Pavel K Baev
Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
The contemporary political regime in Russia centered on President Vladimir Putin needs careful examination, if only because Russia is one of the wealthiest and most highly educated societies to revert from a democratic transition to aggressive authoritarianism. Taylor makes a valuable contribution here. While warning that his research is not strictly academic (p. 8), he develops an original approach to explaining the workings of this regime, which is both remarkably stable and clearly underperforming in effectiveness of governance. Neither rational and pragmatic pursuit of power nor predatory self-enrichment can provide a sufficient explanatory clue to the three 'most consequential foreign policy decisions' of this regime in the mid-2010s: the annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Syria, and the interference in the 2016 US presidential elections (p. 200). Taylor argues that Putin's team, consisting of his loyal lieutenants with backgrounds similar to his, shares a combination of motives of three distinct types: ideas, habits, and emotions, which blend together in a relatively coherent 'code' (p. 42). The ideas in this code are not strong enough to qualify as an ideology, but their merger with other stimuli for action makes them more immediately applicable in practical decision-making. The choices driven by this conservative and state-centric code propelled Russia to engage in an asymmetric and risky confrontation with the West, in which it is at serious disadvantage in every material element of power but is still able to withstand sanctions primarily because of the deepening disarray among its adversaries. Taylor refuses to conclude that Russia is doomed to decline for decades under the steerage of the code, which might survive Putin's demise, but exiting this clan politics is very hard.