Putin’s World or the Battle for Influence in Europe

Hubert Seipel: Putin. Innenansichten der Macht. ISBN 978-3-455-50303-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ It is hard to find a biography about Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, and it is even harder to find a balanced one. It quickly becomes apparent that the author of this book, a German journalist, had and probably still has privileged access to Putin, and the great value of the book is to oppose Putin’s personal view on issues ranging from the dissolution of the USSR, the rise of Russian oligarchs under Putin’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin, the expansion of NATO and the Ukraine crisis to the openly hostile attitude of many US and European politicians and media.

A multi-polar world

Putin gets a chance to present his point and, which I deem more important, to explain his vision of a multipolar world, of Russia’s place in world affairs and the historic context that shapes this vision. A recurrent argument is: The break-up of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for Russia’s population. The US and the European Union took advantage of Russia’s weak position in the 90s to expand their influence simply because they could get away with it and did not care to acknowledge Russia’s national interests. The West’s cardinal sin was the expansion of NATO and the EU to the east, as he sees it. The selling-out of the most valuable parts of the Soviet economy – the mining industry and the petrochemical sector – to western companies added to the humiliation.

One of Putin’s goal is to redress these historical errors, to give Russia a new self-confidence and to restore Russia’s political influence vis-à-vis the European Union and the United States. A multipolar world where the US predominance is balanced by the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and the European Union. His personal ratings seem to justify this approach. Putin in popular in Russia, no matter what Western pundits say, and coercion from abroad i.e. sanctions tends to boost his popularity rather the to diminish it. Russian nationalism is not to be underrated.

“Don’t push us around!”

The Russian president has a central message: Stop trying to push us around! His wish to play an active and constructive part in European affairs seems genuine and his motive – mutual economic benefit – makes sense. However, his argument fails at a crucial point. If he wants the US and the European Union to consider Russia’s national interests, Moscow must also acknowledge the national interests of Eastern European countries that wished to join the EU and NATO. They made a sovereign choice, it is not something they were lured into by devious US generals or EU bureaucrats in Brussel. The Russian concept of “spheres of influence” belongs to the 19th century and makes no sense whatsoever in a globalized world with multiple political, economical and social interdependencies.

No doubt, mistakes were made in Brussel and the European Union’s foreign policy is always a difficult compromise and often contradicted by national foreign policies of its member states. And yes, the US poured millions of US dollars in lobbying efforts to support opposition groups in Russia, in Georgia, in the Ukraine – if not a provocation, at least a deliberate challenge for Russia. However this can be no excuse for the occupation of the Crimean peninsula. A central tenet of the European order after World War II – the respect of national borders – has been violated by Moscow in the name of national interests, once more. Hungary in 1956, Prague in 1968, the Crimea in 2014. I see a certain pattern there: Russia uses force, where policy failed. You can do that, but you cannot complain about Western meddling in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence at the same time.

About taking sides

How could a journalist miss these contradictions? I don’t know. Privileged access obviously has made Seipel loose his objectivity and the last chapters of the book are nothing less than an apology for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its support for rebellious armed groups. The bashing of other journalists for their “Russia bashing” doesn’t really add to Seipel’s credibility.

The only useful and interesting parts of the book are the chapters about Russia’s oligarchs. The author provides interesting details about the total failure of the government under president Yeltsin and the reaction of alternative power centers formed by corrupt politicians and government officials on the one side and unscrupulous businessman on the other side. The conflict of interests of US president Donald Trump make the later appear like an absolute beginner in comparison.

This said, it is now my turn to come up with a deliberate provocation of Russia and it takes the shape of a Lithuanian composer of the name of Mikalojus Ciurlionis who has written at the end of the 19th century symphonic poems, organ and piano works often inspired by the national awakening of Lithuanians living under Russian rule until 1917:

Lithuania masterpieces on cassette tapes