Professor Stephen F. Cohen: Rethinking Putin – a review
8 February, 2018
[This analysis was written for the Unz Review]
Professor Cohen ended his talk by suggesting a few things which might form a part of a future honest biography:
The key thesis is this: Putin began as a pro-Western, European leader and with time he realigned himself with a much more traditional, Russian worldview. He is more in line with Russian voters today.
Professor Cohen concluded by addressing two topics which, I presume, his audience cared deeply about: he said that, contrary to Western propaganda, the so-called ‘anti-gay’ laws in Russia are no different from the laws of 13 US states. Secondly, that “by any reckoning, be it flourishing inside Russia or relations with Israel, by general consent of all, nobody denies this, Jews under Putin in Russia are better off than they had ever been in Russian history. Ever. They have more freedom, less official anti-Semitism, more protection, more official admiration for Israel, more interaction, more freedom to go back and forth”.
Turning to Professor Cohen’s talking points, numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4 are basic facts. Nothing to be debated here – Cohen is plainly setting the factual record straight. Number 5 is much more interesting and controversial. For one thing, we are talking views/intentions, which are hard to judge. Was Putin ever pro-Western? Who knows? Maybe his closest friends know? My own belief is that this question must be looked at in combination of issue #8: Putin’s service in the KGB.
The Soviet KGB was first and foremost a huge bureaucracy with completely different, and separate, directorates, departments, and sections. Yes, one such Directorate did deal with dissidents and anti-Soviet activists (mainly the 9thDepartment of the 5th Directorate) but even within this (infamous) 5th Directorate there were some Departments which, in coordination with other KGB Directorates and Departments, dealt with more legitimate tasks such as, for example, the early detection of terrorist organizations (7th Department). Other Directorates of the KGB dealt with economic security (6th Directorate), internal security and counter-intelligence (2nd Directorate) or even protection of officials (9th Directorate).
First and foremost, a PGU officer has to be a top-notch specialist of his area of expertise (in Putin’s case: Germany, of course, but also the rest of Europe and, since Western Europe was – and still is – a US colony, the USA). While Soviet people were told that the West was the enemy, the PGU officers had to understand why and how the West was that enemy.
In practical terms, this implies not only knowing and understanding the official cultural, political, social and economic realities of the enemy’s polity, but also the real power relations inside that polity. Such an understanding is not only useful to approach and evaluate the potential usefulness of each person you interact with, but also to be able to understand in what environment this person has to operate. The notion of PGU officers being bigoted commies is laughable as these men, and women, were very well read (they had unlimited access to all the Western information sources, including anti-Soviet ones, classified reports, and all the anti-Soviet literature imaginable) and they were ultimate realists/pragmatists. Of course, like in any organization, the top leaders were often political appointees and the bureaucrats and counter-intelligence officers were much less sophisticated. But for officers like Putin to reallyunderstand the reality of the Western society was a vital skill.
Second, a good PGU officer had to be likable; very, very likable. Being liked by others is also a crucial skill for a good intelligence officer. In practical terms, this means that he/she has to not only understand what makes the other guy tick but how to influence him/her in the right direction. When dealing with ‘illegals’ that also meant being their best friend, confessor, moral support, guide and protector. You can’t do that if people don’t like you. So these intelligence officers are masters of being good friends and companions; they are good listeners and they know a lot about how to make you like them. They also understand exactly what you like to hear, what you want to see and what words and actions place you in a relaxed and trusting mode.
Now combine these two: you have a man who is top notch specialist of the West and who is superbly trained to be liked by Western people. How likely is it that this man had many illusions about the West, to begin with? And what if a man like that did have misgivings – would he have shown them?
My own gut feeling is that this is not very likely at all.
What is far more likely is this: Putin played the “West best’s friend” role for as long as possible and he dumped it when it was clearly not productive any longer. And yes, in doing that he did realign himself to the mainstream Russian public opinion. But that was just a useful side-effect, not the cause or the goal of that realignment.
This fundamental conclusion is also the key to Putin’s foreign policy: it is “reactive” by nature simply because it only acts in response to when (and what) something affects Russia. You could say that all “normal” nations are “reactive” because they have no business doing otherwise. Getting involved everywhere, in every fight or conflict, is what empires based on messianic ideologies do, not normal countries regardless of how big or powerful they are. For all the sick and paranoid hallucinations of Western Russophobes about a “resurgent Russia” the reality is that Russian diplomats have often mentioned what the goals of Russian foreign policies truly are: to turn enemies into neutrals, neutrals into partners, partners into friends and friends into allies. And this is why Professor Cohen is absolutely correct, Putin is no isolationist at all – he wants a new, multi-polar, international order of sovereign countries; not because he is a naïve wide-eyed idealist, but because this is what is pragmatically good for Russia and her people. You could say that Putin is a patriotic internationalist.
[Sidebar: I personally wish that Russia would denounce Israel for what it is, an illegitimate racist rogue state hell-bent on genocide and expansion, but I don’t have relatives there. Neither am I the President of a country with very strong ties to the Russian-speaking Jewish communities worldwide. In my opinion, I am accountable to nobody else but my conscience and God, whereas Putin is accountable to those who elected him and still support him].
Guilt by association, the punishment of all for the actions of some, scapegoating, the vicious persecution of minorities in the name of some ideal – this has all been tried in the past, both in Russia and in the West. The Nazis did that and so did the Soviets. And both the Nazis and the Soviets inflicted untold horrors upon the many peoples of the Soviet Union and beyond. Putin is acutely aware of the dangers of nationalism, just as much as he is aware of the dangers of imperialism, and he said so many times: Russia cannot afford any more nationalistic conflicts as they almost completely destroyed Russia in the 1990s. Just look at modern Ukraine and you will see what a Russia torn apart by nationalist ideologies could have looked like had Putin not cracked down, hard, on various nationalists (including and mostly Russian ones).
Far from catering to (an admittedly powerful) Jewish lobby in Russia, Putin is, in fact, trying to assemble as many different peoples and minorities as possible to his project of a New Russia; and that project includes Russian Jews, not only for the sake of these Jews, but mainly for the sake of Russia. The same goes for another crucial minority in Russia – Muslims. They also very much form a key part of the project Putin has for Russia. Of course, racists, nationalists and other less than bright folks in Russia will still dream about expelling all Jews (or Muslims) from Russia. Simply put – that ain’t happening (for one thing this would be physically impossible) and Putin and those who support him will fight such projects with every legal tool at their disposal. Here again, you could say that Putin is a patriotic internationalist.
In the meanwhile, the West is still stuck in its old, ideological ways: imperialism, nationalism and messianic exclusivism on one hand, and a complete surrender to post-modernism, cultural self-hatred, petty minority politics and moral relativism on the other. It is, therefore, no surprise whatsoever that both mainstream camps in the West completely misread Putin and can’t figure out what he is up to.
Professor Cohen is right: the real Putin has absolutely nothing, nothing at all, in common with the pseudo-Putin the Western media presents to its infinitely gullible and zombified audience. Alas, nobody will listen to Cohen, at least not until the regime in Washington DC and the power structure which supports it, and whose interests it represents, come crashing down. But I do believe that Professor Cohen will eventually go down in history as the most intellectually honest and courageous Russia expert in the USA.