Stop the pointless demonization of Putin

By Stephen F. Cohen
May 7, 2012

American media coverage of Vladimir Putin, who today began his third term as Russia’s president and 13th year as its leader, has so demonized him that the result may be to endanger U.S. national security.

For nearly 10 years, mainstream press reporting, editorials and op-ed articles have increasingly portrayed Putin as a czar-like “autocrat,” or alternatively a “KGB thug,” who imposed a “rollback of democratic reforms” under way in Russia when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000. He installed instead a “venal regime” that has permitted “corruptionism,” encouraged the assassination of a “growing number” of journalists and carried out the “killing of political opponents.” Not infrequently, Putin is compared to Saddam Hussein and even Stalin.

Well-informed opinions, in the West and in Russia, differ considerably as to the pluses and minuses of Putin’s leadership over the years – my own evaluation is somewhere in the middle – but there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true. Most seem to have originated with Putin’s personal enemies, particularly Yeltsin-era oligarchs who found themselves in foreign exile as a result of his policies – or, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison. Nonetheless, U.S. media, with little investigation of their own, have woven the allegations into a near-consensus narrative of “Putin’s Russia.”

Even the epithet commonly applied to Putin is incorrect. The dictionary and political science definition of “autocrat” is a ruler with absolute power, and Putin has hardly been that. There are many examples of his need to mediate, sometimes unsuccessfully, among powerful groups in the ruling political establishment and of his policies being thwarted by Moscow and regional bureaucracies. Moreover, if Putin really were a “cold-blooded, ruthless” autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election. Nor would they have been officially sanctioned – as were the thousands who gathered yesterday before a small group breached the sanctioned lines and violence ensued – or shown on state television.

But consider the largest, and historically most damning, accusation against Putin. Russian democratization began in Soviet Russia, under Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1989-91. “De-democratization,” as it is often called, began not under Putin but under Yeltsin, in the period from 1993 to 1996, when the first Russian president used armed force to destroy a popularly elected parliament; enacted a super-presidential constitution; “privatized” the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders; turned the national media over to that emerging financial oligarchy; launched a murderous war in the breakaway province of Chechnya; and rigged his own re-election. (On February 20, outgoing president Dmitri Medvedev shocked a small group of visitors by finally admitting that Yeltsin had not actually won that election against the Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov.) Putin may have only moderated those fateful policies, but he certainly did not initiate them.

The catastrophic Yeltsin 1990s, which have been largely deleted from the U.S. media narrative, also put other anti-Putin allegations in a different perspective. The corruption rampant in Russia today, from seizures of major private investments to bribes demanded by officials, is a direct outgrowth of the violent and other illicit measures that accompanied “privatization” under Yeltsin. It was then that the “swindlers and thieves” denounced by today’s opposition actually emerged.

The shadowy practices of that still-only-partially reformed economic system, not Kremlin politics, has led to the assassination of so many Russian journalists, most of them investigative reporters. The numbers, rarely cited by era, are indicative. According to the American Committee to Protect Journalists, 77 Russian journalists have been murdered since 1992 – 41 during Yeltsin’s 8 years in power, 36 during Putin’s 12 years.

The exceptionally vilifying charge that Putin has been behind the killing of political opponents focuses mainly on two victims – the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in Moscow in 2006; and a reputed KGB defector, Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died of radiation poisoning in London, also in 2006.

Not a shred of evidence or an element of logic points to Putin in either case. The editors of Politkovskaya’s newspaper, the devoutly anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta, believe her killing was ordered by Chechen leaders, whose human-rights abuses were one of her special subjects. And there is no conclusive proof even as to whether Litvinenko’s poisoning, despite the media frenzy and rupture in British-Russian relations it caused, was intentional or accidental. (Significantly, Scotland Yard still has not released the necessary autopsy report.)

In other circumstances, all of this ritualistic Putin-bashing would be merely a cautionary example of media malpractice, an anti-textbook for journalism schools. But it has made Putin’s Russia toxic in Washington, in both political parties and especially in Congress, at a time when U.S. national security requires long-term cooperation with Moscow on vital fronts: from countries and regions such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and the entire Middle East to issues such as nuclear weapons reduction, stopping nuclear proliferation, and preventing terrorism.

In all of these regards, the relentless demonizing of Putin makes rational U.S. policymaking all the more difficult. Mitt Romney’s recent assertions that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and that Moscow has made no “meaningful concessions” seem to reflect widespread ignorance or amnesia. Are U.S. policymakers aware of Putin’s extraordinary assistance to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan after 9/11, his crucial help in supplying NATO troops now there or his support for harsher sanctions against Iran? Do they know that for these and other “pro-American” concessions he is viewed by many Russian national security officials as an “appeaser?”

Many years ago, Will Rogers quipped: “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” Evidently, it is still true, but it’s no longer funny.

PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin watches honor guards march by during a parade of the Kremlin Regiment in Cathedral Square at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 7, 2012. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

36 comments

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The world has changed.
Russia has changed.
Vladimir Putin has changed.
But not enough.
Not enough for the Russians, and not enough for anybody else.
Putin either has to shift gears — fast — or get out of the way.
Staying the course can only hatch problems that neither the Russians nor the rest of us would ever want to face.

Posted by kafantaris | Report as abusive

Right Wing media looks to create a “new enemy” to focus on, as Republicans look to the Cold War glory days as an excuse to continue heavy funding of the military.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

Thanks – It sometimes seems as if American media have forgotten how poorly Yeltsin performed. Perhaps that’s because American media barely noticed his misdeeds, other than the chronic misdemeanor of being drunk and disorderly, in the first place. Funny that they notice nothing but in Putin’s case. (I consider Gorbachev to be the best Soviet/Russian leader in my lifetime, but politicians of his ilk clearly have little chance of staying in office there. Hence, Yeltsin and Putin.)

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

For once, a reasonable assessment of Russia since the 1991 emergence of the new Russian Federation. Putin’s 2012 Russia is a model of exemplary government compared to the bad old days of the highly western adviser influenced Yeltsin years.
I am an American living now in Russia full time for over 8 years and what I know of Russia is so radically different than the “common knowledge” as pumped out by western press. It is a place of some contradictions but generally much more pleasant, safe, growth oriented and livable than any press account I have ever read in western news or opinion pieces in 20 years. I have a business and not once has a bribe been paid or asked for, street crime and violence is lower than any major city in the US, the population is very well educated and frankly a lot less depressing than the anger and division that permeates the US now. The young people, generally, are optimistic about their futures, and start out life with more going for them than kids of thee same age in the US unless they are very wealthy.
I ask westerner who claim all manner of evil deeds done by Putin where they got this inside information since very few western reporters are in Russia, fewer by far than in the Soviet period. Their reply is usually that “everyone knows it”. That is probably the most succinct indications of why the US can’t solve any of the pressing problems that are killing it. Pure ignorance that is reinforced at every turn. Russia and Putin are not your problem America, ignorance is.

Posted by Am-Expat | Report as abusive

Thank you for taking on the rather conventional main stream media.

It is not obvious where the Putin-demonization comes from. I always suspect those who stand to benefit the most. This means most Western businesses with interest in inveigling themselves into Russian assets: oil, timber, mineralization, market,…. They looked well on their way with Yeltsin-the-copout, until Putin showed up and started to regain his country for Russians.

OK, maybe Putin regained some Russian booty for himself and buddies, but they are mostly Russians, and the wealth is staying in the country, not joining the international booty owned by the world banks and their associates. For this, I think Russia has much to thank Putin for. Evidently they think so also.

Maybe the anti-Putin stuff starts with disaffected Russians, off-shore oligarchs, and the like, but the West gloms on to it and makes it a much worse thing.

Again, thank your very much for bringing some sanity and balance to this issue.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

Mr Cohen’s comments contain a number of half-truths and oversights. For example, the 1993 ‘democratically elected parliament’ was actually a ‘supreme soviet’ and took many decisions that exacerbated the crisis.

Also, Mr Cohen leaves out some of the main black marks on Putin’s record, e.g. the war in Georgia, the centralisation of power, the embedding of economic interests in state structures, the human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, the continuing occupation of Transnistria etc. etc. etc.

Posted by Zimbru | Report as abusive

American media is a lapdog. As for Putin, he has made himself the center of power in Russia. Whether he is a good man or bad is not as important

Posted by krimsonpage | Report as abusive

If Putin ran for USA president and won, would he be an effective president? Better than Obama or Romney? How would he change the USA?

Posted by DifferentOne | Report as abusive

[...] money to investors than they invested in the first place” – Felix Stop demonizing Putin – Stephen F. Cohen A London divided against itself – John Lloyd What a Euro growth pact should contain – Hugo [...]

watch RT for a while then tell me all about it.

Posted by cp61 | Report as abusive

Henry Kissinger said in a letter “at no time were we trying to stop communism”, Viet Nam, Korea?? who is the good guy here ? the world has not changed, just different players wearing different masks

Posted by running | Report as abusive

I thought this opinion piece was meaningful and thorough. Putin once mentioned to Larry King that he thought it amusing that the American media would attack Russia as not having a democratic election process when in America, Florida courts made an unjust decision in favor of denying a voter fraud recount which then allowed Bush to win the presidency despite Gore winning the popular vote.

You also mention Yeltsin-era oligarchs who found themselves in foreign exile as a result of Yeltsin policies. The choice of foreign exile for these oligarchs were two places, England and Israel. And it might be relevant to note that the Washington Times reported that Mikhail Khodorkovsky who is in jail in Russia diverted all his oil shares (prior to being jailed) to Jacob Rothschild of the Rothschild family, one of the oldest and most influential banking families in the world. Now why would a Russian citizen give all his shares to a foreign banker, and not just any foreign banker? If Mikhail was indeed a true Russian cultured citizen he wouldn’t accidently have such powerful loyalties outside of Russia.

Also one should note something important about Aleksander Litvinenko, autopsy data is key in determining what scenario fits the evidence. If this autopsy data is being withheld by the medical examiner then someone in the British high authority is behind this. It then isn’t a Russian conspiracy as the media plays out. It is then by default a British conspiracy.

Posted by TheSkepticon | Report as abusive

Unless Mr. Cohen wrote this article on some “special” request, it is really strange to read so many logical and factual inaccuracies from such a distinguished pundit.
Here’s just one example:
“The corruption rampant in Russia today, from seizures of major private investments to bribes demanded by officials, is a direct outgrowth of the violent and other illicit measures that accompanied “privatization” under Yeltsin.”
Well, this would be a point well made if today were a year 2002, not 2012. However, Putin has been de facto ruler of Russia for the last 12 years, which would amount to three presidency terms in the USA… Besides, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, don’t we essentially have a case of a “seizure of major private investment” initiated by Putin himself?..

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

In an interview on CNBC Warren Buffett said it would be “nirvana” if per capita GDP in the United States grew by 1% per annum over the next 20 years.

Per capita GDP, in USD terms, grew 700% from 2000 to 2008 in Russia. That’s why Putin runs the country.

Now some of you may object, “but if he were in the US he wouldn’t be popular,” and that’s fine. Because he’s not running for President of the US.

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive

couldn’t find any scholarly facts in this article – is it all boris yeltsin’s fault? or the vodka he loved?

(quote) “Putin may have only moderated those fateful policies, but he certainly did not initiate them.”

was that a lapsis lingua for – he didn’t fire the bullet, but he supplied the gun ….

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

“The corruption rampant in Russia today, from seizures of major private investments to bribes demanded by officials, is a direct outgrowth of the violent and other illicit measures that accompanied “privatization” under Yeltsin” — It has been 12 years since Yeltsin resigned. To blame widespread corruption on Yeltsin is the same as arguing that Stalin’s repressions in 1930s was “a direct outgrowth” of Lenin’s policies.

Posted by vshamanov | Report as abusive

[...] you are not anti-Putin. Never have been. Your opinion over the last ten years has been closer to this man’s. Russia in the 90s was a mess. No-one got paid (assuming they had jobs), the ruble collapsed, you [...]

Some say Putin has demonstrated that he’s mentally unstable and paranoid. Sometimes he’s conciliatory, for example providing accesses routes to Afghanistan for NATO and sometimes he’s inimical, for example he invaded parts of Georgia and would have invaded all of it if the US hadn’t stopped him. Further, he’s currently protecting the Assad regime with the result that thousands of innocent men women and children have needlessly died, which indicates that Putin is a psychopath lacking empathy for the suffering of others. Putin is a ‘high risk’ politician because he’s unpredictable and this is what makes him so dangerous

Posted by apophthegm | Report as abusive

The writer seems to ignore Putin’s stance on Syria, supporting a murderous regime, and Russia’s teamwork with China on oil policies aimed at control of world distribution to the detriment of Europe.

Posted by LixMoon | Report as abusive

i wish we have a president like him… if you combine Romney and Obama together they will not become one quarter of Putin… it is sad… we have more socialism then Putin’s Russia…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

I would love to post a more in depth comment here but I know from experience that if I mention just the name of a certain person or country in relation to this article it will not see the light of day. In this regard I just wish to say that this was a well thought out opinion worthy of debate.

Posted by TheSkepticon | Report as abusive

[...] of Russian political life. And that sentence is what came to mind when I read this pro-Putin screed from Stephen F. Cohen. The headline, which accurately sums up the post, is “Stop the pointless [...]

I find it funny how the media were up in arms about the protesters being arrested in Moscow for protesting against Putin, but when all the Occupy protesters were being arrested, pepper sprayed for expressing their democratic right to protest, it was tolerated…

Posted by GA_Chris | Report as abusive

BeingUnfortunately, being a Professor Emeritus is no guaranty that the person understands the complex subject matter. Mr. Cohen’s opinion is naïve, stereotyped, and (sorry!) extremely superficial. Or here is a conflict of interests? Current Russian regime is actively corrupting Western media: This is what they had been trained to do – this is their real and only skill. Putin should not be demonized – he has to be clearly defined and treated correspondently – as a CIO of a huge corrupted and malignant corporation of criminals, fatally damaging his own country and proliferating culture of the lie and corruption all over the world.

Posted by SCLR | Report as abusive

Great article! Good or bad, Putin is the only leader capable of doing the job and doing it right.

Posted by Duke40 | Report as abusive

Professor Cohen has an illustrious history of being completely wrong about developments in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. All you need to do is read his articles from the 1980s and 1990s. Not an encouraging batting record. And now he frets about the”demonization” of Putin. Perhaps his real annoyance is that the negative is even being reported? In the good old days “Sovietologists” such as Cohen were more effective gatekeepers in academia and the opinion pages, denouncing those they disagreed with as “Cold Warriors” etc. It’s a different world now. Reuters reports elsewhere that roughly 1.25 million Russians have left the country in recent years, according to data released last year by the state Audit Chamber, which tracks migration via tax revenues. They are “voting” with their feet, while Cohen continues his sad apologetics for a nasty regime.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

You neglect to mention the main reason he is despised in the western media: because, whatever Yeltsin’s flaws, and they are legion, Yeltsin consciously decided to make sure that much of the larcenous proceeds of his privatization plans went to western investors.

Posted by Matthew_Saroff | Report as abusive

I`m a Russian. I`m young and politically active. Well, I can say, that the article is surprisingly thoughtful and meaningful.

It`s been only 20 years after the USSR crash.Russia has been rebuilding itslef. After political and economical collaps of the 90th it is hardly possible to have a blessed democracy in the 2000th. Anyway Russian Federation led by Putin is doing pretty good. We`ve survived the world econimic crisis and the civil society is forming and developing.

I am studyins and working, I have prospects. The only thing that bothers me is the anti-putin campaign which is actually destructive. Believe me, the last thing we need now is a revolution.

All that is pretty obvious to the Russians. And that would be cool if the world accepted the new Russia just the way it is.

Thanks to the author for his impartial assessment and unbiassed attitude. Since there are such journalists in America we can promote and cultivate brand new relations between our countries.

PS saw the comments about “Russian aggression against Georgia”. Saakashwilly was the one who attacked the sleeping Ossetian city. He unleashed violence against civilians. At night Georgian solgiers were killing and raping. Mostly the Ossetians are Russian citizens. And it was Russia`s duty to protect them.

Posted by Rossa_Irene | Report as abusive

[...] money to investors than they invested in the first place” – Felix Stop demonizing Putin – Stephen F. Cohen A London divided against itself – John Lloyd What a Euro growth pact should contain – Hugo [...]

[...] VVP dans les médiats constitue une menace pour la sécurité nationale ….des Etats-Unis ! Stop the Pointless Demonization of Putin .   S’exprimant lors d’un débat sur France 2 le candidat François Hollande déclarait [...]

“…whether Litvinenko’s poisoning, despite the media frenzy and rupture in British-Russian relations it caused, was intentional or accidental.”

Sir, your deceit beggars belief. How many cases, ever, have you encountered where someone ‘accidentally’ ingested radioactive material in their cocktails. Maybe you hope by sucking up to this KGB thug you can get in his good graces, but you’ve gone far in destroying your credibility here.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Steve Cohen has zero credibility, full stop. Not only is this a man with well-documented ties to the Russian establishment, but one who simply does not use the Internet. For both reasons *his* sources of information on what’s happening in Russia are not suitable for him to be publishing about it. Cohen has my vote if we want to talk about Russia from any time up until December 1991. After that, he’s just way too out of the loop to be taken seriously. Shame on Reuters for posting this. While I’m at it, his wife – while great on American politics – should keep off this topic.
Sincerely, a human rights worker in Moscow with ties to the dissident community and the real journalists who get inside the daily machinations of the Kremlin.

Posted by MightyRavendark | Report as abusive

“rollback of democratic reforms” – there were no democratic reforms before he became a president for the first time

Posted by RobinAdams | Report as abusive

Thank you for the truth! Unfortunately, Western journalists often do not simply “mistaken” when they talk about Russia false things, but quite deliberately manipulating the facts, and therefore pointless to urge them not to demonize Putin … This is especially true of those who work in Russia. They are all well aware, but the level of deception is so high that they can not stop, because it would mean that everything they said before is no-true. In addition, the “editorial policy” major Western media eliminates the appearance of any “positive” (truthful) articles about Russia. Something “positive” simply will not print. If read the Western press, in Russia, everything is always bad, and something “good” just does not happen be a priori. That is, all exclusively in the “black” color and with apocalyptic intonations (in the spirit, now all bad and will be even worse). By Western standards, perhaps, in Russia there is a problem, but do not forget that never (in its thousand-year history) the people in Russia did not live so free and relatively richly, as now, so this whole western “negative” in relation to Russia is perceived by many Russians with complete incomprehension and resentment. Because of this, there is great distrust towards of the Western media and towards the West in general.

Posted by ChupaChups88 | Report as abusive

Russia takes 67th place in the Human Development Index (for comparison: United States – 4, United Kingdom – 28). It is the result of the domestic policies of Putin and Medvedev. If someone thinks Putin is ok for Russia I wish him to live in Russia on Russian old-age pension!

Posted by falkone | Report as abusive

President Putin forced Western companies to re-negotiate their extremely unfair business contracts in Russia. The US establishment can’t forgive (and will never forgive) him this nonalignment with the US business interests.

This was the past. Now, the future tells us that without bringing Russia to its side within the next decade or so United States will enter the danger zone due to China’s rapid growth. This will become the biggest threat to the US security. The country has no long term policy and acts plain stupid with regard to Russia bashing. The US old (cold war time) leadership in Congress does serious damage to the countries future. The military industrial complex pays these folk’s bills and reaps the benefits. The rest of the country will face long term consequences.

Professor Cohen is right. Unfortunately.

Posted by Peace17 | Report as abusive

At last a fair assessment of the situation in Russia. Irene Rossa writes that she is Russian and young, politically active and well educated, with good prospects for her future.
Well, I am from Russia, but I am rather old, and, as they say, have seen it all, including the horror of the sleepless nights when KGB was knocking at the doors, oh, so quietly…
During the years of first Putin, then Medvedev’s presidency Russia finally let its collective breath out…. We held it for more than decade, seeing the cronies of Yeltsin robbing our country blind, seeing our youth dying because the wrong choices they made, because there was no hope, because nobody cared.. Our middle class was put at its collective knees by joblessness, hopelessness and abject poverty. We, women, fared better – we bought knitting machines and knitted socks, then stood at the corners and sold them, we sold our libraries (no Russian apartment ever was without a library!), and we cooked dinners of powdered milk and “Bush’es legs”, as we called hated chicken legs. But our men, our husbands, our sons.. Yeltsin emasculated whole generation of Russian men. Some committed suicides by alcoholism, some – by a rope or a bullet.. Some simply gave up and died of a broken heart.
Now, today, we live well, we regained our trust in the future, and our men are looking much healthier and happier. Our incomes are so good that Russia has more international travelers than ever before, the car ownership is so common that even young people can afford them, and finding a good, well paid job is not a problem anymore.
At the same time in the United States millions of college degree holders are working as waiters, barmen, cashiers or receptionists. But America is so in love with itself that none of this is bothering its people! Recently I was present at the Graduation Ceremony at the UF, Florida. Out of the whole graduate engineering class 2012 there were just a dozen of “native Americans”. The rest were Chinese (majority) and Indian students. America is losing its edge, and nobody raises an alarm. Media is telling the Sheeple that “everything is fine, just look at that awful Putin over there, in Russia, and be grateful we have such a fine democracy!” Democracy, my foot! Paid and bought wholesale.

Posted by andor_2001 | Report as abusive

Wouldn’t it be possible to publish such articles before Thomson Reuters merger? ignorant people masking their ignorance for a special look…

Posted by qipling | Report as abusive

“Russia takes 67th place in the Human Development Index (for comparison: United States – 4, United Kingdom – 28).” Though I would like Putin to go, I am neither an American nor a Nazi (same thing) and I don’t believe in phony propagandist indexes either of human intelligence, racial advancement or human development. I liv ed in the USA as well as in Austria, France, Russia and Far East, so whether Putin is bad or good is totally irrelevant to the fact that propagandist indexes are worthless. As far as Human Development Index is concerned, I would agree that Russia should be around 67th but the USA does certainly not belong to the first 100.

Posted by roobit1970 | Report as abusive

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Yes and ask the Gay People being beaten and tortured and killed because of Putin and his regime and their laws just how great of a man he is.
No wonder he supports Assad. Assad is merely a guinea pig for him to see what he can eventually get away with. No wonder he supports him.

Posted by HoomooAmerican | Report as abusive

Yes, thanks for standing up for Vladimir Putin! Look how quickly he came to the aid of those poor people threatened with imminent death and destruction in Crimea! Such a noble and principled man, so much maligned.

Posted by kate234 | Report as abusive