Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Unlike most installments, which cover an array of news stories, this one focuses on a single but encompassing subject: the nearly decade-long demonization of Putin by the US political-media establishment.
Reviewing this unprecedented phenomenon—no Soviet Communist leader was so vilified personally, certainly not after Stalin—Cohen argues that demonizing Putin is gravely endangering America in four fundamental ways. Having Putinized Russia, it is demonizing Russia itself and thereby spreading and intensifying the new Cold War. By treating the Russian president as a “rogue” or “outlaw” leader, it is ruling out Putin as an essential US national security partner, which any Kremlin leader should be. By promoting anti-Putin allegations for which there are few, if any, verifiable facts, leading US mainstream media outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, and others, are degrading their purported journalistic standards and integrity, while preventing any rethinking of the causal role of US policy in the new Cold War. And, as a result of the latter, demonizing Putin has inspired a disgraceful and poisonous episode of neo-McCarthyism, most of it inspired by the Clinton campaign against Donald Trump (though not only) and uncritically propagated by those same media outlets.
Cohen then identifies the main allegations regularly leveled against Putin. That he de-democratized the Russia he inherited from President Boris Yeltsin in 1999–2000, turning it into kleptocratic autocracy. That he achieved this in part by ordering the assassination of his political enemies and of journalists critical of his leadership. And that he then began to pursue “aggressive” anti-American, anti-Western foreign policies with the purpose of re-creating the Soviet Union, invading countries while threatening others, including NATO member states.
None of these allegations, which Cohen and Batchelor discuss in some detail, withstands careful historical, factual scrutiny. In the course of the discussion, Cohen provides a different historical perspective on Putin’s role since 2000 and different interpretations of his leadership. Having inherited a Russian state that had collapsed twice in the 20th century—in 1917 and again in 1991—Putin’s mission and mandate was not restoring the Soviet Union but restoring Russia as a successful and stable state, which included both its sovereignty and its national security which had substantially diminished in the 1990s. NATO expansion to Russia’s borders since the late 1990s threatened that mission, certainly as Putin and the elite around him viewed it. In this historical context, Cohen argues that Putin should not be understood as an “aggressive” foreign policy leader but as an essentially reactive one, responding to US and NATO instigations. Certainly that was true, for example, in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and in reaction to NATO’s ongoing military build-up in the Baltic region today.
Cohen ends by warning against the neo-McCarthyism abetted by Putin demonology. It is growing worse, David Corn of Mother Jones and pundits on MSNBC, to take an especially lamentable example, having recently added vague innuendos of espionage to the “pro-Putin” allegations against Trump, and Mrs. Clinton herself again alleging that her presidential opponent is “the Kremlin’s puppet” Such reckless charges, for which there is also no evidence, are casting a chill on US discourse about American-Russian relations at an exceedingly perilous time—some critics of US policy fear speaking out—and may continue to do so for years to come.