Who needs Russia Today when you have Oliver Stone?
That’s the question Russian President Vladimir Putin ought to be asking himself in light of the film director’s latest foray into the anti-American conspiracy genre. “Excuse my absence these past weeks,” Stone announced last week on his Facebook page, the oracular tone an appropriate introduction for the half-baked pronouncements to follow. Stone had recently returned from a trip to Moscow, where he had conducted a four-hour interview with Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine who, after his security forces killed some 100 demonstrators protesting his corrupt rule last February, escaped to Russia. Moscow’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and its ongoing invasion of Eastern Ukraine have raised tensions between East and West to levels not seen since the Cold War.
Stone interviewed Yanukovych for “an English language documentary produced by Ukrainians,” with which he no doubt hopes to impress Putin. In November, Stone revealed that he wishes to make a film about the Russian strongman, who “represents a different point of view that Americans don’t hear.” Such homage would, alongside previous works on Fidel Castro and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, complete a trifecta of adoring portraits devoted to thuggish autocrats.
Understanding that Stone’s ultimate goal is to obtain Putin’s cooperation on his next feature provides important context for the director’s social media ramblings. Above a photograph of himself laughing alongside Yanukovych, Stone explained that his interlocutor “was the legitimate President of Ukraine until he suddenly wasn’t on February 22 of this year.” Yanukovych ceased being president on that day because he fled Kiev, rendering himself incapable of performing his presidential duties under the Ukrainian constitution. Over three-quarters of the country’s parliament, including many members of Yanukovych’s own party, voted effectively to impeach him that day.
But that’s not what Stone would have us believe. “It seems clear that the so-called ‘shooters’ who killed 14 policemen, wounded some 85 and killed 45 protesting civilians, were outside, third-party agitators,” he wrote. “Many witnesses, including Yanukovich [sic] and police officials, believe these foreign elements were introduced by pro-Western factions—with CIA fingerprints on it.” Stone’s comments were readily picked up by a variety of Kremlin-funded media and other pro-Russian outlets.
Stone’s blockbuster allegation runs counter to the 90 gigabytes of video and photographs, obtained exclusively by my Daily Beast colleague Jamie Dettmer last year, indicating that the massacre in Kiev’s Maidan (central square) on February 20, 2014, was very much the work of Yanukovych’s security forces. These time-stamped images depict members of the crack, anti-terrorist, Russian-trained “Alfa Unit” meticulously preparing in the courtyard of the internal security service headquarters for an armed assault. According to a lengthy New York Times investigation, published on Sunday, into Yanukovych’s turbulent, final days in office, security officials close to the ex-president decided to abandon him—once he had signed a truce with opposition leaders calling for investigations into police who killed protesters. These revelations essentially concede that men under Yanukovych’s orders pulled the trigger; had they not, they would have had no reason to retreat. “When a leader stops being a leader, all the people around him fall away,” Mykhalo Dobkin, a close Yanukovych ally, told the Times.
That Stone would slander the democratic, pro-Western, EuroMaidan revolution as a CIA coup is no surprise. This is, after all, a man who released an entire film assigning blame for the assassination of John F. Kennedy to an agency-linked, reactionary, homosexual sadomasochistic sex ring. (Stone’s obsession with this bizarre and debunked conspiracy theory helps explain why he so admires the gay-bashing Putin.) But Stone’s wild imagination is no excuse for getting simple facts wrong: More than 100 “protesting civilians” died in the midst of last February’s violence, not 45.
Why would the CIA work to overthrow the Ukrainian government? “The US cannot tolerate the idea of any rival economic entity,” Stone writes. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a European Union trade agreement led to the protests that ultimately brought about his political demise. Installing a pro-Western government in Kiev to replace him, Stone presumably believes, frustrates Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union, a crude imitation of the E.U. composed of corrupt, ex-Soviet autocracies. Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, Stone’s premise that the enfeebling of potential economic competitors is the ultimate driver of American foreign policy decision-making. Russia’s GDP is roughly the size of Italy’s, and its backward economy is almost entirely dependent on the price of a single, finite commodity: oil. Nearly every economic and social barometer, from the birth rate to life expectancy, paints a country in steep and irreversible decline. Unlike the Soviet Union at a certain period in history, the Russian economy does not hold a candle to that of the United States. Accusing his opponents of being locked in a Cold War mind-set, it is Stone who is beholden to old orthodoxies. Moreover, how does shouldering the burden of a corrupt economic basket case of a country like Ukraine strengthen American financial hegemony? Since Yanukovych left office, an unending stream of Ukrainian politicians has begged the West for tens of billions of dollars in bailouts.
Ukraine’s newfound Western orientation—its desire to voluntarily associate itself with a consensual club of democracies—doesn’t endanger Russia or its power. What it endangers is a narrow conception of Russian power, understood through the eyes of its dictatorial leader. A successful Ukrainian democracy represents an existential threat to nothing other than Putin’s grip domestically and his ability to subjugate neighbors through coercion. It is this system of corrupt and malevolent authority that Stone shields when he defames the brave Ukrainians who gave their lives on the Maidan as tools of the CIA. “A dirty story through and through, but in the tragic aftermath of this coup, the West has maintained the dominant narrative of ‘Russia in Crimea’ whereas the true narrative is ‘USA in Ukraine,’” he says. The reason the former “narrative” is “dominant” is because Russia has annexed Crimea, whereas the United States has done no such thing in Ukraine.
For Stone, however, Russia’s Anschluss, the first territorial annexation on European soil since World War II, and American “interference” in Ukraine, is a distinction without difference. In a follow-up post the next day, our iconoclastic cineaste wrote that “Many Ukrainians wanted [Yanukovych] out, but there is evidence of pro-Western, 3rd party interference, i.e. Victoria Nuland, John McCain, USAID, National Endowment for Democracy.” Stone doesn’t need to elaborate, never mind provide real evidence, for the reckless accusations he levels. Simply mentioning these names and institutions is a dog whistle to the breed of conspiracy theorists, on both the left and right, who have emerged unified on the question of American perfidy in Ukraine. To this crowd, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s handing out of sandwiches to people on the Maidan and the National Endowment for Democracy’s funding election monitors are proof positive that Langley orchestrated a coup d’état.
This is not the first time the director has fallen for Russian propaganda. The thesis of the aforementioned JFK, which blamed the CIA for the murder of our 35th president, was based on a hoax published in a communist-controlled Italian newspaper in 1967. “By the late 1970’s,” Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew and Soviet defector Vasili Mitrokhin wrote in their magisterial account of the Soviet intelligence apparatus, “the KGB could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of its own conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination, involving a right-wing plot and the US intelligence community, than still accept the main findings of the Warren Commission.” The enduring power of this bit of Soviet disinformation owes much to Stone’s film. Likewise, the 2013 book Stone co-authored with American University historian Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, delivers the potted Josef Stalin version of the Cold War, in which the Nazi-Soviet pact was but a minor detail and the Berlin Wall an entirely defensible reaction to Western re-armament.
“The big picture is the US has never given up on using Ukraine as a launching pad to the underbelly of the Soviet Union, now a reduced Russia,” Stone laments. “This Cold War 2.0 policy continues in a most deadly fashion, and whether they know it or not, the Ukrainian civilian population in the middle has suffered greatly from this ideological crusade.” It is astoundingly patronizing for Stone to lecture Ukrainians—thousands of whom have fought and died defending their dismembered country from an all-out invasion by their much more powerful neighbor—about what they do and do not know about Viktor Yanukovych, Russia, and the potential for a new Cold War. Sucking up to a despot and continuing his own “ideological crusade” against America, Oliver Stone reduces the courageous Ukrainians who died giving their lives for a more decent society to pawns.