With Putin Back as President, Media Play the Cold War Card
As Vladimir V. Putin once again assumes the Russian presidency, the expectation in the Western media appears to be that Putin will set a markedly different tone from Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev—one that torpedoes Russia’s re-set with the U.S., and infuses the countries’ relationship with a Soviet-style tension.
After the Cold War ended in 1991, a new era of reconciliation between the two two superpowers began haltingly under President Boris Yeltsin. Then, the 21st century brought the first Putin presidency and with it old fears of the Cold War. The ascension to the presidency of his more diplomatic partner Medvedev between 2008 and 2012 brought some reprieve, but Putin is now back and the old suspicions of Russia have arisen in the American media.
Though the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, stories are often framed in antagonistic and fearful contexts.
“From the American side, we don’t view Russia terribly different from the way we did the Soviet Union,” said Ann Cooper, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who was NPR’s first Moscow bureau chief from 1987 until 1991. “We view Russia as a vast land being ruled by a firm hand. … A place [who’s people are] still yearning two decades later for democracy.”
Coverage of the mass protests that occurred ahead of the March 4 election of Putin are a good example. In February, NPR ran a story about lecture at Moscow International University given by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of state of the old Soviet Union and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize. Putin “has exhausted himself” Gorbachev was quoted as saying. The story, while quoting extensively from the Associated Press and the television station Russia Today, even used a sound byte of Gorbachev calling on Putin to resign. The final paragraph of the report, however, mentioned that Gorbachev, in fact, is largely irrelevant in Russia. He is “insignificant at home,” said NPR’s Eyder Peralta, quoting the AP.
In a story about criticism of Putin, in other words, NPR relied on Gorbachev—an admired Cold War icon in the West—despite his being persona non grata on the Russian political scene.
And NPR was not alone. Both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times did so as well. Throughout the protests, the Western media spoke also of the massive turnouts and how the tide was turning against Putin. Some Western coverage even went so far as to lump in the Russian protests with the Arab Spring. What much of the coverage failed to mention, however, was that the Russian protests were contained inside Moscow—led by the capital’s liberal intelligentsia and independent journalists. Most Russians throughout the country, however, favored Putin and voted for him to return.
Putin hardly helps ameliorate fear of him in the Western media. A former KGB member, he has strong nationalistic tendencies. “We will not allow someone to interfere in our internal affairs,” Putin said defiantly during a stump speech in February, referring to his suspicions that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was spurring the anti-Putin protests. “We will not allow someone to impose [his or her] will on us, because we have our own will! It has helped us to conquer! We are a victorious people! It is in our genes, in our genetic code!”
But the interpretation of his rhetoric is sometimes taken to extremes. In an April New York Times op/ed, for example, Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, discussed missile defense and Russia’s fear that the planned U.S. defense system is not a safeguard against Iran, but Russia. “Russian strategists worry that the American plans could require them to rethink the concept of ‘mutually-assured destruction,’ although those plans, if fully implemented, could not stop Russia obliterating the U.S. if it wished to do so,” Grant wrote. While technically true that Russia has the capability to obliterate the U.S., to use Grant’s term, the sentence gives unnecessary legitimacy to the idea that it would do so. Russia’s firepower, while impressive, pales next to America’s. The Kremlin knows this.
Then take the crisis in Syria. On March 18, the Los Angeles Times ran an analytical article titled, “Syria’s conflict has significance far beyond its borders.” Tensions between the Kremlin and White House over Syria were such that both sides used “Cold War-style rhetoric” with each other, the article said. It added: “Moscow, still smarting over its inability to stop the Western-led bombing campaign that helped bring down longtime ruler Moammar Kadafi in Libya, is determined not to allow the same scenario to play out in Syria, its last major Arab ally.”
What the article fails to mention, however, is that this is not simply a Cold-War battle over foreign influence where Russia hopes to even the score. During the Cold War, driven by the Domino Theory and proxy wars, there was a logical—if not always agreed—fear that the White House and Kremlin were playing for keeps, that smaller nations represented the Park Place and Boardwalk of a world-sized Monopoly game. But Russian policy in the current era is re-focused on two areas: its near-abroad and, subsequently, protecting its own borders. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could encourage the rise of radical Islamists in Chechnya and in many of the former Muslim “soviets”. Russia may still have pride and global ambition, but they are not the main motivators suggested by the L.A. Times article.
Russia in fact has shown a willingness to pare down its nuclear arsenal, impose sanctions on Iran and cooperate in many areas with the U.S. American media stories often explain this by saying Medvedev was the reason for the softening Russian positions—while paradoxically claiming that Putin controlled Russia the entire time. Grant reflected this contradiction writing: “Putin, who has remained the preeminent political figure in the Kremlin during the Medvedev presidency, allowed the reset to happen, though he never used the word.”
The reason for the antagonism toward Russia, according to some experts, is that the media has trouble not finding Cold War storylines. “If we try to whittle it down to how we view each other, unfortunately we view each other in a Cold-War image,” said Jill Dougherty, CNN’s foreign affairs correspondent and its former Moscow bureau chief. She believes that the U.S. media still views Russia has as the same old Soviet Union. “This is not exactly what it is,” she said. “Leningrad [currently St. Petersburg] in 1969 was like World War II. Russia is quite a different place today.”
Yet, the media still writes about Russia “obliterating the U.S.” when it is highly unlikely to do so, and of the majority of Russian being against Putin, when, really, it is only a select group of Muscovites. Of course, according to Dougherty, Russia does not exactly help dispel Cold War nostalgia. “Russia has the same Cold-War view of the U.S.,” Dougherty said. “‘The U.S. likes to throw its weight around.’ Russians still play into the same imagery of us as we have of them.”
While the Russian—read: Putin—sentiments may lean toward anti-West tendencies, the reality is something entirely different. Russia has neither the capability nor the desire (when push comes to shove) to challenge the U.S. like its 1961. Still, it appears that escaping the Cold-War paradigm may be difficult to overcome.
Chris Haire is a graduate student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@CJHaire).