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Vladimir Putin Frontline’s Way

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Last November former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley decided to take a chance. At a discussion of US-Russia relations hosted by the Aspen Institute of Ideas he risked his own credibility and said “I’m all in favor of truth, but sometimes doing things without talking about it is a more effective way of achieving your objectives.” Hadley’s KGB-esque declaration came amidst a larger discussion by those present about how the US was losing the communications war with Russia over defining what was happening in Ukraine and why.

Absent from the discussion, of course, was any critical view of the US’ involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovich, and any recognition that it was inappropriate and reckless for the US to be involving itself in the conflict and encouraging what one former President Bush called “suicidal nationalism” in Ukraine.

Is this kind of dishonest thinking and discussion a problem unique to US establishment intellectuals and policymakers? No. They, like their Russian counterparts, never concede the US is doing something wrong while correspondingly harping on the failures of others, often for the same conduct they refuse to condemn in themselves. Most people have a name for that behavior, politics.

But journalism, in theory at least, is supposed to step outside self-serving establishment narratives and offer a broader picture of the world. No program has better demonstrated that capacity more so over the years than Frontline. So it was disappointing to watch Frontline’s most recent program called Putin’s Way in which the Putin government is presented as a strange foreign menace hopelessly devoid of any public interested motives and bent on death and domination. In fact, the program even advanced a highly circumstantial case if not a full on conspiracy theory for apartment bombings that took place in Moscow in the 1990s. The leapt at conclusions based on weak evidence closely mirrors what’s become known as 9-11 Trutherism in the US where it is claimed that it was the US government not Islamic terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 – a theory that journalistic outlets such as Frontline would likely dismiss as an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence.

(more after the jump)

CommunityThe Bullpen

Vladimir Putin Frontline’s Way

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”500″ height=”281″ align=”none” !}

Last November former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley decided to take a chance. At a discussion of US-Russia relations hosted by the Aspen Institute of Ideas he risked his own credibility and said “I’m all in favor of truth, but sometimes doing things without talking about it is a more effective way of achieving your objectives.” Hadley’s KGB-esque declaration came amidst a larger discussion by those present about how the US was losing the communications war with Russia over defining what was happening in Ukraine and why.

Absent from the discussion, of course, was any critical view of the US’ involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected leader of Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovich, and any recognition that it was inappropriate and reckless for the US to be involving itself in the conflict and encouraging what one former President Bush called “suicidal nationalism” in Ukraine.

Is this kind of dishonest thinking and discussion a problem unique to US establishment intellectuals and policymakers? No. They, like their Russian counterparts, never concede the US is doing something wrong while correspondingly harping on the failures of others, often for the same conduct they refuse to condemn in themselves. Most people have a name for that behavior, politics.

But journalism, in theory at least, is supposed to step outside self-serving establishment narratives and offer a broader picture of the world. No program has better demonstrated that capacity more so over the years than Frontline. So it was disappointing to watch Frontline’s most recent program called Putin’s Way in which the Putin government is presented as a strange foreign menace hopelessly devoid of any public interested motives and bent on death and domination. In fact, the program even advanced a highly circumstantial case if not a full on conspiracy theory for apartment bombings that took place in Moscow in the 1990s. The leapt at conclusions based on weak evidence closely mirrors what’s become known as 9-11 Trutherism in the US where it is claimed that it was the US government not Islamic terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 – a theory that journalistic outlets such as Frontline would likely dismiss as an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence.

In the program President Vladimir Putin is represented as a man corrupt to the core and driven entirely by crass and sadistic personal motives. Not only is Frontline’s Putin involved in a false-flag bombing against his own people to help secure his political future, his interest in the Chechnya war is presented as an election year gimmick. That Putin has any regard whatsoever for the people that elected him or that he actually believes in the efficacy of fighting Islamic terrorists in Chechnya is not even considered. For Frontline there is no complexity, Putin is simply a Russian caricature, a Stalin stand in, The New Hitler.

The content of the program that contains actual value comes mostly from the book Putin’s Kleptocracy written by Karen Dawisha who is the Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. The book details corruption in Russia that goes up to and includes President Putin with a particular focus on his career when he was working for the Mayor of Saint Petersburg.

You can not tell the story of Vladimir Putin – positive or negative – and not talk about corruption in Russia. One of President Putin’s most popular and widely regarded reform initiatives was, upon assuming the power of the presidency, to start clawing back power from the mafia elite of Russia known as the oligarchs. This program has not only stalled but reversed course entirely with many of said oligarchs congealing into corrupt bureaucrats and politicos with the apparent consent of President Putin. It was never a revolution to be sure, but the reform project was popular and one can fairly condemn Putin for betraying it. In truth, the reversal has been so dramatic one can even reasonably wonder if it was not all a show to begin with, that the battle between President Putin and the oligarchs was really about purging those oligarchs who refused to play ball or dared to challenge Putin’s personal authority.

This is the political dynamic of recent Russian history the Western press (and to some degree academia) stubbornly refuses to accept despite overwhelming evidence – that the alternative to so-called Putinism was not liberal democracy, it was chaotic rule by a greedy gang of crony capitalists. The power struggle was not between the people and the elite but among the elite with the average Russian mostly siding with the faction led by Putin who promised order and a semblance of the state system many preferred compared to the whirlwind of instability that “freedom” had brought thanks to the oligarchs. Democracy was never on the table in post-Soviet Russia and it still isn’t. Furthermore, if the Putin government collapses, as some in DC truly hope for, it will not be the Moscow liberals that take power but bellicose reactionaries even more determined to restore the Russian Empire. And for all the buffoonish behavior of the Russian reactionaries that makes them appear fantastic and cartoonish the nuclear weapons they will control are quite real.

But, if anything, the Russian political and economic system must have been familiar to Frontline. Like Russia, the US also has an elite that largely exists above the law – a phenomenon in the US well documented by Frontline in their aptly named program The Untouchables which made it abundantly clear that it was due to incestuous connections between policymakers and economic elites – not an absence of criminality – that led to there being no prosecutions for the financial crimes that brought the US and world economy to its knees in 2008.

Rather than presenting President Putin as an oversimplified boogeyman perhaps Frontline should have tried to help its audience see outside the Manichean plot lines of US establishment narratives and understand the real limitations of applying Western liberal ideas to Russian politics, that for all of Putin’s numerous failings his autocratic governing style is not as offensive to the average Russian’s sensibilities as it is to the average American’s. Maybe the program could have even offered itself as a cautionary tale on the dangers of concentrated power and wealth and how they can lead to making substantive democracy impossible. That would have been something worth watching.

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Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.