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The Problem With Putinology

We need a new kind of writing about Russia.


By most accounts, the Cold War came to end in 1991. Soviet defeat equaled the victory of the West. The Washington consensus set the economic terms. Democracies were proliferating after 1991, and on the horizon a rules-based liberal international order was more and more clearly emerging, a global analog to the ascendant European Union with capitals in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington. One day, Moscow and Beijing would be its capitals as well. Such was the narrative, not universally admired or embraced, that structured a fair amount of political discourse and journalism up to 2016.

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West
by Catherine Belton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 640 pp., $16.99

Catherine Belton, who served as a Moscow-based journalist for the Financial Times, offers an entirely different story in her new book, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West. She draws attention to the obscure business dealings of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when the empire was slowly starting to unravel. Alert to the impending collapse, KGB officers and their agents drew upon their financial acumen, knowledge of the West, and access to criminal networks with which they had long partnered. This helped them transfer pieces of “the Soviet Union’s vast financial empire” into the West—some of it to offshore havens, some of it into posh real estate, some of it openly, through Western banks. On this foundation a new empire would be built, and over time it would, as Belton puts it, attempt to “subvert the political landscape of the West.” The Cold War never ended. It continued to be fought, on new terrain, largely out of public view. 

Through meticulous research into financial networks, Belton investigates Vladimir Putin’s political ascent via the KGB ties at the center of her story. She captures the texture of Putin’s government: its approach to power, its ambition, its cynicism, its desire to reverse the defeats of 1989 and 1991 and then to translate KGB formulas into a new international affairs paradigm.

Yet Putin’s People also typifies the problems that beset so much writing about Russia today. Belton’s recounting of facts is consistent with Russian and international sources, but her tone is rooted in a conspiratorial mindset endemic to Western media commentary on Russia, her descriptions of Russia too often ridden with clichés. Useful in understanding Putin’s rise to power, Putin’s People is also an impediment to understanding much else about the country that he rules, not least its ongoing conflicts with Europe and the United States. 

Much of what Belton writes on Putin is already familiar. Vladimir Putin’s hardscrabble, World War II–haunted childhood in Leningrad—from the rats in his communal apartment to his discovery of judo—has figured in many documentaries and books by now. His career as a KGB operative in Dresden and his horrified response to the Soviet Union’s implosion have been exhaustively documented. The same is true of his curious path to the Kremlin, running at first through the Saint Petersburg mayor’s office (under the “liberal” Mayor Anatoly Sobchak) and, after 1998, through the headquarters of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, in Moscow. This diminutive Soviet everyman worked his connections to the Yeltsin family into a deal: He would not prosecute them for corruption if Boris Yeltsin would appoint him president in 1999, after which Putin used the 2000 presidential election to take power for good. 

Belton capably chronicles the ensuing two decades of Putin’s rule, a tale of authoritarianism gradually consolidated. There were the “liberal-seeming economic reforms of Putin’s first term” buoyed by rising oil prices, a recovery from the 1998 financial crisis, and the growth of a Russian middle class. The reforms were liberal-seeming because, while Putin was implementing them, he was also maneuvering to bring most of the Russian news media under state control and to eliminate the independence of oligarchs, who had acquired massive wealth and considerable political power in the 1990s. Belton refers to a “social contract” and an “unwritten pact,” in which Putin gave Russians order and economic opportunity, while Russians gave him increasingly unconstrained power. 

With the power he gained, the true colors of Putinism began to show. Here Belton retraces the analysis of Timothy Snyder (in The Road to Unfreedom), Brian Taylor (in The Code of Putinism), and others, who regard Putin as a postmodern fascist or as a postmodern Tsar. After 2004, a reelected Putin added to his inner circles of KGB associates a coterie of White Russian nationalists, and “relying on the writings of Russia’s imperial Orthodox past, [he] set a path that subverted what remained of the country’s democracy, and sought to unite the country by pitting it against the West.” He had cobbled together an ideology that would serve the security state better than the discredited husk of communism or the straitjacket of Western-style liberalism.

Belton prefers the word feudalism, “a feudal system,” to fascism. Yet it is both a feudalism of Soviet vintage—“the country [under Putin] was going back to the times of the gulag,” she declares—as well as a feudalism that relies upon modern finance. Putin has merged feudalism with “crony state capitalism.” His Christian piety is false, Belton is sure, though his imperialism real. But Russia’s governing ideology is most cogently a smoke screen for extracting the nation’s wealth, much of which is earned by selling gas and oil to the West, and much of which is squirreled away in Western banks and real estate holdings. Thus are feudalism and crony capitalism the tributaries of kleptocracy, a form of government diagnosed in detail by the political scientist Karen Dawisha, in her 2014 book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? 

Putin’s People has a spectacular denouement. A West that had once naïvely expected Russia to adopt its model of political economy stood by passively while Putin lured it into adopting Russia’s model of political economy. The Russian empire that Putin conjured from the ravings of tsarist reactionaries and Soviet nostalgics struck back in Ukraine first. In Putin’s regime, “the pursuit of empire was becoming all-consuming,” Belton writes of Russia in the second decade of the twenty-first century. When Russia was unable to control Ukraine informally, Moscow chose to assert itself by annexing Crimea and launching a war in Eastern Ukraine. The conflict with the West entered a new phase in 2014. Having split Ukraine, an imperialist Kremlin “found especially fertile ground [for influence and control] in Eastern Europe.” 

Then this neo-tsarist, neo-Soviet empire struck back again by bending European and American leaders to its purpose. Putin and his cronies, Belton avers, “had accurately calculated that, for the West, money would outweigh all other concerns.” A craven West let itself be seduced by Russia’s illicit wealth, whether in “Londongrad”—a London awash in illegally obtained Russian money—or on the European continent. Belton identifies Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Salvini, Gerhard Schroeder, and the Czech Republic’s Milos Zeman as politicians in Putin’s pocket. In the U.S. Congress, Dana Rohrbacher and Rand Paul developed Russian connections, becoming witting or unwitting catalysts in a Russian strategy “to undermine Western democracies” that had its origins in the very break-up of the Soviet Union. At long last, the KGB, only half vanquished in 1991, could exact its revenge. 

For Belton, proof of a Russia triumphant is President Donald Trump. Trump first went to Moscow in 1987, and loved it. At a professional low point in 2003, with most Western banks refusing him credit, Trump watched happily as various Russia-connected figures poured money into his properties and business ventures, from Panama City to Florida to Baku to SoHo. Belton interprets Russia’s 2016 support for Trump as an effort to compromise him, earning Trump’s “deference to Putin and his circle” once Trump became president. She places Trump’s decision to “withdraw US troops from Syria” not in the context of Trump’s appeal to war-weary middle America, but in the context of a KGB-style Russian influence operation: a White House decision that suited Russian and not American interests. In Putin’s People, all roads lead back to the Kremlin—even when equally or more plausible explanations are left untouched. 

Belton makes two significant contributions in Putin’s People. She demonstrates the foreign policy consequences of corruption, of a shadow world of laundered money, organized (and at times disorganized) crime, and influence peddling or influence purchasing at high levels of government. Corruption is a terrible vulnerability: All intelligence services trade in it. In the West, rule of law has its footnotes and loopholes, with no shortage of politicians whose actions could be guided by non-Western manipulators. Belton is right to depict the West as a landscape in which Russian intelligence has much to work with; she is right to sound the alarm.

In addition, Belton provides a useful portrait of a particular political generation in Russia. For this generation, the pivotal dichotomy was not Communist versus dissident, nationalist versus reformer, or liberal versus conservative (whatever these words mean in Russian politics). It is those who befriended Putin in the 1980s and 1990s versus those who did not. Many of Putin’s KGB cronies in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg have risen to high office. They run the country, and the lessons they learned from 1989 were not the lessons Francis Fukuyama, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama learned from 1989. Putin’s people do not want Western-style liberal democracy to fail, rather they sincerely believe it was failed and false to begin with.

Putin’s people have no qualms about a predatory Russia because they never stopped believing in a predatory West—or in power as the stuff of predators. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they have shown the continuity of power and wealth, and the superficiality of the claim that in 1991 an entirely new chapter in international affairs had begun.

Extensively researched as Putin’s People is, its authority is limited by its sources. Putin and the Russian government resist transparency for obvious reasons: They’re good at covering their tracks, and Belton can do nothing about the partial information she and all other journalists focused on the Kremlin have at their disposal. Nonetheless, partial information is partial information. As we are reminded by the former CIA Russia analyst George Beebe (in The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War With Russia Could Spiral Into Nuclear Catastrophe), explanations of events that cannot be falsified should merit constant qualification and understatement, of which there is far too little in Putin’s People.

Though Belton relies on anonymous sources, even her own characterizations of her sources do not always inspire confidence. Too often one gets phrases such as: “said one Berezovsky associate,” and “one Russian tycoon who’d been close to Berezovsky,” and “one insider who said he was involved in the Kremlin discussions back then.” Some of Belton’s sourcing is even less precise, as in a political development “many suspected” was the case. Rumors and hearsay cluster around every center of political power.

A worse problem is the pattern apparent in Belton’s non-anonymous sources. Belton has drawn most of her material, in Putin’s People, from interviews with those who became active opponents of Putin or those who were once close to Putin and in government but were, for one reason or another, sidelined or forced into exile. Though these are relevant and important voices, in Belton’s book they are presented too uncritically. In a study of the KGB’s political manipulations, one worries at times about a journalist-author taking too often the mood, insights, and anecdotes of her interviewees at face value. (A history of the Obama administration based on an interview with Ben Rhodes would read one way; a history based on an interview with Michael Flynn would read quite another way.)

A bizarre omission in a book about Russian foreign policy—about how the KGB took on the West—is the larger Russian conversation on Russian foreign policy. One of the few foreign policy experts who appears in Belton’s pages is Yevgeniy Primakov, who has been called Russia’s Henry Kissinger, in the sense that he combined academic work and high-level government service. Yet Primakov’s consequential ideas about a multipolar international order are never presented or reviewed in Putin’s People. Primakov himself gets buried in Belton’s reduction of Russian politics to the KGB or FSB plotline. To her, Primakov is a “mandarin-like foreign intelligence operative,” “the former spymaster” and “the old-guard KGB prime minister Yevgeniy Primakov.” His foreign policy thinking is not well known in the West. These kinds of labels run the risk of keeping it that way.

In place of a three-dimensional view of Russian foreign policy are too many unneeded clichés in Putin’s People. The KGB’s preeminence in the narrative, at home and abroad, diminishes a great many other agenda-setting power centers in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Another cliché is the intractable murkiness and innate malice of Russian politics—Byzantium redux. Hence, “the Byzantine financing sphere of Yeltsin’s Kremlin” and financing schemes of Putin that hide themselves “in Byzantine layers of complexity.” This is the age-old enigma wrapped in mystery wrapped in obscurity impetus for the cliché of clichés about Russia as a matryoshka: “It was as if control of the country’s third-largest bank had been transferred through a set of Russian nesting dolls, or matryoshki, into Bank Rossiya’s hands,” Belton regrettably writes.

Belton’s treatment of the Russian Orthodox Church builds on the book’s political clichés. When she writes that “Russian Orthodoxy saw itself as the one true faith, with everything else considered heresy,” this is not entirely false. But even with Russian Orthodoxy enshrined as the national church, the Russian Federation has an old and large Muslim minority population. Muslims are not ostracized as heretics in Putin’s Russia. The multiconfessional Russian Federation is neither more nor less anti-Semitic than the average European country: No one faith is imposed on Russia. When Belton writes about the Russian Orthodox Church viewing Russia as “the Third Rome, the next ruling empire of the earth,” this is a (sixteenth-century) historical fact that likely has nothing to do with the piety of most Orthodox Christians in Russia or with the attitudes of most clerics.

These clichés about Russian politics and society would be beside the point if they did not reflect the analytical inaccuracies and overstatements in Putin’s People. In order, these inaccuracies concern Russia, Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.

Belton is channeling disgruntled Western politicians when she writes of “how Russia was defining its global integration in its own interests … rather than adapt[ing] to the rules of the West.” She seeks to puncture Western naïveté by observing that Putin’s “attempts at rapprochement with the West” when he first became president “were made not out of any sense of generosity, but because Putin expected something in return.” That Russia prefers to write its own rules and that generosity is not a driving force in Russian foreign policy are anything but shocking. Nor are they the result of KGB/FSB conspiracies. They are the inevitable attributes of a Russia that has acquired the military and economic means to pursue its interests, independent of the West and, at times, in conflict with the West.

Primakov’s written works or those of current foreign policy thinkers such as Dmitry Trenin, Fyodor Lukyanov, or Sergey Karaganov would suffice to prove the point. Putin’s enactment of an autonomous Russian foreign policy has followed a strategic logic of its own and helped make him popular domestically. The FSB is an aspect of Russian power to be sure, but it is very far from the sum total of Russian politics or Russian foreign policy. 

Whatever the role of the FSB on the international stage, the last 10 years have not been a march from success to success for Russian foreign policy either in Ukraine or in Western Europe. Russia has surely blocked Ukraine from joining NATO for the foreseeable future, a core Russian aim, and Russia employs its dirty money and its intelligence services in Ukraine. Yet much has not gone Russia’s way there. Its apparent success in splitting Ukraine, as Belton puts it, is very much apparent. Russian tactics have alienated many in Ukraine who are not anti-Russian, and the separatist entities Moscow has carved out of the Donbas are a burdensome mess. If Ukraine is the laboratory for the Kremlin’s eventual take-down of the West, Moscow should be very nervous about its experiments so far. (Belton skims over Russia’s military actions in Syria, and its operations in Africa and Latin America, because they concern raw geopolitics and do not fit the model of a monied FSB masterplan to harm the West.)

Western Europe has not bowed to Russia since 2014. Its response to the Ukraine crisis has been neither passive nor pacifist. Far from capitulating on Ukraine, the West has avoided war, strengthened NATO, supported Kyiv financially, and imposed serious economic sanctions on Russia for six years running. Europe has many ways to contain Russia. Many of them are already up and running. Europe is not under siege, and in the end, only Europeans, not the FSB, can undermine European democracy.

American democracy is similarly positioned. Belton is right that Putin wanted to stoke partisanship and disorder in America. She could be right that Putin wanted to compromise Trump in 2016 and thereby to control him, but of this she offers no direct proof, and she does not stop there. Instead, she adds to the swirling innuendo around Trump by implying without evidence that Trump makes decisions to please the intelligence service that has allegedly compromised him. Trump’s attempt to draw down U.S. troops in Syria is a case in point: Most likely it stemmed not from Russian pressure but from campaign promises unrelated to Russia. (Of course, both the Russian and the non-Russian explanations for Trump’s Syria policy are speculative.) As for American public opinion, Russia’s capacity to shape it is circumscribed. The exaggeration of Russia’s capacities is, in fact, a goal of Russian disinformation and active-measures campaigns. 

The West has everything to gain from concentrating on the depth of its own problems, and from keeping the scope and scale of Russia’s hostile interventions in perspective.  

The triumphalist story of the Cold War has rightly fallen apart. It was a myth to begin with, and it abetted Western hubris and Western misreading of the rest of the world. Rethinking the Soviet empire’s break-up in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union itself in 1991 should elucidate a present in which the West is less and less of a hegemon and in which China, Russia, and other countries are gaining power. 

As an attempt at this, Putin’s People obscures more than it clarifies, pointing to the need for a new kind of writing on Russia, writing that is less preoccupied with Putin, that honors the complexity of Russian foreign policy—and that does not make disinformation and espionage the core of Russia’s relationship with the West, and of the West’s relationship with Russia. The truth of politics is not always sensational; it is not always devious and hidden. Sometimes it is out in the open.