Sarah Hurst reviews : ‘We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong’ by Mark Galeotti

7 December 2021

By Sarah Hurst

Sarah Hurst reviews We Need to Talk About Putin: How the West Gets Him Wrong, by Mark Galeotti. Paperback. 140pp. £9.99. ISBN 9781529103595. (Ebury Press, London, 2019)

Mark Galeotti’s slim volume that offers an easily digestible guide to his views on Vladimir Putin and attempts to debunk everything we thought we knew about the Russian leader was written in 2019, and it hasn’t aged particularly well. Although it contains some useful insights, such as describing the upper echelons of the Kremlin as an “adhocracy”, in his efforts to say something new about a president who has been in power for two decades Galeotti also ends up making dubious claims.

Most strikingly, in a chapter titled “Putin’s Enemies Don’t Always Die,” Galeotti weakly tries to argue that Putin doesn’t always murder his opponents. The book would lose its relevance if it simply stated that Putin does kill a lot of people and is the ruthless dictator many of us view him as. So Galeotti is being a contrarian. “Putin is not an indiscriminately murderous tyrant, and whatever the press my suggest, personal or wholesale murder is certainly not his regime’s tool of choice,” Galeotti writes after rattling off a list of successful and failed assassination attempts (notably missing out that of Anna Politkovskaya). “The trouble is that these days it is all too easy to see the Kremlin’s bloody hand in the death of every prominent Russian,” he laments.

It is true that due to Putin’s reputation he is sometimes blamed for a death that may have been from natural causes or suicide. But that doesn’t change the fact that the list of murders that can actually be attributed to his actions is dreadful. Galeotti goes on to explain that some people are enemies who can be allowed to live, but traitors are the worst in Putin’s mind and have to die. Editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station Aleksei Venediktov is named as an “enemy”, which is a little ridiculous considering that the veteran journalist has constantly worked with Putin to stay on the right side of Kremlin red lines. Galeotti says that investigative journalism and activist NGOs continue to exist in Russia, but since the book was published dozens of media and charitable organisations have been designated as “foreign agents” with severe restrictions on their work. The chapter ends with the bizarre line: “Putin is a merciful autocrat. He doesn’t want to kill you – unless you force him to.” 

Of course, Russian security services tried to kill Aleksei Navalny with novichok in August 2020, and Putin subsequently jailed the opposition leader for good measure. In the chapter “Putin is Popular, and Not,” Galeotti writes: “It is a mark of the concern that the Kremlin has about Navalny that on the one hand they keep throwing him into prison for thirty days here, a few months there, but at the same time they hold back from treating him more seriously… the idea that this is a regime that disposes of enemies without a second thought is actually very wrong.” Galeotti also states that Navalny supported the annexation of Crimea, which is not entirely accurate, as Navalny said it would be hard to return Crimea because it “isn’t a sandwich to be passed back and forth.”

Meanwhile, the shooting down of MH17 is not mentioned in the book. The relatives of the 298 victims of that flight would probably call Putin an indiscriminately murderous tyrant, even if his troops were actually aiming at Ukrainians when they fired the Buk missile. Nor does Galeotti address the hateful propaganda that the Kremlin has been spewing since 2014. Putin not only kills, but also ridicules his victims and their loved ones. Putin never admits to his crimes: he doesn’t even recognise the deaths of his own people fighting in Donbass, but pretends they weren’t there.

Other chapter premises are equally questionable: “Putin Is a Judoka, Not a Chess Player”; “Putin’s Not Looking to Revive the USSR, or Tsarism for That Matter,” “Putin Sees Money as a Means, Not an End,” and “Putin is Risk-Averse, Not a Macho Adventurer,” for example. It is easier to make these arguments by cherry-picking stories while ignoring ones that don’t fit the narrative. True, Putin doesn’t want to precisely revive the Soviet Union by recapturing all of the former Soviet states, but his lavish May Day and Victory Day celebrations, his rehabilitation of Stalin and his increasingly brutal repressions as well as his determination to pull his neighbours back into Russia’s orbit by force are all very Soviet. He has also cleverly managed to elevate the Russian Orthodox Church and tsarist traditions to suit other audiences. Russians routinely and unironically refer to him as the tsar. 

As for money, well, the fact that Putin has become fairly uninterested in it because he has accumulated so much wealth hardly proves anything. Galeotti is probably right that he enjoys power more, but that is normal for a tyrant who has everything and finds it difficult to amuse himself. The author speculates that Putin might be looking for a “mini-me” to one day replace him, but obtaining the immunity that Boris Yeltsin got could be harder for Putin due to his track record, and leaving office might prove impossible due to the risk of being arrested, as has happened to many other former leaders in the region. 

In the chapter “Putin Doesn’t Read Philosophy, and Russia is Not Mordor,” Galeotti, a high-profile analyst who has lived in Russia recently and apparently enjoyed himself a lot there, hobnobbing with former Kremlin insiders, writes, “According to some more hostile foreign commentators, Russia is near enough an earthly Mordor, North Korea with balalaikas. However, walk the streets of Moscow, and you’d find yourself in a modern, dynamic and frankly fun European city.” 

Actually it is Russian opposition activists who have given the country the nickname Mordor, and the number of people who have fled the country due to persecution has soared in recent years. “Walking the line” is no guarantee of safety, as plenty of people have been arrested on entirely spurious pretexts, sometimes charged with treason and jailed for years for having contacts with foreigners in the course of their work. Anyone saying something positive about LGBTs can face criminal prosecution. Elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses are serving long prison sentences because their group is deemed extremist. Galeotti acknowledges that Putin has allowed Ramzan Kadyrov to rule by terror in Chechnya, but pays little attention to it. 

Some details Galeotti gives about Putin’s lifestyle are interesting, but sources are not cited. He says that Putin spends his mornings swimming and working out, and gets to paperwork in the afternoon, when he reads “a trio of leather-bound briefing files” from the FSB, the SVR (foreign intelligence service) and the FSO (presidential guards). It sounds plausible that “there is a vicious cycle of escalating claims and conspiracy theories, as the various services compete for the boss’s attentions with ever-more-lurid allegations.” Galeotti calls Putin a “spook fanboy”. If it’s true about the briefings and their content – and it would be good to know how the author knows this – it does explain a lot about why the Russian leader believes neo-Nazis run Ukraine and a deep-state conspiracy dominates Washington.

Ultimately Galeotti’s conclusion that there are other Putins waiting in the wings to succeed this one is possibly the most important point he makes. Despite the fact that this is yet another book about Putin, Galeotti rightly points out that too much attention is paid to the Russian leader as an individual, as if he is responsible for everything that happens, while in fact there is an entire security services machine behind him, and many other repugnant characters who could continue taking Russia down this dark path in future. Galeotti says he is optimistic that the country will one day turn towards European values, but he admits that things are likely to get worse before they get better. That has certainly turned out to be the case.  

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