Vladimir Putin used to hate the Internet. The idea of a vast, unwieldy communications network fueled one of his greatest fears: a grass-roots movement that might lead to his ouster.
But as Richard Lourie notes in “Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash,” his intelligent new quasi-biography, the Russian president has come to see cyberspace as “a weapon” that can help him accomplish some big, devious goals. Like, say, subverting foreign political campaigns.
Putin, Lourie writes, had complicated feelings about America’s 2016 election: “The bad blood with (Hillary) Clinton went way back. (Donald) Trump seemed easier to play. But more important to Putin than the winner of a particular election was the elective process itself. It needed to be revealed as unreliable, riggable, if not rigged.”
Lourie’s “Putin” arrives at an opportune moment, with Congress and a special counsel investigating Russia’s influence on last year’s election.
Some government agencies have already rendered their judgments. A report from the director of national intelligence, released shortly before Trump’s inauguration, says, “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton.” Russia also sought “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” the report says.
On Tuesday, The New York Times and Donald Trump Jr. published emails from 2016 that showed a senior Russian government official was offering to provide the Trump campaign with information that would “incriminate” Clinton.
Lourie doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of his intriguing subtitle, which suggests an imminent “downfall” for Putin. The author of several books about Russia and a consultant for Clinton’s 2008 campaign, he envisions a few scenarios that could result in the end of Putin’s oil-dependent administration — but then concedes that the autocrat might “stave off disaster for another generation.”
Nor does he break any news on the election-hacking front. He cites a number of Russian sources, but his reporting on this topic is largely backward-looking.
Even so, this is a useful book. In a series of wide-ranging chapters that spotlight his command of Russian history, Lourie offers extensive insight into Putin’s rise to power — and his ability to keep it for so long.
As Lourie tells it, Putin was never expected to be a leader. A midlevel spy stationed in East Germany, he had “a beer gut, two kids, and a used car” as the 1980s ended. “His prospects were few and bleak.”
Putin, however, proved to be quite shrewd. He had “the brains to know which bribes to take and which not to,” Lourie says, and he ingratiated himself with then-President Boris Yeltsin by wielding kompromat — compromising information — against political opponents. In time, Putin emerged as Yeltsin’s handpicked replacement.
As Russia’s unchallenged boss for 17 years, Putin has decimated free speech, neutered the media and become a multibillionaire. In 2014, he annexed the previously independent republic of Crimea. What’s more, Lourie adds, “there is an almost Shakespearean profusion of corpses on the stage of Putin’s presidency,” among them journalists, dissidents and other perceived foes.
The most fascinating part of Lourie’s book stems from an overlooked 2016 news item. Last year, he writes, “Putin did a most extraordinary thing — with the stroke of a pen he created his own personal army, 400,000 strong.” The head of the new National Guard is a Putin loyalist, and the force is meant to ensure Putin’s safety should his government be endangered by economic calamity, internal political strife or foreign influence.
“The creation of the National Guard, a sort of national secret service, is the sign of a person feeling vulnerable, not one brimming with confidence,” Lourie says.
As for Putin’s military support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Lourie calls it “a message for domestic consumption, especially now that a National Guard has been created: See what amount of force I am willing to use against enemies of a semi-important ally? Imagine how much force I would use to protect my own power, position, life.”
In the meantime, Putin has clearly overcome his aversion to the internet. Lourie suggests Russian attempts to create political chaos in cyberspace won’t end anytime soon. The web, Lourie notes, can be “almost untraceable, utterly deniable, and wonderfully cheap. Who wouldn’t love such a thing?”
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash,” by Richard Lourie (264 pages; Thomas Dunne Books; $26.99)