Softening the Target - Oliver Stone's Big Assist to Putin

Putin doesn’t need an army of bloggers posting fake news articles to shape American political opinions these days. After his success in 2016, the effort continues with the help of Oliver Stone. 

What began as a campaign of ‘grey’ active measures, using covert means to spread information favorable to Russian interests, now includes ‘white’ active measures, where the tactics are undeniably the work of the Russian government. An opportunity for Putin himself to make his case to the American people is as overt as it gets. 

Stone’s documentary couldn’t be timelier. As Russia continues to dominate the news cycle, Stone provides the perfect conduit for Putin to script the persona he wants viewers to see, and soften an American audience that remains unprepared for what is still an unfamiliar strategy. 

However, Stone’s series feels less like a documentary and more like a vehicle to air his own well-established grievances about the American government, under the guise of presenting both sides to the public. He interrogates Putin on the hypocrisy of the west, and then accepts his responses at face value because they comport with his own views. Stone asks about Putin’s family and personal history, struggling to connect with the faceless ‘grey man’ personality Putin has cultivated his entire life. The only information you learn about Putin himself is offered up by Stone. 

Eventually the awkwardness subsides, and we begin to see Putin come into his own as the questions move into politics. Putin easily exploits Stone’s burning cynicism towards the American government to offer up an alternative narrative of recent events. If you spend any time on RT or Sputnik news, English-language outlets for the Russian media, you’re well aware of the Russian interpretation on the takeover of Crimea, the Maidan protests that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, and the activities of NATO. 

After several news clips of the “Georgian invasion” during which Putin claims Russia was the defensive actor, he is exasperated that the rest of the world only knows what the mainstream media has told them about this conflict. With Stone’s second biggest pressure point triggered, the one-sidedness of the media, he readily adopts the unique language of Putin’s portrayal of events. 

Throughout the series, Stone shows little interest in conducting a real interview, and instead of challenging anything given by Putin he simply elaborates on the point for him. In one instance, Stone appears to reference a list of issues that the “skeptics back home” will require him to ask; he flatly reads them from his notebook so that Putin has a chance to respond to his critics: No, of course Russia does not assassinate journalists. We have a free and democratic society. Unlike our partners, we do not meddle in the domestic politics of other nations.

The barely concealed smirk requires no translation.

On the topic of Edward Snowden’s asylum in Russia, Stone barely bats an eye throughout Putin’s soliloquy on their ‘partnership in pursuit of the mutual goal of defending human rights’. When asked about the government’s activity regarding bulk data collection and domestic surveillance, Putin denies that the Russian state participates in such unseemly behavior. He chides the United States for undermining the trust of its allies by engaging in espionage against them.  An incredulous Stone looks around for confirmation, can he believe his ears? His expression screams ‘even the big, bad Russian government respects privacy more than we do!’

But if you dig deeper into Putin’s responses, there are some reliable patterns. His answers are politically neutral and highlight the values of Americans who are most likely to harbor a lingering skepticism about the actions of the federal government. He expresses concern about the inertia of government bureaucracy, and the inability for leaders to change much about the system that is rigged in favor of certain interest groups. He points to environmental degradation and climate change as something the international community needs to work together to solve. He says he believes Snowden was a brave patriot fighting an overreaching surveillance state; he doesn’t approve of what he did, he says, but he understands why he did it. 

Putin deliberately crafts this narrative to create the perception that there is a parallel between “things you think your government is doing wrong” and “things Vladimir Putin thinks your government is doing wrong”. Absent any context for his statements, the criticisms may seem legitimate and even mirror familiar discussions.

What many Americans may take away from this series is that they share certain values with Putin, even certain political ideas, and that his arguments have some merit; that’s not an accident. This is a well-worn strategy for the Kremlin, cultivating the impression that you’re both on the same side of an issue by wrapping their objectives in the trappings of your core values. 

It’s why they immediately held a ‘referendum’ in Crimea, because ‘democracy!’. It’s why they’re ‘fighting terrorists’ in Syria, when the bulk of their strikes haven't been against ISIS, but against anti-Assad rebels. This is where the objective of the influence campaign becomes undeniably clear. By creating these rhetorical parallels between Putin and the American viewer, by saying the same things they say in a way they might discuss the topics themselves, he provides a credible alternative for everything they’ve been told about him.

This is also is why the interviews fail as a piece of journalism. Foreign policy is complex, and Americans have an embarrassingly low level of literacy about Russia, ever since we collectively stopped thinking about them in the mid-90’s. Putin has his own reasons for pushing these policies, which are based on his strategic interests, not his purported support of any democratic ideals. 

For instance, he’s vocally against the United States engaging in regime change abroad, not out of his dedication to the virtue of self-determination, but because he believes that at some point he may be the target of it. He believes NATO should discontinue its expansion and admission of new members, not because he thinks NATO is really obsolete, but because it would surround him with a military alliance designed to limit his influence, in a sphere he believes to be naturally and historically his to engage. 

Stone’s interviews leave out this critical context, context which provides an entirely different framework for understanding Putin’s answers, and that’s only if you believe he’s telling you the truth. As public opinion softens on these subjects, he will continue to test the boundaries of his field of play. He knows there will never be widespread support for an aggressive response against a nation they haven’t demonized in their mind. ‘But I saw him on TV’, they’ll say, ‘and he didn’t seem that bad’.  

Add that to the current level of distrust in the media, and Congressmen arguing that the Russia investigation is baseless scaremongering, and you’ve got a trifecta strong enough to hold a lot of denial for a very long time. 

In keeping with the theme of sowing doubt to create divisions and then exploiting those divisions, an American public divided over whether or not Russia is any sort of threat is great news for Putin. Following the American president’s repeated skepticism of NATO’s necessity, Russia will continue to probe it for weaknesses. It will continue to do what it’s always done, poke around until it discovers a vulnerability or provokes a reaction, with an innocent-sounding explanation at the ready. 

When an already tense NATO F-16 intercepts several unresponsive Sukhoi SU-27 jets over the Baltic sea, there will be a plausible sounding story that quickly makes the rounds on social media, with a very Russia-was-the-real-victim narrative. It will reference a prior mistake by the American military, somewhere in the world, in an attempt to discredit their competence and reliability. The public may start to doubt whether the version of events they're hearing is true or not. 

These interactions between NATO military personnel and Russian armed forces are increasing in frequency in a number of theaters. If an escalation does occur, the U.S. response will be dictated by the public’s appetite for war. And if President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric is any measure, that won’t be on the menu. Besides, who wants to go to war for NATO? I hear they don’t even pay their bills.


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