Putin and the West

Does Putin really Want to “Destabilize the West”?

Does Putin Really Want to Destabilize the West?
Does Putin Really Want to Destabilize the West?

Destabilize the West

“Does Putin Really Want to ‘Destabilize the West’?” Stephen F. Cohen (Author), War with Russia?: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate Paperback – February 1, 2019

AT THE CENTER OF RUSSIAGATE AND near abolition of US diplomacy toward Russia today is the accusation that Putin wants to “destabilize Western democracies,” from America to Europe. As with so many other new Cold War narratives, there is no persuasive historical evidence or political logic for this sweeping allegation.

Putin came to power in 2000 with the expressed mission of rebuilding, modernizing, and stabilizing Russia, which had collapsed into near-anarchy and widespread misery during the decade following the end of the Soviet Union. He sought to do so, in very large measure, through expanding good political and economic relations with democratic Europe.

Until the Ukrainian crisis erupted in 2014, much of Putin’s success and domestic popularity was based on an unprecedented expansion of Russia’s economic relations with Europe and, to a lesser extent, with the United States. Russia provided a third or more of the energy needs of several European Union countries while thousands of European producers, from farmers to manufacturers, found large new markets in Russia, as did scores of US corporations. As late as 2013, the Kremlin was employing an American public-relations firm and recruiting Goldman Sachs to help “brand” Russia as a profitable and safe place for Western investment. Along the way, Putin emerged, despite some conflicts, as a partner among European leaders and even American ones, with good working relations with President Bill Clinton and (initially) with President George W. Bush.

Why, then, would Putin want to destabilize Western democracies that were substantially funding Russia’s rebirth at home and as a great power abroad while accepting his government as a legitimate counterpart? Putin never expressed such a goal or had such a motive. From the outset, in his many speeches and writings, which few American commentators bother to read—even though they are readily available in English at Kremlin.ru—he constantly preached the necessity of “stability” both at home and abroad.

Putin’s vilifiers regularly cite questionable “evidence” for the allegation that he has long, even always, been “anti-American” and “anti-Western. They say he previously had a career in the Soviet intelligence services. But so did quite a few Western-oriented Russian reformers during the Gorbachev years. They say Putin opposed the US invasion of Iraq. But so did Germany and France. They say he fought a brief war in 2008 against the US-backed government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. But a European investigation found that Georgia’s president, not the Kremlin, began the war.35

Putin is also accused of pursuing a number of non-Western and thus, it is said, anti-Western policies at home. But this perspective suggests that all foreign “friends” and allies of America must be on America’s historical clock, sharing its present-day understanding of what is politically and socially “correct.” If so, Washington would have considerably fewer allies in the world, not only in the Middle East. Putin’s reply is the non-Soviet principle of national and civilizational “sovereignty.” Each nation must find its own way at home within its own historical traditions and current level of social consensus.

In short, had Putin left office prior to 2014, he would have done so as having been, certainly in the Russian context, a “pro-Western” leader—a course he generally pursued despite NATO’s expansion toward Russia’s borders, US regime -change policies in neighboring countries, and criticism in high-level Russian circles that he had “illusions about the West” and was “soft” in his dealings with it, especially the United States.

Everything changed with the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, as a result of which, it is asserted, Russia “aggressively” annexed Crimea and supported Donbass rebels in the ensuring Ukrainian civil war. Here began the sweeping allegation that Putin sought to undermine democracy everywhere, and eventually the American presidential election in 2016. Here too the facts hardly fit, as we have already seen but need to recall.

Throughout 2013, as the European Union and Washington wooed Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, with a bilateral economic partnership, Putin proposed a tripartite agreement including Russia, Ukraine’s largest trading partner. The EU and Washington refused. The crisis erupted when Yanukovych asked for more time to consider the EU’s financial terms, which also included ones involving adherence to NATO’s policies.

Putin watched as initially peaceful protests on Kiev’s Maidan Square devolved by February 2014 into Western-applauded armed street mobs that caused Yanukovych, still the constitutional president, to flee and put in power an ultranationalist, anti-Russian government. It seemed to threaten, not only vocally, ethnic Russians and other native Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine as well as the historical and still vital Russian naval base at Sevastopol, in Crimea, and that province’s own ethnic Russian majority. Given those circumstances, which were imposed on him, Putin seemed to have had little choice. Nor would have any imaginable Kremlin leader.

A vital episode amid the February 2014 crisis has been forgotten—or deleted. The foreign ministers of three EU countries (France, Germany, and Poland) brokered a compromise agreement between the Ukrainian president and party leaders of the street protesters. Yanukovych agreed to an early presidential election and to form with opposition leaders an interim coalition government. That is, a democratic, peaceful resolution of the crisis. In a phone talk, President Obama told Putin he would support the agreement. Instead, it perished within hours when rejected by ultranationalist forces in Maidan’s streets and occupied buildings. Neither Obama nor the European ministers made any effort to save the agreement. Instead, they fully embraced the new government that had come to power through a violent street coup.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. But if Ukraine is indicative, who actually destabilized its flawed, even corrupt, but legal constitutional democracy in 2014? Putin or the Western leaders who imposed an untenable choice on Ukraine and then abandoned their own negotiated agreement?


Stephen Frand Cohen (November 25, 1938 – September 18, 2020) was an American scholar of Russian studies. His academic work concentrated on modern Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s relationship with the United States.


He chronicled Stalin’s tyrannies and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Stephen F. Cohen, an eminent historian whose books and commentaries on Russia examined the rise and fall of Communism, Kremlin dictatorships and the emergence of a post-Soviet nation still struggling for identity in the 21st century, died on Friday at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

His wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, the publisher and part owner of The Nation, said the cause was lung cancer.

From the sprawling conflicts of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the tyrannies of Stalin to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vladimir V. Putin’s intrigues to retain power, Professor Cohen chronicled a Russia of sweeping social upheavals and the passions and poetry of peoples that endured a century of wars, political repression and economic hardships.

A professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, he was fluent in Russian, visited Russia frequently and developed contacts among intellectual dissidents and government and Communist Party officials. He wrote or edited 10 books and many articles for The Nation, The New York Times and other publications, was a CBS-TV commentator and counted President George Bush and many American and Soviet officials among his sources.

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