Stephen Cohen Disgraces Himself… Again


Vladimir Putin, in happier times.

by Kyle W. Orton

Since the Ukraine crisis began earlier this year, Stephen Cohen has acquired quite the reputation for apologetics for the Putin dictatorship and its aggression against Ukraine. Cohen, a scholar of Russia, especially the Bolshevik Revolution, has printed most of his pieces in support of Vladimir Putin in The Nation, a magazine edited by his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Now he has done so again. Credit where it is due: each salvo has been more hysterical than the last. This time it was his prepared remarks for an upcoming speech to the U.S.-Russia Forum in Washington, D.C., organised by the same group who run the Russia World Forum, another annual confab of Putin apologists. For a flavour of the Russia World Forum, I quote from James Kirchick, who had the misfortune to attend the last one:

There was Webster Tarpley, former operative in the Lyndon LaRouche cult, 9/11 Truther, and all-around conspiracy theorist … There was Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who, when I debated him a few months ago on television, analogized 9/11 to the ‘Reichstag fire’ … There was a representative from an American ‘pro-family’ organization praising Putin’s standing up to his own country on issues like homosexuality and family planning.

Cohen was present here too—and with some of the same script by the sound of it.

Cohen’s article/speech in The Nation this time started so very badly, not only by putting all the blame on America for “escalating sanctions [that] will only deepen and institutionalize [this Second Cold War],” but by making reference to the “mysterious shoot down” of flight MH17. This is especially interesting since even commentators sympathetic to Vladimir Putin had largely conceded the factual matter that Moscow-backed insurgents brought down the Malaysian plane – they just had elaborate excuses why it shouldn’t be blamed on the Kremlin, or not in a way that carried any serious consequences anyway. It was straight downhill from there.

Cohen frames this in the way all of Putin’s apologists do: the no-longer-deniably-Russian-orchestrated mayhem in eastern Ukraine is claimed as a defensive action, stemming initially from NATO’s “expansion”. NATO, of course, is a voluntary association, but in Cohen’s world it is an instrument of Western imperialism, taking over states and forcing itself against Russia’s borders. His evidence for this extraordinary claim? An article in the Washington Post in 2004! (I am not making this up.) Cohen’s summation is that “twenty years of US policy have led to this fateful American-Russian confrontation.”

In this present crisis, Cohen sees the real crime as being a U.S./E.U./NATO coup d’état in Kyiv that drove from power Viktor Yanukovych. In one of the most tortured distortions of the English language on record, Cohen says Brussels and Washington initiated this crisis with their “velvet aggression” against Yanukovych to bring Ukraine into the Western fold. The “reckless provocation” Cohen is able to identify in Ukraine is the E.U. offer of the Association Agreement to Kyiv. Cohen makes reference to the “radicalized Maidan protests, strongly influenced by extreme nationalist and even semi-fascist street forces” who brought down the corrupt, increasingly authoritarian, Moscow-allied Yanukovych government. You perhaps have noticed that Russian propaganda outlets have run with the theme that the new authorities in Kyiv are fascists or Nazis (1,2,3,4,5).

In response to this, with Russia unable to match NATO in conventional terms any longer, poor Putin might be forced to use nuclear weapons, and the “ongoing U.S.-NATO encirclement of Russia with bases, as well as land and sea-based missile defense, only increases this possibility”. This from a self-styled progressive! There was a time when this faction was against nuclear weapons, though more and more it looks as if they were only against NATO’s counter-nukes to the massive Soviet build-up in the 1970s.

It is near-incredible to see Cohen speak of “the surreal demonization of … Vladimir Putin” (“a kind of personal vilification without any real precedent in the past,” indeed). Putin heads one of the most reactionary authoritarian governments on the planet, so this must be especially galling to those progressives who think of Cohen as an ally. But it must be even worse when Cohen cites Henry Kissinger as an authority for this claim.

The most hilarious part of the article is when Cohen’s cup of self-pity runneth over. He bemoans the fact that Moscow fellow-travellers are in such short supply these days. This is actually a lament without very much substance: the Kremlin still does have legions of supporters in the West, the only difference being they tend to come from the extreme-Right this time around. But Cohen should cheer up: with he and his wife around, Moscow will never lack for Left-wing advocates. Acknowledging that the analogy is “imperfect,” Cohen nonetheless compares himself and his co-thinkers, who seek to exculpate Putin for the Ukraine crisis, with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 80s. Cohen worries of the “neo-McCarthyites [who] are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing us”. This sounds an awful lot like those bigots who demand respect for their views by claiming to just be the other side of a legitimate debate. Cohen then goes clean over the edge:

We should not worry, for example, if our arguments sometimes coincide with what Moscow is saying; doing so is self-censorship.

The bravery of it! If you are tempted to tone down your pro-Putinism: resist the urge!

The reaction keeps on coming. Channelling Barry Goldwater, Cohen says that “moderation for its own sake is no virtue”: moderation “becomes conformism, and conformism becomes complicity.” Again, Cohen self-consciously tries to remove the brakes that might tell decent people that their argument is leading them into disreputable territory.

If Cohen sticks to Moscow’s line on “encirclement” by NATO and “aggression” with the Western-orchestrated “coup” in Kyiv as causes of this crisis, his proposed solutions are even more noticeably drawn from the Kremlin’s playbook.

Cohen’s entire talk is based around the idea that wicked people have engaged in “distortions” to present “any American who seeks to understand Moscow’s perspectives [as] a ‘Putin apologist’,” when in reality Cohen and his allies are the “true American democrats and the real patriots of US national security.” His solutions are thus phrased in terms of national security: “demonizing of Putin is already costing Washington an essential partner in … vital areas of US security—from Iran, Syria and Afghanistan to efforts to counter nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.” Let us put aside the Putin dictatorship’s defence of Bashar al-Assad from even condemnation at the United Nations and the Kremlin’s well-orchestrated defeat of President Obama to prevent military strikes against its client in the Levant for gassing 1,400 civilians to death in a morning. Let us leave aside, too, the Kremlin’s assistance to Iran in building its nuclear weapons facilities and proposal to sell it air defences for these facilities. The destruction of the city of Grozny as Russian counter-terrorism policy can also be set aside.

Cohen first blames “the US-backed regime in Kiev” for inflicting “needless devastation, a humanitarian disaster and possibly war crimes on its own citizens in eastern Ukraine,” and even makes reference to “Kiev’s destruction of Luhansk, Donetsk or other Ukrainian cities,” something the insurgents had seemed to be rather taking the lead at. He then suggests that “[i]f Kiev’s assault ends, Putin probably can compel the rebels to negotiate.” This is ridiculous: the insurgency in eastern Ukraine is an enterprise wholly owned by Russian military intelligence (GRU). But the actual negotiating parameters set forward by Cohen are even more suspect, namely a “federal or sufficiently decentralized state,” which Cohen tells us would make Ukraine into a Federal Republic like Canada or Germany, and: “Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO”. Moscow’s intention to control Ukraine’s foreign policy is long-standing, and for all Cohen’s talk of securing a “politically independent” Ukraine, he well-knows that this demand that Ukraine not be allowed to choose to join Western institutions is a victory for Moscow. The “Federal” option is really partition by another name, and is Moscow’s fall-back position. If western Ukraine cannot be controlled, the Kremlin can at least hold on to the east and keep it weak and dependent—a Ukrainian version of Transnistria.

Assuming Cohen is not among those who are paid to disseminate a pro-Moscow line, his views are a little confusing. Why would a Western progressive dedicate himself to a regime that persecutes homosexuals, revels in racial incitement, and menaces its neighbours? Perhaps old habits simply die hard. Or maybe, as so often, anti-Americanism simply trumps all.


8 thoughts on “Stephen Cohen Disgraces Himself… Again

  1. Pingback: Stephen F. Cohen Disgraces Himself … Again | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Wow this is so full of untruth, where to begin… But if you do not know now there is evidence the gas attack in Syria was not done by Assad but by insurgents…(like ISIS, which is indirectly being armed by the US), well what to do.. Silence is best i guess..


  3. ah can’t resist.

    If the US is so sure that insurgents are responsibe for the take down of MH17, why not show the satellite images or release the conversation between MH17-ATC. These conversations are available and ready to share, why the secrecy? All the proof right now is social media (easy to reproduce, as are telephone conversations)… Many experts are in serious doubt if it was a BUK, or a fighter jet.. Again this could be ended with the available evidence… (Plenty of eye witnesses also talk about multiple planes around MH17)

    About te encircling by NATO… NATO promised not to convert old Warshaw Pact states in to NATO states after the fall of the USSR.. Guess that western promise was no good.. How would the US feel if Canada, Cuba and Mexico turned in to vazal states of Russia? Think about it for a while and then give a truthful answer to that question…

    Ofcourse the uprising in Ukraine was initiated and supported by the “West”. Nuland admitted this and said 5 billion dollars were already spend when the uprising began against democratically elected (but self serving) Yanukovic.. As for Putin being one of the most reactionary and authoritarian regimes on earth… I believe the US is a bit more reactionary don’t you think? How many wars and regime changes did it get going since WWII? 50? 100? Tell me please.. Authoritarian regimes never stopped the US from dealing with it before… Look at Saddam Hussein who was a great ally, or Iran when the Shah reigned…. Pinochet in Chili.. etc. etc. It is just a matter if the authoritarian regime is working with the American elite or if the authoritarian regime is working against it. Then the US says the “dictator” should be replaced for a western style “democracy”… hahah it is that simple.. Can’t you see that or acknowledge that? Putin is not working with the US elite so he is the PARIAH (courtsey of Newsweek or should i say Newspeak)..

    “Putinapologist” or “Putinversteher” is a nice word, can we do the same for Obama? What is the difference? Are you an Obama apologist? Or State Department apologist? Come on…

    “Why would a Western progressive dedicate himself to a regime that persecutes homosexuals, revels in racial incitement, and menaces its neighbours?” Well why would you back a regime that supports ISIS first against Assad and then has to go in and fight them. The US has now succesfully armed Sunni, Shiites and Kurds, and they are all ready to fight each other… Great job, it spells disaster right? Or is this what the US wanted? Self criticism isn’t your strong point i guess. Where are the WMD in Iraq? Millions have died there because of US interventions. As my Iraqi friend said, everything was much better with Saddam in power… And he was not Sunni….

    Then as for racial incitement, have a look at Ferguson… The lesson is: look at yourself before you judge others, it makes you look a bit foolish…


    • Your use of the “what if Canada” argument shows how truly disconnected you are. There is no “what if Canada” because we know it is not possible. Because Canada is functionally democratic, has robust institutions, and is generally free of threats of foreign agression.

      But Ukraine isn’t. You don’t seem to note the fact that Ukrainians are real people that have actual lives and a right to choose what to do with their own future. Your contempt for them by treating them as no more than pawns shows that you truly don’t understand where this war will be won or lost, or what is at stake. What future is there for Ukrainians who fall back into the Russian sphere? A slow decay at best, the unthinkable at worst.

      NATO must expand to inlcude Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps even Russia itself. We must stand up to the Putin regime because we know what happens when this type of behaviour is left unchecked.

      But perhaps I’m mistaken. I’m sure your clear-eyed views will lead us all to “a peace for our time”!


      • The Canada argument was hypothetical… Thought at least that was obvious… I, the disconnected, will leave it alone now. My point is made and you actually reinforced it, but you probably can’t even see that. Cheers!


    • “About te encircling by NATO… NATO promised not to convert old Warshaw [sic] Pact states in to NATO states after the fall of the USSR.”

      No it didn’t, this is just a myth put out by Russia’s apologists who think that Eastern Europe should be constantly subjected to Russia’s interests. In actual fact what was understood in 1989 was that Gorbachev would not use force in Eastern Europe (an understanding he broke) and that the U.S. would not “take advantage” of changes there, and that NATO would not station troops in the DDR. This was not a treaty binding on future governments.

      What Russian apologists will never tell you is that the impetus to join NATO came from the East European countries themselves, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, and initially was supported vigorously only by the smaller or less populous NATO countries.


      • well ok one more for you State Dept. apologists:

        A Spiegel Online piece published Nov. 26, 2009, quotes from then-recently declassified Western documents that give the lie to the West’s contention. The documents bolster the statements by Russian leaders that the West broke its promises.

        Spiegel Online: “What the U.S. Secretary of State [James Baker III] said on Feb. 9, 1990 in the magnificent St. Catherine’s Hall at the Kremlin is beyond dispute. There would be, in Baker’s words, ‘no extension of NATO’s jurisdiction for forces of NATO one inch to the east,’ provided the Soviets agreed to the NATO membership of a unified Germany. Moscow would think about it, Gorbachov said, but added: ‘any extension of the zone of NATO is unacceptable.'”

        Yet, as then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in November 2009, Russia got “none of the things that we were assured—namely that NATO would not expand endlessly eastwards and our interests would be continuously taken into consideration.”

        Spiegel Online wrote, “The political leaders of the day are now elderly gentlemen who don’t necessarily always find it easy to remember exactly what happened back then.” But the record shows, for example, that on Feb. 10, 1990, German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher told Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, “We are aware that NATO membership for a unified Germany raises complicated questions. For us, however, one thing is certain: NATO will not expand to the east.”

        And because the conversion revolved mainly around East Germany, Genscher added explicitly: “As far as the non-expansion of NATO is concerned, this also applies in general.”


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