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.