Explaining Russia Through Putin: A Review of The New Tsar by Steven Lee Myers

Editor's note:

This article appeared in The Cyber Issue in Winter 2016.

Ross Carstens
March 23, 2017

Steven Lee Myers’s new book, The New Tsar, provides one of the weightier explanations to the enigma that is Russia’s long-serving leader.[1] Though it does not fully explain the man or the country he runs—and who really could?—Myers adeptly takes his reader on a winding journey through Vladimir Putin’s life and career, using his biography to provide a useful context to help decode Putin.

Myers begins with Putin’s modest youth, which was bereft of much wealth or academic achievement, focusing on the younger Putin during what is arguably his defining period: navigating his way through the chaos of the Soviet collapse as a KGB officer in Dresden. The theme of molding order from chaos runs throughout the book, whether Myers is discussing Putin’s role in managing Boris Yeltsin’s dysfunctional governance, quelling fighting in Chechnya in the early 1990s, or reacting to pressures placed on Russia’s Middle Eastern allies during the Arab Spring.

In this sense, Putin is averse to total democracy, instead opting for a more oppressive system that is more predictable, more stable, and thus more ideal. Some small amount of dissent and other political parties are tolerated, but any serious attempt to push Russia away from Putin’s mission to create order is deemed an existential threat and is promptly removed. Any attempt to distract him from his mission to uphold stability, it seems, is viewed as an attack.

More than anything, Myers points to loyalty as Putin’s most valued characteristic, both in himself and in other people. Putin gained power in no small part through his incredible fidelity to Yeltsin and the post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Putin is now in the reverse position, creating a state and economic structure that is viewed as oligarchy by the West but, to Putin, might be seen more as a policy of ensuring Russia’s security by placing loyal friends in power. They are his friends, yes, but Putin’s loyalty is to Russia, and their loyalty is to Putin, creating a syllogism of patriotic servants running the country.

Many of these themes shed light on Putin’s recent foray into the area of cyberspace and cyber warfare. The United States and its allies have confronted Putin in many ways concerning a plethora of issues, and all of these confrontations are interpreted as attacks on the law-and-order project Putin is running and the loyal stewards who run it with him. Sanctions imposed on his friends and allies cannot be accepted, as that would be a failure to protect those who are loyal to him. Actions like pulling Ukraine closer to the European Union are similarly threatening, since Russian power over Ukraine is arguably, in the mind of Putin, a lynchpin in his quest to restore order to a chaotic, post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Cyber warfare is in many ways a valuable way for Putin to respond to these perceived Western aggressions; Russia already has a track record of cyber attacks that effectively irritate and disrupt other countries.

Myers unpacks the composite and controversial parts of Putin’s story in a balanced and clear way. The complexity of the subject matter can at times be overwhelming, yet in a book designed to reveal one of the more mysterious and hotly debated figures of contemporary geopolitics, anything less than overwhelming might not suffice. Myers is equally impressive in his ability to dispassionately analyze the multitude of lightning-rod issues that revolve around Putin, employing his years and knowledge as the New York Times Moscow correspondent to great effect. The book, as its title suggests, focuses very heavily on Putin and at times can lose focus on Russia as a whole; it fails to address the effects of Putin and his power on the Russian population. For a study of Putin, however, it admirably unearths the man, unraveling his complexities and his consequent policies in a way that few have yet achieved.

Ross Carstens is a master in public administration candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, studying development practice.

[1] Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin (Knopf, 2015).