Book Review: The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945 - 2020

The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia and Political Warfare 1945 - 2020 by Tim Weiner

The Folly and the Glory is a compelling overview of political warfare between America and Russia from the Cold War up to 2020. “Political warfare” is shorthand for espionage, disinformation, cyberwar and sabotage. It's a very instructive read if you want to better understand Putin’s motivations in invading Ukraine, and his perception of the importance of Ukraine to Russia.

At 268 pages of text (along with 40 some pages of Notes) the book is a bit episodic, and some episodes are covered in more depth (the rise of Solidarity) than others (the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis). It’s a fast paced read from a Pulitzer Prize winning author and New York Times national security and intelligence reporter.

The book is basically written in two parts - USA versus USSR in chapters 1 through 6, and USA and the Russian Federation in chapters 7 through 10. The first part is more of a history of intelligence during the Cold War. The second part reads more as an exposition on how American actions after the Cold War have been perceived in Russia, the rise of the ex-KGB agent Putin to the leadership of Russia, and Russia’s efforts to go on the offensive with their disinformation campaigns culminating in their meddling in 2016 in the US presidential election.

One of the most important themes in the book is the difference in approach to espionage on both sides. The Americans have a much shorter history at it than the Russians and are less practiced at it. The American side also thought it “won” the Cold War, which caused our intelligence agencies to start shifting focus elsewhere. America became consumed with international crises from Bosnia through 9/11, through the Arab Spring, and the Libyan uprising, and on and on. 

The Russians, however, saw NATO’s advancement after the Cold War as a threat aimed directly at them, and never let down their guard. It’s consistent with the country’s long view, and of its often fraught relations with the rest of Europe and the larger world. A quote from Weiner, fairly early on in the book, makes the point: "Americans tend to see war and peace as night and day. Russians see a never-ending battle." 

It’s not surprising then that Putin views the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Nor that he views Ukraine as a key to returning “greater Russia” to the first rank of nations. Another quote in the book helps to put that into context. 

This time the quote is from William B. Taylor Jr., American ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009: “If Ukraine succeeds in breaking free of Russian influence, it is possible for Europe to be whole, free, democratic, and at peace. In contrast, if Russia dominates Ukraine, Russia will again become an empire, oppressing its people, and threatening its neighbors and the rest of the world.”

For a two year old book this is a very timely read. I highly recommend it to anyone hoping to better understand what’s happening in Ukraine. Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

NOTE: If you'd like to see the author's direct insights into American Intelligence and the current situation in Ukraine, check out this interview with him by CNN. 

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Title: The Folly and the Glory: America, Russia, and Political Warfare 1945 - 2020
Author: Tim Weiner
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co. (Macmillian)
Publish Date: September 22, 2020
ISBN-13: 9781627790857
Publisher’s List Price: $29.99 (Hardcover as of 03/2022)