Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Books: On Russia's War With Ukraine & Its Place In The World

There are two new books that will deepen your understanding of Russia's war with Ukraine and its place in the world: Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin's War Against Ukraine, by Owen Matthews; and Putin's World: Russia Against the West And With The Rest, by Angela Stent.

Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin's War Against Ukraine

By Owen Matthews

Mudlark; hardcover, 432 pages; $29.99; available today, Tuesday April 25th

Owen Matthews is an award-winning correspondent, historian, and fluent Russian-speaker who has lived and worked in Moscow for over 25 years. He has worked as a staffer for The Moscow Times and as Newsweek magazine's Moscow Bureau Chief. He has covered conflicts in Bosnia, Lebanon, Afghnistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Georgia, and Eastern Ukraine. He currently contributes to Foreign Policy, Spectator, Daily Mail, Telegraph, and The Critic

Matthews' compelling new book, Overreach, is a first draft of the history of the Ukraine war, and how it moved from Russia's blitzkrieg through stalemate to Ukrainian counter-offensive. He focuses on the most compelling mystery at the heart of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, how the idea of violently carving out a Greater Russia traveled from the marginal fringes of Russia's politics to become official policy.

Drawing on over 25 years of ecperience as a correspondent in Moscow, as well as his own family ties to Russia and Ukraine, Matthews explores the poisoned historical roots of the conflict, and one of the mysteries at the heart of the war, how Putin went from a calculating, subtle master of opportunity to a reckless gambler, putting his regime at risk of destruction.

Matthews has built up an unrivaled network of contacts who have worked in Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration, security services, armed forces, and propaganda machine, and there are plenty of accounts from current and former insiders from the Kremlin. There is also testimony of captured Russian soldiers and on-the-ground reporting from Russia and Ukraine.

In this excerpt, Matthews writes of the historic nature of the war in Ukraine: "The definition of a great conflict is that it results in the breaking of nations and a reordering of the world. By that measure, the Russo-Ukrainian War is the most serious geopolitical crisis in Europe since the Second World War, and one which will result in far greater global consequences than 9/11. The world's security architecture, food and energy supply, balance of military power and alliances will be altered by it forever.

At best, Putin's botched invasion of Ukraine could prove to be the last convulsion of expansive imperialism in European history and mark the final death of the age of empires in the West. It may also give China pause in its ambitions to use conventional military power against its neighbours. In the first weeks of the war Ukraine surprised both its enemies and its allies by demonstrating that overwhelming armoured and airborne force could be defeated by modern infantry-carried weapons, upending traditional Cold War era calculations of attack and defence. The world's sanctions response to Russia's invasion also showed that true economic power - including the power to devastate whole economies overnight - has shifted from nation-states to corporations, whose ethical and political decisions can carry more clout than those of governments. And Russia's attempts to strike back by cutting gas supplies to Europe showed, surprisingly, that energy was in fact less potent a weapon than the West had once feared.

At the same time the Ukraine war made the world a far more dangerous place as Putin and his propagandists brought the idea of battlefield or even strategic use of nuclear weapons from the realm of the theoretical firmly into the realm of the possible. It also posed a fatal - and as yet unanswered - question about how much economic pain Western societies are willing to take in the name of defending the principles upon which their societies are founded.

The Ukraine war is the bloody final act of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hostilities continue as I write, so the story is, therefore, necessarily incomplete. But though we have no idea of exactly how the conflict will end, we already know how it will not end. There will be no complete victory for either Russia or Ukraine. NATO is too invested to allow Kyiv to fall to the Russian army; Putin's regime and his life are at stake if he allows Crimea, or for that matter the rebel republics of Donbas, to fall to the Ukrainians. He has said repeatedly that he is willing to defend that territory with nuclear strikes if necessary. Therefore this war will eventually end - as all wars that do not result in total victory end - with a negotiated peace.

Putin is likely to declare any final outcome a victory, and his control over Russia's media is so complete that there is a good chance he will succeed in convincing many of his people to believe him."

Putin's World: Russia Against the West And With The Rest 

By Angela Stent

Twelve; paperback, 496 pages; $18.99

Angela Stent is a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former director of Georgetown University's Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies. She has served at the National Intelligence Council as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia. She is also the author of The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century, which won the American Academy of Diplomacy's Douglas Dillon Prize for the best book on the practice of American diplomacy.

In Putin's World, Stent examines how Russian President Vladimir Putin created a paranoid and polarized world, while increasing Russia's status on the world stage. Russia's key relationships are delved into, starting with its downward spiral with the United States, Europe, and NATO; its ties to China, Japan, and the Middle East; and with its neighbors, including its always-fraught relationship with Ukraine. This is a revised version that includes an exclusive new chapter on Russia's war with Ukraine, which began in February 2022.

Stent writes of Putin's aggression, "He likened himself to Peter the Great, who waged the great Northern War for twenty-one years and defeated Sweden, capturing the Baltic states in 1721. Peter, said Putin, appeared to be at war with Sweden and to take land from Sweden. But, in reality, 'he was not taking away anything, he was returning and reinforcing.' And, added the Russian president, he too was retaking land - 'it fell to us to return and reinforce.' Moreover, Putin divided countries into truly sovereign countries and colonies that cannot make sovereign decisions. Russia in his view is sovereign and Ukraine is not...

"Putin's war against Ukraine jettisoned two decades of difficult, but sometimes productive, relations with the West. Perhaps Putin forgot that Peter the Great not only 'returned' lands. He also opened Russia's window to the West, moving the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and traveling incognito around Europe to study manufacturing, shipbuilding, and the arts. Four centuries later, Putin closed the window to the West with his brutal war. Russia turned to the East, to China, which supported its war, at least rhetorically."

The aim of the book is to help Americans understand how and why the post-Cold War era has given way to a new, more dangerous world, one in which Russia poses a challenge to the United States in ever corner of globe. 

It is also a world in which Russia becomes a toxic and divisive subject in United States politics. Related to this is how Russia saw a possible opening as it could step into the vacuum created by the West's distraction with its own domestic problems and US ambivalence about whether it still wants to act as a superpower. 

Stent lends needed context to all this by starting with Russia's turbulent past, how it influenced Putin, and Russians' understanding of their position on the world stage and its future ambitions. Russia has the conviction that the West has tried to deny them a seat at the table of great powers since the USSR collapsed.

In this excerpt, Stent writes of what could be viewed as a peak for Russia: "In July 2018, Russia showed its best face to the world as it hosted the World Cup. The spirited opening ceremony featured bears, dragons, and picturesque onion domes. The Russian team - ranked at the bottom of all those competing - defeated Saudi Arabia in the first game and went on all the way to the quarterfinals, when Croatia defeated it. But even that loss did not diminish the pervasive - and unexpected - atmosphere of good feeling. For a month, Russia welcomed fans from around the world with enthusiasm and camaraderie. Russians and foreign fans partied all night in cities from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg, 1,500 miles away in Siberia. Even the normally dour Russian policeman had only smiles for those celebrating. As Russian presdident Vladimir Putin put it, 'People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country, a friendly one for those who come here.' He added, 'I'm sure that an overwhelming majority of people who came will leave with the best feelings and memories of our country and will come again many times.'

The World Cup represented a major success for President Putin. Before the games opened, there were questions about whether Russia would be able to build the facilities in time for the games, about corruption involved in the bidding for the construction, and about how international visitors would be received. Moreover, the games were held in a politically charged atmosphere, when Russia's relations with the West were the worst they had been since post-communist Russia emerged in 1992. Russia's annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in Southeastern Ukraine, its cyber interference in the US and European elections, its support for Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian Civil War, and its domestic crackdowns on opponents of the regime - and the US and EU responses - all this had intensified the already adversarial relationship between Putin's Russia and the West.

The World Cup left foreign fans with positive views of their hosts. Many had arrived in Russia with stereotypes about unfriendly Russians living in a backward country. But they reported being surprised by how 'normal' Russia and its people seemed. The US sent the largest number of spectators, even though the American team did not qualify to compete. Western journalists emphasized that it was important to differentiate between the Russian government, which they criticized, and its people, who were hospitable. For their part, the Russians seemed surprised by how approachable the foreign fans were. Russians were used to seeing westerners constantly vilified in their state-run media, but a poll conducted after the games ended showed that Russians' view of Americans and Europeans had significantly improved. The games left an afterglow of positive feelings, even though the Russians realized that, once the foreigners departed, they would no longer be able to celebrate all night in the streets. The Russia team may have lost, but the World Cup was clearly a victory for Vladimir Putin."

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