On Oliver Stone’s Interviews with Vladimir Putin, Part I: An Exercise in Cognitive Empathy
Western analysts begrudgingly acknowledge that Vladimir Putin is popular in Russia, but attribute this to his supposed total control of domestic media. Without this grip on information, many of them seem to seriously believe that Alexey Navalny (or some other dissident leader crafted in their own image, such as Garry Kasparov) would sweep the country and transform it into a textbook representative democracy. Whether this judgment is rooted in stupidity, dishonesty, or mere naivety, is hard to say. Listening to Western outlets since the start of the war in Ukraine, it is hard not to think the West’s view of Russia’s media environment is a case of projection.
With few exceptions, mainstream American media uniformly believes that the Russian leader bears sole responsibility for the conflict. With no other issue before could one expect to hear precisely the same opinions from NPR and the screaming brand of conservative talk radio. The only difference is the tone: NPR‘s broadcasters rarely forget to take their valium, and so are less likely to yell into their microphones that Putin is “an evil dictator,” a “vicious tyrant” or simply “a butcher.” The propaganda is as vociferous as that directed against the “bloodthirsty” German “huns,” who were supposedly lifting Belgian children on their bayonets for sport in 1914.
Speaking of Germany, its press isn’t any better. On its nightly political talk shows, politicians across the spectrum have been overusing the term “Vernichtungskrieg” (war of annihilation), which is particularly lurid given that this word is generally applied to Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and the Holocaust. It is hard to hear such hyperbole and not think the West is committed to waging war on Russia, and is prepared to say anything to bring it about.
With this background and skeptical attitude in mind, I sat down to watch Oliver Stone’s series of interviews with Putin recorded between 2015 and 2017. My aim was to escape the Western attitude of “it is always and forever September 1938,” and simply listen to what Putin had to say. Diplomacy, after all, used to be about what Robert Wright refers to as “cognitive empathy,” an effort to see the world from your counterpart’s perspective, recognize legitimate aims and objectives, and try to reach some sort of solution that avoids conflict. What follows is my own effort to understand aspects of the Russian narrative without immediately assuming bad faith at every turn.
Fall of the USSR and the expansion of NATO
As Western media likes to remind us, Vladimir Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, and his overarching goal is to recreate some version of the USSR, even by force if necessary. Putin, after all, is a former KGB agent, who in his bones must remain a staunch communist with all that this implies. This was John McCain’s view. But Stone’s interviews with Putin reveal this narrative to be at best superficial. If you take Putin at his word, it’s a cartoon.
Consider this: that oft-cited remark above comes from a 2005 address to the Russian parliament, but it was followed by more. Putin added: “[the fall of the Soviet Union] for the Russian people became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory.” This is a point that Putin stresses throughout the interviews as well. In the USSR, Russians settled in territories that, formally, were not part of the Russian state. When the various republics broke off and became independent, in excess of twenty million Russians became minorities overnight, often in countries that despised them. And this is not just a point that Putin likes to make. Alexander Solzhenitsyn said much the same thing.
In other words, Putin views the fall of the Soviet Union as a “catastrophe” not in itself, but for the Russian people. It is clear his aim isn’t to rebuild it, nor to make any editorial remarks on the virtues of communism. He even outright tells Stone that the economic system of the USSR was a failure. He praises Gorbachev for recognizing that changes were needed (Glasnost, Perestroika), but thinks Gorbachev and his entourage had no clue how to go about reforming the system. Anyone who has read Paul Klebnikov’s book Godfather of the Kremlin, which describes the rise of 1990s gangster capitalism in Russia out of the ruins of the USSR, would have to agree.
Next is NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. NATO as an organization existed to defend Western Europe against the member states of the Warsaw Pact. But with the collapse of the USSR, and revolutions in other Eastern European countries, its raison d’être vanished. In conversation with Stone, Putin asserts (and some Western foreign policy professionals concede) that the United States promised that if the USSR permitted the reunification of Germany there would be no further NATO expansion. Putin chides Gorbachev for his failure to get this down in writing.
Assuming this promise was made, we can imagine Russian consternation as NATO expanded to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in 1999, and then the Baltic states, Romania and Bulgaria in 2004. Just recently in 2020, NATO expanded again to include North Macedonia. Not unreasonably, Putin emphasizes that Russia viewed the Cold War as over, and thus could not understand the purpose of such expansions. He speculates that the NATO bureaucracy took on a life of its own and needed to set up Russia as its arch-enemy in order to justify its continued existence.
Finally, there’s the recklessly cavalier attitude of the US toward Russia and its security interests. Following 9/11, Putin recounts how he was the first foreign leader to call President Bush and offer support. Russia then assisted the United States with its logistical challenges in Afghanistan. Yet on December 13, 2001, Bush repaid Putin by announcing America’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty, totally ignoring Russia’s opposition. Bush also proceeded with plans to set up missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, purportedly to defend Europe and the US against Iran. If you were the President of the Russian Federation, would you believe this? Only Russia has missiles in that region with the range necessary to strike the United States. And, as Putin correctly points out to Stone, missile defense systems can quickly be retrofitted to house offensive missiles. Putin does not want nuclear missiles on his border any more than the Kennedy administration wanted them in Cuba.
Throughout this entire process, as Stone also documents in the film, American officials gave public assurances that their actions were not directed against Russia. But good diplomacy requires perspective on the history of other nations. Since the War of 1812, no foreign nation has physically invaded the lower 48 states. American diplomats act as if this were the norm for all nations, that every state is surrounded by friendly neighbors and two oceans. But Germany invaded and ravaged the USSR in living memory of many Russians just a couple of years after signing a non-aggression pact. Napoleon’s invasion of 1812 also followed a peace treaty signed at Tilsit just five years earlier. Russia knows from hard experience that peace treaties and assurances don’t necessarily mean all that much, and Russian diplomats are justifiably skeptical of the “hey, just trust us!” approach. Viewed in this context, a neutral observer could recognize Putin’s insistence that NATO expansion and other American actions were provocations requiring a response as fundamentally rational.
The conflict over Ukraine
The narrative that Putin has invaded Ukraine as a first step toward reestablishing a USSR-like regime is facile at best. Putin’s narrative on Ukraine may be wrong. It may be self-serving. But it is not irrational. In his inteviews with Stone – which occurred over five years before the current conflict – he expounds at length on Russian relations with Ukraine, and offers his blunt assessment that Western efforts to draw the country into its orbit will “sooner or later have consequences.”
First, there is the deep historical relationship between the two countries. Putin’s statement that Russians and Ukrainians are “almost one people” is overstated, but that their destinies have long been intertwined is without doubt. Putin notes that in the Soviet era, Ukraine and Russia were a single country, and that Ukrainians rose to levels of responsibility in the hierarchy. And he’s right about that. Brezhnev, for instance, grew up in central Ukraine.
In addition to longstanding historical ties, Putin also stresses economic relations. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia paid off the foreign debt of all the former republics. Prior to 2014, Russia had also eliminated tariffs, permitting Ukrainian goods free access to Russian markets. This is a critical point to Putin’s narrative with respect to what he views as a coup d’état. When then-Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich – a Russian stooge, according to Western media – had entered into economic negotiations with the European Union, thus eliminating tariff barriers between Ukraine and the EU (which would also mean European products could gain free access to Russian markets without reciprocity) the EU rejected Putin’s offer to enter trilateral talks. Talks with the EU subsequently collapsed when Russia threatened to reinstitute tariffs on Ukraine. One question worth asking here is: if Yanukovich really was a Russian stooge, why was he negotiating with the EU in the first place?
What followed was the so-called “Revolution of Dignity.” As Putin tells Stone, Yanukovich left Kiev on routine business to Kharkiv, at which point protestors stormed the Presidential Palace, forcing Yanukovich into exile. Most people would regard this as a coup. Or, as Putin quips, “do you think they just went in there to sweep the floors?” It is further revealing that the new Ukrainian government immediately set about passing laws aimed at marginalizing the Russian language in schools and other public places.
The interviews with Stone ended in 2017, but I encourage readers to also look at the analysis of retired Swiss military intelligence officer Jacques Baud, who offers an account utterly at odds with the standard Western narrative that the war in Ukraine was little more than a sudden Russian power grab. Baud worked on Ukraine during the events discussed above, has no obvious bias one way or the other, and largely confirms Putin’s version of events.
The language of diplomacy: concluding remarks
The Putin Interviews are remarkable in that Stone’s series of direct policy questions are all relevant to the current situation, to which Putin generally answered bluntly and directly.
What I’ve found particularly striking in the film is how Putin throughout refused to insult any Western leaders. On several occasions, Stone even confronts Putin with remarks made about him by Hilary Clinton or John McCain, comparing him to Stalin and such things. Yet Putin responds by expressing admiration for McCain’s patriotism and even calls Clinton a “dynamic” woman. Even before the current hostilities in Ukraine, Western media and politicians routinely insulted Putin in public. No good can come out of this, of course. For better or worse, Russia is a major power that straddles a large chunk of the globe, and getting along with its government has its benefits.
One recent American politician followed Putin’s lead in this regard. Donald Trump refused to insult Putin on a personal level in public during and prior to his time in office. His reward was to have the DNC and the entire media ecosystem concoct a scam claiming he was a Russian asset, which derailed the first couple of years of his presidency. This behavior alone justifies taking what the Western media is saying about Ukraine with a grain of salt, and sitting down to watch Stone’s The Putin Interviews with an open, if skeptical, mind.