Who Putin Is NotRoundup
tags: Cold War, Russia, Putin
Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at Princeton and NYU, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.) This post is different. The conversation was based on Cohen’s article below, completed the day of the broadcast.
“Putin is an evil man, and he is intent on evil deeds.”
—Senator John McCain
“[Putin] was a KGB agent. By definition, he doesn’t have a soul.”
“If this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 1930s.”
—2016 Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton
The specter of an evil-doing Vladimir Putin has loomed over and undermined US thinking about Russia for at least a decade. Henry Kissinger deserves credit for having warned, perhaps alone among prominent American political figures, against this badly distorted image of Russia’s leader since 2000: “The demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for not having one.”
But Kissinger was also wrong. Washington has made many policies strongly influenced by the demonizing of Putin—a personal vilification far exceeding any ever applied to Soviet Russia’s latter-day Communist leaders. Those policies spread from growing complaints in the early 2000s to US-Russian proxy wars in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, and eventually even at home, in Russiagate allegations. Indeed, policy-makers adopted an earlier formulation by the late Senator John McCain as an integral part of a new and more dangerous Cold War: “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.”
Mainstream media outlets have played a major prosecutorial role in the demonization. Far from atypically, The Washington Post’s editorial-page 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, xenophobia, homophobia and primitive anti-Americanism.” Esteemed publications and writers now routinely degrade themselves by competing to denigrate “the flabbily muscled form” of the “small gray ghoul named Vladimir Putin.” There are hundreds of such examples, if not more, over many years. Vilifying Russia’s leader has become a canon in the orthodox US narrative of the new Cold War.
As with all institutions, the demonization of Putin has its own history. When he first appeared on the world scene as Boris Yeltsin’s anointed successor, in 1999–2000, Putin was welcomed by leading representatives of the US political-media establishment. The New York Times’ chief Moscow correspondent and other verifiers reported that Russia’s new leader had an “emotional commitment to building a strong democracy.” Two years later, President George W. Bush lauded his summit with Putin and “the beginning of a very constructive relationship.” ...