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). This installment focuses on Putin’s policies at home and abroad since he became Russia’s leader in 2000. Cohen argues that a factual and balanced evaluation is of vital importance because the demonization of Putin personally, which indicts him for most everything from ripping apart the world order to murdering his personal opponents, is the central element in the orthodox American political-media narrative of the new Cold War that is leading increasingly to the possibility of actual war between the United States and Russia.
Cohen itemizes what might otherwise be considered Putin’s achievements at home and aboard—pluses—but which are omitted from the demonizing narrative. At home, they include stabilizing a Russia laden with weapons of mass destruction and on the verge of disintegration in 2000 and improving in many tangible ways the well-being of the great majority of the Russian people. (For example, per capita income, social benefits, longevity, and birth rates are up; infant deaths and suicides are down.) If Russia’s democratization has meanwhile been diminished, Cohen reminds listeners that democratization began in Soviet Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev and its reversal began under the first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, though Putin may be criticized for continuing the latter process.
Putin’s pluses abroad, especially those abetting US policy, also are not credited. They include important Russian assistance to Washington’s war against the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11, which saved American lives; Putin’s vital role in bringing about the destruction of Syrian President Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013; his instrumental role in achieving the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear weapons capability; and most recently Russia’s contributions to major military defeats of the Islamic State in Syria in 2015–16. Cohen adds a special issue that has plagued American-Russian relations for decades, if not centuries: Russian anti-Semitism. Many Russian Jews and Israelis say today, “Putin is the best friend Jews and Israel have ever had in the Kremlin.”
Finally, Cohen turns to the major demonizing accusation: Putin has pursued “aggressive policies” abroad for 16 years or at least since the US-Russian proxy war in Georgia in 2008. Reviewing the history of US-Russian relations since 2000, Cohen concludes that Putin has been less an “aggressive” foreign policy leader than a reactive leader, as is often complained in Moscow. Looking at the ongoing major US-NATO military buildup (on land, sea, and in the air) on or near Russia’s borders, Cohen asks: Who is “aggressing” against whom, and who is mostly reacting?