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  • Putin’s Ideology of Multipolarism
  • Kimberly Marten (bio)

In his magisterial new analysis of Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin, Russia and the New World Disorder, Chatham House fellow Bobo Lo argues that the Kremlin’s understanding of the current international environment is almost Marxist-Leninist in its teleological underpinnings. While in Soviet times Moscow’s ideology foresaw the inevitable triumph of socialism led by the USSR, Lo describes Russia’s current focus on the inevitable decline of the West and the triumph of a non-Western (and even anti-Western) multipolar order in which Russia will play a key role. Lo believes that this ideologically tinged version of geopolitics leaves Putin poorly equipped to deal with complex global realities. Although Putin has scored tactical victories against U.S. president Barack Obama and other Western “opponents” through his quick and flexible actions in Ukraine and Syria, Lo argues that Putin’s strategic vision is in contrast inflexible, flawed, and ultimately doomed to send Russia even further into relative decline because of its transparently instrumentalist cast. Most importantly, Lo observes that the Kremlin’s neo-imperial image of Russia’s proper role in the post-Soviet space will undermine its relationships in Eurasia.

Russia and the New World Disorder is comprehensive in scope, dealing with everything from foreign policy decision-making to a review of the most pressing issues in the current international environment. It includes sections on Russia’s views of international governance and what Lo sees as Russia’s “imperial spirit” (p. 101), as well as a broad overview of Russia’s recent relationships with both the East and the West. Lo’s 2008 book, Axis of Convenience: Moscow, Beijing, and the New Geopolitics, focused on Russia’s developing relationship with China, and many of his earlier observations on Russia’s eastward turn are reprised and updated in this new volume. The new book’s significant sections on Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific region are particularly welcome in an academic environment that often privileges analysis of Russia’s relations with the West. Lo’s discussion of how Russia defines “Asianness” is useful (pp. 133–34), as is his observation that Russia’s Asia policy seems unduly centered on China. [End Page 224]

Lo also pays significant attention to the potential future trajectories of Russian foreign policy. Chapter eight lays out four scenarios for Russia’s foreign policy development by the year 2030, based on differing predictions about the direction of Russia’s domestic political evolution. One weakness of this section is that the scenarios are presented without any sense of the political incentives and realities that would drive them—and without attention to the myth-making philosophy of Putinism that Lo explores so well in the earlier sections of the book. He portrays a turn to “second-wave liberalism” (p. 239) as equally likely to develop as “hard authoritarianism” (p. 234) without much explanation of the changes needed to achieve a more liberal outcome from where Russia is today. In chapter two, “The Domestic Context of Foreign Policy,” Lo deftly shows how the Kremlin’s foreign policy has matched and reinforced the historical myths and resulting perceived interests held by much of the Russian elite and mass public. As Lo writes, “the stars are not aligned in favor of change” (p. 37), so it is not clear what would drive such a liberal shift.

In a departure from standard academic practice, Lo also includes a chapter (chapter seven, “A New Foreign Policy for a New Russia”) that prescribes not only what the West should do toward Russia but also what Russia should do to reform its own foreign policy. While it is unlikely that Putin will pay attention, Lo’s logic is convincing.

The very comprehensiveness of the book, by definition, forces a certain superficiality of analysis. For example, Lo argues that the ideas of the late Yevgenii Primakov, who served as director of foreign intelligence, foreign minister, and eventually prime minister under former president Boris Yeltsin, have “underpinned much of Putin’s pursuit of a multipolar order” and have “actually become more influential in recent years” (p. 6). In a related footnote (fn. 9, p. 248), Lo...