An excellent introduction is Lilia Shevtsova's Putin's Russia (excerpts are available on the website of the Carnegie Endowment).
Edward Lucas, a correspondent for The Economist, describes the origins of what he calls "The New Cold War" in Russia under Putin (2008). Lucas argues that Putin's Russia poses once again a direct menace, not only to its own citizens but also to outsiders. He challenges the idea that Russia is "steadily becoming a normal country." He argues that due to Putin's decisions Russia "now stands little chance of avoiding long-term decline."
Lucas' core explanation can be summed up in one sentence: "When oil was at 10 USD a barrel, Russia was pitifully weak. At 75 USD, it swaggers like a superpower." This is embedded in a rich argument, however. In the 1990s Russia was ridiculed as the sick man of Europe, Lucas notes: "by the time of the 1998 financial crisis, the multi-party system and the market economy, along with Yeltsin's personal reputation, were deeply discredited" (p. 44). Like Shevtsova, Lucas points to the initial reformist attitude of Putin in 2001:
"Putin came out strongly for economic reform, saying that he wanted Russia to reach Portuguese standards of prosperity in a decade. His government pushed through a 13 percent flat tax in 2001; as in other countries were this was tried, the results were impressive. His ministers talked of setting up a 'one-stop shop' for registering small businesses, replacing the baffling and expensive trek between different state institutions … " (p. 48)
The contrast to the pre-1999 period explains the popularity of the new regime:
"after the calamitous financial crash of August 1998, when Russia defaulted on a large chunk of its debts and devalued the rouble, the sense of failure surrounding the Yeltsin clique and its tycoon-friendly rule was absolute." (p. 9)
By 2008, as Lucas writes,
"More than ever before Russians can plan their lives: they can save, educate themselves, travel and bring up their children as they like; they can buy anything they can afford; own property at home or abroad; worship (mostly) as they wish; read almost anything they like … never in Russian history have so many Russians lived so well and so freely. That is a proud boast, and one that even those who dislike Russia's current path most honestly acknowledge … Private cars used to be a luxury in the Soviet Union. In 1993 there were fifty-nine per thousand people. That figure has risen fivefold. Around 15 percent of all Russians have been abroad at least once something unimaginable in Soviet times." (p. 54)
Another useful read is Andrew Meier's Black Earth: Russia after the Fall (2004). Meier relates a striking moment in the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, the effort to define an official new national ideology:
"Only days after winning his second term, Yeltsin summoned campaign aides to the Kremlin. The time, he said, had come to find a new national idea. In the twentieth century alone, he told those assembled, Russia had gone from monarchy to totalitarianism to perestroika, before embarking on the democratic path. 'Each epoch had its own ideology,' he thundered, 'Now we don't have one - and this is bad.' … Historians, political scientists, and pollsters were enlisted. They were to rack their brains, search the "Civilised World" for historical models, and not return empty handed."
One option then considered, and rejected, came from Georgi Satarov: to emulate West Germany and combine economic growth with "the idea of national penitence". But, as Meier wryly notes, the notion of "making contrition the corner stone of the new ideology for the new Russia did not grab many on the presidential panel." (p. 338)
The book paints a gripping, detailed portrait of Russia in the 1990s and during the early Putin period.
"During his brief tenure as FSB chief Putin had hung a portrait of Peter the Great in his Lubyanka office. In his first months as prime minister, his aides liked to assure foreign reporters that Peter, the tsar who opened Russia to the West, was Putin's model. Yet Peter had also begun his career with an onslaught against the heathens in the south, conquering the port of Azov in 1696 from the Ottoman Turks, gaining access, after a failed attempt the previous year, to the Black Sea." (p. 93)
Putin's Labyrinth: Spies, Murders and the Dark Heart of the New Russia (2009) is a critical account of Putin's rule and the elimination of Putin's perceived enemies. The book is written by journalist Steve LeVine, the author of The oil and the glory.
On debates in Russia about cooperation with the EU and NATO, please see the collection of Chatham House Papers compiled by Roy Allison, Margot Light and Stephen White in Putin's Russia and the Enlarged Europe (2006).
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