Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen thinks that the proximity—in time and politics—of the Russian presidential election on March 18 and the allegation that Putin tried to kill a former Russian intelligence officer in the UK shortly before warrant a dual commentary. He makes a number of points about both.
Regarding the presidential election:
§ US political and media elites are characterizing Putin’s enormous electoral victory (he received about 77 percent of the votes, with final results yet to come) as a “fraud” and “sham” that “does not matter.” Both assertions are untrue. They are made mostly by professed authorities whose opinions about Russia are based not on actual knowledge but on their political and ideological biases. Russia’s presidential and parliamentary elections are, of course, far from fully free and fair. The Kremlin has overwhelming “administrative resources,” including funds, control of the main national television networks and many newspapers, and influence over who is, and is not, on the ballot. But the March 18 election was not greatly constricted or fraudulent. Putin’s rivals, including outspoken anti-Putin ones, were permitted to debate on national television (though without Putin himself), and to conduct their campaigns throughout the country relatively freely with whatever resources they had, including in the significantly freer print media and on the nearly uncontrolled Internet (social media, etc.). That is, voters knew the candidates and what they represented. According to many on-site observers, there was also relatively little fraud. A frequent complaint that Putin’s campaign helped “get out the vote” by busing its voters to polling places is no doubt true, but also not uncommon in the United States.
§ In short, there is no reason to doubt the magnitude or authentic nature of Putin’s victory. The Kremlin hoped for a 70 percent turnout of eligible voters with a 70 percent vote for Putin. The turnout was somewhat less, 67 percent (as opposed to just under 58 percent in the 2016 American presidential election), while Putin’s victory margin, 77 percent, exceeded the Kremlin’s goal. As for its authenticity and reason, we have the reporting even of a Moscow correspondent of The New York Times, which almost daily competes with The Washington Post as the most unrelentingly major anti-Putin newspaper. He wrote: “Russian voters gave…Putin their resounding approval” and a “popular mandate” for his next six-year term. “There is no question that Mr. Putin is wildly popular among Russians.” He concluded: “There was no need for extensive rigging…because of Mr. Putin’s genuine popularity.”
§ So widely and deeply “resounding” was Putin’s victory that he got 70 percent of the vote in Moscow, where opposition candidates usually run relatively well, in sharp contrast to less than 50 percent in 2012. Moreover, there is ample polling and anecdotal evidence that contrary to Western impressions, Putin is exceedingly popular among the youngest voters, many of whom regard him even more favorably than do middle-age and older generations. This means that the “Putin generation,” as it is called, is likely to play an important political role even after he leaves the scene. More generally, nationalistic, anti-Western candidates gained approximately 20 percent of the vote, with “liberal,” pro-Western ones so favored by US political-media elites less than 5 percent. Assuming that few “liberals” voted for Putin but many anti-liberals did, this too speaks volumes about current and future Russian politics—and about highly selective, if not entirely deluded, US media coverage. (It is often reported correctly that Alexei Navalny, Putin’s radical opponent and anti-corruption crusader, was excluded from the ballot. But it is also true that polls showed him with about 2 percent popular support, hardly enough to have affected the outcome. And not to be forgotten, many Americans have voted over the years when candidates they actually preferred were not on the ballots.)
§ US commentary also attributes Putin’s popularity to his “aggressive, anti-Western foreign policies.” This assumes that most Russians favor policies hostile, even aggressive, toward the West, and that Putin relies on such attitudes for his power. These assumptions are also wholly untrue or at least significantly so. Until the US-Russian proxy war in Georgia in 2008 and even prior to the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Putin pursued cooperation with both Europe and the United States, during which his popularity ratings remained well above 60 percent. The annexation of Crimea has boosted his popular support ever since. The explanation is not complicated. Most Russians still credit Putin with having “saved Russia”—and their own families—from the catastrophic economic and social shock-therapy “reforms” of the Yeltsin 1990s.This remains the basis of Putin’s enduring popularity, despite more recent economic hard times. And when Russians perceive their country as being under attack by foreign powers—as most Russian characterize US-NATO policies in recent years, including in Ukraine—they rally around a “strong leader,” a reaction also not unknown in the United States. Slurring the integrity and values of Russian voters is just that—a slur, and one on the rise in the United States, due partly to “Russiagate,” though not only. Thus when Senator John McCain and others declare that Putin’s victor was a “sham” and “every Russian citizen…was denied the right to vote in a free and fair election,” he is publicly denigrating and insulting those citizens—again, without the slightest factual knowledge of what he is denouncing.
§ The election results should give such militant cold warriors in Washington profound second thoughts. Those regime changers who hope US policies such as economic sanctions will turn Russia’s oligarchs and even its people against Putin and depose him should by now understand that these policies are counterproductive. The Russian people rallied around Putin. And the size of his electoral victory gives him even more authority over financial oligarchs who fear the people because so many citizens still loathe them as plunderers of the country in the 1990s. Many exceedingly rich oligarchs, their assets and families parked offshore and their private jets on standby, understand this persistent reality and look to Putin to protect them now and in the future. The election returns confirm that he can continue to do so, if he chooses. (For years, Putin has pleaded with them to repatriate their wealth, offering criminal and tax amnesties, with little success. As Washington’s sanctions on “Russian oligarchs” and their assets escalate, they may now accede to Putin’s appeals.)
§ Finally, the election should discredit the growing number of American commentators who equate Putin’s Russia with Stalin’s “totalitarianism.” Proponents of this preposterous equation reveal themselves as knowing (or caring) little about Russia’s political realities today and nothing about Stalin’s long terroristic rule that destroyed millions of Soviet families. In reality, the Russian political system today is a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements, what some call “soft authoritarianism.” The real discussion, if only for the sake of US policy-making, should be the relative weight of the two components and what this may bode for Russia’s future and for US-Russian relations. One thing is certain and borne out by history: Democratic reformers stand very little chance in conditions of Cold War and no chance at all if the new Cold War leads to actual war, as it might.
Regarding the reported assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK:
§ Four parallels with the allegations that constitute “Russiagate” are immediately apparent. Both are said by high officials to have been “an act of war”—against America, now against the UK. Both are said by the same officials to have been ordered by Putin personally. In both cases, there are no verified facts whatsoever, at least as yet. Nonetheless, both alleged “acts of war” are making the new Cold War with Russia even more dangerous.
§ As for the appalling act involved in the Skirpal case, not only are there no facts, there is no common sense. Putin had no possible motive, certainly not on the eve of the presidential election, with the World Cup competition in Russia upcoming, and with the toxicity of “Russiagate” already poisoning relations with the West. Nor was Skripal any longer a “Russian spy.” He was a British spy, having covertly gone to work for UK intelligence in the 1990s, been arrested and convicted in 2004, and made part of a large exchange of captured Russian and Western spies in 2010, which resulted in Skripal’s residence in the UK. If Putin wanted him dead, why not kill him in Russia or why let him leave for the West? And if someone wanted Skripal dead, why try to kill him with a lethal nerve agent that might be traceable and could harm many other people? Why not a gun, a knife, or a car “accident”? Moreover, though the nerve agent loosely termed “Novichok” may have been developed in the Soviet Union decades ago, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons effusively certified in 2017 that Russia had fully destroyed all of its stockpiles and facilities for making such weapons. Still more, the formula for “Novichok” was published years ago and could have been replicated by any number of competent states or individuals. Which redoubles the question of why the UK has not given Russia a sample of the lethal nerve agent reported to have been used against the Skripals, as required by OPCP regulations. And why are the Skripals and many others said to have been affected still alive?
§ There is also this vital consideration. When Russia and the United States recruit spies in the other country, or send them there, they assure them, in so may words, “If you are caught, we will try to get you out, to bring you home.” For decades, this has meant the kind of spy swaps of which Skripal was part in 2010. If either side seriously harms an exchanged spy, the efficacy of such exchanges and the sanctity of such intelligence agency promises are undermined, if not nullified. As a former intelligence official, Putin above all would have understood this and thus still less have had any motive.
§ One other parallel with “Russiagate.” Much like the handful of Americans who have been skeptical of those allegations, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is being denounced as a “Kremlin stooge” for raising questions about the official British account of the Skripal affair. Americans should never approve of such slurring, but many have.
Finally, there is one piece of good news, though it is also relative. In his March 7 commentary for The Nation on Putin’s speech about Russia’s new nuclear weapons that can elude and render useless the US missile defense system with its scores of deployed installments, Cohen focused on Putin’s remark that when he tried for years to discuss nuclear security with Washington, “they didn’t listen.” Now, he hoped, “they will listen.” A few days later, several Democratic senators sent a letter to former secretary of state Rex Tillerson requesting a reopening of nuclear-weapons negotiations with Moscow. On March 20, in phone call to Putin congratulating him on his electoral victory—a call said to have been strongly opposed by his top advisers, but entirely proper and wise—President Trump also proposed resuming such negotiations in order to avert “the coming Arms Race.” This is only “relatively” good news because the usual pro-Russiagate politicians and media immediately suggested that Trump’s call was further evidence of his “collusion” with the Kremlin. Evidently, they do not oppose a new nuclear-arms race, despite the greatly enhanced dangers it would include. But only relatively good news, also, because for many years Putin’s approach to Washington had been “soft and conciliatory,” as it was sometimes criticized in Moscow. Subsequently, by his own admission, he lost that “illusion.” Now, equipped with a new, possibly surpassing generation of nuclear weapons, presumably Putin has adopted the longstanding US policy adage, “They only understand strength.” If so, it is another reversal of the mutual-security philosophy shared by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev in the late 1980s, when they thought they had ended cold war and arms races forever.