Cool under Fire: Measured Responses to the ‘Trash Sochi, Trash Russia, Trash Putin’ Propaganda Offensive

Paradoxically, the vile propaganda offensive directed against Russia in US and European media these past few weeks has had a positive outcome in the emergence from their relative silence and defensive postures by some of America’s most responsible, experienced and well-informed thinkers on Russia. In this essay I join their dialogue with some related observations. 





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Cool under Fire: Measured Responses to the ‘Trash Sochi, Trash Russia, Trash Putin’ Propaganda Offensive


                                                   by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


Paradoxically, the vile propaganda offensive directed against Russia in US and European media these past few weeks in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics and amidst the tug-of-war between the EU-US and Russia over the ‘civilizational choice’ of Ukraine has had a positive outcome in the emergence from their guarded silence by some of America’s most responsible, experienced and well-informed thinkers on Russia who have risen to the challenge with fresh essays. 

In what follows, I will take as my starting point writings of the past few days by Professor Emeritus of NYU Stephen Cohen and Professor Graham Allison of Harvard and then move on to set out several of my own observations on issues in play in the current media offensive (and counter-offensive) over the nature and prospects of Mr. Putin’s Russia.

I begin with ”Putin’s Olympic Gamble” by Graham Allison in The National Interest, a publication of the tiny Realpolitik wing of the Republican Party which is custodian of Richard Nixon’s political legacy. Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Allison has a record as a leading advisor on security issues, in particular disarmament and nonproliferation, going back to the 1970s. In 2008, when US-Russian relations fell to the last low point following the Russian-Georgian War, Allison was a member of the group of wise men including former US Ambassadors to the Russian Federation, business leaders and academic experts in the Commission on US Policy Toward Russia that prepared the way for the U-turn in relations ultimately known as the ‘re-set.’  

Now, when bilateral relations are falling to a new nadir, Allison’s article carries the constructive and reflective approach of his past writings. Like those writings, too, it has definite blind spots, which I will deal with in a moment, and so it is illustrative of the conceptual limitations of even a would-be fair-minded observer of Russia in today’s American elites.

Allison strikes a blow at the Russophobe tone of nearly all media accounts of Sochi dating from before the opening day, calling them a “chorus of skepticism and criticism that essentially amplified the prevailing refrain about Putin’s Russia as a backward, brutish, bullying relic of the past.” The result per Allison has been counterproductive, positioning Vladimir Putin as the defender of national interests and raising his ratings at home. One senses that this outcome is more offensive to Allison than the trampling on truth which underlies the wholly negative, at times lurid reporting.

 Under cover of attribution, rather than using the first person singular, Allison gives us a second pragmatic criticism of the negative media coverage: that in the end it does not change the realities of international relations. He cites his Russian official contacts in concluding that, like it or not, Obama will be forced to deal with Putin and Russia to resolve the thorniest international problems including Iran and Syria.

Despite himself, Allison fell under the charm of the opening ceremony in Sochi:  “by highlighting Russia’s achievements in the arts, literature, science, sports and style from before Peter the Great to the present, the event conveyed a subliminal message of historical inevitability: the bear is back.”

Among other personal impressions, Allison shares with readers what he heard from one of the young volunteers with whom he chatted:  she told him the Games ‘made her so proud she cried.’

Yet at the front and at the back of his essay Allison directs attention to the great risks that Putin has taken by choosing Sochi, on the edge of the unsettled Caucasus region with its Islamic insurgents, for his investment of tens of billions of dollars in tourist infrastructure and as the venue for the Games. He says this bet could easily prove to be ‘foolhardy.’  Reading between the lines, he is suggesting it was reckless.

In saying this, Graham Allison is missing entirely the most basic fact about the Putin years, which has been the determination of Putin, the man, to face up to the many daunting challenges in his path and realize his ambition of transforming Russia from the economic, social, political wreckage he took over from Boris Yeltsin into a self-confident, purposeful nation hitting above its weight at the board of directors of world governance and defending the interests of its future generations.

This started with Putin’s clipping the wings of the oligarchs who had plundered state assets, taken control of the media, weakened state institutions at every level and flourished amidst the ensuing chaos. They were tamed, sent into exile or, in the case of unbending Mikhail Khodorkovsky, dispatched to prison without any concession to howls of criticism in the West.

Though it is commonplace to remark on how rising oil prices underpinned a resurgent Kremlin, that became possible only because Vladimir Putin risked the wrath of world capital when he faced down the oil majors and dramatically rewrote the one-sided contracts on hydrocarbon and mineral extraction signed in the 1990s to make the state the prime beneficiary of the new favorable prices. Moreover, he championed vast investments in new gas pipelines to end Russia’s dependency on transit countries to bring its hydrocarbon exports to end users. In doing so he engaged the US and the EU in the ‘pipeline wars,’ with threatened veto of passage rights and other dirty tricks at the disposal of his detractors abroad. Overcoming the political obstacles, his team gambled and won on the technical feasibility of bringing into operation the Nord Stream pipeline within tight deadlines and a commercial budget. In the initial rounds of what will be a protracted struggle, he has also won out over the EU-US backed Nabucco pipeline and Southern Corridor in favor of Russia’s competing South Stream project with budgets in play as great or greater than the Sochi Olympics.

These were all colossal risks which Vladimir Putin freely assumed for himself and his leadership team. Failure in any one of them could have spelled national disgrace and the political graveyard. And yet the odds were not as fearsome as they might have appeared given the talent and will of the Russians in issues of primary importance to themselves, whereas their opponents came forward as opportunists without matching motivation.  In the case of the United States, those driving the anti-Russian policies have often been armchair ideologues, dilettantes in effect, Michael McFaul, Richard Morningstar and Victoria Nuland coming immediately to mind.

Over the past decade, there were major risks to the Kremlin which were imposed on it from outside. Here, too, the same elements of steely determination and absence of viable alternatives to victory worked in favor of the Russian team and its boss.  I have in mind firstly Mikheil Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia in August 2008, the Russian-Georgian War and its immediately aftermath, when the US Secretary of State called for the international isolation of the Russian Federation in a propaganda war likening Russian action to Hitler’s move into the Sudetenland.. 

More recently, Vladimir Putin faced down the non-systemic opposition and the street rallies against his rule that arose in the wake of the controversial fall 2011 parliamentary elections. He rallied the majority of the population to his side for his successful March 2012 presidential election. This was done, once again, in the face of open hostility and backing for the opposition by the US administration and its minions in Western Europe. And his domestic popularity ratings rose once again to the level of 65%.

To bring the record up to present, in December 2014 Putin took on both external political challenge from the European Union and domestic doubters in his own administration, not to mention the country at large, and concluded his deal with Ukraine, in yet another huge bet. He proposed and then signed accords with Ukraine for $15 billion in loans and a one-third discount on the price of Russian gas, numbers which matched the financial needs of Ukraine to avoid default in the coming year. Putin’s wager on Ukraine was many times the numbers advanced by the EU and IMF and had none of the draconian conditions which the competing side had set for its assistance. It was and remains an open question whether the funds being advanced will ever be returned.

Like the last titan on the European stage, Helmut Kohl of Germany, Vladimir Putin has found the courage to take risks from his reading of the national history. His lodestone has been Russia’s last major statesman in the early 20th century, Petr Stolypin, who defiantly moved to implement his vision of a great Russia notwithstanding the hostility of the royal milieu on the one side or, on the other side, the political rabble in the streets and the seditious majorities in the country’s young parliament. Stolypin may have lost his bet when he fell to an assassin’s bullet, but he set the mark for enlightened patriotism that the Kremlin has rekindled.

In view of this clear pattern, it is hard to accept the faint-heartedness in Graham Allison’s estimation of Vladimir Putin. It is precisely feistiness that has set Putin apart from timid, tongue-tied politicians taking their cues from the polls in the seats of power across Europe and America today or the uninspired bureaucrats beholden to 28 sovereign states for their marching orders bearing the nominal titles of presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.


The second article with which I open this thought piece on the issues flying about in the brouhaha over Russia these days is “Distorting Russia: How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine” by Stephen Cohen. Initially published in The Nation, it has been subsequently hosted on The website is the brain child of Dr. Ed Lozansky, a Russian born, Washington-based defender of the notion of common US and Russian strategic interests who has for decades rallied businessmen and politicians from both political parties to this cause.

Stephen Cohen is one of America’s leading scholars on 20th century Russia whose books over the years consistently challenged the complacency and generalized lack of intellectual rigor in establishment teachings, all of which brought the field to a cul de sac well before the actual demise of the Soviet Union.  He has never shied from expressing his enthusiasm for the Russian renaissance in the new century and in 2012 he appeared on Russian television in support of Vladimir Putin’s electoral campaign, one of the very few Westerners to have been so daring and so privileged.

Cohen opens his piece with the observation that “American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.” And he points out that the American penchant for vesting in the Kremlin boss all credit for the (faux) democracy of the 1990s (Boris Yeltsin) has switched seamlessly to personalizing and laying at the door of present incumbent Vladimir Putin all blame for Russia’s alleged reversion to autocracy and imperialism, so that “wanton Putin-bashing is… the dominant narrative in centrist, liberal and progressive media, from the Post, Times and The New Republic to CNN, MSNBC and HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher…” Cohen lists the separate issues in the ongoing misrepresentation and critiques at length several authors and articles to drive home his points. 

First in his sites is New Republic’s lead writer on Russia, Julia Ioffe with her latest 10,000-word cover story about Putin: “He Crushed His Opposition and Has Nothing to Show for It But a Country That Is Falling Apart.”

Turning to America’s leading newspapers of record, The New York Times and The Washington Post, Cohen notes their almost exclusive focus in Sochi coverage on either alleged corruption surrounding the $51 billion spent on the Games or on the terrorist dangers to which the selection of Russia and Sochi, in particular, have purportedly exposed the sport. He rightly calls some of this reporting downright ‘pornographic.’

Then Cohen moves on to the tug of war over Ukraine, characterizing US media coverage as “highly selective, partisan and inflammatory.” And he delivers a point for point rebuttal of the latest propaganda piece by Yale professor Timothy Snyder, “Ukraine: The New Dictatorship,” in The New York Review of Books.

Cohen’s remarks fit together rather nicely with my own critiques in of the political advocacy posing as scholarship that Snyder has been publishing since the Independence Square demonstrations set in last November. Whereas a year ago, the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita described Snyder as ‘Nasz człowiek w Ameryce’ [Our Man in America] because of his pro-Polish bias in his historical writings, the Maidan thugs might just as easily say that about Snyder today given his dissemination of their every seditious allegation about the Yanukovich ‘regime’ in his current affairs pieces.

I substantially agree with Stephen Cohen that the current political chaos in Ukraine may be traced back to the ultimatum from the EU that Ukraine make a civilizational choice in its favor and against Russia. And he very rightly tells us that the truly shocking aspect of the Victoria Nuland tapes was not the profanity directed at the EU, as mainstream American journalism would have us believe, but the disclosure of U.S.  attempts to stage manage a coup in Kiev in favor of American stooges. 

Cohen speaks of the even split in opinion within Ukraine over its future orientation, East or West.  Here a further clarification is due:  opinion polls and voting patterns over the past 20 years show a division that  rather neatly tracks geography.  On the major issues facing the country, voting has been 90:10 in East Ukraine and the inverse in the West.  That is to say, each half of the country is roughly homogeneous in its thinking and diametrically opposed to the other half. The net result is to make the country’s possible split-up under pressure from Brussels and Moscow more likely and easier to achieve than one might suppose

The EU, like the US behind it, has been pursuing a winner take all game in Ukraine, as Cohen points out. Meanwhile for weeks now the Russians have been saying unmistakably on their state television that if the Maidan opposition comes to power in Kiev the Eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Odessa may be counted on to secede. The EU and US would be left with the permanently economically dependent remainder.

The Russians will not countenance a geopolitical disaster being inflicted on them in their own back yard by Washington and Brussels. With the expected approval of the population in East Ukraine they will have every possibility of resisting such defeat without recourse to arms, merely by standing at the ready and waiting for a ripe fruit to fall into their lap. 

And yet, if need be, there can be no doubt that Russia will react with military force if presented with an existential threat.  It is equally certain that neither the US nor the EU will go to war over Ukraine, which lies well outside their core interests.

The stage is thus being set for a new profound breakdown in Russian-Atlantic Alliance relations. Let us hope that reason will prevail on both sides before we reach that juncture. Back in November both President Yanukovich and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called for the launch of three way talks on the future of Ukraine. Sadly, this was rejected out of hand by the EU. It remains the only viable approach to resolve the crisis and implement much needed financial assistance, reform and trade association agreements for Ukraine.

Finally, I close this essay with some reflections on two important issues about Russia and its governance that have arisen in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics:  alleged corruption and embezzlement of funds that brought the final price tag to $51 billion and the phenomenon of this mega-project itself which some journalists have identified as redolent of the wasteful practices of the Soviet past that Putin’s Kremlin prefers to a genuinely market-driven economy.


Regarding the question of embezzlement or price gouging surrounding the Sochi Olympics, it has been no secret that close friends and associates of Putin were awarded contracts for construction of the Olympic venues and infrastructure, that both state companies and oligarchs invested heavily in Sochi often using borrowed funds from VEB bank. Journalists for Western media would have us believe that the absence of competitive bidding is a uniquely Russian phenomenon, that it proves the corrupt nature of the regime.

Without denying that the procedures used could be compatible with the suggested abuses, and the truth will only be known in the future when and if proper audits are conducted, the fact remains that the procedures implemented are not unusual internationally and may well have been fully justified in the context of the Sochi project where so much had to be done in remarkably short timelines.

Since the fault finding over Kremlin cronyism has come from the US, I would like to raise an issue from recent American history which bears directly on the options and decisions taken in Moscow.

In the period following 9/11, the Bush administration decided that the federal government was too slow and lacked the skills and experience to respond quickly to the wholly new threats posed by Islamist terrorism. The gutting of federal government departments followed, with large scale outsourcing of security, intelligence and related services to private industry. In an atmosphere of war hysteria, which only reached still higher levels following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US Congress appropriated funds for the Bush administration’s war on terror without exercising its constitutionally mandated supervisory and control powers. Vast contracts were concluded with Halliburton and other private companies with which the Vice President Dick Cheney had decades-long business relations.

The seemliness of these sweetheart deals has never gotten a full public airing in the United States.  The logic was always that the chosen partners were known to have the technical, financial and expert skills necessary to assure prompt and successful implementation of the services and/or production entrusted to them.

And this very same practice may be seen in Pentagon awards of contracts well into the Obama administration as regards urgently needed equipment for troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is precisely the same logic that stands behind the Kremlin’s award of the Sochi projects to its known friends, who alone in Russia were assumed to have the financial, technical and expert characteristics to ensure successful implementation of a project that carried with it the national prestige. So far, in the unfolding Winter Olympics we have seen no reason to question the wisdom of that logic and of the contracts so concluded.

Under normal conditions tenders, even electronic auctions may be the best way to ensure competitive pricing, transparency and the most efficient use of Treasury funds. But exceptional circumstances were operative with regard to Sochi.

Finally, I would like to respond to the criticism of the Sochi mega-project as something intrinsically Soviet in nature and therefore bad for the country.  Here again, let us go back to US experience and consider for a moment the race to the moon launched by President John F. Kennedy. The scope and imagination of that project, the depth of its financing and mobilization of talent was entirely comparable to the Sochi/Krasnodar Region infrastructure project surrounding the Winter Olympics though the time line was more generous.

Arguably, the Apollo program redefined American national purpose. The patriotic pride of a generation was confirmed and the technological advance of the US over the world at large was given a step up that private enterprise, left to its own devices, could never have achieved. Though the lessons of that national project are being unlearned today as NASA yields ground to a burgeoning private rocket launch industry in the USA, the verdict on any alleged superiority of private initiative over national mega-projects is a long way off.



©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014


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 G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.