So many Republican and Democrats in the political establishment love to demonize Russian President Vladimir Putin for no other reason than it’s an easy narrative for them. Many have either grown up in a world of American unipolar power or during the Cold War where Russia was made an enemy without any amount of critical thought. The impact of Trump’s election as President and the decision of Oliver Stone to conduct a four hour long interview/documentary event on Showtime with Putin is to quote The Guardian:
An oddity of modern US politics is that concern about sympathy towards Russia – a right-wing obsession in the loyalty trials conducted by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s – has now become a feature of the liberal left. There are understandable reasons for this shift: Russia has become the greatest vulnerability of liberal hate-figure President Trump and the Putin regime has a wretched record on human rights. It does seem bizarre, though, that Stone and Trump – men whose politics overlap only in a liking for conspiracy theories – should simultaneously be under suspicion for snuggling up to Russia.
It’s important that this week’s Stone-Putin Interviews on Showtime and the kickoff of the FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia (a propaganda event for Putin that is a dry run for next summer’s World Cup which Russia was awarded under suspicious circumstances) be kept in the proper perspective. Putin and Russia are a right-wing state where oligarchs run wild. But Putin is very popular among the Russian people though his gagging of dissent be it from political opposition or ethnic minorities is certainly open to conversation and questioning. Stone is a skeptic of US power but also someone who doesn’t shy away from calling it like he sees it. He’s nobodies lapdog.
Equally important to realizing how poor Putin is on human rights is a recognition that as Stone likes to consistently demonstrate, American power has limits and that the US’ behavior since the end of the Cold War has been far from humble – it’s been arrogant and at times provocative particularly toward the vanquished enemy Russia.
One peculiar feature of these interviews through the first two episodes (two more episodes are airing the next two nights) is the constant use of the term “partner” by Putin to describe the US. But the two episodes that have aired thus far demonstrate why the US’ policies from Putin’s perspective (and any objective perspective that seeks to prevent a unipolar world with a dominant American hegemony) have led to acrimony between the two countries.
- Encirclement – Putin has a point here. The US has expanded NATO right to Russia’s borders, something many foreign policy experts felt in the 1990’s was unwise. Putin views NATO members not as American “allies” but more like “vassal states.” This certainly can be debated but the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Keep in mind in the 1900’s Russia was invaded twice from the west by Germany and for better or worse, the policy of having buffer states to deter potential German or Western aggression has been a feature of Russian foreign policy dating back to Stalin. It is largely disingenuous for Americans who have never been subject to a massive land invasion to pass judgement on this fear. Putin is still fuming about George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty in 2002 seeing it a provocative action towards Russia and that seems to guide much of Putin’s grievances with Bush and President Obama.
- Alleged US support during the George W. Bush administration for Islamic separatism (Putin calls it terrorism) in Chechnya and Dagestan – While I believe Putin’s charge here I also tend to think the CIA and Bush Administration were looking for potential allies in Central Asia, the Caucasus region and the Muslim world. During the Bush/Cheney years the US pursued what might be viewed as contemporary version of David Ben-Gurion’s “alliance of the periphery” which targeted non-Arab Muslim states for alliance with Israel (At one time it is often forgotten that Israel got much of its oil from Iran, when the Shah was in power). Bush appeared in the post 9/11 world to be cozying up with non-Arab, non- Persian Muslims in much the same fashion. This policy also included the swift US diplomatic recognition of Kosovo under Bush, when the Muslim-majority state in the Balkans declared independence from Serbia. Almost a decade later, Kosovo still hasn’t been admitted to the UN or gained universal diplomatic recognition thanks in large measure to Russia. But Bush’s actions coupled with the admission to NATO of Albania has made the US friends among Eastern European and Russian-based Muslims who in turn are far less potentially radicalized than other Muslims around the globe.
- Georgia – Putin blames Bush and the US for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s miscalculation and aggressive actions toward Russia in the August 2008 war (which in classic American media fashion was largely ignored because political conventions were going on) . But It’s not entirely clear that Bush pushed Saakashvili into his posture nor is it clear whether Georgia or Russia were the aggressor in the conflict. The potential for war between the two nations had existed for years and Russia’s insistence on independence for Russian ethnic enclaves recognized as part of Georgia internationally is the ultimate root cause.
- Snowden – Putin’s views on Snowden are unconvincing and thus far his least endearing moments of the interviews besides his off-color jokes. He seems to misrepresent Snowden’s passage and is duplicitous as to whether or not Snowden’s actions were moral or not. But this is the greatest evidence of Putin’s “realpolitk.” He’s fighting a battle against the Americans and Snowden represents a pawn in that game, much like Putin’s non-ideological alliances with Hugo Chavez, Iran and North Korea represent.
- Ukraine – Putin laments the support he feels was given by President Obama of ultra-nationalists in Ukraine (who happen to be right-wingers even more conservative than Putin FWIW). But what Putin fails to recognize is that Obama’s support only came after a clear popular will of Ukrainians outside largely Russian speaking areas like Crimea and Donetsk was demonstrated and Russian aggression had taken place in these areas.
- Muslims – Putin seems to act as if Russia’s large Muslim minority is by-and-large happy under his rule and sees itself as “Russian.” He talks openly about the lack of immigration to his country in a positive light and seems to blame the US starting with George W. Bush for encouraging Muslim separatism to destabilize Russia (as I noted above the Bush Administration was more concerned about cultivating Muslim allies outside the Middle East and bringing them into a pro-American orbit than anything – I believe this had more to do with that overriding consideration though destabilizing Russia would have been a side benefit no doubt from Bush and Cheney’s perspective).
Putin’s realpolitk is on display. A unifying of anti-American states under Russian leadership has taken place. While this represents a rogue and scary development, it also is natural to have balances of power in this world. American capitalists claim they support competitive practices but yet on the global stage want to create a unipolar hegemony. As Putin is showing in his sit-downs with Stone he’s a conflicting character, one who has tolerated racism and homophobia at home as well as human rights violations. But he also has an objective view of history and a unique understanding of the global power game.
It’s important those Americans so quick to judge Putin or make assumptions about geopolitics watch this series whether or not you like American unipolar hegemony or not, it’s worth a watch. It’s also worth noting Stone, while an established skeptic of American power and imperialism does ask some very tough questions that Putin shies away from.