“We are at an extremely dangerous moment today. Never have the relations between Russia and the United States… been at this level,” said the Russian-American journalist Vladimir Pozner to a standing-room-only crowd at Luce Hall on Sept. 27. “During the worst times of the Cold War, when I was living in the Soviet Union… Russians were anti-White House, anti-Wall Street, but not anti-America. … Today that’s different. Today it’s anti-American at the grassroots level, and there’s a reason for it.”
A French-born broadcaster with a career spanning over 50 years in the Soviet Union, United States, and modern Russia, Pozner aimed not only to underscore the dangers of a growing distrust between the two nations — including that of an accidental nuclear strike — but to explain the reasons it exists and offer a path forward.
Titled “How the United States Created Vladimir Putin,” Pozner’s talk was co-sponsored by Poynter Fellowship; the Program on Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies (REEES); the MacMillan Center; and the European Studies Council, and featured opening remarks by REEES Faculty Director Douglas Rogers and Constantine Muravnik, a professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Yale. In his introduction, Muravnik noted Pozner’s unique perspective on international affairs: “He was born in France and christened in Notre Dame, grew up in the U.S., and came to Russia at the age of 19. … Perhaps this ability to be simultaneously Russian and American and European attunes Mr. Pozner to the subtleties of different perspectives.”
A new Cold War
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States had two options for dealing with the newly independent Russian nation, argued Pozner. The first was to accept then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s offer of partnership, emulating the rebuilding of Western Europe after World War II and “[seeing] to it that democracy [begin] to develop.”
“The other approach,” said Pozner, “was to say, ‘For 40 years you held a nuclear bomb over our heads. You lost the Cold War, and you’re going to pay for it. You’re going to be punished for what you did.’”
Beginning with the drafting of the so-called Wolfowitz Doctrine under President George H.W. Bush, argued Pozner, the foreign policy establishment of the United States adopted the latter strategy.
“The attitude toward Russia was pretty much, ‘You’re no longer a superpower. You’re a second-rate country,’” said Pozner, referencing events such as the enlargement of NATO with former Soviet satellite states and U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. “The reaction of the average Russian was one of, ‘You’re insulting me. You don’t respect me.’”
Stopping short of assigning blame, Pozner called the strategy “a mistaken political decision … that finally led to this change in Putin’s attitude toward the West, and in particular the United States. Which is why I say U.S. policy created Putin the way he is today.”
Inventing the enemy
Shifting his focus from American foreign policy to the state of journalism, Pozner offered a second sense in which United States has “created” Putin: through the mainstream media’s depiction of the Russian president as a Hitler-like enemy of democracy.
“Russian media — mainstream media controlled directly or indirectly by the government — shows an extremely negative picture of the United States,” said Pozner. “And much to my surprise, mainstream American media does exactly the same thing vis-à-vis Russia. Which to me is amazing, because this is supposed to be a free media.”
Journalists, said Pozner, “are playing a destructive role in creating the fear, the dislike, the distrust that people in both countries have for each other.”
Pozner closed his speech by drawing an ominous parallel between modern media narratives surrounding Russia and a quote by the Nazi leader Hermman Göring: “‘The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders… All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.’”
Alluding to a viral video in which actor Morgan Freeman says the U.S. is “at war” with Russia, Pozner added, “We are being led, by our media, by our politicians, in that direction.”
It’s up to the ordinary citizens of each country, he said, to speak out against calls for aggression and hostility.
Following his lecture, Pozner participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by Rogers.
Asked for his opinion on accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Pozner said that the Russians “probably did” try to influence the election. He added, “Was it effective? I doubt it. … To think that Trump actually won the election because of Russian interference, you have to be very naïve for that.”
For nearly an hour afterwards, Pozner responded to questions on subjects such as President Donald Trump’s relationship with Putin, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the possibility of compromise with Ukraine, recent political developments in Armenia and Georgia, the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, and the hope for change in Russia’s future.
Running through each of his answers was an appeal to the audience to look past official narratives and prejudices and form one’s own perspective. “I would not say ‘believe me,’ or ‘trust me,’” he said at one point during the discussion. “But ‘look into it.’ That’s all.”