Debunking the Putin Panic with Stephen F. Cohen
There is much to criticize the Russian president for, says Professor Stephen F. Cohen of Princeton and NYU, but many US political and media claims about Putin are false – and reckless
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. This is part two with Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton. In part one we talked about the uproar over the Trump-Putin summit, and Trump’s comments about the U.S. intelligence community and about cooperation with Russia. Now in part two we’re going to get to some of the main talking points that have been pervasive throughout corporate media, talking about the stated reasons for why pundits and politicians say they are opposed to Trump sitting down with Putin.
So let me start with Jon Meacham. He is a historian. And speaking to CNN, he worried that Trump, with his comments about NATO calling on the alliance to pay more, and calling into question, he worried about the possibility that Trump won’t come to the aid of Baltic states in the event that Russia invades.
JON MEACHAM: And what worries me most is the known unknown, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, of what happens next. Let’s say Putin- just look at this whole week of the last five, six days in total. What happens if Putin launches military action against, say, the Baltics? What, what is it that President Trump, what about his comments that NATO suggest thar he would follow an invocation of Article 5 and actually project American force in defense of the values that not only do we have an intellectual and moral assent to, but a contractual one, a treaty one. I think that’s the great question going forward.
AARON MATE: OK. So that’s Jon Meacham speaking to CNN. So, Professor Cohen, putting aside what he said there about our intellectual values and strong tradition, just on the issue of Trump, of Putin posing a potential threat and possibly invading the Baltics, is that a realistic possibility?
STEPHEN COHEN: So, I’m not sure what you’re asking me about. The folly of NATO expansion? The fact that every president in my memory has asked the Europeans to pay more? But can we be real? Can we be real? The only country that’s attacked that region of Europe militarily since the end of the Soviet Union was the United States of America. As I recall, we bombed Serbia, a, I say this so people understand, a traditional Christian country, under Bill Clinton, bombed Serbia for about 80 days. There is no evidence that Russia has ever bombed a European country.
You tell me, Aaron. You must be a smart guy, because you got your own television show. Why would Putin want to launch a military attack and occupy the Baltics? So he has to pay the pensions there? Which he’s having a hard time already paying in Russia, and therefore has had to raise the pension age, and thereby lost 10 percentage points of popularity in two weeks? Why in the world can we, can we simply become rational people. Why in the world would Russia want to attack and occupy Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia? The only reason I can think of is that many, many of my friends love to take their summer vacations there. And maybe some crazy person thinks that if we occupy it, vacations will be cheaper. It’s crazy. It’s beyond crazy. It’s a kind-.
AARON MATE: Professor Cohen, if you were on CNN right now I imagine that the anchor would say to you, well, okay, but one could say the same thing about Georgia in 2008. Why did Russia attack Georgia then?
STEPHEN COHEN: I’m not aware that Russia attacked Georgia. The European Commission, if you’re talking about the 2008 war, the European Commission, investigating what happened, found that Georgia, which was backed by the United States, fighting with an American-built army under the control of the, shall we say, slightly unpredictable Georgian president then, Saakashvili, that he began the war by firing on Russian enclaves. And the Kremlin, which by the way was not occupied by Putin, but by Michael McFaul and Obama’s best friend and reset partner then-president Dmitry Medvedev, did what any Kremlin leader, what any leader in any country would have had to do: it reacted. It sent troops across the border through the tunnel, and drove the Georgian forces out of what essentially were kind of Russian protectorate areas of Georgia.
So that- Russia didn’t begin that war. And it didn’t begin the one in Ukraine, either. We did that by [continents], the overthrow of the Ukrainian president in 14 after President Obama told Putin that he would not permit that to happen. And I think it happened within 36 hours. The Russians, like them or not, feel that they have been lied to and betrayed. They use this word, predatl’stvo, betrayal, about American policy toward Russia ever since 1991, when it wasn’t just President George Bush, all the documents have been published by the National Security Archive in Washington, all the leaders of the main Western powers promised the Soviet Union that under Gorbachev, if Gorbachev would allow a reunited Germany to be NATO, NATO would not, in the famous expression, move two inches to the east.
Now NATO is sitting on Russia’s borders from the Baltic to Ukraine. So Russians aren’t fools, and they’re good-hearted, but they become resentful. They’re worried about being attacked by the United States. In fact, you read and hear in the Russian media daily, we are under attack by the United States. And this is a lot more real and meaningful than this crap that is being put out that Russia somehow attacked us in 2016. I must have been sleeping. I didn’t see Pearl Harbor or 9/11 and 2016. This is reckless, dangerous, warmongering talk. It needs to stop. Russia has a better case for saying they’ve been attacked by us since 1991. We put our military alliance on the front door. Maybe it’s not an attack, but it looks like one, feels like one. Could be one.
AARON MATE: OK. And in a moment I want to speak to you more about Ukraine, because we’ve heard Crimea invoked a lot in the criticism of Putin of late. But first I want to actually to ask you about a domestic issue. This one is it’s widely held that Putin is responsible for the killing of journalists and opposition activists who oppose him. And on this front I want to play for you a clip of Joe Cirincione. He is the head of the Ploughshares Fund. And this is what he said this week in an appearance on Democracy Now!.
JOE CIRINCIONE: Both of these men are dangerous. Both of these men oppress basic human rights, basic freedoms. Both of them think the press are the enemy of the people. Putin goes further. He kills journalists. He has them assassinated on the streets of Moscow.
Donald Trump does not go that far yet. But I think what Putin is doing is using the president of the United States to project his rule, to increase his power, to carry out his agenda in Syria, with Europe, et cetera, and that Trump is acquiescing to that for reasons that are not yet clear.
AARON MATE: That’s Joe Cirincione.
STEPHEN COHEN: I know him well. It’s worse than that. It’s worse than that.
AARON MATE: Well Yes. There’s two issues here, Professor Cohen. One is the state of the crackdown on press freedoms in Russia, which I’m sure you would say is very much alive, and is a strong part of the Russian system. But let’s first address this widely-held view that Putin is responsible for killing journalists who are critical of him.
STEPHEN COHEN: I know I’m supposed to follow your lead, but I think you’re skipping over a major point. How is it that Joe, who was once one of our most eminent and influential, eloquent opponents of nuclear arms race, who was prepared to have the president of the United States negotiate with every Soviet communist leader, including those who had a lot of blood on their hands, now decide that Putin kills everybody and he’s not a worthy partner? What happened to Joe?
I’ll tell you what happened to him. Trump. Trump has driven once-sensible people completely crazy. Moreover, Joe knows absolutely nothing about internal Russian politics, and he ought to follow my rule. When I don’t know something about something, I say I don’t know. But what he just said is ludicrous. And the sad part is-.
AARON MATE: But it’s widely held. If it’s ludicrous-. But widely held, yeah.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, the point is that once distinguished and important spokespeople for rightful causes, like ending a nuclear arms race, have been degraded, or degraded themselves by saying things like he said to the point that they’re of utility today only to the proponents of a new nuclear arms race. And he’s not alone. Somebody called it Trump derangement syndrome. I’m not a psychiatrist, but it’s a widespread mania across our land. And when good people succumb to it, we are all endangered.
AARON MATE: But many people would be surprised to hear that, because again, the stories that we get, and there are human rights reports, and it’s just sort of taken as a given fact that Putin is responsible for killing journalists. So if that’s ludicrous, if you can explain why you think that is.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I got this big problem which seems to afflict very few people in public life anymore. I live by facts. I’m like my doctor, who told me not long ago I had to have minor surgery for a problem I didn’t even know I had. And I said, I’m not going to do it. Show me the facts. And he did. I had the minor surgery. Journalists no longer seem to care about facts. They repeat tabloid rumors. Putin kills everybody.
All I can tell you is this. I have never seen any evidence whatsoever, and I’ve been- I knew some of the people who were killed. Anna Politkovskaya, the famous journalist for Novaya Gazeta was the first, I think, who was- Putin was accused of killing. I knew her well. She was right here, in this apartment. Look behind me, right here. She was here with my wife, Katrina vanden Huevel. I wouldn’t say we were close friends, but we were associates in Moscow, and we were social friends. And I mourn her assassination today. But I will tell you this, that neither her editors at that newspaper, nor her family, her surviving sons, think Putin had anything to do with the killing. No evidence has ever been presented. Only media kangaroo courts that Putin was involved in these high-profile assassinations, two of the most famous being this guy Litvinenko by polonium in London, about the time Anna was killed, and more recently Boris Netsov, whom, it’s always said, was walking within view of the Kremlin when he was shot. Well, you could see the Kremlin from miles away. I don’t know what within the view- unless they think Putin was, you know, watching it through binoculars. There is no evidence that Putin ever ordered the killing of anybody outside his capacity as commander in chief. No evidence.
Now, did he? But we live, Aaron, and I hope the folks who watch us remember this. Every professional person, every decent person lives or malpractices based on verified facts. You go down the wrong way on a one-way street, you might get killed. You take some medication that’s not prescribed for you, you might die. You pursue foreign policies based on fiction, you’re likely to get in war. And all these journalists, from the New York Times to the Washington Post, from MSNBC to CNN who churn out daily these allegations that Putin kills people are disgracing themselves. I will give you one fact. Wait. One fact, and you could look it up, as Casey Stengel used to say. He was a baseball manager, in case you don’t know.
There’s an organization called the Committee to Protect American Journalists. It’s kind of iconic. It does good things, it says unwise things. Go on its website and look at the number of Russian journalists killed since 1991, since the end of the Soviet Union, under two leaders. Boris Yeltsin, whom we dearly loved and still mourn, and Putin, whom we hate. Last time I looked, the numbers may have changed, more were killed under Yeltsin than under Putin. Did Putin kill those in the 1990s?
So you should ask me, why did they die, then? And I can tell you the main reason. Corrupt business. Mafia-like business in Russia. Just like happened in the United States during our primitive accumulation days. Profit seekers killed rivals. Killed them dead in the streets. Killed them as demonstrations, as demonstrative acts. The only thing you could say about Putin is that he might have created an atmosphere that abets that sort of thing. To which I would say, maybe, but originally it was created with the oligarchical class under Boris Yeltsin, who remains for us the most beloved Russian leader in history. So that’s the long and the short of it. Go look at the listing on the Committee to Protect Journalists.
AARON MATE: OK. So, following up on that, to what extent- and this gets a bit into history, which you’ve covered extensively in your writings. To what extent are we here in the West responsible for the creation of that Russian oligarchal class that you mentioned? But also, what is Putin’s relationship to it now, today? Does he abet it? Is he entrenched in it? We hear, often, talk of Putin possibly being the richest person in the world as a result of his entanglement with the very corruption of Russia you’re speaking about. So both our role in creating that problem in Russia, but then also Putin’s role now in terms of his relationship to it.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’m going to give you a quick, truncated, scholarly, historical perspective on this. But this is what people should begin with when they think about Vladimir Putin and his 18 years in power. Putin came to power almost accidentally in 2000. He inherited a country whose state had collapsed twice in the 20th century. You’ve got to think about that. How many states have collapsed that you know of once? But the Russian state, Russian statehood, had collapsed once in 1917 during the revolution, and again in 1991 when the Soviet Union ended. The country was in ruination; 75 percent of the people were in poverty.
Putin said- and this obsesses him. If you want to know what obsesses Putin, it’s the word ‘sovereignty.’ Russia lost its sovereignty- political, foreign policy, security, financial- in the 1990s. Putin saw his mission, as I read him, and I try to read him as a biographer. He says a lot, to regain Russia’s sovereignty, which meant to make the country whole again at home, to rescue its people, and to protect its defenses. That’s been his mission. Has it been more than that? Maybe. But everything he’s done, as I see it, has followed that concept of his role in history. And he’s done pretty well.
Now, I can give you all Putin’s minuses very easily. I would not care for him to be my president. But let me tell you one other thing that’s important. You evaluate nations within their own history, not within ours. If you asked me if Putin is a democrat, and I will answer you two ways. He thinks he has. And compared to what? Compared to the leader of Egypt? Yeah, he is a democrat. Compared to the rulers of our pals in the Gulf states, he is a democrat. Compared to Bill Clinton? No, he’s not a Democrat. I mean, Russia-. Countries are on their own historical clock. And you have to judge Putin in terms of his predecessors. So people think Putin is a horrible leader. Did you prefer Brezhnev? Did you prefer Stalin? Did you prefer Andropov? Compared to what? Please tell me, compared to what.
And by the way, that’s how that’s how Russians-. You want to know why he’s so popular in Russia? Because Russians judge him in the context of their own what they call zhivaya istoriya, living history; what we call autobiography. In terms of their own lives, he looks pretty darn good. They complain out him. We sit in the kitchen and they bitch about Putin all the time. But they don’t want him to go away.
AARON MATE: All right. Well, on that front, we’re going to wrap this up there. Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at New York University and Princeton. His books include “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Soviet Russia,” and “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.” Professor Cohen, thank you.
STEPHEN COHEN: You forgot one book.
AARON MATE: I did not say I was reading your, your complete bibliography.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s called-. It’s called “Confessions of a Holy Fool.”
AARON MATE: Is that true? Or are you making a joke.
STEPHEN COHEN: Somewhere in between. [Thank you, Aaron.]
AARON MATE: Professor Cohen, thank you. And thank you for joining us on The Real News.