Who is Vladimir Putin?

Still from "The Putin Interviews", directed by Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone is attempting to shift a global perception. Backlash after backlash, Vladimir Putin has been called names, categorized, and misunderstood. Media outlets have taken a traditionally favored route of labeling him as having a severe mental illness (despite having never interacted with him), while former Secretary of State and Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton has compared him to the liking’s of Hitler. Deepening the complex divide between the United States and Russia has only achieved one goal: increasing western militarism.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in October 1952 in Leningrad to a factory worker and a World War II Veteran. Considered a bit of trouble-maker, young Putin started focusing his attention on Judo to straighten himself out. Fifty-years later, Putin still uses Judo as a means of daily discipline and balance. To say that he is strategic and organized would be an understatement. With a sort of shrewd conviction, Putin lives to serve for the well-being of his citizens. And he has done just that.

Since his first time in office in 2000, Putin has ended two conflicts with Chechen rebels, he has brought down unemployment levels, and has faced external conflicts affecting ethnic Russians. His ratings are very high- constantly in the 90 percent. Whether you are watching Putin address a crowd or sit one-on-one with a progressive American director, confidence and power naturally seeps out of him. It’s no wonder, after Perestroika and the struggles in the 1990s, after the Cold War and Chechen threat- that people would rally around someone with such finesse and nerve as him.

This has not gone unnoticed. In 2007, Time Magazine chose Putin as “The Person of the Year” and for four years straight he has won the top spot for Forbes “Most Powerful Man”. So, why is it, that someone so well revered domestically and who has evoked such positive changes for his country has been torn into pieces by the west?

Oliver Stone addresses this overlying question in his four-part series called “The Putin Interviews”. Between July 2015 and February 2017, Stone and Putin sat down for several very candid conversations. Putin displays himself as cool and confident and he chooses his words carefully. He has an ironic sense of humor and is unafraid to stand his ground.

“I wouldn’t call it trouble. I was just speaking my mind.” – On the 2007 Munich Speech, in which Putin publicly criticized the United States’ exploitative dominance in global affairs.

The episodes started airing on June 12th and concluded on June 15th. Part 1 attempts to digest Putin; Stone wants to give the viewer an idea of how Putin came to be “the most powerful man in the world.” He starts discussing his family history and the struggles they faced living through World War II and the Siege of Leningrad. Stone does a spectacular job at presenting someone that many people can relate to, and with that riveting bond the viewer creates, they move on to the complexities of Russian history and politics, misinterpreted Russian policies (such as LGBT+ rights), cyberwarfare, nuclear weapons, and the alleged election meddling.

Putin said: “There are two threats for Russia. The first threat, the placement of [these] anti-ballistic missiles in the vicinity of our border in the Eastern European countries. The second threat is that the launching pads of [these] anti-ballistic missiles can be transformed within a few hours into offensive missile pads…This is another great strategic mistake made by our partners. Because all these actions are going to be adequately answered by Russia. And this means nothing else but a new cycle of an arms race.”

Part 2 addresses Putin’s concern by opening with George W. Bush’s post 9/11 announcement of the U.S.  withdrawal from the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Reiterating his Munich Speech from a decade earlier, Putin discourages the idea of the U.S. and NATO’s unipolar influence on global affairs. No single country should have the authority or power to line ABM’s on another country’s border; and if they do, they must be prepared to face the consequences of risking citizen security. This cycle of invoking conflict must be stopped. It will take creative and brave thinkers to influence public opinion and shift McCarthyism rhetoric to a holistic pattern of dialogue. Do we really want an arms race, again?

As many will remember, in 2014 Obama signed a series of executive orders punishing Russia for its apparent annexation of Crimea and aggressive behavior in eastern Ukraine. As of Thursday, congress voiced that it not only wants to keep sanctions in place until Moscow resolves the Ukrainian crisis, but it also wants to expand its sanctions due to alleged election meddling. All but two senators voted on a bill to increase sanctions on Russia. If passed, it will put into law those sanctions. Furthermore, the new law will affect Russian energy projects, including transportation and mining. This bill is only one of many that continue to drive a stake in the Russia-U.S. friendship. Everyone must understand the intensity of this situation; as Putin said: “… all of these actions are going to be adequately answered by Russia.”

November will mark the four-year anniversary of the Euromaidan protests in Kiev and the civil war that followed. In Part 3, Stone asks Putin to bring to light the development of the violence. After an American and European supported coup, new power arrived in Kiev and felt the need to adopt a law limiting Russian language. Although European leaders stopped this from happening, dissent started to unravel in the Donbass region of Ukraine, where the population majority are ethnically Russia. Rather than engaging in dialogue, the government used weapons to try and stop the opposition. Meanwhile, in the west, where the causes of violence in Ukraine were viewed different, such sanctions were passed. Despite the approaching four-year maker, there have been no attempts at dialogue and the conflict continues.

Perhaps the most anticipated piece was Part 4, when Stone asks Putin about the alleged election meddling. Putin mentions that such a thing has not happened, but that it is an internal issue that has been brought to light. Multiple times he says that no hacker could have made a difference in the electoral votes and that there has been no evidence produced by the NSA or CIA supporting these claims. Current actions taken by lawmakers in the U.S. on Russia are not only ineffective, they are dangerous. Without proper evidence, any claims made regarding the election meddling are presumptuous and continue to drive apart conducive affairs.

Following the four-part series, what little U.S. media attention “The Putin Interviews” has received, has considered it to be “self-destructive”, “baffling”, and “cringe-worthy”. Rather than attempting to tear-apart Stone’s image, the public should understand the pretext he was trying to take. Stone took that “one small step for man” and made a “giant leap for mankind” by showing Putin and Russia in the raw to the U.S. There is only so much that one man can take in 20 hours of conversation and then fit it into 4 hours-worth of film. This is just a start, and we can hope that this will open the door to more genuine conversations.

Right now, it is ever more important that we transform rhetoric into effective dialogue. Oliver Stone is turning a new leaf; not only is he brave, inevitably facing the criticism of many in the U.S., but he is bringing forward a raw depiction of Putin and Russia. It is important as peacebuilders, advocates, citizens, and scholars, that we listen to what Putin has to say. Failure to do so leads to less reasoning. Take the chance to get to know him; our convictions can never be strong if we do not have sufficient evidence to back them up. And ask yourself: are our current actions more of a reaction than a resolution?