Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of what Putin is: a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To some extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.