charges of corruption abounded, and he knew Putin would protect him.  What Short does not discuss was how the Yeltsin family was caught up in the corruption and how Putin’s perceived loyalty would protect them.

A Georgian man cries as he holds the body of a loved one after a Russian bombardment on August 9 in Gori, Georgia, near the border of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
(Russian invasion of Georgia, 2008)

Once in power Putin had to deal with Chechnya which he did in a way we have come accustomed to as we watch events in Ukraine.  He would botch the Kursk submarine disaster as well as terrorist attacks within Russia.  He would learn that public information needed to be regulated leading to state seizure of media and television.  Putin would learn from his errors to a point but his overriding beliefs that anything that made Russia look weak was a boon for the west.

In presenting Putin, Short tries in most cases to see events from Putin’s viewpoint.  He is correct that the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington presented an excellent opportunity to improve post-Cold War relations with the United States.  It is clear that Short believes that Bush blew an important opportunity particularly after 9/11 with the policies he chose.

Short is very careful to juxtapose Putin’s points of view on a myriad of topics relating to the Bush’s foreign policy between 2000-2004.  At first Putin offered a number of fig leaves to the Bush administration and in return Bush made his “look into his soul” remark that many thought went overboard.  After 9/11 Putin threw his support behind the United States by sharing intelligence, military over flights, and bases in Central Asia.  Putin saw the US as an ally in the war on terror but felt his overtures were not being reciprocated as Bush canceled the ABM treaty which Putin abhorred; the US invaded Iraq when Russian intelligence which had a decades long relationship with Saddam knew better than the CIA that WMD no longer existed in Iraq.  Issues of NATO expansion, anger that the US and the west did not see the war on terror extending to Chechnya, and hawks in Washington carrying on as if the Cold War was total victory.  Further the US insisted on military bases in Poland and the Czech Republic and in 2008 the west recognized the independence of Kosovo. 

Russian special forces without identifying insignia seized key government buildings in Crimea in late February 2014.
(Russian seizure of Crimea, 2014)

By Bush’s second administration relations deteriorated even further as Gazeprom cut energy deliveries to Ukraine, the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the Bush Doctrine which states that America can treat all countries that support terrorists against the U.S. as enemies. It also asserted the right that the U.S. can take preemptive action against nations that it felt might pose terrorist threats.  Russia’s response was clear in Putin’s message at the Munich Security Conference as he railed against American unilateralism and the pursuit of global domination.  Russia’s position economically improved as oil prices had increased markedly allowing Moscow to pay off its foreign debt depriving the west of leverage resulting in Putin’s popularity rising to 70% – it is no wonder that from this point on Putin felt the US was his enemy and became increasingly aggressive leading to the 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Putin admitted Russia lost the Cold War and resented the Americans lording it over them.  Events in Ukraine, particularly the Orange Revolution where Putin believed the west prevented Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the Ukrainian presidency and made possible the election of his reformist rival, Viktor Yushchenko angered the Russian autocrat.  Further, Putin was exorcised over American interference in Gazprom’s attempt to take over Yuganskneftegaz, the main production complex for the Yukos oil company which he believed showed how far American tentacles could reach.  What was clear was that by 2008 the rift between Russia and the US was too deep to heal.

Short is clear that Putin’s mindset is fraught with errors and lies, but it is important for him to criticize Putin further and not blame the US and the west for many of the choices Putin made.    Short does present the American viewpoint surrounding violations of human rights and support for anti-democratic regimes abroad as well as in Moscow, the clampdown on the Russian media, the failure to curb corruption, and atrocities in Chechnya, and the American defeat of the Taliban, a gain for Russian security.  However, one gets the feeling that no matter what course of action Putin pursued it was the fault of the West for the deterioration of relations with Russia.

(George W. Bush and Putin)

At times Short goes overboard in trying to attain objectivity.  He argues that “Russia was no longer trying to export its ideology and value system.  Instead, America was.”  Perhaps, but Short should examine Russian actions toward Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine as a whole before he makes such statements.  According to Short, the expansion of NATO by the west is responsible for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy in large part because of broken promises in the first Bush administration.  However, it is clear from Putin’s own words that the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his goal is to restore the Russian imperial system – this is Putin’s ideology and that has led to the invasions chronicled above.

Even in discussing the source and amount of Putin’s wealth, Short takes his objectivity a bit too far as he cannot accept any evidence like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers that document the scale of multibillion dollar corruption that exists in Russia.  Despite the fact that Putin oversees a system whereby Russian oligarchs hold large sums of money with strong connections to Putin, in addition to billions in offshore accounts reserved for the Russian autocrat, Short refuses to believe any evidence that is contrary to his own mindset.

‘Putin understood exactly what was being said’ … Presidents Obama and Putin in Normandy, France, 2014.
(President Obama and Putin)

Short commentary on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not as well developed as his narrative was completed as the war was beginning.  I agree with Angela Stent’s comments in her Washington Post review that “Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s major mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First was his failure to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are distinct Slavic nations, both with a powerful sense of national identity, and that people defending their homeland have an advantage over those seeking to conquer it. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military, which was unable to take Kyiv in the first days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full scope of Russian atrocities was known, he implies that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far Russia has leveled MariupolSeverodonetsk and parts of other cities, turning them to rubble, and has indiscriminately targeted civilians.”*

Despite Short’s approach to historical objectivity which seems to lean against the West and the United States and accepting Putin’s rationale for certain actions he has authored an important book that should be read carefully and dissected by the reader.  But we should remember what New York Times reporter Peter Baker states that Short absolves Putin of several crimes especially, his explanation for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.**  I wonder whether he is watching the same war that plays out on the news each evening as I am.

*Angela Stent, “A Biography that Gives Vladimir Putin the Benefit of the Doubt,” Washington Post, July 22, 2022.

** Peter Baker, “Who is Vladimir Putin,” New York Times, August 1, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — Stock Photo, Image


Victory Day Parade in Moscow
(Victory Day – World War II celebration in Russia, May 2022)

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced tremendous corruption, poverty,  lawlessness, food and other consumer goods shortages, among many other negative occurrences.  These aspects that are normally discussed when dealing with decade of the 1990s, however, there is another major circumstance that needs to be stressed, the loss of identity.  Former Soviet citizens and soldiers immediately lost their affiliation to the only country they had known and asked themselves, “who are they?”  Since 1991 people were required to reformat their view of national ideology, the geopolitical balance, and for over 250 million people their psychological makeup.  The result people was that were ripe for manipulation to fill the void of their loss of identity with the passing of the Soviet Union.  Shaun Walker’s book THE LONG HANGOVER: PUTIN’S NEW RUSSIA AND THE GHOSTS OF THE PAST explores how Vladimir Putin attempted to fill that void and “forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia.”

As the Moscow correspondent to the Guardian holding a command of the Russian language, Walker has the sources and language skills to present a concise and searing argument that will allow the reader to acquire a true understanding of the underpinnings of Putin’s propaganda when applied to the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine.  Though written in 2018, the narrative presents a clear argument that is difficult to find fault with.  The focal point of Walker’s book centers around Putin’s strategy of turning the Russian people toward World War II, the Great Patriotic War as a means of reuniting the Russian people and gaining support for his imperial ambitions.  In order to accomplish this Putin, Walker argues, must eradicate certain historically factual events from the pre-war and war periods that do not reflect very highly on Joseph Stalin and the former Soviet Union.  The need to create “willful amnesia” among Stalin and Putin’s victims was required.  In Walker’s account the concept has been applied extensively and effectively.

Vladimir Putin at Victory Day
(Putin attends Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War)

Walker clearly describes the tableau of the 1990s concluding with Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999 and the failure of the “decade of democracy.”  As people lost their savings and pensions, dealt with the Chechen war and terrorism it created a yearning for stability and normalcy.  Despite the fact that oil prices increased in 2004 resulting in a promising standard of living in the major cities, the vast majority of people living in towns and the countryside across Russia’s Eurasian land mass, poverty, drugs, addiction, and disease remained pervasive.  Putin believed that the poverty and divisions were a symptom of a broader malaise.  For Putin, the health of the state was most important and if Russia’s station in the world could be regained, people’s well-being would automatically improve.  Putin was tapping into the long held Russian political creed that fetishized the strength of the state and sovereignty.

In all of Russian history there has been only one event that could catalyze Russian unity and create the foundation to bring the country together – the victory in World War II.  Walker concludes that “pride in the defeat of Nazism transcended political allegiance, generation, or economic status, and had been used by later Soviet leaders to cement the regime’s legitimacy.  Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country.”

Map of Kherson, Ukraine

From the outset Putin had to deal with the “truths” about the pre-war and war periods unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.  With archives opened people began questioning certain events; i.e., the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its side agreements to seize half of Poland and other areas; Stalin’s purges of the 1930s which included the officer class reducing the effectiveness of the Soviet military at the outset of the war which led to disaster throughout 1941; admission to the Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish officers; and the massive deportations that took place in the east.  Nationalities like the Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Germans and other smaller groups were deported to central Asia and Siberia.  This involved thousands of soldiers when the war was not going well, but it was a priority for Stalin.  If Putin’s narrative of the Great Patriotic War was to be accepted, many of Stalin’s actions and the plight of the deported nationalities had to remain unexplored and forgotten.

The rhetoric Walker describes reflects an amazing campaign of misinformation and warnings about what was to be believed and what was to be whitewashed.  Even the meaning of “Victory Day” was altered as “under Putin gradually but inexorably the day became less about remembering the war dead and honoring the survivors, and more about projecting the military might of contemporary Russia.  The message was one of unity, around the idea of a resurgent victorious nation,” especially after the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In describing how this was achieved Walker travels throughout the Gulag and interviews survivors of the prison system and family members who know what happened to relatives.  Interviews and travel with people like Olga Gureyva who spent years in the island prison of Kolyma, arrested at 17, spent over a decade in captivity working in freezing tin mines; Petr Nechiporenko, a Professor at Kiev State University who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War but was arrested and accused of being a fascist terrorist who was turned in by colleagues and killed; Eveniya Ginzburg, the Russian writer and Gulag chronicler is arrested and sent to prison as a supposed Nazi terrorist for over a decade, just scrape the surface of the thousands upon thousands imprisoned and died in the Gulag.  But people like Walker’s guide, Ivan Panikarov who built a museum in his own home describing the Gulag argued that Stalin’s crimes may have been necessary to industrialize and defeat the Nazis.  Many of the people who Walker interviewed wanted to forget the past and move on as it just hindered the development of a strong Russia.  Walker’s description of what they wanted to forget is in line with historians like Robert Conquest and Amy Knight, along with Russian writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman. 

(Stalin’s deportations from Estonia during WWII)

Walker mentions an interesting point that although Nikita Khrushchev’s De Stalinization speech of February 1956 created hopes of a more liberal Russia, he focused on the crimes of the Communist Party, and the vast network of camps was never discussed publicly.  Walker also asks an important question; was everyone guilty in perpetuating the system?   He concludes that there “were many varying shades of guilt and innocence. But almost everyone was at least partially a victim, almost everyone was at least partially a perpetrator.”

Putin’s strategy helped create a feeling of victimhood and martyrdom which would be offset by his perception of a successful Winter Olympics at Sochi, coming to terms with the Chechens after two wars and numerous terrorist attacks, and the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008 when Ukrainian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to join the European Union and turned down a trade arrangement with Moscow, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Western media attacks assisted Putin in creating the narrative that the west wanted to blunt any attempt by Russia to return to greatness.  Putin turned loose his domestic media to carry his message and the FSB and company made sure that protest and the wrong mind set would not get out of control.

The latter half of the narrative focuses on the evolving conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.  He zeroes in on Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, and the eruption of further conflict in the industrial Donbass region.  The developing conflict between Ukrainian and Russian identity is presented within an excellent historical perspective and analysis.

(Joseph Stalin)

If one examines Putin’s justification for invading the Ukraine on February 24th of this year it is clear he is turning to the Great Patriotic War as he accused the Kyiv regime of being made up of Nazis that had to be rooted out, and Ukraine was not a country because it was part of Russia and wanted to be reunited with its countrymen.

Walker has written a well-researched, provocative, and insightful book whose arguments seem accurate.  He uses the voices of authentic everyday Russians to tell his story.  He is careful to avoid viewing the west as morally superior.  Further, he provides a clear picture of Putin’s mindset and how he recaptured the faith of the Russian people in the state as well as in his leadership.  In Putin’s mind he has created a mindset for a whole new generation of Russians who will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin finally leaves the Kremlin.  In the final analysis it is clear that though Walker authored his book in 2018, he foresaw the events of 2022 which are playing out in front of our eyes.

(Victory Day – World War II in Russia, May, 2022)



Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a campaign concert in March 2018

If you are following the war in Ukraine you are constantly bombarded with news stories concerning sanctions against Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs.  Frozen bank accounts, offshore investigations, the seizure of yachts, homes, the inability to access money or transfer funds, in addition to the loss of real estate, a soccer team and who knows what else are daily headlines.  The target of these actions are men who Vladimir Putin made rich by fleecing Russian mineral wealth, real estate, communications networks, weapons manufacturing, banking, highjacking the legal system, and of course the Russian people.  These men, many of which are former KGB operatives along with Putin, looted their country siphoning off billions of dollars out of state enterprises and moving their wealth to the west forming a second wave of oligarchs replacing those who accumulated extreme wealth under Boris Yeltsin. 

The west’s rationale for sanctioning Putin’s oligarchs is clear – destroy their wealth and lifestyle and they would pressure Putin to end his “special military operation” in Ukraine.  It is clear that the strategy has failed to move Putin to change course as the genocide in Ukraine continues.  Many wonder who these oligarchs are, how did they acquire their wealth, and what is their relationship with the Russian President.  Catherine Belton, an award winning journalist whose specialty was investigative reporting on Moscow has written PUTIN’S PEOPLE: HOW THE KGB TOOK BACK RUSSIA AND THEN TOOK ON THE WEST, an exceptional expose based on years of her own reporting and contacts in Russia and the west.

As Daniel Beer writes in his May 26, 2020, article in The Guardian, Belton is a renowned business journalist who spent years covering Russia for the Financial Times, Belton follows the money. She has an unrivalled command of the labyrinthine history of share schemes, refinancing packages, mergers, shell companies, and offshore accounts that lay bare the stealthy capture of the post-Soviet economy and state institutions by a coterie of former KGB officers, or siloviki. Belton combines this financial history with testimony from a dazzling array of Kremlin insiders, diplomats, intelligence officers, prosecutors, mobsters and oligarchs. The result reads at times like a John le Carré novel.”**  Belton’s approach and final product will amaze the reader for its depth of analysis and the disturbing picture she creates.

Putin shaking hands with Boris Yeltsin

(Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999 before taking over from Boris Yeltsin as president on 31 December)

Belton’s theme is clear and direct – Putin justifies bringing all levers of power including ending elections for governors, bringing the court system under the will of the Kremlin, taking over and reorienting the media towards the needs of the state, and destroying certain oligarchs and private companies in the name of stability, all to end the chaos of the 1990s that existed under Boris Yeltsin.  But, behind the patriotic fervor he encouraged a system whereby “Putin and the KGB ran the economy through a network of loyal allies now monopolized power and introduced a new system in which state positions were used  as vehicles for self-enrichment.  It was very different from the anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois principles of the Soviet state they had once served.” 

The author dissects a number of important questions.  First, how did Vladimir Putin, a KGB operative in Dresden when the Berlin Wall collapsed end up the authoritarian presence in Moscow that exists today?  Second, who are the men who he manipulated allowing them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and if they crossed him wound up in the Gulag?  Third, what mechanisms did Putin, and his coterie of sycophants employ to bring about the unequal and illegal distribution of wealth in Russia?  Fourth, why has the Russian leadership and their oligarchs been so successful in hiding their wealth in the west and penetrating the western political apparatus?  Lastly, what have been and are currently the implications for the system of “state capitalism,” or “state feudalism” that now exists in Russia?

As Belton methodically answers these questions she places events and actions in the context of Russian history and examines the different personalities and actions of Putin and his St. Petersburg KGB, and how they were able to overturn the corrupt oligarchical system which claimed to be mostly progressive under the reign of Boris Yeltsin.

The  key component to Belton’s narrative centers around Leningrad at the time the Soviet Union collapsed.  Leningrad, soon renamed St. Petersburg was the home a KGB faction which had a close relationship with the East German Stasi which was aware of the risks of a communist collapse and quietly launched “Operation Luch” to prepare for a potential regime change, particularly recruiting agents for a possible unification of Germany.  Putin, then stationed in Dresden was part of the process that smuggled millions of dollars out of East Germany to maintain their operations and create techniques that would become the model for Putin’s later Kleptocracy.

Putin and cabinet members observe a minute of silence in 2004 after the Beslan school siege

(Russia’s cabinet members observe a minute of silence in September 2004 after the Beslan school siege, in which militants killed more than 330 people)

Belton follows Putin’s biography pointing out the significant role played by Anatoly Sobchak, a key reformer on the Leningrad City Council who would be elected mayor, then enamored with Putin made him Deputy Mayor.  From this position Putin and his KGB compatriots had a base of power and the tools to implement their plan to replace Yeltsin’s oligarchs, men who took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to line their own pockets and indirectly steal state assets.  Billions were siphoned from Soviet coffers – a process overseen by the KGB.  Front companies and banks were created to house this wealth and no matter what occurred, the 1991 coup, the raping of Russia under Yeltsin, the corruption of the Yeltsin family, and finally the choice by Yeltsin to first choose Putin as his Prime Minister, then resigning early so his protégé could be elected Prime Minister in his own right in 1999 – all linked to the KGB, men from the Soviet and post-Soviet period.

Belton’s detail is to be admired as she traces how Putin exercised power and destroyed men like Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was emblematic of former Komsomol officials who early on were cultivated by KGB progressives who would acquire enormous wealth under Yeltsin but would be destroyed by Putin.  The modus operandi to go after these oligarchs was charging them with personal and business tax evasion resulting in the seizure of their companies and dividing their assets between the St. Petersburg KGB types and organized crime who worked hand and glove with Putin in the past.  The agenda for Putin and these KGB loyalists was their belief that conflict with the west was not over with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so they created vehicles to funnel billions of dollars into the west to finance KGB intelligence operations against the United States and its allies.Volodymyr Zelensky, Emanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in Paris in December 2019

(Talks resumed this month, five years after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a bid to end the fighting)

The privatization of state enterprises under Yeltsin using “loans for share,” and auction gimmicks quickly transformed ownership of the country’s wealth and created a class of oligarchs.  Men such as Khodorkovsky controlled Yukos Oil, Vladimir Potanin controlled Norlisk Nickel, Boris Berezovsky controlled Sibnet Oil to name a few who reaped the benefits of the new system that controlled over 50% of the country’s wealth, but once Putin arrived they had to kow tow to his whims and goals.  These men would become the target of the KGB who sought revenge because of their desire to control the country’s riches.  The St. Petersburg KGB forged relationships during the early 1990s through an elaborate system of barter and export deals that involved organized crime creating a model of how Putin’s Russia would be ruled in the 21st century.

Belton outlines how Putin and his cronies were able to become President pointing to a number of issues that Russia faced in the late 1990s.  First, Yeltsin and his family were crooks.  Second, the war in Chechnya which Yeltsin unleashed and Putin would use to raise his popularity for the 2000 election.  Third, The economy was on a roller coaster where market reforms led to a lowering of the standard of living for the Russian people.  With fears of a coup, the Yeltsin family decided they needed a strong KGB type who they could rely on to protect them from prosecution – that man was Vladimir Putin.  Yeltsin would resign early to facilitate Putin’s popularity and election victory.

Belton excels in describing the machinations of how Putin was able to consolidate power including a discussion of domestic terrorism blamed on Chechen terrorists.  This tactic appealed to the Russian people, but there is a great deal of evidence that FSB agents were behind the attacks creating the climate for Putin to crack down and re invade Chechnya.

Once in power Belton delves into Putin’s goal of creating an authoritarian system that he would control with an iron fist and how he accumulated billions in personal wealth which necessitated his own oligarchical system whereby fronts were created to limit any trace of wealth back to him.  Foreign bank accounts, real estate, a domestic banking system symbolized by Rossiya Bank, state control of the energy sector, threats, violence were all tools that were employed.

Putin shaking hands with US President Donald Trump

(US intelligence services say that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election)

There were those in the west that hoped to work with Putin in the early 2000s, but the influence of the St. Petersburg security men outweighed all other considerations.  Their world view was steeped in the logic of the Cold war, an ideology that would mold Putin.  They sought to restore Russia’s might and saw the United States as the main obstacle to achieving this.  For them, the economy was to be harnessed as a weapon first to restore the power of the Russian state – and themselves as leaders of the KGB and then against the west.

What saved Putin and the Russian economy from the outset was the rapid increase in the price of oil.  The leading Russian oil company was Gazprom, and the St. Petersburg KGB soon took over decision making.  Putin’s goal was to use possible oil and natural gas shutdowns as a vehicle to be employed in foreign policy as he did to Ukraine in 2004 and is currently doing so to Poland and Bulgaria.  More and more Putin evolved into a Tsar and he and his men would build a Russian fortress, presenting the country as under siege from an external threat.

Belton is correct that the key turning point was the 2003 trial of Khodorkovsky, his imprisonment, and exile to the Gulag for nine years.  It opened the way for Putin’s KGB men to take control of the country’s economy and created a precedent for the country’s judiciary to be an extension of Putin’s “security men.”  It also sent a message to other oligarchs that if they did not cooperate with shielding Putin’s wealth, laundering his money and protecting his power they could be next. The west did not realize that it was the beginning of the state takeover of the entire legal and political system leading to the accumulation of wealth that would be turned against them.  Throughout the process the hypocrisy of the west is evident as Belton points out the role and desires of western energy companies wanting to get their piece of the action with the Yukos and later Gazprom sell offs.  Further western hypocrisy is evident with oligarch investments in western real estate and banking, in addition to the role played by western banks such as Deutsche Bank, the Bank of New York, Danske Bank and others. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin, 22 December

(Khodorkovsky gave the first news conference after his release in Berlin)

Belton is able to unravel a process explaining how billions of Russian state assets were spirited to offshore accounts outside Russia – in 2012 alone, $49 Billion disappeared overseas.  Much of the wealth was invested in real estate particularly in New York, Miami, and London.  To create a mirage of legitimacy Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with strong ties to Putin was able to purchase the Chelsea Soccer Club, and others  invested in large real estate holdings in the United Kingdom fostering the nickname Londongrad.***  According to Belton, by the mid-2000s the British LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) was created as the money launderer’s vehicle of choice.  London would gain the reputation “as the world’s laundromat, washing hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty cash every year.”  Soon an awareness developed as to  the inroads the oligarchs made in the west and how they used its institutions to protect Putin’s wealth and as well as their own.  Interestingly, Putin and his men correctly predicted that western greed would outweigh any sense of morality when it came to western businesses’ approach to investing in and with Russia.

Belton’s exploration of Putin’s ideology focuses on the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the writings of White Russians dating back to the Russian Revolution, and recreating Russia’s imperial past.  In a sense Putin sees himself as a Peter the Great figure whose country should create a Eurasian empire whose destiny  was to counter the west as Putin forged a new Russian identity based on its imperial past.  In addition, Putin and his KGB cohorts sought revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic chao of the 1990s, and the threat the west presented to their overall goals.

Ukraine plays a significant role in this process and from 2004 onward would become a training ground for Russia’s undermining western unity.  First, employing energy blackmail, “black cash,” then the outright invasion of Crimea took place in 2014 and the insurrection to create the Donetsk Republic.  The eastern industrial region of Ukraine would endure eight years of war conducted by Russian backed separatists until the recent invasion of the entire country.

From the outset the Kremlin took over control of the Russian media from the oligarchs and developed the message that Putin was as godlike as a Tsar and saved Russia from western encirclement.  As long as Russian incomes grew due to the increase in energy prices the masses did not worry about the increasing state corruption, the growing arbitrary power of the FSB, and the control of all businesses by law enforcement.  Putin and his minions could jail anyone they wanted as long as the emerging middle class was happy.

Belton explores how Putin, and his cronies employ “soft power” in a frightening chapter, “Soft Power in an Iron Fist.”  She describes how “black cash” was used in Eastern Ukraine, funding right wing parties in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, and co opting western politicians such as Gerhard Schroeder former Chancellor of Germany, Jean-Marie Le Pen who lost the French presidential election last week, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and of course Donald Trump.  This strategy was in line with Putin’s goal of pushing a populist right wing agenda as a rebellion against the western liberal establishment which he views as a threat to his position as Tsar of all Russia’s.

Putin’s interference in western elections is well known as his support for the far right throughout Europe.  Former Kremlin insider Sergei Pugachev points out that Russia’s aggressive new tactics employing cyber, money though  out Europe to achieve his goals “is like a dirty atomic bomb.  In some ways it’s there, in some ways it’s not.  Nowadays it’s much harder to trace.”  PUTIN’S PEOPLE lay bare the challenge the west faces internally and now externally with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in addition to offering a remarkable explanation of how Putin’s feudalistic state came into being and how it is evolving.

For an up to date view of what these oligarchs actually believe see Catherine Belton; Greg Miller, “Cracks Emerge in Russian Elite as Tycoons Start to Bemoan Invasion,” Washington Post, April 29, 2022.

**Daniel Beer “Putin’s People by Catherine Belton review – A Groundbreaking Study that Follows the Money,” The Guardian, 6 May 2020.

***For a discussion of how the oligarchs took London see Patrick Radden Keefe, “Do Stay For Tea,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2022.

Putin on a big screen announcing the annexation of Crimea


File:President George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev pose for a photo during their meeting in Helsinki.jpg
(Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H. Bush)

As I am writing I am listening to the horrific news emanating from Ukraine.  The Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, continues to produce atrocity after atrocity with no end in sight.  By launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe in pursuit of his fantasy of an ethno-nationalistic Pan Slavic empire for Russia as he tries to recreate the old Soviet Union.  His stated goal was to block the NATO threat embodied by Ukraine, a country that seeks to join the Atlantic Alliance for protection against Moscow.  Putin’s actions were based on his perceived weakness of NATO countries and their lack of unity.  The result, instead of pushing NATO away from his border, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and brought the west closer than it has been since World War II.  Sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine, financial aid, intelligence sharing, and humanitarian aid are all designed to help Kyiv overcome Putin’s rage as the war has not gone as he had planned.  Based on the Russian President’s comments, who knows how far he will push his war of choice and how it will end.  The question is how did we get to this point?  What can be done to mitigate the situation?  Lastly, what weapons will Putin employ as he hints about tactical nuclear weapons and chemical and biological warfare if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not capitulate.

M.E. Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations has authored the perfect book to try and understand the background of the current crisis.  Her monograph, NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE is an excellent analysis of events, personalities, and decisions made by western European, American, and Russian leaders from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president replaced by Vladimir Putin.

(President Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin)

Sarotte develops a thoroughly researched book that revolves around options faced by the west once the Soviet Union collapsed.  The choice was clear; either they could enable the newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states to join NATO regardless of its impact on Russia or promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy.  The move that made the most sense would have slowed the decision making process and proceeding carefully considering Russian sensitivities.  The west created an incremental security partnership open to European and post-Soviet states alike.  Potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the west and eventually gain Article 5 protection.  However, Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shed the blood of opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, the rampant inflation in Russia as it tried to transition to a market economy, bloodshed in the Balkans, and domestic political changes in the United States as Republicans took over Congress pressured the Clinton administration to push for NATO expansion all impacted the course of NATO enlargement.  As all of this evolved Vladimir Putting was rising through the Russian bureaucracy.

In breaking down her analysis into three parts, Sarotte tackles the 1989-1992 period dominated by President George H. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her focus is on the “promise” offered by Baker that “not one inch” of former Soviet territory would be subject to NATO expansion.  This formed the basis of the Russian position, and as events evolved the United States and its western allies saw loopholes in any agreement that would allow them to offer NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO membership and keep open the possibilities for further members including the Baltic states, Romania, and others.  Gorbachev who faced internal opposition, economic issues and other roadblocks to reform would face a coup and eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin.

The second part of the narrative, 1993-1994 was dominated by the “Boris and Bill” show as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin developed a strong working relationship which would eventually flounder due to events and decisions that ruined their camaraderie as the US pushed for rapid NATO enlargement.  By the third part of the book, 1995-1999 the situation in Kosovo, the failed Russian economy raped by oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s uneven and unpredictable personality heightened by his drunkenness would result in Moscow and Washington failing to create lasting cooperation in the thaw after the Cold war resulting in the rise of Putin and what the world would eventually face in Ukraine.

Late French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stand hand in hand

(The odd couple: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl link hands at the cemetery beside the battlefield of Verdun)

Sarotte covers all bases as she highlights negotiations between the west and Russia and delves into the motivations and policies of the main personalities.  As she draws the reader in she offers a number of insightful comments and vignettes.  Among the most interesting and almost laughable was the role played by the Lewinsky Affair and Clinton’s impeachment trial in finally expanding NATO in 1998.  Sarotte’s meticulous presentation of how German unification was achieved and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany are among her strongest sections of the book, particularly the role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  The nuclear problem was always present in the background.  Issues of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, the cost to destroy and relocate them, and Russia’s role were paramount.  In addition, the evolution of the situation in Ukraine is discussed further and Sarotte offers a number of historical keys that will play out and impact Kyiv which in the end will end up being invaded by Russia in 2014 in its seizure of Crimea and the recognition by Russia of two separate self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas region.

Sarotte’s work is impeccable, and I would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in a detailed presentation of the 1989-1999 period that resulted in the arrival of Vladimir Putin as the dominating figure in the Kremlin’s approach to the west and Russian expansion.  Sarotte delineates the lost opportunity for a more peaceful world with increased Russian, American and European cooperation and integration between 1989 and 1991.  Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost and it will take many years for it to reappear, if ever.

Presidents Gorbachev and Bush hold a joint new conference at the White House to conclude the Summit meetings
(Gorbachev and Bush, Sr.)


UN Headquarter - United Nations - New York, NY

(The United Nations building in NYC)

As the American presidential election seems to creep closer and closer it is difficult to accept the idea that a substantial part of the electorate remains ignorant when it comes to knowledge of American foreign policy, or is apathetic when it comes to the issues at hand, or believe that Donald Trump has led the United States effectively in the realm of world affairs.   It is in this environment that Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and author of a number of important books, including, WAR OF NECESSITY, WAR OF CHOICE: A MEMOIR OF TWO IRAQ WARS, and A WORLD IN DISSARAY: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY AND THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER has written a primer for those interested in how international relations has unfolded over the last century, and what are the issues that United States faces today.  The new book, THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION may be Haass’ most important monograph as he is trying to educate those people who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to his subject matter in the past, and make them more literate followers of international relations in the future.

Haass states that his goal in writing his latest work is to provide the basics of what “you need to know about the world, to make yourself globally literate.”  At a time when the teaching of and the knowledge of history and international relations is on the decline, Haass’ book is designed to fill a void.  He focuses on “the ideas, issues, and institutions for a basic understanding of the world” which is especially important when the Trump administration has effectively tried to disassemble the foundation of US overseas interests brick by brick without paying attention to the needs of our allies, be they Kurds, NATO, the European Union, and most importantly the American people with trade deals that are so ineffective that $29 billion in taxpayer funds had to be given to farmers because of our tariff policy with China.  Perhaps if people where more knowledgeable the reality of what our policy should be would replace the fantasy that currently exists.



Xi Jinping with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 28 September 2010

Haass has produced a primer on diplomatic and economic history worthy of a graduate seminar in the form of a monograph.  Haass’ sources, interviews, and research are impeccable from his mastery of secondary materials like Henry Kissinger’s A WORLD RESTORED: METTERNICH, CASTLEREAGH, AND THE PROBLEMS OF PEACE, 1812-1822 and Jonathan Spence’s THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA.  Haass has created an educational tool that is a roadmap for those who would like to further their knowledge on a myriad of subjects.  Further, the author offers a concluding chapter entitled, “Where Do You Go for More” which augments his endnotes that should be of great assistance to the reader.

(Vladimir Putin)
Haass’ writing is clear and evocative beginning with chapters that review the diplomatic history of a number of world regions which encompasses about half of the narrative.  He returns to The Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 as his starting point.  Haass then divides history into four periods.  First, the roughly three hundred years from the early seventeenth century to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Second, 1914 to the end of World War II in 1945.  Third, the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1989.  Lastly, the post Cold War period to the present.  In each section he reassesses the history, major players, and issues that confronted the world community at the time drawing conclusions that are well thought out and well grounded in fact, the opinion of others, and documentary materials available.

A case in point is Haass’ analysis of China focusing on her motivations based on its interaction with the west which was rather negative beginning with the Opium War in 1842 to the Communist victory in 1949.  In large part, China’s past history explains her need for autocracy and an aggressive foreign policy.  Haass delves into the US-Chinese relationship and how Beijing unlike Russia embraced integration with the world economy stressing trade and investment in the context of a state-controlled economy that provides China with advantages in domestic manufacturing and exports.  A great deal of the book engages China in numerous areas whether discussing globalization, nuclear proliferation, trade, currency and monetary policy, development, and climate change.  A great deal of the material encompasses arguments whether the 21st century will belong to Asia, with China replacing the United States as the dominant power on the globe.  Haass does not support this concept and argues a more nuanced position that depending on the immediate political needs of both countries will determine the direction they choose.  The key for Haass is that the United States must first get its own house in order.

Haass carefully explains the fissures in US-Russian relations as being centered on Vladimir Putin’s belief that his country has been humiliated since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Haass’ argument is correct and straight forward as Putin rejected the liberal world that sought to bring democratic changes to Russia and integrate her economy into more of a world entity.  Putin’s disdain and need to recreate a strong expansionist military power has led to the undermining of elections in the US and Europe.  Putin’s “feelings” have been exacerbated by NATO actions in the Balkans in the 1990s and its expansion to include the membership of former Soviet satellites like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The end result is that Moscow pursued an aggressive policy in Georgia, the Crimea, and eastern Ukraine resulting in western sanctions which have done little to offset Putin’s mind set.

Haass is on firm ground when he develops the economic miracle that transpired in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as the reduced role of the military in these societies, except for China have contributed greatly to their economic success.  Their overall success which is evident today in how they have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic is laudatory, but there are a number of pending problems.  The China-Taiwan relationship is fraught with negativity.  Japanese-Chinese claims in areas of the South China Sea and claims to certain islands is a dangerous situation,  the current situation on the Korean peninsula is a problem that could get out of hand at any time.  Lastly, we have witnessed the situation in Hong Kong on the nightly news the last few weeks.

The Syrian situation is effectively portrayed to highlight the tenuousness of international agreements.  It is clear, except perhaps to John Bolton that the US invasion of Iraq has led to the erosion of American leadership in the Middle East.  American primacy effectively ended when President Obama did not enforce his “red-line” threat concerning Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and President Trump’s feckless response  to the use of these weapons in 2017.  The result has been the elevation of Iran as a military and political force in the region, as well as strengthening Russia’s position as it has supported its Syrian ally in ruthless fashion.  Haass’ conclusion regarding the region is dead on arguing that its future will be defined like its past, by “violence within and across borders, little freedom or democracy, and standards of living that lag behind much of the world.”

Map of Africa Political Picture

In most regions Haass’ remarks add depth and analysis to his presentation.  This is not necessarily the case in Africa where his remarks at times are rather cursory.  This approach is similar in dealing with Latin America, a region rife with drug cartels, unstable economies, and state weakness which is a challenge to the stability of most countries in the region.

One of the most useful aspects of the book despite its textbook type orientation is the breakdown of a number of concepts in international affairs and where each stand relative to their success.  The discussion of globalization or interconnected markets has many positive aspects that include greater flows of workers across borders, tourism, trade, and sharing of information that can help negate issues like terrorism and pandemics.  However, globalization also means that for certain issues like climate change borders do not matter.  Global warming is a fact and though some agreements have been reached the self-interest of burgeoning economies like China and India that rely on coal are a roadblock to meaningful change.  Interdependence can be mutually beneficial but also brings vulnerability, i.e., trade agreements can result in job loss in certain countries and increased unemployment, Covid 19 knows no borders, as was the case with the 2008 financial crisis.  Haass is very skeptical that mitigation of climate change will have a large enough impact, he also discusses the negative aspects of the internet, and the world-wide refugee problem adding to a growing belief that future international relations will carry a heavy load and if not solved the planet will be in for major problems that include global health.  Haass’ conclusions are somewhat clairvoyant as I write this review in the midst of a pandemic, which the author argues was inevitable.

Image of Map and Wallpapers: Asia Map

Haass shifts his approach in the final section of the book where he considers diplomatic tools like alliances, international law, and vehicles like the United Nations as governments try and cope with the problems facing the world.  In this section he focuses on the features of order and disorder or order v. anarchy to provide tools that are needed to understand both the state of play and the trends at the regional and global levels.   He breaks down issues as to their positivity and negativity as he does in other areas of the book, but here he makes a case for American leadership supported by military power as the best hope for stability and progress.  But even in making this argument, Haass presents certain caveats that must be considered.  For example, do nations have the right to interfere in a sovereign country to prevent genocide, can a country’s sovereignty be violated if they are providing resources and protection to terrorist groups, or does an ethnically like minded people deserve to have their own country based on self-determination.  Apart from these questions is the issue of enforcement.  Does international law exist since there is no uniform vehicle to force compliance, and what tools are available to convince nations to support decisions by international bodies or groupings.

All in all Haass has written a primer for his readers, but does this audience even understand the complexities of foreign policy and do they have the will to learn about it and then elect representatives who themselves have a grasp of issues to direct the United States on a well-reasoned path that can maintain effective global activism?  Only the future can answer that question, but for me I am not that optimistic in terms of the American electorates interest in the topic or its commitment to educating itself.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2007 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside of the United Nations headquarters. In a move likely to upset Israel's government, the Palestinians are seeking to raise their flags at the U.N., just in time for Pope Francis' visit in September 2015. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)


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(Soviet leader Joseph Stalin)

In her first book, THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS Svetlana Lokhova argues that in the early 1930s Joseph Stalin came to the realization that if the Soviet Union was to survive drastic measures needed to be taken to improve the state of Soviet technology visa vie the west.  The Russian dictator stated that “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.  We must catch up in ten years.  Either we do it, or they will crush us.”  Stalin feared that large numbers of enemy aircraft could easily release poisonous gases over Soviet territory resulting in the death of millions.  The Soviet dictator’s solution was multifaceted; starve millions of peasants to death through collectivization to acquire hard currency to assist in Russia’s industrialization, show trials/purges/murder of those who opposed him, and the institution of a spy system that could steal secrets from the west, the United States in particular.  Lokhova chooses to focus on the last component of Stalin’s strategy by dispatching two intelligence officers, one an aviation specialist, the other a chemical specialist to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to acquire aeronautics, chemical research and other relevant information and bring it back to the Soviet Union.

In her book, Lokhova makes the case that the success of this mission allowed the NKVD (later morphed into the KGB) to develop a dependable source of western technology, particularly in aviation that would allow it to defend the Soviet Union from its enemies and eventually defeat Nazi Germany.  This operation would form the basis of later espionage against the United States that would allow Moscow to reach an equilibrium with Washington as both sides would develop a process that some refer to as “mutual assured destruction” or MAD.  As this process unfolds Lokhova points out that the United States became the source of a great deal of nuclear technology that fueled both sides of the nuclear arms race.

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(Author, Svetlana Lokhova)

According to Lokhova the Soviets’ long science and technology (S & T) mission remained a secret for over eighty years as both sides in the arms race decided to maintain their secrets.  Relying on previously undiscovered Soviet-era documents among many sources Lokhova tells her story through its first spy, Stanislav Shumovsky, the network of agents he created, the contacts in American aviation industry, in addition to other spies and important figures in the Soviet aviation community.

The author offers a brief biography of each of the characters she develops focusing most of her attention on Shumovsky whose family had been uprooted during World War I from their Polish home and moved to Kharkov located in southern Ukraine.  He completed five years of secondary education and was a gifted linguist that eventually included English.  He was an excellent math and science student and after witnessing the plight of Russian workers and peasant joined the Red Army at the age of sixteen.  Lokhova describes the Russian Revolution and the bloody Civil War that followed and its impact on Shumovsky creating the perfect candidate to enter the intelligence field.  His mission was to attend MIT and digest a technical education that would assist him in developing a network of sources and spies that would provide the data that he sought.  His success was beyond anything his handlers could imagine.  He would build a network of contacts and agents in factories and research institutions across the United States  According to Lokhova he would mastermind the systematic acquisition of every aviation secret American industry had to offer.  He worked with top aircraft designers and test pilots and the information he provided to men like Andrey Tupolev, an expert in reverse engineering, the Soviets were able to copy and create their own version of American planes, weapons, and other technological achievements including later, the atomic bomb.

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(Stanislav Shumovsky)

Lokhova does a nice job explaining how and why the United States became the target of Russian industrial espionage. American corporations had mastered, at first, under the tutelage of Henry Ford the model of mass production, and the country itself was urbanized with a high standard of living.  Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Soviet Intelligence Chief and Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council believed that the United States was the world’s leading technological innovator and a role model that should be targeted.  As it became clear that the Soviet Union could not industrialize with heavy industry without foreign expertise, and later the looming threat of Nazi Germany and Japan, Moscow had to obtain technology by stealing it.  Dzerzhinsky would die in 1926, but the die was cast for Stalin to manipulate the United States for Soviet technological needs.

The most interesting aspect of this process Lokhova points out is that most Americans have no clue the important role the United States played in Russian industrialization.  The author is extremely thorough in explaining the development of foreign operations by the NKVD and the role of Artur Artuzov.  In 1931, 75 Russian students arrived in the United States to attend elite universities; their vocations were varied including specially trained spies.  The largest percentage of students would attend MIT with Shumovsky.  Stalin’s goal was to emulate and surpass the United States, but to achieve this he needed educated engineers who would become Soviet societal leaders.  To achieve his goal the American education model would be copied.

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(Stalin congratulating his favorite pilot, Valery Chkalov)

Shumovsky’s story reads like an early episode from the television series, “The Americans.”  Easily fitting into American society, he oversaw the education and acculturation of his cohorts to life away from Russia.  They would blend into American society targeting young, idealistic, and naïve Americans at universities and corporations.  At MIT, Shumovsky was able to develop the industrial contacts in performing his mission – a camaraderie of scientists that allowed him to build his network. He would spot classmates like Norman Leslie Haight, a radio engineer whose specialty was bomb sights who would remain a Soviet source for decades.

Lokhova concentrates her story on Shumovsky, but she also introduces a number of intriguing characters like Ivan “Diesel” Trashutin, who attended MIT and studied diesel engineering who contributed more to the Soviet victory in WWII than any MIT alumnus, with designs for T-34 and T-72 tanks.  His task was facilitated when Stalin dismantled Soviet factories and moved them east of the Urals after the Nazis attacked in June 1941, resulting in tanks that would power the Soviet Army to victory in Berlin.  Other important individuals include Mikhail Cherniavsky, a chemical engineer and intelligence officer, who was a Trotskyite linked to trying to assassinate Stalin.  Ray Epstein Bennett, a Jewish socialist recruited to spy for the Soviet Directorate served in Shanghai, Afghanistan, and would become the tutor for MIT students – a Pygmalion Project.  Gaik Ovakimian, who the FBI labeled the “Wily Armenian,” acquired plans for the Atomic Bomb and the B-29 Super Fortress.  Lastly, Semyon Semyonov, another MIT student who Shumovsky mentored discovered which scientists were working on the Manhattan Project and managed to establish firm contacts with physicists close to Oppenheimer, among a number of others.

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(Soviet spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg)

The author does an exceptional job explaining the process of Soviet recruitment and the infrastructure of how it was implemented.  By the mid-1930s with the rise and threat of Nazi Germany recruitment was ramped up leading to the recruitment of Brooklyn College chemistry professor William Malisoff who brought Julius and Ethel Rosenberg into the fold.  Once Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union new avenues for intelligence gathering were created with what appears to be American cooperation as information was seized “in plain sight,” and relayed back to Moscow.   American naivete was apparent as the US embassy in the Soviet capitol had little or no security for decades and Stalin’s minions exploited the situation.

For Shumovsky, traditional spy operations were not enough to accomplish his mission.  The Soviet spy had an innate sense of how to create publicity and use it as a vehicle to improve American-Soviet relations which would lead to greater access to American corporations and their technology, i.e., Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, the largest company of its kind in the United States.  This would prove to be an effective strategy by ingratiating himself with aviation executives and engineers to obtain plans, research, and actual models.  A good example of how this played out was the flight of the Soviet ANT 25 over the North Pole with three pilots landing on the US Pacific Coast.  The three pilots would become heroes much like astronauts in the 1960s and 70s and were given access to practically any process or research they were interested in.

Lokhova’s approach is captivating as she draws out her story with the reader wondering how in detail the Russians accomplished their heists.  She answers this question and at times the narrative reads like a spy novel.  If there is a criticism of her work, it is at times her opinions do not necessarily match the historical record.  For example, she argues that the Great Purges of 1937 instituted by Stalin were caused by the Fascist victory in Spain.  According to Robert Conquest, a British historian and others the major reason was Stalin needed to blame individuals for the horrific results of collectivization that resulted in the starvation of millions and the need to protect himself from any opposition to his leadership.

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(Cambridge Five spy ring for the Soviet Union)

The advent of World War II brought about certain difficulties for Soviet intelligence.  The need for American planes in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor produced only leftovers for Moscow.  The upswing in the US economy because of the war left fewer targets to recruit.  Washington finally became security conscious.  The war resulted in in a dramatic increase in American patriotism.  Despite these difficulties, the Soviet Union was able to penetrate American and British security over the Manhattan Project employing the Cambridge Five in England, and the network and followers of Shumovsky to gather the necessary information, research, and plans for the atomic bomb.

According to Lokhova, Shumovsky’s success was his ability to adapt his methods to the changing circumstances and used America’s strengths and weaknesses and turn them to his advantage.  He was a talented student, a representative of a major aviation customer, and a skilled military advisor, skills which contributed to his success.  His successors would use his methods, and their contacts in the scientific community and factories brought the Soviet Union valuable intelligence on America’s developments in jets, rockets, and the atomic bomb.  It is fascinating that his accomplishments were pretty much conducted in “plain sight.”

Overall, Lokhova has written a fascinating account of Russian espionage and the role the United States played in the eventual success of the Soviet Union which would lead to the Cold War and the nuclear balance of power.  According to Frances Wilson in her Daily Telegraph review of June 24, 2018 entitled “The Spy who came into the lab – How the Soviets infiltrated MIT” it is interesting that certain elements in the Russian government tried to harass and discredit her to the point she was falsely accused  on “social media of being a Russian spy and of setting a ‘honey trap’ for Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn.”  Despite the pressure she has been able to produce a groundbreaking account of Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 40s.  This is a remarkable book about amazing people and what is most astonishing is that our perception of the center of 20th century espionage has shifted “from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge Massachusetts.”

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(Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin)