Taking Aim at Putin: Stephen Cohen Contests the Myths

I needed someone who knew Russia and Russians at great depth to help me sort through the miasma surrounding the demonization of Vladimir Putin and the frenzied relentlessness of anti-Russia hysteria. It really is truly mindboggling to weave one’s way through an information landscape brimming with lies, false accusations and the vile barrage of hatred heaped on Russian people –their musicians, athletes, politicians, intellectuals, writers and artists. What could be more racist than barring Russian tennis players from playing at Wimbledon? If you are Russian, you must be a tainted and eternally tarnished partial human being. Using vulgar language, one might ask, “What in hell’s name is going on?”

Well, I am hardly going to sort these matters out fully, but I have chosen the late Stephen F. Cohen’s book, War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate (2022) as a companion to get a handle on the demonization of Putin (one of several core themes). We appear to be stumbling around in the darkness; maybe Cohen can beam some light into  this darkness shrouding our understanding of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Cohen is well-qualified to be our guide. He was a professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University (1998-2011) and Princeton University (1968-1998), where he directed the Russian Studies program. He was good friends with Gorbachev, and there is an affectionate photo in the book having dinner at one of Gorbachev’s favourite restaurant in Moscow.

I first heard him on The John Batchelor show, commenting lucidly on Russian issues and concerns. Before that he had spent a lively career as a public intellectual on the CBS evening news with Dan Rather. In the 1970s and 1980s he faced a solid wall of conservative critics with verve and calmness. But in the 1990s and into the 21st century he was a lone voice in the  midst of mostly hysterical and shrill commentators. He had less attention from the public – and faced off with endless Russiagate fanatics running around accusing Putin of destroying the 2016 American election.

In his last years Cohen (now wearing the “Putin apologist” label) was a beleaguered man: he felt deeply the sorrow and suffering of the Russian people in the  post-Communist years. He believed, also deeply, that America, by rejecting the development of co-operative relations in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, set the world on a treacherous pathway to nuclear confrontation. War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate consists largely of scripts from radio talks and articles from The Nation. One gains critical insights a touch haphazardly, but insights there are. Here are a few. I trust readers will bear with me as I work rather closely with Cohen’s text and his words.

The Putin Specter-Who he is not

From reading news reports, one might imagine that Vladimir Putin is akin to the giant gorilla, King Kong, who emerges from the  dark jungle to torment America. Since 2000, Cohen tells us that Putin’s image has been “badly distorted” (p. 1). That old fox Henry Kissinger warned that: “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for not having one.” This vilification process matters in policy matters: various accusations against Putin, like the late Senator John McCain’s allegation that: “Putin [is] an unreconstructed Russian imperialist and K.G. B. apparatchik …. His world is a brutish, cynical place …. We must prevent the darkness of Mr. Putin’s world from befalling more of humanity” provides ideological underpinning for US aggression.

This prosecutorial consciousness appears on the Washington Post’s editorial page: one editor wrote: “Putin likes to make the bodies bounce …. The rule-by-fear is Soviet, but this time there is no ideology –only a noxious mixture of personal aggrandizement, xenophobic, homophobia and primitive anti-Americanism.” Reminding us that there are hundreds of degrading comments such as this, Cohen states that: “Vilifying Russia’s leader has become a canon in the orthodox US narrative of the New Cold War.”

Demonizing Putin has its own history. At first, as he first appeared on the world scene as Yeltsin’s successor, he was “welcomed by leading representatives of the US political-media establishment. But the Putin-friendly narrative (George W. Bush had lauded his summit meeting with Putin as “very constructive”) succumbed to “unrelenting Putin-bashing” (p. 2). In fact, by 2006, Wall Street Journal editor captured the establishment’s “revised opinion,” declaring that it was “time to start thinking of Vladimir Putin’s Russia as an enemy of the United States.” Cohen quips – “The rest, as they say, is history” (ibid.). The monster had been identified and perceptually corralled. We know who and what he is: big trouble.

This extreme vilifying, Cohen observes, is based on many “substantially uninformed” opinions that are “based on highly selective or unverified sources, and motivated by political grievances, including those of several Yeltsin-era oligarchs and their agents in the West” (ibid.).

Examining the “minuses” that underpin the demonization of Putin

The brave Stephen sets out to at least inform us who Putin is not. This should set us on a road to more clarity and understanding of this world-historical figure. Cohen identifies seven things Putin is not.

1) Putin is not the person “who, after coming to power in 2000, ‘de-democratized’ a Russian democracy established by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, restoring Soviet “totalitarianism.” Scarcely hiding his anger, Cohen strongly argues that “Yeltsin repeatedly dealt that historic Russian experiment grievous, possibly fatal, blows” (p. 3). Yeltsin, the US plaything, used tanks in October 1993 to “destroy Russia’s freely elected parliament and with it the entire constitutional order that had made Yeltsin president.” He conducted two bloody wars against the breakaway province of Chechnya. He enabled a small group of Kremlin-connected oligarchs to “plunder Russia’s richest assets and abet the plunging of some two-thirds of its people into poverty and misery” (p. 3). He even rigged his own election in 1996. Putin did not initiate the de-democratization of Russia.

2) “Nor did Putin then make himself a Tsar or Soviet-like ‘autocrat,’ which means a despot with absolute power to turn his will into policy” (ibid.). Stalin was the last Kremlin leader with this kind of absolute power. The political scientist Cohen informs us that the Russian political-administrative system has become bureaucratically routinized, making it difficult for us to imagine how Putin might be a “cold-blooded, ruthless” autocrat—the “worst dictator on the planet.” If he was such a beast, Cohen surmises, wouldn’t there have been tens of thousand of protesters on the Moscow streets?

It bears listening to the eminent diplomat-scholar Jack Matlock: “Putin … is not the absolute dictator some have pictured him. His power seems to be based on balancing various patronage networks, some of which are still criminal (p. 4).

3) “Putin is not a Kremlin leader who ‘reveres Stalin’ and whose ‘Russia is a gangster shadow of Stalin’s Soviet Union” (p. 4). The first quotation is from Robert Kaplan. Approaching this    allegation boldly, Cohen points out that: “In today’s Russia, apart from varying political liberties, most citizens are freer to live, study, write, work, write, speak, and travel than they   have ever been” (ibid.). Although the “historical reputation” of Stalin remains controversial in Russia, Putin supported the creation of the excellent State Museum of the history of the Gulag and the highly evocative ‘Wall of Grief” to the tyrant’s millions of victims, both in central Moscow” (ibid.). The latter monument was first proposed by Khrushchev in 1961, completed by Putin in 2017.

4) “Nor did Putin create the post-Soviet Russia’s ‘kleptocratic economic system,’ with its oligarchic and other widespread corruption.” Cohen turns our attention to Kremlin’s “shock-therapy ‘privatization’ schemes of the 1990s, when the ‘swindlers and thieves’ still denounced by today’s opposition actually emerged” (p. 4). Cohen raises pertinent questions pertaining to  how much power Putin actually had to rein in Yeltsin’s oligarchs and his own. “But branding Putin a ‘kleptocrat’ also lacks context and is little more than barely informed demonizing” (ibid.).

What Cohen does want us to grasp is that when Putin came to power in 2000, some 75 percent of Russians were living in poverty. Many had even lost modest legacies from the Soviet era like life savings and medical benefits. Stephen states: “In only a few years, the ‘kleptocrat’ Putin had mobilized enough wealth to undo and reverse those human catastrophes and put billions of dollars in rainy-day funds that buffered the nation in different hard times ahead. We judge this historic achievement as we might, but it is why many Russians still  call Putin ‘Vladimir the Savior” (p. 5).

5) The most sinister allegation against Putin: “trained as a ‘KGB thug’, [he] regularly orders the killing of inconvenient journalists and personal enemies, like a ‘mafia state boss’” (ibid.) Although there is no evidence to support this egregious allegation, Cohen observes that “it is ubiquitous” (ibid.). The New York Times editorialists and columnists characterize Putin as a  ‘thug.’ These crazed accusations permeate the sour political air—US Senator Ben Sasse declared: “We should tell the American people and tell the world that we know that Vladimir Putin is a thug. He’s a former KGB agent who’s a murderer.” “Few, if any, modern-day world leaders have been slurred, or so regularly” (ibid.). When Putin is  involved, any one is free to indict him – no evidence needed, just a suspicious pattern (dreamt  up in the backrooms).

Various people focus on Putin’s KGB experience. Responding to these critics, Cohen points out that Putin’s years as KGB intelligence officer in East Germany were “clearly formative” (ibid.). These experiences made Putin a “Europeanized Russian, a fluent German speaker, and a political leader with a remarkable, demonstrated capacity for retaining and coolly analyzing a very wide range of information” (ibid.). However, Cohen counsels the reader to pay attention to the post-KGB period, where he served as deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, then considered one of the two or three most democratic leaders in Russia” (ibid.).

The western press had a vulturous field day accusing Putin of being a murderer of journalists and other “enemies.” Putin’s accusers – in the cases of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (shot to death in Moscow in 2006) and the shadowy Alexander Litvinenko, a “one-time KGB defector with ties to aggrieved Yeltsin-era oligarchs, who died of radiation poisoning in London, also in 2006” (p. 6). Guess what? No evidence points to Putin in either case. The editor of the “devoutly independent Novaya Gazeta still believes that the assassination was ordered by Chechen officials, whose human-rights abuses she was investigating. These are highly and complexly entangled issues: but a still partially corrupt economic system – a “culture of impunity that began before Putin, in the late 1990s” (ibid.) may be responsible for murderous acts.

6) Another allegation: “Putin is a fascist and white supremacist.” It appears, Cohen thinks, as an accusation “made mostly, it seems, by people wishing to deflect attention from the role being played by neo-Nazis in US-backed Ukraine” (ibid.). This defamation of character, Cohen states plainly, is “absurd.” The core belief of fascism is based on a “cult of blood” – positing the “superiority of one ethnicity over all others” (p. 7). Russia is, after all, a vast multi-ethnic state – “embracing scores of diverse groups with a broad range of skin colour—such circumstances or related acts by Putin would be inconceivable, if not political suicide” (ibid.). Further: a mass fascist movement is “scarcely feasible in a country where so many millions have died in the war against Nazi Germany, a war that affected Putin directly and clearly left a formative mark on him” (ibid.). His older brother died in the long German siege of Leningrad.

7) Our final allegation is that, as a “foreign-policy leader, Putin has been exceedingly ‘aggressive’ abroad and his behavior has been the sole cause of the new cold war” (ibid.). This is a very serious accusation – indeed, the evidence points, rather, to “US-led instigations, primarily in the process of expanding the NATO military alliance since the late 1990s from Germany to Russia’s borders today. The proxy US-Russian war in Georgia in 2008 was initiated by the US-backed president of that country, who had been encouraged to aspire to NATO membership. The 2014 crisis and subsequent proxy war in Ukraine resulted from the long-standing effort to bring that country, despite large regions’ shared civilization with Russia, into NATO. And Putin’s 2015 military intervention in Syria was done a valid premise: either it would be Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus or the terrorist Islamic State – ….(p. 8). President Barach Obama refused to join Russia in an anti-ISIS alliance.

It is important, at this ultrahazardous moment in global history and looming threat of catastrophic nuclear war, to understand a “few historical truths.” “In 2000, a young and little-experienced man became the leader of a vast state that had precipitously disintegrated, or ‘collapsed.’ Twice in the twentieth century—in 1917 and again in 1991—with disastrous consequences for its people. And in both instances it  lost its ‘sovereignty’ and thus its security in fundamental ways” (p. 9). Cohen urges us to follow Spinoza’s dictum: a balanced evaluation is in order, “not in order to demonize, not to mock, not to hate, but to understand” (p. 9).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.