Russian studies expert Karen Dawisha believes President Vladimir Putin using Ukraine

Her latest book examines controversy surrounding Putin’s reign

Karen Dawisha

Karen Dawisha

written by Victoria Slater, College of Arts and Science intern

Karen Dawisha, a Miami University political science professor, claims Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Ukraine as a way to rally Russian citizens around him, drawing their attention away from his controversial past.

Dawisha relates the current events in Ukraine to arguments she makes in her book, Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 30, 2014).

The media has spotlighted Russia and its continual tensions within Ukraine as of late. On Feb.15, a cease-fire was signed between the two countries, but pro-Russian separatists continue to attack various areas of the region. Dawisha said she knew the cease-fire was fragile, and Russia would face little consequences if it breached the provisions. 

“Putin doesn’t want Russia to mobilize against him,” she said. “Conducting a war in a small territory like Ukraine is a good tactic that leaders use to maintain power.” 

In her opinion, the United States should lend support to Ukraine in a peaceful sense, as any kind of military action would instigate potential war with Russia.

“I would like to see Ukraine succeed,” she said. “The United States should lend economic aid to increase cultural and educational exchanges instead of mobilizing for a war that we can’t win.”

Dawisha’s book delves into the controversy surrounding Putin and his links to organized crime. It includes pages of evidentiary footnotes, and, according to Dawisha, "reads like a legal brief."

As of the time of writing this article, the book is the No. 1 best-seller on Amazon in the category of Russian & Former Soviet Union Politics. According to a review published in the Wall Street Journal by journalist Anna Arutunyan, Dawisha's work "delivers precisely the kind of meticulously researched evidence one would hope for in a work preceded by such controversy [and] is an important and valuable work, because it provides the most exhaustive investigation into the patterns of Russian government corruption to date."

Years of research turns into best-seller

When Dawisha, also director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, compiled five years of research into the 500-page book, she had no idea it would become a best-seller and land her a spot on the TV program “Frontline.”

"Reactions to the book have been very good," Dawisha said. "There has been a lot of press about it. I have been speaking at universities on my book tour. We have already ordered a second reprint. It has been amazing."

Dawisha appeared on PBS's “Frontline” in a segment called "Putin's Way" that aired Jan. 13. She discussed the accusations surrounding Putin's presidency, especially how he secured the position.

“‘Frontline’ is a very special show," she said. "The program was loaded — a complete hour on the subject of my book. It was pretty great, and I got a lot of good feedback."
Such feedback is warmly welcomed, given that Dawisha's longtime publisher, Cambridge University Press, originally rejected her book citing strict libel laws in the United Kingdom. Because the publisher refused to print the book in the U.K., Dawisha turned to the American company Simon & Schuster.

"The book has been very popular, but we are yet to publish outside the United States," Dawisha said. "That may change."

The controversy surrounding Dawisha's investigations is evident; she will probably not return to Russia for her usual yearly trip, because she will likely be denied a visa. However, she said she has received many more positive reactions than negative.

"I expected a lot more criticism when I wrote the book," she said. "I think everyone is beginning to see the kind of person Putin is. What he did in Ukraine crossed a line, and that really mobilized the media to portray him for what he really is."

Although Dawisha has yet to receive any response from the Russian government in response to her claims, she said her book is circulating throughout Russian social media and therefore is having some impact — however small — in the country.

"I never meant for this book to bring down Mr. Putin; its purpose is to be educational," she said. "It may support certain points of view and provide evidence, but I would really just like it to educate readers about Russia, about Putin's presidency and politics.”