The New Cold War: How the Kremlin Menaces Both Russia and the West

Lucas, Edward
London: Bloomsbury, 2009 (revised paperback edition), ISBN: 9780747596363, 350 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Colloff, Nicholas

The glass is decidedly half-empty, and draining fast, according to Edward Lucas, as he analyses Russia's development since the fall of the Soviet Union and especially Mr Putin's rise to power after 1999. It is a Russia, in Lucas's view, that is authoritarian, where the people who run the state also own it, through the practice of a form of crony state capitalism; and it is a state that believes that countries pursue their own interests in a zero-sum game which generates clear winners and losers. The Western rhetoric about policies anchored in universal values is an unobtainable ideal at best, and at worst a hypocritical masking of real intentions, one of which is a weak Russia, always verging on the edge of breakdown.

The argument is laid out in nine brief, incisively written chapters, with crisp illustrations that take us from Putin's rise to power, through the winners and losers of the new order, to the means by which that power is maintained. Lucas seeks to show how Russia uses its new status as an energy giant, awash in cash, to seduce and/or bully the West. He examines what passes for the ideological underpinnings of this new state, and how the exercise of hard and soft power affects the security of the West, and how the West might effectively respond.

Lucas's analysis works at its best when helping us to understand the ways in which Russia is genuinely different from Western democracies because of the trajectory of its history; most especially, the legacy of 70 years of Communism and Russia's singular failure to address that history effectively - neither the legacy of internal repression nor the rapid dismantlement of empire, a collapse that Mr Putin, with studied ambiguity, called the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

This is most deeply apparent in attitudes to the 'Great Patriotic War' - the Soviet terminology for the conflict with Germany from 1941 to 1945. This, by all except for a small minority of Russian liberals, is unambiguously celebrated as a unifying factor in Russian history - a celebration which has been extended in the Putin era. The facts that the immense suffering endured through the war was greatly amplified by Stalin's failed policies before it, that many significant minorities suffered repression during the war, and that hundreds of thousands of Russian POWs found themselves re-imprisoned after the war disappear from official view, and are often angrily denied by ordinary Russians, without any pretence of debate. This Lucas effectively contrasts with Germany's coming to terms with its own shorter and more intense legacy of totalitarianism.

Does this matter? Lucas convincingly answers Yes, because it fundamentally distorts Russia's attitude to its neighbours, especially in Eastern Europe, most especially in the Baltic States. These were not liberated in either 1940 or again in 1945: they were occupied and brutally treated. Their attitude, in turn, towards their Russian minorities, which is a continuous source of friction with Russia, has a comprehensible history that Russia seems incapable of grasping, with the consequences that Estonia discovered in 2006.

Nor is Russia's practice of capitalism recognisable from a Western perspective, particularly in those industries deemed to be of strategic significance: here, rather than the dictatorship of law, to quote Mr Putin, we have the powers of the state being used, often arbitrarily, to squeeze maximum benefit for those who run Russia. Approved political actors frequently turn up on the boards of state companies in webs of cross-engagements that in the West would entail gravely compromising conflicts of interest.

The cumulative impact of Lucas's case is to alert us to the need for a more realistic and robust view of Russia, and on energy security in particular. The need to adopt more robust and diverse structures in Europe, particularly on gas, is, I think, unanswerable; not least, because Gazprom may simply not be able to meet its supply obligations in the future, due to technical failures and a lack of investment rather than from practising the dark political arts of bully thy neighbour.

Where Lucas's analysis fails is in imagining that the Russian administration itself is more unified than in practice it is. It is a competing set of factional interests, not all of which imagine that the only relationship with the West is the one of power interests and confrontation that Lucas describes. He especially fails to analyse the dynamics between Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin, which are essential to any comprehension of contemporary Russia. Nor does he capture adequately the deeper dynamics of Russian society: a society that, on a personal level, at least, has never been more free. This society enjoys a more subtle relationship with the Kremlin than simply that of authoritarian direction, and repression of overt political opposition. The Kremlin is deeply sensitive to the need to maintain its compact with the Russian people: we will rule, but your standards of living will improve. This creates all kinds of opportunities for the forces of civil society, by no means dormant or cowed, to contribute intelligently to Russia's ongoing development.

The surfaces of Russia's engagement with the West, characterised by sulky confrontation and plays for power, do need to be addressed robustly, but the depths of a society slowly being remade by many forces, many of which are positive, and strengthening people's own sense of individual freedom and the accountability of institutions, needs to be seen too, and celebrated. In painting such a negative picture of the forces that shape Russia, Lucas trips into the hands of precisely the people in Russia whom he most criticises: the Russians who too easily imagine that the West is unremittingly hostile and misunderstands the famous 'Russian soul'. Whereas most Western policy makers, in fact, would be content with a strong, vibrant, democratic Russia, at ease with itself, happily embracing the culture of shopping that marks a genuine entry into a globalised 'West'!