Watching Putin Watch Dr. Strangelove

In The Putin Interviews, a new series beginning soon on Showtime, Oliver Stone asks Vladimir Putin if he’s ever seen Dr. Strangelove. Putin hasn’t. So, Stone sits him down and shows it to him. Even Vladimir cannot quite keep his poker face. He says the problem depicted in the film, the risk of nuclear holocaust, is accurate but more dangerous now than when the movie was made. Stone gives Putin the DVD case, and Putin opens it to find it empty. “Typical American gift,” he jokes.

Early in the series there’s a good deal on Putin’s personal background, and a good deal of flattery from Stone, but hang on because the interesting questions are coming. Putin’s views on history and current politics are generally consensus views in Russia, but they will largely be new to U.S. viewers.

Putin places a lot of blame on Russia pre-Putin, and a lot of blame on the United States during the Putin era. He blames the Soviet Union for having given the United States an excuse to start the Cold War. He blames Mikhail Gorbachev for not having gotten on paper the promise from James Baker that NATO would not expand an inch eastward. But his own assistance to the United States in its war on Afghanistan he explains by saying that then-President George W. Bush said the U.S. would not be staying forever.

Stone asks Putin, without really getting an answer, at what point Putin gave up on trying to cooperate with the United States. The answer seems to be that he never quite has given up, that he’s still open to it. He refers to the United States and Europe as “our partners” despite Stone asking him to cease doing so. Yet he blames “our partners” for surrounding Russia with missiles, starting a new arms race, expanding NATO, withdrawing from the ABM treaty, facilitating the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine (which he calls a coup), and backing terrorist groups in the Caucasus. Stone asks Putin about Hillary Clinton comparing him to Hitler, and he brushes it off as “nothing new.”

When Stone asks about gay rights in Russia, Putin defends the law that forbids “propagandizing homosexuality” to minors. He opposes allowing gay couples to adopt children. But he swears that anyone over 18 is perfectly free to do whatever they want (other than adopt children or be recognized as equally acceptable by society).

Is state surveillance of the public as bad in Russia as in the United States, Stone wants to know. Putin replies that it’s better because Russia lacks the same technological capabilities. If we had those, then it would be as bad, says Putin with a smile. Yet he also says that Russians are opposed to such things because of Soviet history. But does Russia engage in any sort of bulk collection of data on people, Stone asks?

Niet!

Not even on Muslims, who make up 15% of the country?

Niet!

Stone’s interviews were done over many months, and this conversation may have preceded the Russian parliament’s passage of a mass surveillance law that Edward Snowden criticized here.

Stone produced a terrific film on Snowden. He asks Putin about the topic at some length. Putin says that he did not want Snowden to come to Russia. Once Snowden came, Putin says that the U.S. asked for extradition, and he replied that Russia and the United States should agree to a treaty on extradition of indicted criminals in both directions, but the U.S. refused, so Putin refused to extradite Snowden.

But did Putin agree with what Snowden had done? Niet. It was wrong. He should have just resigned. And: Da. It was his right to do it.

Russian spying, Putin claims, unlike in the U.S., always follows the law.

Is Russia a democracy? Putin says Russia has only been attempting democracy since 1990 and should be allowed some time. Yet he claims the media is completely open, which is true except that the state funding of state media dominates the market, just as corporate funding of corporate media does in the U.S. And elections are completely open, he claims, so open that the problem is too many candidates to choose from.

Asked (this is pre-November 2016) who he favors in the U.S. presidential election, Putin notes that any president will be up against the “bureaucracy,” by which he seems to mean the Congress as much as the Deep State, citing as an example his belief that President Barack Obama really did want to close the prisons at Guantanamo. But Putin says he will work with whoever wins, and he says that, unlike “our partners” Russia never interferes in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Now, I know that’s not 100% true, as Russia tried to pay me to interfere in the affairs of the United States. And of course Russia produces English-language U.S.-based media, just as the U.S. does in reverse. Whether any of the claims about “hacking” and leaking ever has any actual proof produced to support it remains to be seen. But there are some ways in which we ought to be listening to Putin and other Russians on this. Obama campaigned for the now-President of France. Bernie Sanders is now campaigning for a better candidate than himself, in Jeremy Corbyn. The U.S. openly seeks to influence elections around the world. It also does so less openly, but quite routinely. U.S. support for a coup in Ukraine in 2014 was exposed before the coup, which rolled ahead unperturbed. What the U.S. has done to places like Iraq and Libya, overthrowing governments and killing presidents, is an even less subtle and more illegal form of “interfering in elections.”

Then there is the problem that Putin is too diplomatic to bring up, if he knows much about it, that U.S. elections have been completely broken for years, that bribery has been legalized, that districts are gerrymandered, that rolls are purged by partisans, that people are blocked from voting by intimidation, long waits, and ID laws, that the corporate media picks the nominees, that the central unproven claim about Russia is that it revealed to Americans that the Democrats were rigging their own primary (revealed it, and revealed it accurately, not had any role in it, not lied about it), that the Supreme Court selected Bush, that rigged machines likely re-selected him, et cetera.

This is a moment to be turning to hand-counted paper ballots in our polling places, not sanctions and missiles, not a cyber-arms race to run side-by-side with an actual arms race.

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