The Telegraph reviews Edward Lucas's brilliant new book The New Cold War (to buy the book, click on the image):
First impressions still count for something. Whenever President Vladimir Putin fires a new rhetorical broadside or sneers at the West or is pictured naked from the waist up kitted out with the sort of phallic fashion accessory Russian men drool over, whether fishing rod or automatic rifle, I think back to his debut as a public politician. On that August day in 1999, what did the new president-to-be, Boris Yeltsin's anointed successor, think of his new role? This was, all of us in Moscow knew, an unexpected change of fortune for an obscure former career spy turned bureaucrat. 'A decision has been taken,' he told his interviewer with all the enthusiasm for the job and charisma of an undertaker. 'We will carry it out.'
This wasn't a start that promised much. But, as the first but not necessarily last phase of Putin's presidency draws to a close, his record so far and the windfall from record energy prices speak for themselves. 'Never in Russian history have so many Russians lived so well and so freely,' Edward Lucas concedes in this account of the Putin regime (not that freedom or plenty ever figured large in Russia's past). But never in recent times, he argues with gusto throughout this chillingly persuasive book, has Russia posed such a threat to the West.
Lucas didn't like the look of Putin at the beginning of this decade, a lonelier position than it is today. That was an era when Tony Blair and other Western leaders fell over each other to make nicey nicey with the Kremlin's new boss. President Bush met the man for the first time and liked what he saw as well, gazing into his eyes and immediately gaining a 'sense of his soul'. But what has happened since has proved Lucas right and the groupies and the fence-sitters who preferred to wait and see, such as myself, wrong.
This is not a book about Putin the man. Nor is it a potboiling catalogue of the many sinister signs that Russia is reverting to authoritarian type. It is, instead, the best portrait to date of the mentality of Putin's ruling class, much of it a product of the KGB, the corrupted crony capitalism it has spawned and the uses, many of them hostile to the West, to which it is putting its fabulous war chest of oil and gas money.
Some might find fault with its central metaphor, that we are engaged in a conflict with Moscow best described as a 'new Cold War'. Many may not want to believe that matters have deteriorated quite so far. But then, apart from the Kremlin itself, Lucas's other main targets in the book are wishful or woolly thinking - and worse - in the West itself. In his analysis, this is a war we are already losing, not least because of the delusion about Russia many of us labour under, that its rulers want it to be a 'normal' country just like ours, and plain human greed.
At his provocative best he denounces the bankers and politicians in Germany - but not only there - 'who betray their countries (to Russia) for 30 silver roubles' by cosying up to the big Russian energy giants. Indeed, the most arresting passages in the book are his pleas for moral renewal not in Russia, dismissed as a lost cause for the foreseeable future, but in the West. 'If you believe that capitalism is a system in which money matters more than freedom, you are doomed when people who don't believe in freedom attack using money,' he tells the gnomes of Zurich, Frankfurt and the City of London. Such calls for a moral rebuff to the new enemy are not the only echoes here of the Cold War that was, that Manichean struggle between our Good and Soviet Evil. But in his determination to deal in absolutes, can Lucas always do justice to the ambiguities of our relationship with this new Russia?
Where, I asked myself more than once as I read the book, does Roman Abramovich fit into the author's scheme of things? If we are now to treat every Russian investment abroad as a 'politically loaded expression of foreign policy', as Lucas demands, where does that leave Chelsea FC? Are we and Russia's billions so intertwined that this new Great Game is up already? Russia's next president, Dmitry Medvedev, the man who will inherit the Putin system, not least the privilege of being elected without any real competition, makes only a passing appearance in this book. Perhaps he is a mere cipher for his current boss. My first impression of him, the only time we met, was that he had many of the same qualities as Putin - but a personality and leadership skills were not among them. No doubt he too will surprise us.