SCOTT RITTER: On Speaking Plain ‘Putin’

Any retrospective on the Russian-Ukraine conflict begins with a modicum of interest in how Moscow defines the conflict. First of an article in two parts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. (Ramil Sitdikov, RIA Novosti Host Photo Agency, Kremlin)

By Scott Ritter
Special to Consortium News

Back in March, I had the opportunity to participate in an on-line forum where a well-known Russian expert provided a briefing on the “ground truth” as he saw it from Moscow.

Following the briefing, the floor was opened for questions. I had noted that the briefer, the moderator, and indeed the audience made repetitive use of the term “invasion” to describe what Russia has called a “Special Military Operation.” 

I brought up the limited objectives of the Russian military effort at the time of its initiation, namely the goal of compelling Ukraine to agree to a negotiated settlement and asked if the term “Special Military Operation” was not a more accurate description of reality.

The expert understood my question and agreed that the term “Special Military Operation” carried with it a specific connotation which distinguished it from a classic military invasion. However, in the group chat, where participants were able to comment on the proceedings, one individual offered the following observation: “‘Special Military Operation?’ What’s that? I don’t speak Putin.”

[Related: SCOTT RITTER: On Horseradish & Nuclear War]

This forum was intended as a way to better inform the participants about one of the most pressing issues of the day — the conflict between Russia and Ukraine — and to better prepare them for assessing the consequences of this conflict globally.

Given the failure of the collective West to impose its will on Russia through what is widely considered a proxy conflict, one would think that some form of retrospective analysis would be in order. However, to engage in such an activity constructively, an agreed-upon lexicon would be needed to communicate effectively.

Since Russia is prevailing in the conflict, one would also think that a modicum of interest should be given to how Russia defines the conflict. In short, anyone who is interested in learning the lessons of the collective West’s failure in Ukraine should learn “to speak Putin.”

Worn-Out Cold War Thinking

Berlin Wall in 1961. (Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

The problem is, those in the West who should be preparing a proper lexicon from which the Russian-Ukraine conflict could be more accurately assessed are instead operating from an outdated lexicon rooted in the language and mindset of a time that no longer exists, born of a Cold War mentality that prevents any deep-seated and relevant analysis of the true situation between Russia and the West.

Both the United States and NATO have described the Russia-Ukraine conflict as possessing existential consequences for Europe and the world, with the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, going so far as to declare in October 2022 that “Russia’s victory in the war against Ukraine will be a defeat of NATO,” adding ominously, “This cannot be allowed.”

Bad news, Mr. Stoltenberg — Russia has won. While the “Special Military Operation” has yet to be concluded, Russia has seized the strategic initiative across the board when it comes to conflict with Ukraine, forcing the Ukrainian military to terminate a counteroffensive, which the government of Ukraine and its NATO allies had invested tens of billions of dollars in military resources, and tens of thousands of Ukrainian lives in hopes of achieving a decisive victory over the Russian military on the battlefield.

Stoltenberg laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine on  Sept. 28. (NATO, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Today, Ukraine finds its military decimated by the fighting and unable to sustain itself as a cohesive combat force on the field of battle. The U.S. and NATO likewise find themselves unable and/or unwilling to continue supplying Ukraine with the money and material needed to continue to maintain a viable military presence on the battlefield.

Russia is in the process of transitioning away from a posture of flexible defense, and instead initiating offensive operations along the length of the line of contact designed to exploit opportunities presented by an increasingly depleted, and defeated, Ukrainian army.

U.S. President Joe Biden has likewise argued that a Russian victory was unacceptable.

“We can’t let Putin win,” Biden said earlier this month to put pressure on a U.S. Congress that has allowed the Ukrainian conflict to become wrapped up in domestic American politics, with key Republicans in both the Senate and House refusing to support a funding bill that lumps some $60 billion in Ukraine assistance together with money for Israel and immigration reform.

“Any disruption in our ability to supply Ukraine clearly strengthens Putin’s position,” Biden concluded.

Biden’s articulation of the quandary faced by his administration underscores the extent to which the U.S. and its European allies have personalized the Russian-Ukraine conflict. In their eyes, this is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war.

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Indeed, Russia itself has been reduced to being a mere appendage of the Russian president. In this, Biden is not alone. An entire class of erstwhile Russian “experts” — including the likes of former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul; the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum; and a host of so-called national security experts, including former Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Russia Andrea Kendall-Taylor and the former Russia Director for the National Security Council Fiona Hill — have all made the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia all about Putin.

In a recent interview with Politico, Hill, the co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, published in 2015, mirrored the statements by Stoltenberg and Biden that defined the Russia-Ukraine conflict as an existential crisis.

March 2018: Fiona Hill, at far end of left side of table, at a meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton — beside Hill — and Putin in Moscow. (, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Kendall-Taylor, who in 2022 co-authored an article in Foreign Affairs titled “The Beginning of the End for Putin?” likewise views the conflict as an extension of Putin’s needs as an individual, more than Russia’s needs as a nation.

“Putin,” Kendall-Taylor told NPR in January 2022, before the start of the Special Military Operation, 

“really is looking to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. After 20 years of him being in power, he’s thinking about his legacy, and he wants to be the leader who returned Russia to greatness. And to do that, he has to restore Russian influence in Ukraine.

And for him, I think it’s really personal. Putin, over his 20 years — 22 years now in power, has tried and failed repeatedly to bring Ukraine back into the fold. And I think he senses that now is this — his time to take care of this unfinished business.”

Such an outcome, of course, is unacceptable, according to Kendall-Taylor. “I don’t think it’s overstating it to highlight how important the U.S. assistance is,” she recently told The New York Times. “If the assistance doesn’t continue, then this war takes on a radically different nature moving forward.”

Applebaum in November penned an article in The Atlantic titled “The Russian Empire Must Die,” wherein she argued that “a better future requires Putin’s defeat — and the end to imperial aspirations.” She recently gave her opinion of Putin’s legacy in the aftermath of the Ukraine conflict.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Putin will be remembered as the man who really set out to destroy his own country,” Applebaum told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview last August. Putin, Applebaum declared, 

“is somebody who has worsened the living standards, and freedom, and culture of Russia itself. He doesn’t seem to care about the well-being or prosperity of ordinary Russians. They’re just cannon fodder to him. He’s not interested in, you know, Russian achievements in infrastructure or art or in literature and in anything else. He has impoverished Russians. And he’s also brought back a form of dictatorship that I think most Russians had thought they’d left behind.”

What the Russian president is doing, Applebaum said, “is really destroying modern Russia. And I think that’s what he’ll be remembered for overall.”

‘Russia Is the Problem Because it Empowers Putin’

Touring Red Square in Moscow in May 2013: McFaul, when he was U.S. ambassador to Russia, is third from right. From left: Russian Chief of Protocol Yuriy Filatov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry  (State Department, Public domain)

McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, wrote a memoir, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador to Putin’s Russia. In a recent interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, McFaul stated that, “I changed my views as a result of this horrific, barbaric war in Ukraine, because Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine.” Russia, McFaul now claims, is the problem because Russia has empowered Putin.

McFaul backs up his assessment with a bit of revisionist history. 

Calling Putin “a completely accidental leader of Russia,” McFaul labeled Putin “a creature of the existing regime” appointed by Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, and lacking in any meaningful political constituency. 

Putin, McFaul claims, “wants to create this myth that ‘there was the chaos of the ‘90s, and I came in as the hero.’ That’s complete and utter nonsense,” McFaul asserts. “That’s not the history the way it was in real time.”

Given Putin’s lack of political pedigree, McFaul says, “we don’t necessarily know if Russians support him. How do you know when there’s not real free and fair elections, when there’s no real media? You can’t know if he’s popular or not in those conditions.”

McFaul says that “I changed my views” about the culpability of the Russian people for Putin

“as a result of this horrific, barbaric war in Ukraine, because Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine. There was no vote; there’s no referendum. We don’t know what Russians actually thought about that decision. There is public-opinion polling before it to suggest that they didn’t want that fight, including by independent organizations, even Western organizations.

But once he went in, there was support — as there usually is when countries go to war — and now there are Russians that are raping Ukrainian women and children; there are Russians that are committing massive atrocities inside Ukraine. So Putin can’t do those things without the support of Russians. And therefore, this excuse that Russians are not guilty and they shouldn’t be treated badly, and they shouldn’t be sanctioned because of autocracy, I disagree with that.”

Putin’s war, McFaul concludes, is now Russia’s war.

McFaul’s unsubstantiated allegations of Russian atrocities provide a clear picture of the fact-free foundation used by the former ambassador to shape his narrative of Putin’s Russia.

McFaul’s assertion of rape is particularly egregious, considering that, at the time of his interview — July 2023 — these allegations had been quashed by Ukraine itself following the revelations that Lyudmila Denisova, the Ukrainian Parliament’s commissioner for human rights, had issued official statements using unverified information.

In a letter to the Parliament, Ukrainian journalists said Denisova’s reports were harmful to Ukraine, noting that the information put out by Denisova’s office was regarded as factual by the media, and was “then used in articles and in speeches by public figures.”

Denisova was fired in May 2022 — more than a year before McFaul echoed her discredited allegations in a living manifestation of the caution set forth by the Ukrainian journalists.

[See: Caitlin Johnstone: Official Behind Media Reports of Russian Atrocities Fired by Ukrainian Parliament]

McFaul premised much of his altered view regarding the co-responsibility of the Russian people for the conflict with Ukraine on his understanding of the events of the 1990’s, and how these events shaped the rise to political prominence of Vladimir Putin. 

Curiously, McFaul asserts that any notion of the decade of the 1990s as being one of “chaos” for Russia is a myth. What makes this assertion particularly curious is that McFaul himself was personally involved with the Russia of the 1990s, and should know better.

McFaul arrived in Moscow in 1990 as a visiting scholar at Moscow State University. He later took a position as a consultant with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), self-described as “a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that has supported democratic institutions and practices in every region of the world,” blurring the line between academic and activist.

The NDI was founded in 1983 to promote “public diplomacy” operations in furtherance of U.S. national security interests. As the NDI’s representative in Moscow, McFaul actively supported “Democratic Russia,” a coalition of Russian politicians led by Yeltsin, whom McFaul later dubbed the “catalyst for the Cold War’s end.”

In his 2001 book, Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin, McFaul openly espoused the concept of “democracy” as it was manifested in the form of Yeltsin, even though McFaul knew only too well that Yeltsin was little more than the hand-picked puppet of the United States.

McFaul took umbrage at Putin’s rise to prominence and power, proffering instead an alternative reality which had Yeltsin, who resigned from the Russian presidency on New Years Eve 1999, appointing Boris Nemtsov (whom McFaul describes as the “heir apparent”) instead of Putin as his replacement.

McFaul never forgave Russia the sin of Putin’s appointment — in Russia’s Unfinished Revolution, he declared that the former KGB officer had “inflicted considerable damage to democratic institutions” in Russia, a remarkable example of personal prejudice, given that Putin took power in 2000, and McFaul’s book was published in 2001.

Moreover, McFaul engaged in a good deal of historical revisionism, given that there were no “democratic institutions” in Russia under Yeltsin — Russian tanks firing on the Russian Parliament in October 1993 on the orders of Yeltsin, combined with the open rigging of the 1996 election with the support of the United States, guaranteed that.

McFaul was more than familiar with this history — he helped shape the conditions that produced it — making his present-day amnesia suspect.

End of Part One. Tomorrow: Part Two of Speaking Plain Putin

Scott Ritter is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer who served in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control treaties, in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and in Iraq overseeing the disarmament of WMD. His most recent book is Disarmament in the Time of Perestroika, published by Clarity Press.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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29 comments for “SCOTT RITTER: On Speaking Plain ‘Putin’

  1. December 21, 2023 at 11:32

    ““as a result of this horrific, barbaric war in Ukraine, because Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine. There was no vote; there’s no referendum. We don’t know what Russians actually thought about that decision.” — McFaul

    …as a result of this horrific, barbaric war in Iraq, because Bush made the decision to invade Iraq. There was no vote; there’s no referendum. We don’t know what Americans actually thought about that decision. — Me

  2. Realist
    December 21, 2023 at 00:01

    I wonder how and what the maniacs on the left side of that conference table really communicate with one another on matters of foreign relations, especially on their never-ending attempts to destroy all progress not only by Russia, but any other nation state (like China or Iran) to develop their own economies, finances and diplomatic relationships to a point that might allow them some day to reach potential parity with the US and its stated goals of full spectrum dominance over the whole damned world. (Call that the “Project for the New American Century” elephant in the room.) Because if they talk internally within the Carlinian “Big Club” as portrayed for public consumption, they are either the most oblivious fools to come down the pike, or they are the biggest liars and con artists to try to fool all of the people all of the time.

    Be they imbeciles or rascals, they should have zero credibility with anyone not content with the standard mass media pablum and actually informed of real world events. They may genuinely be fools (if just for wanting the outcomes they seek) , but I think the only reason their lies confoundingly seem to “work” is because the American public is so easily deceived by the matrix of false narratives they constantly weave. One of the reasons we are so gullible comes down to the piss-poor educational system we are perennially hoodwinked into supporting and the unceasing delivery of the most absurd propaganda. McFaul et al. are like the Devil: they never rest. Their disinformation just keeps coming 24/7. And now, in this perfect storm of “Wokism” and “equity,” the analysts tell us that the most high-scoring competent job candidates in both public and private sectors are the ones blocked from employment. Perfect formula to ensure American failure across the board and to foster widespread resentment and dissension. One might think that working for Biden is really working for Putin, assuming Putin gives a damn about American success or failure, as long as Americans don’t go round wantonly killing people.

  3. dahoit
    December 20, 2023 at 10:55

    zionism is the enemy .

  4. Lois Gagnon
    December 19, 2023 at 23:36

    McFaul projects all over the place. Everything he tries to lay on Putin and Russia is true of the US and its colonies (vassals) led by the dolt Biden and his copycats in the above mentioned locations. Pot meet kettle. I hope McFaul likes the taste of crow.

  5. D'Esterre
    December 19, 2023 at 20:30

    McFaul cannot seriously believe this stuff. He was there: he knows what actually happened in the 90s. Even our MSM in NZ – not renowned for its devotion to facts – was reporting at the time on the dire economic situation in 90s Russia, along with the reduction in life expectancy.

    Does he assume that the rest of us would be so stupid as to believe what he says? Does he not realise that some of us have family connections to Russia, and have a good handle on that history?

    It sounds as if he has personal animus towards Putin. He’s perfectly within his rights to dislike Putin, but not to express it by distorting history, and by indulging in revisionism.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    December 19, 2023 at 16:40

    McFaul’s a gigantic lying lunatic propagandist who could get us all killed.

    His below quote fits another area somewhat well. It definitely doesn’t fit with Russia’s liberating SMO, but if I tweak his stupid quote pertaining to Russia and just, well, there, there, here we go, a bit more accurate:

    “and now there are Israelis that are raping Palestinian women and children; there are Israelis that are committing massive atrocities inside Gaza. So Netanyahu can’t do those things without the support of Israeli citizens. And therefore, this excuse that Israelis are not guilty and they shouldn’t be treated badly, and they shouldn’t be sanctioned because of autocracy, I disagree with that.”

    There, it’s fixed.

    • robert e williamson jr
      December 20, 2023 at 00:21

      That is a classic!

    • ED
      December 20, 2023 at 12:35

      Excellent, I couldn’t agree more!!

  7. Drew Hunkins
    December 19, 2023 at 16:24

    Anne Applebaum’s a giant lying lunatic propagandist who has no grasp of the facts when it comes to Russia.

    She could get us all killed.

  8. L Garou
    December 19, 2023 at 14:19

    The Bureaucrat Plague is the worst plague, ever.

    So they don’t speak Putin, don’t understand just what “Special Military Operation” implies.
    Here’s a little refresher for the closet Zionists then because Uncle $cam has quite a few Special Military Operations up his own sleeve.
    Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and where(when) he stops nobody knows..

  9. Rafael
    December 19, 2023 at 14:06

    How do these so called historians and analysts come up with their nonsensical lies about Russia? I imagine they have a simple algorithm. They think of some war, say Iraq or Libya, and write an honest history of it.
    Then where they wrote “Bush” or “Obama” they replace it with “Putin”, and where they wrote “America” they erase it and write in “Russia”. It works perfectly and requires none of the imagination they seem to lack.

    • J Anthony
      December 20, 2023 at 07:48

      Oh, always! It’s projection- and constantly accusing the “enemy” of doing what your “side” is actually doing, maybe with some variables.

      • December 21, 2023 at 11:38

        You have to understand that America’s “enemy” is anyone who resists American aggression.

  10. CaseyG
    December 19, 2023 at 10:54

    I have to agree, as it seems that America is full of “opinions,” and very few facts. Sadly, Joe Biden is an idiot, and his actions seem childish. I remember when this started and Sean Penn was walking to Poland—-hmm—that took a while as Russia was moving slowly and it seemed that Russia was sending a message with the slow movement to NOT go into a major war just because Biden wanted to.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      December 19, 2023 at 16:45

      Biden is indeed an idiot, as is Anthony Blinken. What a sick crew.

  11. Joseph Tracy
    December 19, 2023 at 10:12

    Same language as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Syria. Same predictable results of cancerous growth of MIC and decimation domestic health, and of creating more enemies while losing militarily and in ass backward battle for hearts and minds. No admission that Russians are humans who lost 25 million to another similarly militarized empire of ruthless violence and have legitimate existential issues at stake in Ukraine.
    If Putin was such a lousy leader how did he bring together such prosperity and military readiness to defend the Russian people. How is he managing to wipe the floor with the US Zelensky and Nato in this war?

    • J Anthony
      December 20, 2023 at 07:52

      I don’t care for Putin either, as he seems too rightwing and authoritarian, but it’s hard to deny that some of the Russian population support him for reasons we cannot understand, because so few Americans understand a damn thing about the Russia of the last 30 years, and still equate it with the Soviet empire.

  12. Rasputin
    December 19, 2023 at 10:10

    Its easy to use Western data sources to judge quantifiably if Putin has been good/bad for Russia vs what preceded him or on a stand alone basis.

    Look at life expectancy in Russia 2000-2022 (up by 5-6 years depending on the source you use)

    Debt to GDP ratio: close to 100% in 1999, below 20% today

    GDP per capita $1,300 in 2000, close to $13,000 today (that’s with sanctions)

    Doesn’t look to0 bad.

  13. Mohammed Fisher
    December 19, 2023 at 10:03

    Extremely well written article with facts; a thing that Mr. McFaul and his cronies in DC fails to do. It’s so simple, we are just so mad we couldn’t, can’t and won’t get a hold of Russia’s super natural resources lol – I miss your two minute topics. Great Job Scott!

  14. Paul Citro
    December 19, 2023 at 09:42

    There are no responsible people in charge in US. Exploiters are milking the cow until it dies. The rest of the nations in the world need to prepare so when the US goes down they won’t go with it.

  15. December 19, 2023 at 08:13

    I first came to Russia in 2002. The horrible impact of the 90s was still here, although Russian friends told me it had improved. I’ve lived here in Russia for over 10 years and hold dual citizenship (U.S. & Russian). I’m a widowed father raising two kids here. McFaul is both a liar and an idiot. I honestly do not see how he, Applebaum and others could build careers from writing & telling blatant lies. Thank you Scott Ritter. Please continue using such opportunities to further the truth. Semper Fi.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      December 19, 2023 at 16:46

      Thank you.

  16. Robert
    December 19, 2023 at 05:08

    Washington D.C.yearns mightily for the return of a Yeltsin clone and willingly allowed an entire country and it’s 40 million people to be destroyed attempting to accomplish that goal. All the while, of course, loudly proclaiming to whomever would listen that we were doing so not for our benefit but to benefit the people of Ukraine.

    When the Bush Jr, Cheney, Powell lies about non existent WMD’s in Iraq surfaced 3 years late, I thought US military adventurism would decline. It didn’t. Then I thought the Afghanistan debacle, especially the shown on TV exit death and chaos, would surely stop the madness. It didn’t. We plunged into Ukraine without a 2nd thought about what might go wrong. And without even finishing the job for the people of Ukraine we jumped into full support of Bibi’s genocide.

    My conclusion is that as long as we continue to fund absurdly high military budgets, the wars will continue to come. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  17. Coda
    December 19, 2023 at 01:48

    McFaul lives up to his foul reputation

  18. Jeff Harrison
    December 19, 2023 at 01:11

    McFoul is an idiot. Yeltsin was elected not by the Russians but by the presidential campaign team of Slick Willie.

    • Carolyn L Zaremba
      December 19, 2023 at 16:47

      Right on. McFaul is making it up.

  19. gwb
    December 18, 2023 at 20:24

    A classic post from The Exiled on Michael McFaul – Google this headline:

    Mr. McFahk Goes to F**kberg: The Continuing Saga of Amb. Michael McFaul’s Epic Struggle With Language

    • robert e williamson jr
      December 19, 2023 at 11:52

      I did, I read it and remember I wrote what I wrote abut this idiot before I read it.

      The only difference I see between him and Blum / Kissinger is that they both appear to have been smarter that he is.

      I have made the comment before that Blum and Kissinger were too often the smartest guys in the room, allowing them to be successful at what they attempted.

      Apparently this is no longer the case, we simply have ignorance all around. And it shows. SEE the last 20 or so years.

  20. robert e williamson jr
    December 18, 2023 at 19:20

    This guy, this McFaul, reminds me of a Robert Blum (founder of the Asia Foundation pre-Vietnam) or the recently departed Henry Alfred Wolfgang Kissinger, born – Heinz Alfred Wolfgang Kissinger.

    Constantly preparing the fields of play for crops of erroneously based based propaganda which which to justify policies of the decade. So called “men of great zeal, but little understanding of providing to make themselves useful idiots who never seem to be held accountable for the death and destruction by the policies they support.

    This explains his lies. Back tracing to hold off criticisms his due when plan A fails and there is no plan B. The classical neocon operative. Democrats and the NDI, check out the wiki, then tell me what is wrong with this picture.

    How much of this bullshit do we need to see to get enough of it!

    Great job Scott

Comments are closed.