How Uncle Sam played Russian Roulette
The US now realises that Vladimir Putin is a “rogue”. Even a “war criminal”. But its own driven-by-convenience equation with the Russian President and a misreading of his red lines on Nato expansion has had a role in fanning the current Ukrainian crisis. Is it too late to put Putin in his place?
American geo-strategic folklore attributes the country’s sufferance for foreign political renegades with a colourful quote, credited variously — including to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Henry Kissinger: “He’s an s-o-b, but he’s OUR s-o-b!” Implicit in the assertive ownership is affection for errant leaders whose deviation from norms will be tolerated so long as they serve America’s goals. Across decades, various leaders who have crossed paths with Washington have had the signal honour — or dishonour — of inviting this quote, from the time FDR is first said to have used it against Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic.
The moment a country’s leader goes “rogue” depends on when, where, and how far he pushes the American red line. The US condones, even patronises, outliers so long as they are in Washington’s good books and fulfill US diktats. The moment they step out of line, they become “thugs”, “rogues” and even “war criminals”. Conversely, they can also worm back into favour by either compliance, or occasionally exhibiting even greater thuggery that America is unable to tame and is forced to live with.
Many foreign leaders have experienced this — from North Korea’s Kims to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and now Nicholas Maduro, to a raft of potentates in Asia and Africa. In keeping with the dictum that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, Washington has often dumped or resurrected leaders depending on its interests, which are sometimes fleeting. Last week, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin ran amuck in Ukraine, America went searching for allies, reaching out to the leadership in Venezuela and Iran, among other countries till recently in the doghouse.
Suddenly, there is only one enemy in the American eyes: Vladimir Putin. Everyone else is worth embracing at this moment.
It was not always so.
When Vlad wasn’t so bad
In the initial years of the nearly quarter century since Vladimir Putin rose to power in Russia, he was on the right side of America. Early in his time in the Kremlin, then US President Bill Clinton said of him, “I think that the United States can do business with this man. What I have seen of him so far indicates to me that he’s capable of being a very strong and effective and straightforward leader.” A few years later, George Bush said: “I looked the man in the eye. I found it to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
Those were years when a weakened Russia was still rising from the debris of the Soviet Union’s disintegration.
As Russia rose, Barack Obama was less effusive about Putin but still dealt with him, once conveying through his surrogate Dmitri Medvedev that he (Obama) would have “more flexibility” on contentious issues between the two nations after his second-term election. “I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” said Medvedev, in an exchange picked up on a hot mic. At that time, Putin had not invaded Crimea but the signs were already ominous after Moscow had tried to muscle Georgia into submission.
Donald Trump, who has a pronounced and transparent fondness for authoritarian figures — a sentiment he often expresses publicly — went completely over the top with Putin. By then, Putin had not only invaded Crimea but had indicated more was to come — not that it worried Trump. In what came to be known as ‘that Helsinki moment’, Trump lauded Putin rejecting allegations of Russian interference in US elections over America’s own intelligence establishment saying it did, famously telling a slack-jawed media that Putin was “extremely strong and powerful in his denial today”.
So, that’s four American Presidents who, a few sanctions aside, had little problem dealing with Putin, two of them after he had annexed parts of Ukraine. But it was Trump, more than any other US President, who was most forgiving of Putin, and appeared to accept to a sympathetic degree Russia’s version of being backed into a corner by the US and its European allies, which is the crux of the argument advanced by those who defend Moscow’s current marauding.
Helsinki was not the first time Trump had fawned over Putin. As far back as 2013, he was gushing about the Russian leader, saying how Putin has done “a really great job outsmarting our country” (Oct 3, 2013, Larry King on Ora TV). In another Fox News interview with Neil Cavuto, Trump even provided the rationale for Russia’s growing assertiveness against Nato, saying Putin is like a “wounded animal” due to the Obama administration’s actions and “wounded people and wounded animals can do lots of strange things and we’d better be a little bit careful”.
When Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, otherwise a Trump sympathiser, characterised Putin as a “killer”, in a February 2017 interview, Trump pushed back, asking, “There are a lot of killers. Do you think our country is so innocent?”
It is not a viewpoint the US establishment, with a fervent belief in American exceptionalism and interventionism, takes kindly to. Among the foremost proponents of this was the late Senator John McCain, a swaggering military veteran-turned-lawmaker, of whom it was said he never saw a war he did not like. America may have pivoted to the Indo-Pacific region over the past decade with the rise of China, but Atlantic-ists in Washington, including senators of a certain vintage — like McCain and Biden — never took their eyes off Russia even as Putin rebuilt the country from the ruins of the Cold War, powered by massive reserves of energy.
The Helsinki press conference
McCain, a Cold War veteran who had also served in the hottest conflict zone of that era (Vietnam), had long described Putin as a “killer”, “murderer”, and “butcher” because of his KGB background. When Trump showed his undisguised affability towards Putin, the Republican Senator tore into the President, describing the Helsinki press conference as one of the most “disgraceful” performances by an American President. “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivete, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate... (he has) abased himself ... abjectly before a tyrant,” he raged.
Though they belonged to the same party, McCain and Trump despised each other, in part because they looked at different approaches to establishing American primacy. Trump viewed McCain as a Cold War establishmentarian who was constantly and selectively looking for enemies to fight instead of simply promoting America’s interest by doing business with whoever was willing to, without being judgmental. McCain saw Trump as an unscrupulous businessman who lacked a moral compass.
Not just in their political and moral philosophies, they differed in their worldview and service to the nation. Trump was seen as a wealthy scion and a draft-dodger who had bailed out of service by pleading he had bone spurs. McCain was a veteran who had served with distinction and was a PoW in Vietnam for six years. “He was captured. Does being captured make you a hero? I don’t know. I’m not sure” — Trump jibed about McCain, adding that he liked “people who weren’t captured”.
McCain never forgave him for the slight — or for his embrace of Putin. Their feud continued even after McCain passed away in 2018, his family letting Trump know he was not welcome at the Senator’s memorial service.
While many Americans saw Trump as a sympathetic shill for Putin, efforts to humanise the Russian strongman (by now demonised in America because of his moves in Georgia and Crimea amid talk of restoring a USSR 2.0, aka Mother Russia) came from unexpected quarters, even as Trump rose to the White House in 2016.
When a rolling Stone gathered moss
Oliver Stone is a respected film maker whose celluloid oeuvre include some of the most stirring war stories to come out of Hollywood, a liberal bastion. They include Platoon, which won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture in 1986, Born on the Fourth of July, for which Stone won his second Best Director Academy Award in 1989, and Heaven & Earth (1993) — all based on the Vietnam War, during which Stone, like McCain, served in the US military. He also made a political trilogy based on American Presidents: JFK (1991), Nixon (1995), and W. (2008).
However, unlike the establishmentarian McCain, Stone has been a long-time critic of US foreign policy and Washington’s penchant for interference in foreign countries, particularly in South and Latin America, and the Middle East. A supporter of radical movements and leaders, he has interviewed Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez among others, offering them a platform to critique US foreign policy.
But Stone’s Putin interviews surpassed anything he had done so far. Over a two-year period between 2015 and 2017, he gained unprecedented access to the Russian leader, speaking to him for nearly 20 hours in conversations that touched on many aspects of his personal life and political journey. By the time he began interviewing Putin, Stone had already applied his critique of American foreign policy to Ukraine in various forums, including defending its annexation of Crimea.
What Russia had done in Crimea, Stone argued, was a “defensive maneuver”. The United States and its NATO allies have been provoking Russia using Ukraine as bait, and things had reached such a pass that Putin had to react; otherwise, he would have been ousted. As opposed to the western narrative that Russia had invaded Crimea, it was US that was actually messing around in Ukraine. US provocation came not just in Ukraine, but also in the Baltic, where NATO’s constant military exercises was alarming Russia. “If we can think of it as Canada and the United States — if Canada were doing that, and sending warnings to us like this, we would be freaking out… Ukraine is to the Russians like Canada is to the United States,” he told Robert Scheer in an interview.
It was an old and familiar argument, advanced among others by John Mearsheimer, the political scientist whose 2015 University of Chicago talk along these lines has now racked up 22 million views in a world trying to catch up on the background to the war. In an interview with the New Yorker on March 1, nearly a week after the Russian invasion into Ukraine that had gone beyond the ingress into the Donbas region, Mearsheimer continued to insist the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.
“When you’re a country like Ukraine and you live next door to a great power like Russia, you have to pay careful attention to what the Russians think, because if you take a stick and you poke them in the eye, they’re going to retaliate. States in the Western hemisphere understand this full well with regard to the United States,” he argued, echoing the Monroe Doctrine, which maintained that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. The US itself had overthrown democratically elected leaders… “because we were unhappy with their policies… this is the way great powers behave”. Beyond installing a pro-Russian government in Kyiv that is attuned to Moscow’s interests, he does not believe, he said, that Putin is interested in occupying and holding on to all of Ukraine.
'A dozen wrongs don’t make a right’
While that proposition is now under scrutiny, the refugee crisis the invasion has triggered, Ukraine’s dogged refusal to fold or surrender, and the West’s positioning of Russia as the offender and Putin as the villain, has made outliers of the Mearshimer-Stone school of thought and line of argument. Last week, Oliver Stone himself wrote a lengthy Facebook post, which, far from being a mea culpa, nevertheless acknowledged Putin’s overreach, while continuing to roast the west.
“Although the United States has many wars of aggression on its conscience, it doesn’t justify Mr Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. A dozen wrongs don’t make a right,” Stone began, before going to explain how Putin, among many missteps, had underestimated the power of social media worldwide. The western alliance, he argued, “has far stronger public relations than the Russians” and “Putin has allowed himself to be baited and fallen into the trap set by the US and has committed his military, empowering the worst conclusions the West can make.”
So, where do they go from here, particularly since Biden has branded Putin a “war criminal”, which beyond being a mere invective has legal implications? Use of the term has already rankled Moscow, and whatever slim hope of any talks in the near future and a rapprochement between the warring sides is evaporating rapidly. “There seems to be no road back,” Stone wrote even before talk of putting Putin on trial for war crimes began erupting. “The only ones happy about this are Russian nationalists and the legion of Russian haters, who finally got what they’ve been dreaming of for years.” A fight to the finish that could be a war to end all wars.
Chidanand Rajghatta is a US-based writer and author, most recently of Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman.