...Problems arise, though, when Ms. Dawisha turns to analyzing the motivations of Mr. Putin and his cabal. In her telling, they always intended to establish a "regime that would control privatization, restrict democracy and return Russia to Great Power (if not superpower) status." She argues that while "we may never know precisely when the current regime decided to do what they have clearly done," the "complex and clever system" came about by "intelligent design." Mr. Putin and his KGB friends, she writes, "sought from the beginning to establish an authoritarian regime in Russia, not perhaps for its own sake but because controlling the political and economic development of the country was for them a greater ambition than building any democracy."
Ms. Dawisha is ascribing complicated motivations to a set of actions that most likely came about through simple greed. It's not that Mr. Putin didn't set out to create an authoritarian state: He did. It's that the link between authoritarian plans and illegal business dealings is assumed by the author, but never fully explored. If, for example, while he was an official in St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin aided an organized crime group in seizing control of the city port—one of the allegations cited by Ms. Dawisha—how does that directly explain his rise to power? It may explain how he benefited from a lawless system, but it doesn't explain how he created it.
What we know from the author's meticulous reporting—that KGB agents and party officials scrambled to get a hold of party funds that they reinvested in companies and banks—suggests they were acting to save their behinds, not rebuild an empire. In fact, the whole trajectory that Ms. Dawisha lays out paints a picture of a leadership bent on personal interest at the expense of the state. It's hard to imagine Mr. Putin "deciding" at any point in the 1990s to rebuild a country when he is described as exclusively concerned with lining his own pockets.
While reading this or any book about Russia, it would be wise not to presume intimate knowledge of the motivations of the man in the Kremlin and let the reporting speak for itself.
Ms. Arutunyan is a Moscow-based journalist and the author of "The Putin Mystique: Inside Russia's Power Cult."