British journalist Philip Short has written a long, in-depth biography of Vladimir Putin. The timing of its publication was rather fortuitous, having been released just a few months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The book is one of the better ones about Putin, though it certainly has its flaws. Before going into the good, the bad, and the befuddling, I will make a few general observations.
In terms of overall personality and traits, Short characterizes Putin as having a very analytical and “keen” mind, with a natural inclination to be introverted and reserved. These traits are consistent with the observations of others whom I’ve spoken with who had experience interacting with Putin in the 1990’s. Furthermore, Putin can be charming and affable when he wants, but he can also be rather Machiavellian.
This is an overall even handed biography that undermines the Marvel comic book evil villain depiction that most of the western media has been pushing, particularly since 2014 and even more since Russiagate. This probably explains why glowing blurbs from the likes of Anne Applebaum aren’t splashed across the jacket along with the rest of the usual gang that can be expected to offer reverence to every book that vilifies Russia and Putin that comes down the pike, no matter how full of slop it is. It probably also explains why Short hasn’t been interviewed nonstop on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc. since the Russian invasion even though you’d think the media would be lining up to get insight into Putin by someone who’d just done a deep dive into the man.
Generally, the book paints a portrait of a more complex figure who can be ruthless but also is an intelligent pragmatist who is not much of an ideologue. It also provides a chronology of how Putin started out being very pro-Western and offered valuable assistance to the US but received little in return.
As I and others have pointed out, Putin is an arbiter of several different interests in Russia. Two of those interest groups have been the pro-Western neoliberal technocrats and the military and security services who were always much more hardline and suspicious of the US-led west. Over the years, as Russia got the short end of the stick in its relations with the west, despite its cooperation in many areas, and no consideration of its most basic security interests, the hardliners appeared vindicated in their criticisms of Putin from the right for not being proactive enough in dealing with the US-led west’s machinations. These machinations include NATO expansion up to its borders, active support of the 2014 coup in Ukraine that installed a government that was hostile to Russia, and abrogation of several key nuclear arms treaties, to name a few.
Putin started out being more sympathetic to the pro-Western neoliberal technocrat camp, but has now been forced to side more so with the hardliners. The book acknowledges that the US-led west bears a fair share of responsibility for this. It offers a lot of the historical timeline and documentation – though at some key points it omits or obscures certain critical contextual details, which I will discuss below – but I fear this information will likely continue to fall on willfully deaf ears since it undermines the narrative that has been weaved progressively over time in the west.
The Good: Debunking the Worst Nonsense About Putin and Russia
Short admits that the books by Karen Dawisha and Catherine Belton arguing that Putin is a kleptocrat are poorly substantiated and not to be taken seriously. He explains that Putin isn’t corrupt by Russian standards and he explains what corruption actually means in Russia compared to western countries. This tracks with what program developer Sharon Tennison and diplomat John Evans – both of whom interacted with Putin while he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990’s – have said about Putin’s relative honesty. Short also debunks the theory that the Moscow apartment bombings were false flag operations to catapult Putin into popularity and election to the presidency. Many writers and commentators, including both Dawisha and Belton, have pushed this story.
He also explains what NATO expansion looked like from Russia’s perspective, including its history of invasions and the devastation that those invasions wrought that haven’t been forgotten, as well as pointing out that if the US were faced with an equivalent action, it would not be tolerated.
Short acknowledges that Putin was not likely behind the murders of political dissidents such as Anna Politskovaya and Boris Nemstov, but participated in the coverup and protection of those who likely ordered the killings, thereby creating an atmosphere of leniency for such actions. In both cases, it should be noted, the likely culprit was the Chechen leadership. Short does provide some context for why Putin has little choice but to tolerate certain activities by the Chechen leadership that he likely does not like or support. Namely, it is because the current Chechen leadership keeps a lid on any potential extremist behavior that could flare up and result in the kind of deadly terrorism that occurred in the 1990’s.
He does, however, argue that Putin likely ordered the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. Personally, I think the case for that is less clear-cut than Short does, but that is a good segue into the next section of this review.
The Bad: Still Too Many Western Narratives Taken at Face Value, Obfuscation of Critical Details
While Short dismisses some of the worst lies about Russia and Putin, he still relies heavily on western and pro-western sources. As a result, he takes too much of the western establishment narrative about the poisonings of Alexei Navalny and Sergei Skirpal at face value. I don’t claim to know exactly what happened in either of these cases but I do know that subjecting either of the western narratives on these poisonings to even minimal scrutiny shows them to be far-fetched to put it charitably. Giving the reader a description of the western narrative and then letting the reader know about counter-arguments available would have been helpful in letting the reader use their critical thinking skills to make up their own minds.
I noted some sources that Short used in his book which stood out as very questionable such as Sergei Pugachev who, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, is a self-aggrandizing blowhard.
Chapter 16, titled "Payback," which dealt with Putin’s pivot toward challenging the west in his third presidential term, was the weakest of the book. While Short gives a decent explanation of why the EU Association Agreement Ukraine was expected to sign in 2013-2014 was problematic, he leaves out important context about the events of Maidan that led up to the annexation of Crimea and eruption of the Donbass rebellion. He doesn’t mention that the agreement mediated by France, Germany and Poland in February 2014 to end the rioting by devolving Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s power and bringing early elections was rejected by the ultranationalists who were part of the Maidan protest movement. Short only states that members of Yanukovich’s government "saw the writing on the wall" and police and Berkut units "melted away."
He doesn’t mention the buses of anti-Maidan protesters from Crimea who were beaten and tortured. He doesn’t mention that the Donbass rebels initially wanted autonomy and the right to speak Russian while remaining Ukrainians and how their desire for independence and unification with Russia evolved as the Kiev government responded to their demands with an anti-terrorist operation rather than a serious negotiation. This reflects either poor research on Short’s part or an intentional desire to omit these important details that would help one to better understand why these events occurred. This is separate from whether one likes or agrees with the events.
Later in the chapter, Short implies that then-Vice President Joe Biden was probably a poor choice by Obama to put in charge of the Ukraine file. I think this is correct, but he claims as part of the reason that Biden had little awareness of the "sensitivities" of Ukraine and Russia issues. It’s true that Biden was not an expert on foreign affairs, but this video from the late 1990’s shows that Biden indeed understood how Russia would view NATO expansion up to their borders. It’s not that difficult of a concept if one looks at a map and has a basic understanding of the events of WWII. Most of the baby boom generation, of which Biden is a member, understood the basic events of WWII, unlike what might be expected by young adults today who are four generations removed. There’s also no reason why Biden couldn’t have called up Jack Matlock or any other competent Russia expert to explain basic history and geography of the region to him or go get some scholarly books to get himself informed about an important area he was supposed to be leading.
In reality, Biden likely wasn’t going to bother putting in any real effort to better inform himself but that speaks to his character. If nothing else, you can rest assured that Biden would understand perfectly well how the US would respond to an equivalent hostile military power on its border. One can’t help but wonder why Short seems to be giving Biden such a pass.
One comment in particular by Short toward the end of the book bothered me. After detailing how the anti-Trump establishment Democrats and their allies in the media tended to push and believe every nefarious allegation about Putin and Russia to the point of absurdity, Short writes:
"The handful of diplomats and scholars who argued otherwise, most of them old Russia hands like Jack Matlock and Stephen Cohen, often went overboard trying to explain Putin’s actions and ended up discrediting themselves." (p. 603)
I was left scratching my head at this. Matlock and Cohen have/had a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience of Russia. Wouldn’t it be their job to use that expertise to try to explain why Putin – the head of the world’s other nuclear superpower – was doing what he was doing, especially at a time of heightened tensions or even crisis? Isn’t that the whole point of being an expert on Russia? And the fact that a Putin biographer of all people would make such a comment is especially mystifying. Why exactly does Short think he’s writing a biography of Putin if not to explain the man to his audience? Perhaps almost 700 pages is going "overboard" in explaining Putin, eh, Phil? You’re discrediting yourself.
My guess is that Short already knows that even attempting to provide a modestly balanced account of Putin and Russia is going to get him no love from the establishment institutions whose approval one needs at least somewhat to be a writer or analyst who wants to make an actual living. He needs to throw a few bones to the important people who will be close to popping a blood vessel because he’s daring to acknowledge NATO expansion as a contributor to the current mess and that Putin wasn’t actually responsible for the Moscow apartment bombings and likely doesn’t have a trillion dollars stuffed into giant coffee cans in a cave somewhere. In the almost 600-plus pages of the book, I don’t recall Short ever using the term "thug" to describe Putin, which even RFK Jr. and Seymour Hersh feel the obligation to use in reference to the Russian president in recent interviews.
In conclusion, Short’s biography is worth reading if you’re interested in gaining insight into Putin. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you read on that journey. I also recommend the following books which are as good or better:
- Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft by Allen C. Lynch
- Richard Sakwa’s series of Putin biographies
- The Strongman by Angus Roxburgh (useful information despite condescending tone of the author)
- Putin in His Own Words by Daniel Sochor
- Putin’s speeches and interviews available on the Kremlin website
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, available on Amazon. Her writing has appeared in various publications including Consortium News, The Grayzone, Covert Action Magazine, RT, OpEd News, The Globe Post, Antiwar.com, The New York Journal of Books, and Dissident Voice.