Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump kept repeating a line that stuck in the Establishment’s craw like a cherry pit stuck under a denture: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with Russia?” Russia and specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin are consistently portrayed in the US media as implacable enemies of the US and the West: it’s simply taken as the given. And yet, the biggest revelation in Oliver Stone’s recent four-part series of extensive interviews with Putin is how consistently and desperately Putin has tried to get along with us. In the second interview, Stone points out that, after the 9/11 attacks, Putin was “one of the first to call [George W. Bush] and offer condolences, and Putin elaborates that more than a phone call was involved:
“Yes, we had planned military exercises of our new strategic forces for the next day. And I canceled those exercises and I wanted the president of the United States to know that. Certainly I understood that heads of state and governments in such a situation need moral support.. And we wanted to demonstrate this to President Bush.”
Contrast this with the behavior of the US government when Russian cities came under attack from Chechen Islamic terrorists in the 2010 bombing of the Moscow Metro system. While there was a pro forma denunciation of the attack, the American propaganda network, “Radio Free Europe,” ran a piece entitled “In Wake of Metro Bombings, Putin’s War On Terror Is Under Fire.” The gist of the article is that Putin, not the terrorists, was responsible for the attacks. There is even a quote from Boris Nemtsov, the leader of a tiny opposition movement whose death two years ago was naturally blamed on Putin, implying that the whole thing was a “false flag” operation carried out by the authorities:
“’This happened right under the security
services’ noses,’ Nemtsov said, noting that the attack at the Lubyanka metro
station took place in close proximity to the headquarters of the Federal Security
”Nemtsov adds that many disturbing questions remain about the attacks.
"’Nobody can explain how two female suicide bombers got to the center of Moscow. Nobody can answer how they got the explosives. Nobody can answer what the police and security services were doing to prevent this.’”
Radio Free Europe also referred to the 1999 apartment bombings that took place in Moscow and other major cities as “mysterious,” bolstering the “truther” views of fringe Russian oppositionists – including exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky – that the Russian intelligence services were behind the attacks. According to the Russian “truthers,” it was all a plot to hand total power to Putin.
Yet here is Putin telling Stone that allowing the US military access to Russian bases in Tajikistan in order to fight the Taliban was right and necessary because “We believe that this cooperation is in our national interest.” This says something important about Putin, and his conception of how Russia’s foreign policy should be run: he never allows emotions to get in the way of pursuing what he regards as his country’s interests, objectively defined. And there are plenty of emotional reasons for him to obstruct the US at every turn, for as the interview continues Stone brings up Washington’s “regime-change” operations aimed at the Kremlin, specifically CIA chief Bill Casey’s plan to utilize Islamic radicals against the Russians after the fall of Afghanistan. Putin’s reply is revealing:
“You see, the thing is, these ideas are still alive. And when those problems in the Caucasus and Chechnya emerged, unfortunately the Americans support these processes…. Even though we counted on American support. We assumed that the Cold War was over … but instead we witnessed the American intelligence services support terrorists. And even when we confirmed that, when we demonstrated that Al Qaeda fighters were fighting in the Caucasus, we still saw the intelligence services of the United States continue to support these fighters.”
Longtime readers of Antiwar.com, and of this column, may recall this piece exposing the US-based support network enjoyed by the Caucasus “rebels” via the “American Committee for Peace in Chechnya,” and the myriad connections of Metro bomber Rezvan Chitigov, a US resident with a green card, to Al Qaeda’s terrorist activities in the region.
US government support to the Chechen terrorists wasn’t just propagandistic: as Putin points out, they provided technical and logistical support, moving them around the battlefield. When Putin met with George W. Bush, he brought this up, and the then President said “I’ll sort this out.”
He never did. Instead, the CIA actually sent a letter to their Russian counterparts in response to Putin’s concerns, which said, in summary: “We support all the political forces, including the opposition forces, and we’re going to continue to do that.” So in public, the Bush administration was bloviating about the centrality of the “war on terrorism,” while they were covertly canoodling with Al Qaeda and allied forces in the Caucasus in a relentless campaign against Russia.
And the same thing is happening in Syria today, with US support to Islamist “rebels” intent on overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “It’s a systemic mistake,” says Putin, “which is repeated always. This is the same thing which happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And right now it’s happening in the Middle East.”
Stone presses the Russian leader for evidence of Western support to Chechen terrorists, and Putin’s reply is that it was no secret, which it certainly was not. The British government granted asylum to Akhmed Zakayev, former “Prime Minister” of the breakaway Islamist “Chechen Republic of Icheria” – whose forces carried out the bloody Beslan attacks on Russian schoolchildren. The National Endowment for Democracy, the European Union, and the Norwegian government funded the “Russia-Chechen Friendship Society,” which published Chechen separatist propaganda. When the Kremlin moved to shut this operation down, the Western media pointed to it as evidence of Putin’s “authoritarianism,” and yet imagine if the Russians started funding, say, a Texas secessionist movement in the US. American lawmakers and officials can’t even meet with the Russian ambassador without being accused of “treason”! Our National Endowment for Democracy has honored the former “Foreign Minister” of the Chechen Isalmic “republic,” Ilyas Akhmadov, with a fellowship, and he regularly participates in NED events. Wanted on terrorism charges in Russia, he was granted asylum by the Bush administration.
Putin’s complaints about US policy are centered on three issues:
- Washington’s “regime change” campaign against the Kremlin.
- The US decision to unilaterally abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
- The eastward expansion of NATO.
These are all interconnected, but it’s worth noting where and when they originated: during the presidency of George W. Bush – when the neoconservatives were in the drivers’ seat. And these policies continued throughout the Obama years, with the Democrats now signing on to the Hate-on-Russia campaign and escalating it beyond anything yet seen. As Putin put it to Stone, “And there’s one curious thing – the presidents of your country change, but the policy doesn’t change – I mean on principled issues.” That’s because the national security bureaucracy – what conservatives these days are referring to as the “Deep State” (without crediting Noam Chomsky!) – and not our elected officials are the ones really in charge.
While there’s some controversy surrounding the alleged promise made to the Russians that NATO would not expand if the Kremlin agreed to allow German reunification, the fact that the agreement was verbal and not enshrined on paper doesn’t obviate its significance. And there is plenty of evidence to show that there was indeed such an agreement. As Joshua Shifrinson pointed out in the Los Angeles Times:
“In early February 1990, U.S. leaders made the Soviets an offer. According to transcripts of meetings in Moscow on Feb. 9, then-Secretary of State James Baker suggested that in exchange for cooperation on Germany, US could make “iron-clad guarantees” that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward.’ Less than a week later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to reunification talks.”
Yet NATO pushed eastward without interruption during the Bush years, and this process continued under his successors, until today, with Trump in the White House, tiny Montenegro is now hailed as the latest entrant into the club – a country whose borders are ill-defined, and whose combative internal politics are a constant struggle between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces. Against whom, Putin asks, is NATO protecting its members from? Who is the “enemy”? Clearly the answer is Russia, as the alliance expands to the very gates of Moscow and Western forces engage in provocative “exercises,” simulating a NATO invasion of Russian territory.
The ABM Treaty, once the cornerstone of détente, was nullified by the United States – but why? The official explanation – at least, the one given to Putin – was that the US had to build antimissile defenses against the alleged “threat” from Iran. Aside from the credibility of the contention that the Iranians were getting ready to strike Warsaw or Prague, the Iran deal, says Putin, makes this rationalization obsolete. Yet still the antimissile shield is being expanded, and the Russians are obliged to take countermeasures, lest the US gain a first strike capability.
As I pointed out in the first installment of this review, it’s fascinating to see the contrast between Stone, a committed man of the left, and Putin, who’s closer to being a paleoconservative than anything else. In reviewing the history of Russo-American relations since 1917, Stone avers that “The United States and the allies did nothing to help the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union was warning the world about the fascist threat in Spain and throughout Europe.” He goes on to echo Stalin’s complaint that the Western allies weren’t doing enough to help the Soviets, who were taking the brunt of Germany’s assault. Left out of his historical account is the fact that the Soviets were allied with Hitler’s Germany, that the Soviets and the Germans jointly invaded and divided up Poland, and that this was the genesis of the Second World War. Just a minor oversight!
Juxtapose Stone’s uncritical view of Soviet foreign policy with Putin’s perspective: the Russian leader considers the Warsaw Pact a mistake. Citing the Soviet withdrawal from Austria, a move which he see as creating an “asset,” and the agreement over the neutral status of Finland, Putin contends that Russia – if it had followed this course – would’ve been able to deal with the West “on a civilized basis. We would have been able to cooperate with them. We wouldn’t have had to spend enormous resources to support their inefficient economies.” Yes, Putin realizes what American policymakers don’t see: that empires are a burden, not an asset.
The creation of the Warsaw Pact gave the West an “excuse,” as Putin puts it, “to create NATO and launch a Cold War.” And he makes a very salient point about how and why US foreign policy went off on a dangerous tangent in the post-Soviet era:
“I think that when the United States felt they were at the forefront of the so-called civilized world and when the Soviet Union collapsed, , they were under the illusion that the United States was capable of everything and they could act with impunity. And that’s always a trap, because in this situation, a person and a country begins to commit mistakes. There is no need to analyze the situation. No need to think about the consequences. No need to economize. And the country becomes inefficient and one mistake follows another. And I think that’s the trap the United States has found itself in.”
He takes his argument further, positing that the whole society becomes infected with this unrealistic hubris, and it becomes politically necessary for the leadership to follow this irrational course to the very end.
Stone is excited by this kind of talk: he goes into a riff about how what he’d like to talk about in their next interview “is this pursuit of world domination” by the US. At which point, Putin draws back:
“Well, let’s agree on something. I know how critical you are of the United States’ policies. Please do not try to drag me into anti-Americanism.”
I had to laugh when I heard that. It underscores Putin’s view of the US, and the whole spirit of these interviews: while Putin believes that the present foreign policy of US leaders is misguided, he holds out hope that this is not a permanent condition. While Stone has this one-dimensional view of the US as the Global Villain – as if this is an inherent quality of American society, perhaps due to the nature of American capitalism – Putin sees the consequences of what calls “the logic of imperialism” as an aberration.
It’s a view with which I very much concur: American imperialism is an aberration, a radical deviation from the course set for us by the Founders of this country, and completely out of character for the overwhelming majority of the American people, who just want to live in peace.
In the first installment of this series, I said that there is plenty of real news buried in these interviews, and certainly Putin’s revelation that the Russians rejected Edward Snowden’s first contacts with the Russians, which occurred when he was in China, qualifies. Apparently a request for asylum was made, either by Snowden or his representatives, “but I said we wanted nothing to do with that,” says Putin. The Russians didn’t want to aggravate their already difficult relations with the US government. And this rejection was probably due in part to the fact that “Snowden didn’t want to give us any information, and he has to be credited with that,” Putin continues. “But when it turned out we were not willing to do that yet, not ready, he just disappeared.”
So how did Snowden wind up in Russia? As my readers may recall, he arrived at a Russian airport en route probably to Cuba or Ecuador. However, the US mobilized its European sock-puppets and blocked the route, and so he stayed in the Russian airport for weeks. He was eventually granted temporary asylum because the United States had been consistently refusing to sign an extradition treaty with Russia, despite the initiative undertaken by Moscow at the time. “And according to our law,” says Putin, “Snowden didn’t violate any law – he didn’t commit any crime.” And so with the US pointedly refusing to extradite Russians accused of crimes – such as terrorism – to Russia, “it was absolutely impossible for us to unilaterally extradite Snowden as the US was asking us to do.”
Talk about blowback!
There’s more news: Stone asks about the extent of Russian spying on the US, and Putin’s response is quite revealing, albeit not in the way Stone or anyone else expected:
“Yes, sure, I don’t have anything against their spying on us. But let me tell you something quite interesting. After radical changes – political changes – took place in Russia, we thought that we were surrounded by allies and no one else. And we also thought the United States was our ally. And this former president of the KGB, of the special services of Russia, all of a sudden he transferred to our American partners, our American friends, the old system of eavesdropping devices on the US Embassy in Moscow. And he did it unilaterally. Just all of a sudden, on a whim – as a token of trust symbolizing the transition to a new level.”
There was, however, no reciprocal move from the Americans: “We never witnessed any step from the United States toward us.”
Of course not.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.