What Makes Vladimir Putin Tick?
A review of "Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin" by Andrew S. Weiss and Brian “Box” Brown
It’s been nearly a quarter century since Russian leader Vladimir Putin made his debut on the international scene during a very different geopolitical era from today. His tenure as leader of Russia has spanned five U.S. presidencies thus far, and the story isn’t over yet.
It would be easy to build a small library of books, news analyses, intelligence reports, and even fictional accounts examining the man, the myth, and the legend of Putin. Add to this collection Accidental Czar: The Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin, a biographical graphic novel published late last year by Russia scholar and former U.S. official Andrew Weiss and illustrated by award-winning comic artist Brian “Box” Brown.
For those looking to learn about Putin’s trajectory from his early days to his decades of ruling Russia, this book offers a clear, accessible, and textured portrait of a man who keeps the world guessing as he remains in the global spotlight — all the more so since he ordered Russia’s latest brutal invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago.
From Putin’s origin story to his rise to power and influence around the world
In the span of 251 illustrated pages, Accidental Czar packs in a lot of information and presents the story of Putin’s life from his earliest days to the mediocre start of his career as a mid-level Soviet intelligence official all the way to his meteoric rise to the halls of the Kremlin. With an interesting blend of images and text, the book explains how Putin manufactured his persona as a macho tough guy defending “traditional values,” an image that began to make Putin attractive to some American conservatives and intellectuals about a decade ago during the Obama presidency — and still does for some today.
Putin’s worldview and what shapes it is a central theme in the book, as it explains the multiple factors that shape Russia’s strategic calculus these days. A heightened sense of insecurity in reaction to NATO expansion in the 1990s — a rationale for Putin’s aggression offered by many self-proclaimed foreign policy realists and restraint advocates in the United States — is just one part of the story depicted.
In a conversation I had with Weiss, he noted that although it played some role, it was “hard to see that NATO expansion was the main thing that freaked Russia out,” in part because Russia at the time had recognized that NATO’s capacities had atrophied and shifted its focus elsewhere. Weiss puts more weight on “regime preservation” and the fear that outsiders like the United States were trying to undercut Russia’s political system and Putin’s dominance of it.
A key part of what shaped Putin’s mindset was a series of “color revolutions” in nearby nations like Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (2005). Later, the 2011 Arab uprisings reinforced Russia’s siege mentality and its belief that the United States and other Western countries were fomenting revolutions around the world — including inside of Russia when popular protests broke out ahead of Putin’s own formal reassumption of the Russian presidency in 2012.
Accidental Czar goes on to tell the story of how Russia honed its troll power skills to counterattack against the United States, targeting U.S. diplomats first and America’s democratic system later during the 2016 election with disinformation and hacking aided and abetted by a motley crew of nihilists, cynics, and true believers from the left and right in America’s politics, media, and entertainment.
Along the way, Weiss and Brown blend in some important and relevant historical tidbits on how the way Russia has been ruled for centuries shaped the country’s current power structures, including the corrupt cronyism in the Russian political economy that shores up Putin’s grip on power today.
Adding to the source credibility, Weiss himself makes brief cameo appearances in the story, sharing fascinating anecdotes of his own personal encounters with Putin — including a private meeting he had with President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor in New Zealand in 1999. Staffing Clinton during his final farewell call with Putin, Weiss tells the story of an unhinged temper tantrum that Putin threw in reaction to Clinton raising concerns about Russia’s intimidation the neighboring country of Georgia and how “the raw emotion and lack of self-control from a head of state were things I hadn’t seen before.”
Reaching out beyond the elite bubbles of U.S. foreign policy
After I finished reading Accidental Czar, I reached out to Weiss to understand what inspired him to tell Putin’s story as a graphic novel. Weiss has had a successful career in government and think tank community, produces influential analyses on Russia and U.S. policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and he appears regularly in leading news outlets like the PBS Newshour.
I wanted to know why he did all of the work that goes into a graphic novel, and what he was hoping to accomplish with this book. Reaching new audiences was a key goal: “Most people aren’t reading think tank reports,” Weiss said. “The mechanisms that think tanks use to communicate are by design pretty insular.”
He wrote the book working with Brian Brown, an illustrator with a strong track record writing and illustrating his own books. The blend of text and images paints the picture of Putin’s story with depth and complexity that Weiss hopes will reach wider audiences — two in particular:
It was written deliberately to speak to someone who really, really knows Russia or the Russia policy realm well but could still read it and say, ‘huh, I didn’t know that,’ and I use some of the same techniques in the think tank day job. It has to be documented and have accurate quotes as they come out of Putin’s mouth. These are direct quotes. I didn’t make anything up.
It was also intended to help someone like a curious 13-years-old and help them understand who Putin is and what Russia is today. And I wanted to do it in a way that wasn’t didactic or self-serving.
Weiss found that writing a graphic novel has helped him connect with a media landscape and infrastructure in America that has changed profoundly in a number of ways over the past decade. In connecting with podcasters and bloggers while promoting his book, he learned that there’s a lot of genuine interest and curiosity about Russia and Putin away from the usual coastal elites and foreign policy networks that tend to have what he describes as “circular and insular” conversations.
How does this story end?
Accidental Czar closes with Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine a year ago after reminding the readers about how Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, also part of Ukraine in 2014. The Obama administration’s response to that earlier invasion was nothing like what we are seeing unfold now. Weiss and Brown explain that Obama chose to prioritize other foreign policy issues such as securing a nuclear deal with Iran and working to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
But in my view, it wasn’t just distractions or other higher priorities that shaped Obama’s response to Russia in his second term. It was also a calculated strategic decision informed by a particular mindset that often goes by “restraint,” a foreign policy fad that emerges episodically and is often used as a thinly veiled euphemism for good old-fashioned isolationism.
Recall Obama’s sarcastic response to his 2012 presidential opponent Mitt Romney’s calling Russia the number one geopolitical foe of the United States. The Obama team and its supporters peddled the idea that Putin enjoyed “escalation dominance” in not just Ukraine and but also Syria. Even two years after Putin had annexed Crimea, Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg in an interview that “The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-NATO country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
The Biden administration’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has been like night and day compared to the past two U.S. administrations, but it remains unclear nearly a year into the war how it will conclude. Some have noted that Putin seems increasingly isolated globally, but few think that his grip on power is any weaker today.
Weiss and Brown appropriately close their book with a final chapter entitled “A Deeply Unsatisfying Ending,” given that the story of Putin and his latest reckless venture in Ukraine isn’t over. More worryingly, no one really knows what Putin’s limits and red lines truly are – perhaps not even the man himself.
When I asked Weiss what he thinks will come next, he cautions,
I don’t think we should for a minute doubt that Putin is all-in…and I see no indication that the goals Putin expressed at the start of the war have changed at all…the scale of investment he’s willing to make is so enormous that it should make us all really worry that he will not relent. This war could go on for a really long time.
Weiss warns that Putin is prepared to do some “dangerous and scary things” if he feels cornered, including issuing more nuclear threats. At the same time, Weiss is not so optimistic about a negotiated settlement through diplomacy in the short term given the present stances of Russia and Ukraine. He also sees it likely that Putin will look for ways to counter America directly because of its support for Ukraine, including once more trying to use our own polarization and divisions against ourselves.
In U.S. national security and foreign policy, there are rarely easy answers and simple solutions. Anyone offering them should be looked upon skeptically. But the pathway to tackling some of the toughest and complicated geopolitical challenges dealing with Russia’s war against Ukraine starts with delving more deeply into the complex forces and complicated people that set events into motion.
That’s what precisely Accidental Czar does — it’s a book worth reading to understand what makes Putin tick and how we might better shape our actions in order to make the world more secure.
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