Recently, on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman interviewed a Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder, about the Ukraine War. He was commenting on his New Yorker article “The War in Ukraine is a Colonial War.”
That was his argument: As if we had to guess Putin’s end game in Ukraine, the good professor opined that it probably is to annex Ukraine and afterwards who knows what other country. Putin’s an imperialist, Snyder charged. Like Hitler, he’s after land and soil.
The colonizer must therefore be stopped, Dr. Snyder concluded, and be brought by force of arms to acknowledge Russia’s total defeat. Turning just war theory on its head, Snyder’s point came across as: war is the first resort; negotiation comes only after your enemy has been militarily defeated and is forced to accept the winner’s terms without reservation.
That kind of support for what has prevailed in America as “the official story,” especially coming from a fellow academic who should know better, struck a fraying nerve within me. I mean, to my understanding, it’s not the function of academics (nor for that matter, of news media such as “Democracy Now”) to lend support to the approved narrative. It is rather to test the received account against documented reality.
So, I decided to find out once and for all (1) who Vladimir Putin is, (2) the detailed background of the Ukraine conflict, and (3) what the Russian president’s intention might be in his “special military operation.”
No need, I found, to speculate on any of that. It’s all quite well recorded – for instance (1) in Oliver Stone’s four interviews (each an hour long) with the Russian president, (2) in the film “Ukraine on Fire” (counterpointed by “Winter on Fire”), and (3) in Putin’s two long pre-war speeches (one delivered last February 21st, the other just after on February 24th).
Reviewing that material quite carefully has convinced me that as a national leader, Putin stands head and shoulders above any others I can think of. His reasons for initiating his “special operation” are defensible historically, legally, and according to U.S. precedent.
Putin as Statesman
Before mounting the “Putin Bad” bandwagon, be sure to view Oliver Stone’s “The Putin Interviews” on Showtime. They’re the product of 12 conversations between Stone and Mr. Putin over two and a half years between July 2015 and February 2017.
I found the interviews revealing a man who is difficult to dislike. He is charming and humorous. He drives his own car, is a judo enthusiast, plays hockey, and rides horses. He describes himself as a “cautious optimist” who believes, he says, “there is always hope until the day they put you in the ground.”
Born into a working-class family in 1952, his father was wounded in what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War,” when the United States and the USSR were allies against Nazi Germany.
From an early age, young Vladimir studied judo, whose practice, he says, summarizes his theory of life: be flexible and disciplined; think ahead. (For political leaders, he adds, that means planning 25 to 50 years into the future).
Movies and books made Putin, who studied law in the university, an admirer of the KGB as a patriotic organization. He joined up and was assigned to East Germany. Life there, he remembers, was not dismal, but “frozen in the 1950s.”
Then came Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency (March 1990 – Dec. 25, 1991). Gorbachev’s “reforms” made everything fall apart. (Putin does not particularly admire him.) Social programs were destroyed. Millions lost their previously guaranteed rights and fell into poverty. Oligarchs criminally seized property belonging to the Russian people and became instant billionaires. Overnight, 25 million people lost their nationality and became displaced.
Though opposed to communism, Lenin, and Stalin, Putin recalls that succession of events “one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century.” The country moved towards civil war.
Gorbachev was succeeded by Boris Yeltsin (in office 1991-1999). Before the latter’s resignation, he unexpectedly chose the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin as acting prime minister. Later that year (2000), Putin was elected president with 53% of the vote. He recalls his major accomplishments as bringing the oligarchs more under control and cutting the poverty rate by two-thirds.
As a result, Putin was re-elected in 2004 with 70% of the votes cast. Russia’s constitution forbade his running again in 2008, so he served as prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev (2008-2012). Putin ran again for president in 20012 and won with 63% of the vote.
As for charges that on his watch, Russia’s system is “authoritarian,” Putin calls for historical perspective. He points out that Russia was a monarchy for 1000 years. Then came what he refers to as “the so-called revolution of 1917” followed by dictatorship under Stalin and his successors until the 1990s. In view of such history, it is unreasonable, Putin observes, to expect Russia’s attempts at democracy to rise to the levels of the United States, Germany, or France in such a short time.
Though a survivor of five assassination attempts and criticized mercilessly by the West’s politicians and press, Putin refuses to respond in kind. For instance, Arizona senator John McCain called him “a killer, butcher, thug, and KGB colonel.” Putin replies, “We could make similar comparisons, but due to the level of our political culture, we abstain from extreme statements.” Instead, Putin consistently refers to the U.S. government at “our friends,” and “our partners,”
“Actually,” he adds, “I admire Senator McCain, because of his patriotism.”
Of course, Oliver Stone’s “Putin Interviews” came long before the present crisis in Ukraine. So, for perspective here, let me turn to President Putin’s speech of February 21, 2022, where he laid out the history of the conflict, as well as to his speech of February 24th, the day his “special military operation” began.
Both addresses were substantial, each lasting more than an hour. Commentary shows that few in the West have read the speeches. (The earlier-referenced film “Ukraine on Fire,” also contains information mirroring what the Russian president said.)
Here’s the way Vladimir Putin tells the story:
- The conflict in Ukraine takes place between people who share a history, culture, and spiritual space. They are comrades, colleagues, friends, relatives, and family members.
- Ukraine was always part of Russia. Its modern form as a state was created by the Bolsheviks.
- Both the Russian Empire and the USSR always found it difficult to control their colonies and federated states.
- Beginning in 1922, Stalin did so by complete repression.
- In the 1980s, the nationalist ambitions of local elites resurfaced, supported by some factions of the Communist Party.
- By 1989, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) conceded sovereignty to its federated states (including Ukraine).
- Russia was then pillaged by its own oligarchs, while it continued to economically support states like Ukraine.
- Ukraine suffered similar pillage at the hands of its oligarchs who began allying themselves with western powers.
- Those same Ukrainian officials allowed Russophobe Neo-Nazi nationalists to arise who supported terrorists in Chechnya and laid new claims to Russian territories.
- They terrorized Russian-speaking Ukrainians including politicians, activists, and journalists, even burning alive peaceful protestors in Odessa.
- All these events, eventually led to the Maidan Coup (2014) supported by the United States with $1million per day.
- With corrupt leaders in charge, Ukraine is now run from western capitals as a neo-colony.
- As such, the west threatens to introduce nuclear weapons into Ukraine while flooding it with conventional arms and conducting constant military exercises aimed at Russia.
- Ukraine’s application for NATO membership represents a further direct threat to Russia’s national security.
- Russia has appealed for dialog, peace talks, and negotiations, but its appeals have been ignored by the United States which refuses to countenance the existence of any independent country, especially one as large as Russia.
- Accords between Russia and Ukraine that have been signed (an apparent reference to the Minsk agreements) have been transgressed by Kyiv.
- This leaves Moscow with no other choice but to take measures to protect its own interests.
- It will begin by coming to the rescue of the Donbass region which has been under constant attack by Kyiv since 2014 (with more than 14,000 lives lost).
- Russia therefore recognizes the sovereignty of Donetsk and Lugansk as “People’s Republics.”
Reviewing the bullet points just noted along with additional justifications advanced three days later in a similar speech, show that at least according to U.S. logic, Vladimir Putin’s action in Ukraine is completely justified.
Together with additional information garnered from the film “Ukraine on Fire,” Putin’s own words show that he clearly recognizes that Ukraine was given sovereignty by the USSR in 1989. He has no intention (pace, Professor Snyder) of refusing to recognize the country’s existence or of colonizing or occupying it militarily.
As affirmed in his speech of February 24th, the Russian president states his focused intention as protecting his country from a clear, present, and illegal threat represented by NATO’s expansion right up to Russia’s borders despite:
- Ukraine’s constitutional prohibition against the establishment of foreign military bases on the country’s soil
- The accords of the Organization for Security Interests in Europe (OSCE)
- As well as the de-escalating provisions of two Minsk Accords.
Since appeals for negotiation and dialog have been ignored, Putin’s only option, he claims, is military self-defense and rescue of the citizens of Donbass who have appealed to Russia for help in a war which has already taken many thousands of lives.
With all this in mind, Putin declares his intention in Ukraine as restricted to the following goals:
- Protecting Donetsk and Luhansk from what he sees as genocide perpetrated there by the Ukrainian Nazi Azov regiment largely responsible for Kyiv’s aggression in Donbass since 2014
- Bringing to justice those responsible for the massacres
- Denazifying and destroying the Ukrainian army in the process.
Again, those goals are clearly limited. The Russian president completely denies an intention or ability to occupy Ukraine which is a sovereign state.
Moreover, all of this is in accord with U.S. doctrine and policy. For instance, just last week when the Solomon Islands (7000 miles distant from the U.S.) announced an intention of signing a security agreement with China, the U.S. threatened military response, on grounds that such agreement threatened its national interests.
According to the word’s definition, an “apologist” is “a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial.” It refers to one who defends another from what s/he considers an unjust attack. In the name of even handedness, respect for documentary evidence, and historical fact, that’s the role I’ve attempted to assume here.
Considering such factors , I personally have concluded that Alexander Putin has been defamed. He is no Hitler. He is not insane. He is acting according to the “rules based order” long established and acted upon by U.S. presidents in a whole series of wars that have contravened international law and led to the needless deaths of millions of innocent people.
That is to say that Putin no worse than any U.S. president you care to name. As Chomsky points out (see video above), all of them have committed war crimes far worse than Putin’s – mostly without attempting the detailed justifications found in the Russian president’s extended statements. America’s posture towards the Solomon Islands makes the point.
That’s why I’ve turned into a Putin apologist who hopes for Russia’s success in resisting U.S. aggression at its border that (according to Professor Snyder’s logic) will force Biden and NATO to the negotiation table. But don’t hold your breath. There are still Ukrainian proxies available for cannon fodder.