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Does Putin Really Want to 'Destabilize the West'?
Just as there is no forensic evidence of a Kremlin "attack on our democracy" in 2016, there is no political logic for Putin's alleged motives.
By Stephen F. Cohen
Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussion of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
For more than a decade, Cohen has been arguing that US policy was leading to a new Cold War with Russia and that if it ensued, it would be more dangerous than was the preceding 40-year US-Soviet Cold War. By any criteria, a new (or renewed) Cold War is now upon us, and events last week illustrated its exceptional dangers. As part of a sanctions process, the current stage begun unwisely by President Obama in December 2016, the Trump administration seized several Russian diplomatic properties in the United States. What happened at the Russian Consulate in San Francisco seems to have been without precedent. Violating international and bilateral treaties, and general norms of diplomatic immunity, US security agents entered and searched the building. Russian President Putin is under strong pressure at home to respond "appropriately." If he does so, the unthinkable will become possible: a full rupture of diplomatic relations between the world's two superpowers. (Cohen recalls that Washington refused to formally recognize Soviet Russia for 15 years, until President Franklin Roosevelt did so in 1933.)
At the center of this near abolition of US diplomacy toward Russia today is the allegation-set out in a so-called Intelligence Community Assessment in January 2017-that during the American presidential campaign of 2016 Putin ordered a hacking of the Democratic National Committee in order to make public e-mails that would undermine Hillary Clinton's candidacy and benefit that of Donald Trump. Though still orthodoxy in the US political-media establishment, that "assessment" has been seriously discredited, partly due to the lack of any credible forensic evidence. Indeed, some technical experts think the theft of the DNC e-mails was not a remote cyber hack but an inside leak. (Here Cohen refers to valuable airing of rival technical opinions posted at TheNation.com on September 1, which the mainstream media has all but ignored.)
But a second allegation against Putin grew out of the January 2017 Intel "assessment": that this "attack on American democracy," said to be "a political Pearl Harbor," was only part of his international campaign to "destabilize democracy" everywhere, including in Europe's NATO countries. Despite German and French official reports that the Kremlin played no such malign role in their elections, American journalists and politicians, including liberals and progressive, continue to insist that Putin is waging "war" against established Western democracies, seeking to "destabilize" them. They do so either to abet "The Resistance Against Trump" or out of some ideological Russophobia or a need to demonize Putin.
Cohen points out, however, that there is no historical evidence or political logic for such a sweeping charge against Putin, making the following points:
§ Putin came to power in 2000 with the mission of rebuilding, modernizing, and stabilizing Russia, which had collapsed into near-anarchy and widespread misery in the decade following the end of the Soviet Union. He sought to do so, in very large measure, through expanding good political and profitable economic relations with democratic Europe, and particularly through commercial market relations.
§ Much of his success, and domestic popularity, as Russia's leader for 13 years, until the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, was based on an unprecedented expansion of Russia's economic relations with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States. For example, Russian provided fully one-third of the energy needs of European Union countries and thousands of European producers, from farmers to manufacturers, found vast new markets in Putin's Russia, as did American car makers and fast-food chains. As late as 2013, the Kremlin was employing a US public-relations firm and recruiting Goldman Sachs to help "brand" Russia as a profitable and safe place for Western investment.
§ Moreover, much of the wealth of Russian oligarchs said to be part of the basis of Putin's power was parked offshore, including in Western Europe, the UK, and even in the United States. The owner of the NBA's New York Nets and its Brooklyn arena are, for example, owned by one of Russia's richest oligarchs, Mikhail Prokhorov.
§ Meanwhile, until 2014, Putin emerged as a full partner among European leaders and, again, even American ones, with good working relations with President Bill Clinton and (initially) with President George W. Bush.
Why, then, Cohen asks, would Putin want to destabilize Western democracies that were substantially funding Russia's rebirth at home and as a great power abroad while accepting him as their legitimate counterpart? Putin had no such motive. Indeed, from the outset, in his many speeches and writings, which few American journalists bother to consult, he constantly preached the necessity of "stability" both at home and abroad.
Putin's unrelenting vilifiers offer the following counter-evidence to support their argument that he has long been "anti-American" and "anti-Western:
§ He opposed the US invasion of Iraq, but, Cohen points out, so did Germany and France.
§ He fought a brief war in 2008 in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, but a European investigation found that Georgia's president at the time initiated the war.
§ Putin has been repeatedly accused of ordering the killing of critical journalists and political opponents, but, Cohen emphasizes, no actual evidence (or logic) has ever been produced to support any of these charges, only indications that they emanate from his political enemies.
§ Putin stands accused of pursuing a number of non-Western and thus anti-Western policies at home. But this perspective suggests that all foreign "friends" and allies of America should be on America's historical-political-social clock, sharing its present-day sense of what is "correct." Putin's reply is the principle of national and civilizational "sovereignty." Each nation must find its own way at home within its own historical traditions and current level of social consensus. Moreover, his concept of "sovereignty" ill-disposes him ideologically against flagrant interference in the politics of other countries, unlike the Communism that influenced Soviet leaders prior to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985.
In short, had Putin left office prior to 2014, he would have done so as having been, certainly in the Russian context, a "pro-Western" leader. And he generally pursued this course despite NATO's expansion toward Russia's borders, despite US regime change policies in neighboring countries, and despite constant criticism in high-level Russian security circles that he had "illusions about the West" and was "soft" in his relations with the West, especially the United States.
Everything changed with the Ukrainian crisis of 2014, as a result of which Putin annexed Crimea and supported Donbass rebels in the ensuring Ukrainian civil war. Here began the sweeping allegation that Putin sought to undermine democracy everywhere, and eventually the American presidential election in 2016. There are two conflicting narratives and thus explanations of what happened in Ukraine in 2014:
§ One is that Putin wantonly intervened in an internal democratic Ukrainian dispute over whether or not the country's elected president, Viktor Yanokovych, should sign an economic partnership agreement with the European Union. When Yanukovych asked for more time to decide, street protesters massed in Kiev and in February caused the president to flee the country. Putin seized Crimea and abetted rebels in Eastern Ukraine to prevent the new government from joining the West-the EU and possibly NATO.
§ The alternative narrative/explanation, which Cohen thinks the actual evidence supports, is that Putin saw initially peaceful protests devolve into Western-backed armed, violent street mobs which drove from office the constitutional president of Ukraine and put in power an ultra-nationalist, anti-Russian government which threatened ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine as well as the vital Russian naval base in Crimea and the province's own majority ethnic Russian population. Given these circumstances, which were imposed on him, Putin had little choice, as would have had almost any imaginable Kremlin leader.
§ Cohen recalls a vital but forgotten episode in the midst of the February 2014 crisis in Kiev. The foreign ministers of three EU countries (France, Germany, and Poland) brokered a peaceful compromise agreement between the Ukrainian president and party leaders of the street protesters. Yanukovych agreed to an early presidential election and to form with opposition leaders an interim coalition government. In short, a democratic, peaceful resolution of the crisis. In a phone talk, President Obama told Putin he would support the agreement, but it perished within hours when it was rejected by ultra-nationalist forces in the streets and occupied buildings. Neither Obama nor the European ministers made any effort to save the agreement and instead fully embraced the new government that had come to power through a violent street coup.
§ Who, then, Cohen asks, "destabilized" what remained of Ukraine's flawed and corrupt, but constitutional, democracy: Putin or the Western leaders who abandoned their own negotiated agreement?
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history, leading to a new and more dangerous Cold War, to the unproved and illogical allegations known as "Russiagate" in the United States, to unprecedented diplomatic transgressions in San Francisco, and possibly worse. America is closer to war with Russia than ever before, certainly since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. And yet, Putin's demonizers, various Russophobes, powerful forces in high places who see geopolitical and financial profit in the escalating new Cold War, and "get Trump at any cost" liberals and progressives press on. They may deride this analysis, but it, Cohen concludes, is based on actual historical and political evidence, which they lack, and a deeper concern for America's real national security than they have displayed.