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The New Cold War

by Edward Lucas

That this book was hastened to press is evident from the numerous typos that occasionally blunder over into silly factual errors (Henry Truman, Kirgistan). The prose is also, while engaging, at times under-edited. Yet one wants to overlook these shortcomings, as Edward Lucas is an important and influential observer of things Russian, having served for several years as the Economist magazine’s bureau chief in Moscow.

Drawing on this experience, Lucas recounts a decade of Russian domestic and foreign policy crises, arguing that Russia is a dangerous foe, bullying its neighbors, cornering natural resource markets, crushing internal dissent and defrauding foreign investors. “Repression at home is matched by aggression abroad,” Lucas writes. “Russia is reverting to behavior last seen during the Soviet era,” yet now it is not “the Kremlin’s tanks thundering into Afghanistan that signal[s] the West’s weakness; now it is Kremlin banks thundering through the city of London.”

Yet, Lucas notes that, while Russia’s “tactics are increasingly clear and effective… the goal is still puzzling.” Imputing intent from actions, he concludes that Russia “…wants to be respected, trusted, and liked, but will not act in a way that gains respect, nurtures trust, or wins affection. It settles for being noticed – even when that comes as a result of behavior that alienates and intimidates other countries. It compensates for real weakness by showing pretend strength.” In short, we should be worried about Russia because it is reasserting itself in the world, and it is doing so with methods that scorn (or undermine) the cherished values of Western Liberal Societies: free trade, primacy of individual liberties, the rule of law.

Fair enough. The facts of the Putin era events are presented well. And his argument is logical. Yet flawed. For none of these things are certainties: that a richer, more emboldened Russia will threaten international stability, that Russia will become more authoritarian over time, rather than less, that Russian civil or commercial interests will continue to quietly acquiesce in the erosion of civil liberties, that Russian actions over the past decade are part of a coordinated Eastern Front in a New Cold War.

This latter is the weakest leg of Lucas’ argument. Many Russian actions internally and externally over this period have been reprehensible. But to assert that those actions belie an orchestrated intent is to give Russian policymakers more credit than is their due.

In fact, events seem to show nothing so much as that Russia is blundering about blindly in its foreign policy. There is no wizard behind the Kremlin curtain, shaping a cohesive international plan. Indeed, The New Cold War is a ruthless cataloguing of Russia’s nearly unbroken string of foreign policy failures since 2000: Chechnya, Estonia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia… Lucas repeatedly shows how Russia has overplayed its hand in its attempts to influence and cajole its neighbors, in the end assenting to an outcome it initially insisted was untenable (e.g. the current missile defense debate). Russia, Lucas writes, “is too weak to have a truly effective independent foreign policy, but it is too disgruntled and neurotic to have a sensible and constructive one.”

So which is it? Should Russian foreign policy make us tremble with fear or with laughter? Maybe both. Lucas’ treatment of domestic issues suffers from the same disconnect. Recounting the decline of pluralism and a free press, and the rise of corruption and statism in business, Lucas forecasts gloom and doom while at the same time pointing out the massive inefficiencies of state-run enterprises. It is not clear: are the behemoths taking over the economy or teetering on the brink of collapse? And if one believes (as Lucas seems to) that modern commerce needs a free and open society to survive, how can one not have confidence in the power of the market to eventually overrun any government gates that hem it in?

The mind yearns for simple, logical explanations. But it is not always good to give the mind what it wants. Sometimes it is best to accept complexity and not try to explain irrational behavior with logical arguments. Recommendation: Read this book for its superb account of the Putin era, but overlook its typographical and theoretical errors.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2008