An oft-reviled world leader. An inexperienced political interviewer with no shortage of ego. Hours of screen time.
The parallels between Hollywood legend Oliver Stone’s new documentary about Russian president Vladimir Putin, which aired this week on Showtime in the US, and Sir David Frost’s The Nixon Interviews have been much remarked upon. Stone even named them The Putin Interviews. But Frost/Nixon this was not.
The two men first met when Stone was making his film Snowden and they reportedly hit it off. Stone sets the sycophantic tone for the series—filmed between 2015 and 2017—with a conversation early in the first episode.
“You’re credited with doing many fine things in your first term: You built up industries, electronics, engineering, petrochemicals, agriculture, you raised the GDP, you raised the income, you reformed the army, you resolved the Chechen war, the privatization was stopped. You’re a real son of Russia,” he says, later adding that Putin cut poverty by two-thirds. Minutes after, Stone tells a nodding Putin that his producer says, “You are an excellent CEO, chief executive officer, of a company. Russia is your company.”
No mention of the Russian president’s extraordinary luck in taking office in 2000 just as oil prices went through the roof. Nor of the fact that his failure to diversify the economy away from fossil fuels helped plunge the country into recession once those prices dropped, and then stagnation.
The adulation later moves on to Putin’s physique. “He looks good, he could have been a movie star,” Stone tells Putin’s translator as they all watch a clip of him speaking in Munich in 2007. “I’m sorry, I keep thinking you’re 53—instead you’re 63,” he tells the Russian president. At other points, Stone laughs along when Putin reveals his misogynistic sense of humor, and gives a non-committal smile at a joke with violently homophobic undertones.
The series ends with Stone hugging Putin, who tells the director he’ll “suffer” at home for having done these interviews. “It’s worth it if it brings some more peace and consciousness to the world,” the creator of classics like Platoon and Wall Street replies with a self-sacrificial sigh.
The questioning does get a wee bit tougher in the third and fourth episodes. (To be fair to Stone, he was also no doubt worried about keeping Putin sweet early on to retain his access.) But though Stone raises matters like Russia’s hacking of the US elections, the annexation of Crimea, and Putin’s alleged vast wealth, he doesn’t press hard. For example, after hearing Putin’s outright denial of being rich, Stone does not follow up with evidence from the Panama Papers, published shortly before, that Putin’s closest friends have become fabulously rich. Instead he merely says, “I have to say, from personal observation, I would have a hell of a lot more fun [than you] if I was rich.”
And yet, for all its fawning and its flaws, the series gives us perhaps the most complete visual portrait we’ll ever have of the man who has ruled Russia since 2000. It ranges from glimpses of the quotidian—Putin’s grueling workout regime, tours of his dacha and three Kremlin offices (they used to be Stalin’s and one has the biggest world map you’ll ever see on the wall), his first-name relationship with Barack Obama—to new insights into the Russian leader’s worldview. While it’s often difficult to separate actual beliefs from tactical ploys in the things Putin says, a few overarching themes come up.
He’s obsessed with Russian victimhood and deeply cynical about the United States
America’s geopolitical strategy can be explained, in Putin’s view, quite simply: It wants, as he said in his 2007 Munich speech, to be the “one master, one sovereign” of the world, and to do that it needs reliable foils. Who are those main foils? The members of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
“Today NATO is a mere instrument of US foreign policy. There are no allies there, only vassals,” he tells Stone. But the alliance has a problem, Putin argues: Since the fall of the Soviet Union and with it the Warsaw Pact, it has little purpose. “My impression is that in order to justify its existence NATO needs an external enemy. There’s a constant search for an external enemy or some acts of provocation to name someone as an enemy,” he says. The enemy? You can guess.
Once you’ve taken this narrative on board, all Russia’s geopolitical controversies can be explained away. The Ukraine crisis? Fomented by the CIA to make Eastern Europeans worry about a Russian invasion. The US election hacking? Blamed on Russia to undermine Trump and stop him improving relations with Moscow. The Russian-Georgian war? Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili probably wouldn’t have struck the first foolish blow against Russia without foreign encouragement.
He goes even further: “It feels like a dislike for some kind of ethnic group, like anti-Semitism,” he says. “If someone doesn’t know how to do something, is incapable, anti-Semites always blame the Jews. Those who have the same attitude towards Russia always blame Russia.”
The narrative is striking in part because it mirrors Putin’s own habit, especially since the public protests in 2011 and 2012, of blaming Russia’s internal problems on the United States. For example, the Kremlin’s response to the Western sanctions imposed after its annexation of Crimea was to impose its own retaliatory ban on Western food imports. According to Andrew Weiss, head of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia division, that ban, rather than the sanctions, was the “main source of pain” for the average Russian, in part because it inflated domestic prices. Yet the Kremlin blamed this self-inflicted blow on the West. “It shows how the regime has used sanctions as a foil for its argument that the West is hurting the average Russian,” Weiss said.
He wants a world defined by sovereignty (at least nominally)
Putin has long complained that Washington is far too willing to infringe on other nations’ sovereignty. “What’s needed right now is a move towards a new paradigm, a new philosophy for building relations among countries,” he tells Stone. “This should be based on respect for the interests of other peoples, for their sovereignty.”
It’s the kind of argument China is also fond of making. It doesn’t hold up, however, when you look at how Moscow bullies its “near abroad,” bending former Soviet republics like Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan to its will and invading Ukraine when it refused to acquiesce.
Nonetheless, Putin believes smaller members of NATO will eventually tire of being bossed about by the US, which is “intimidating them by creating an outside threat that can only be stood up against with the help of the United States,” he says. “This paradigm will have to cease to exist sooner or later.” For that reason, Eastern European countries will eventually realize they are wrong to fear a Russian invasion and will want to free themselves from under the heel of the Americans.
As much as anything, Putin’s doctrine of sovereignty seems a convenient way of railing against the US while justifying the fact that he doesn’t like formal alliances—except when Russia itself is the dominant partner, as in the so far inconsequential Eurasian Union project. Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign-affairs commentator, explains the Kremlin’s attitude to relations with other states in an email: “[Russia] views formal alliances as a burden and a constraint…Moscow prefers to exercise a complete freedom of action and ability to do what it pleases. Internationally, Russia is a cat who walks by himself. It prefers ad hoc coalitions of the willing to permanent alliances. It needs clients, not allies.”
Putin spells out this skepticism of alliances in one conversation with Stone. “[Russia is] a sovereign country—there are risks to that but great advantages as well,” he says. “The few countries that can wield their own sovereignty can take things into their own hands. Many others are burdened with so-called ‘obligations’ to their allies. In reality they’ve limited their own sovereignty to a significant extent.”
It all adds up to a stark view of the world held by transactionalists like Putin and Donald Trump. Alliances cannot be mutually beneficial; someone has to be exploiting someone else. As such, it can only make sense for Putin that smaller countries will eventually want to wriggle free and form looser ties that allow them to keep more control of their destinies.
He says he thinks very far into the future
As the truism goes, democracy forces leaders to focus on short-term issues to get re-elected, and they can’t or won’t make longer-term plans. Judging by The Putin Interviews, the Russian leader, unburdened by democracy, is keenly aware of this.
“There are people who think 25, 30, 50 years ahead,” he said. “They think about challenges, threats, and they have a different attitude towards Russia. There are some who live from election to election and think only about their own political interests.” The latter, he says, want Putin’s Russia to be “down.”
He repeats the sentiment again and again—for instance, when arguing that the West supported Ukrainians who rose up against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 not because it wanted more freedoms for Ukraine, but to stop it allying with Russia and increasing the latter’s power. “In that sense they achieved their goal with perfection. They did well. But if you look at it from a broader point of view…if you look forward 25 years into the future, if you have a look at how the world situation is going to develop, then you would need to change your philosophy of international affairs.”
To this viewer’s deep irritation, at no point did Stone ask Putin to expand on this rather cryptic argument. There’s no explanation of what Western leaders’ supposed desire to keep Russia down has to do with political short-termism, nor what the world will look like 25 years into the future.
He claims to be an optimist
On the one hand, Putin says almost “nothing changes” with each new US president (he’s now on his fourth), and doubts Trump can improve relations with Moscow (America’s bureaucracy will block him, Putin says). Yet at the same time, he called himself a “cautious optimist” about US-Russian cooperation. “There is always hope,” he says. “I’m just sure that sooner or later, we’ll face decisions that we can’t even imagine now. New problems will come along that we’ll have to fix.”
Putin even extends this hope to the Middle East. “In my opinion, sooner or later there will be a calming in the region and people will find a balance in which the region will be able to exist in relative safety, however difficult the solution to these problems might seem now.” He continues on the subject of Islam: “You know, not one world religion can be a source of evil…I think this divide [between Sunnis and Shias] will sooner or later have to be bridged.”
The Russian leader is as impenetrable as ever at moments like these. Can he really believe in reconciliation with the US after his alleged attempt to undermine its electoral system? Does he really see a peaceful Middle East while propping up Syria’s Bashar al-Assad? Is he truly positive about Islam while giving Muslims little room to breath in Russia? Or are these all just calculated platitudes?
And so, even after four hours, The Putin Interviews leaves as many questions as answers. The only thing we know is that, whether he’s offering real beliefs or strategic PR ploys, Putin, unlike Trump, chooses all his words with care. What they actually mean is left for us to decide.