Mearsheimer’s “realpolitik”

The title of John J. Mearsheimer‘s September/October 2014 essay for Foreign Affairs said it all: “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault.”

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John J. Mearsheimer

Like his NYU colleague Stephen F. Cohen, whose perverse defense of Putin we’ve already looked at, fellow Putin apologist Mearsheimer – a University of Chicago poli-sci prof who’s been called the “standard-bearer of the pro-Putin realists” focuses his wrath largely on NATO growth, which he calls “the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.” By extending NATO eastward, Mearsheimer charges, the West has moved into “Russia’s backyard” and threatened “its core strategic interests.”

This language of “orbits” and “backyards” and “strategic interests” is standard issue among self-styled “realists” like Cohen and Mearsheimer. And it’s very effective at sweeping aside such concepts as freedom, sovereignty, national self-determination, territorial integrity, and a country’s right to choose its own allies and arrange for its own defense – all of which Mearsheimer finds naive, part of “a flawed view of international politics.”

Mearsheimer, of course, champions “realpolitik.” But take a good look at his brand of “realpolitik” and you’ll realize that it renders meaningless the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the liberation of Eastern Europe. As far as he’s concerned, the decades-long existence of the Soviet Union, during which formerly independent countries were either incorporated into or subjugated to the totalitarian USSR, gives Russia, even now, a historical right to keep dominating them.

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Vladimir Putin

Writes Mearsheimer: “it is the Russians, not the West, who ultimately get to decide what counts as a threat to them.” But Russia’s neighbors? In his view, they have no right to decide what threatens them. And that goes double, apparently, for Ukraine. Noting that some Westerners “claim that Ukraine has the right to determine whom it wants to ally with and the Russians have no right to prevent Kiev from joining the West,” Mearsheimer counsels:

This is a dangerous way for Ukraine to think about its foreign policy choices. The sad truth is that might often makes right when great-power politics are at play. Abstract rights such as self-determination are largely meaningless when powerful states get into brawls with weaker states.

What Mearsheimer is saying here to the people of Ukraine – and to all of Russia’s other neighbors and former vassals – is this: you know that freedom you thought you won in 1991? Forget about it. Be realistic. You’re still at the mercy of Moscow, and always will be – and should be. What’s more, if you stubbornly refuse to accept your role as an obedient satellite in Russia’s orbit, it’s up to the West to give you a good swift kick in the teeth: “There is no reason,” Mearsheimer lectures, “that the West has to accommodate Ukraine if it is bent on pursuing a wrong-headed foreign policy….Indulging the dreams of some Ukrainians is not worth the animosity and strife it will cause, especially for the Ukrainian people.”

Dreams, in short, of living in freedom rather than behind an Iron Curtain.

The illogic, injustice, and moral iniquity of Mearsheimer’s position are self-evident. He urges us to take seriously Putin’s putative fear that NATO, once settled in on Russia’s borders, will invade it. But the thoroughly legitimate, historically well-founded fear, on the part of Russia’s neighbors, that Putin might invade them? That’s something Mearsheimer wants us to dismiss out of hand. Indeed, he wants more: he wants us to accept Russia’s right to invade them. For it’s only Russia’s comfort, Russia’s security, Russia’s inviolability that matters. In Mearsheimer’s eyes, its neighbors’ freedom – including the freedom to form alliances to protect that freedom – is nothing but a provocation.

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Here’s a revealing line from Mearsheimer: “The West’s triple package of policies – NATO enlargement, EU expansion, and democracy promotion – added fuel to a fire waiting to ignite.” Read that again. What Mearsheimer’s saying here, basically, is that the West’s very dedication to freedom – and to the defense thereof – represents a provocation to Putin. And why? Pace Mearshimer, it’s not because Putin really thinks we’re going to march on Moscow, but because he’s a dictator who hates freedom. Period.

There’s a word for Mearsheimer’s kind of thinking. It’s not “realism” or “realpolitik.” It’s “appeasement.” Rank appeasement. Do whatever it takes to keep from rousing the beast. Somehow it’s always OK for Putin to be belligerent; whenever he does so, it’s because he’s worried about us. But if we respond to his aggression in any way other than by stepping meekly back and letting him have his way, then whatever happens is the West’s fault.

What does Mearsheimer prescribe? In part, this:

…the United States should emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukrainian governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language. In short, Ukraine should remain neutral between East and West.

Here’s a thought: why not follow this kind of thinking to its logical end, and disband NATO entirely, so as to avoid giving Putin any worries?

But even that, truth be told, wouldn’t do the job. For Putin’s aggressiveness, as Russia expert Robert Horvath underscores, isn’t really motivated by a fear of NATO invasion but by a “terror of democratic revolution” on the part of his own people. Indeed, the ultimate problem with the cockamamie analyses served up by the so-called Russia “realists” is that their interpretation of Putin is rooted entirely in the assumption that he’s a rational actor rather than a tyrant who fears his subjects’ hopes of freedom. As Horvath puts it, he’s “paranoid, irrational and dangerous.” Or, to quote Chris Dunnett of the Ukraine Crisis Media Center: “Far from being a ‘realist’ policy maker, Vladimir Putin is a myopic autocrat.”

Bingo. And for Mearsheimer, Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and other big-name “Russia experts” not to recognize such an obvious fact is well beyond myopic – it’s blind. Perilously, treacherously blind.

Man and wife, part deux

Every year for the past several decades, an event called the World Russia Forum has taken place in Washington D.C. This confab – which back in the days of the Cold War was a reasonably respectable affair – has in recent times degenerated into “a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.”

The quote is from James Kirchick, who reported on this year’s Forum in March. Among the creeps who turned up: our old pal Congressman Dana Rohrbacher (who, as we’ve seen, arm-wrestled Putin one night at a D.C. bar and fell in love). Also present were – surprise! – that most lovable of American couples since Julius and Ethel Rosenberg: left-wing Putin apologists Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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Stephen F. Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel

At the Forum, Cohen gave a speech in which he repeated his usual plaint: that back in the good old days, both the US and USSR had their “legitimate spheres of influence,” aka “zones of national security.” But after the fall of the Iron Curtain, this “parity” disappeared and Russia was treated “as a defeated nation.”

For Cohen, these developments are profoundly lamentable. But why? In what way was Moscow’s subjugation of the Baltic and Eastern European countries ever “legitimate? What would make such subjugation “legitimate” now? Why should a dozen smaller countries suffer subordination and oppression – and perennial insecurity – in the name of Russian “security”? Why, for that matter, should anyone in the West buy into the notion that Russia needs a “security zone” in the first place? Does anyone seriously believe that the US would ever decide to invade Russia? Or that, even if it wanted to, it could get its NATO partners to play along?

After Cohen’s talk, Kirchick challenged him directly. How, he asked, could Cohen equate NATO, a voluntary defense alliance, with Russia’s so-called “zone of national security” – which, like the earlier Soviet “zone,” “consists of countries that are cajoled, blackmailed, threatened, and then – if those tactics don’t work – invaded by Russian occupation troops”? Cohen offered an incoherent, “meandering” reply, maintaining that NATO’s “original intent” was lost with the dissolution of the USSR and that the Ukraine crisis is a result of “reckless NATO expansion,” which has caused unnecessary tensions and insecurity.

Kirchick’s take on that nonsensical claim was right on the money:

On the contrary; had the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact members not joined NATO, the security situation in Europe would be much more tenuous than it already is today. Before their membership, these nations’ status vis a vis Russia was ambiguous, constituting a security gray area. Today, they all have—at least in theory—a rock-solid security guarantee as members of the world’s strongest military alliance.

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But of course Cohen has rarely if ever expressed any concern about the security status of these little countries. For him they’re peripheral – bit players; pieces on Washington and Moscow’s chessboard. What matters for him, first and last, is Russia; he sees all these issues from the perspective of the Kremlin; his take on all of this stuff is effectively indistinguishable from that of Vladimir Putin himself.

And why is that? Because Putin challenges American power. And for the likes of Stephen Cohen, nothing could be more important than the “balance” the USSR provided to American international “hegemony.”

Never mind the Gulag, the Holodomor, Stalin’s reign of terror: for Cohen and his ilk, the Soviet Union was, take it for all in all, a good thing, if only because it represented a counterweight to Uncle Sam. Hence Putin, however much of a monster, must be defended, precisely because he’s pushing back against the US. And if this pushback means crushing freedom in a few small countries on Russia’s fringes – well, that’s a small price to pay for keeping America in check.

Such is the thinking of NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen. And of course Mrs. Cohen, Katrina vanden Heuvel, longtime editor and publisher of the perennially Kremlin-friendly Nation, feels exactly the same way. At the World Russia Forum, vanden Heuvel congratulated herself for putting out a bravely “heretical” publication that rejects received opinions on Russia only to be subject to vitriol (“as opposed,” Kirchick wryly observed, “to those who express ‘heretical’ ideas in Russia, who—if they’re not shot in the back four times like opposition leader Boris Nemtsov—are thrown in jail”).

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Martin Sieff

At the Forum, vanden Heuvel joined her hubby in condemning the “demonization” of Putin. She also chaired a panel consisting of three former US journalists – Robert Parry, Martin Sieff, and Patrick Smith – and a former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern. The whole gang, apparently, echoed Cohen’s Orwellian rhetoric – talking about Russian aggression as if it were purely defensive, while depicting US and NATO defensive moves as the real acts of aggression.

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Ray McGovern

Who are these guys? Sieff, a former national security correspondent for UPI, has been a frequent contributor to Pat Buchanan’s far-right American Conservative magazine. (In a fine example of the cozy Ribbentrop-Molotov camaraderie between today’s far right and far left, Sieff penned a glowing review, in 2007, of a book about Donald Rumsfeld by Alexander Cockburn, late editor of the loony left’s flagship rag, Counterpunch.) Smith is a frequent Nation contributor; Parry writes regularly for the left-wing site Alternet, where, in a February piece that summed up his take on US-Russia tensions, he put the words “free market” in scare quotes, defended the cruelly “demonized” Putin by demonizing billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky – whom Putin put in prison – and slung mud at the democratic leaders of Ukraine, a country that Parry has previously smeared as a nest of neo-Nazis. (Parry has also made something of a specialty of “exposing” the darker side of American history, as if Howard Zinn hadn’t made it there long before him.) And, last but not least, McGovern is a guy who, since leaving the CIA in 1990, has become a fanatical anti-Israel activist and 9/11 Truther.

In short, a gathering of eagles.

Man and wife

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Katrina vanden Heuvel, Stephen F. Cohen

We’ve been talking about NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Russia “expert” and Putin apologist extraordinaire. But so far we’ve failed to mention his #1 ally in his pro-Putin crusade – namely, world-class limousine lefty Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation, the Bible of America’s far left. In private life, vanden Heuvel is Mrs. Stephen F. Cohen; in public life, she shares her husband’s breathtakingly unequivocal support for Putin.

Famously, vanden Heuvel and her crew at The Nation don’t hesitate to lecture the U.S. and certain foreign countries – notably Israel – about what they’ve done or haven’t done, should or shouldn’t do. But when the subject is Putin’s Russia, vanden Heuvel’s line is the same as her husband’s: what Putin does is none of our business.

Cohen and vanden Heuvel characterize this position as one of “realism” and “common sense.”

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It’s all quite fascinating, really. Neither the professor-husband nor his publisher-wife ever saw a U.S. military action that they liked; but when Putin sent tanks rolling into Ukraine, both rushed to his defense. Vanden Heuvel sneered at Americans who were concerned about Ukraine, calling them “armchair interventionists” and “rightwing rodeo warmongers” – as if it were they, not Putin, who’d just mounted an invasion.

Writing in the Washington Post in March 2014, vanden Heuvel dismissed Ukraine as “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.” Her point apparently being that because Ukraine hasn’t been around for very long, and because it’s a pretty vulnerable entity, its well-being and territorial integrity aren’t worth a great deal of consideration.

Could this argument be any more grotesque and odious? The reason why Ukraine didn’t have an “independent existence” before 1991 was that it was part of the Kremlin’s totalitarian empire; the reason why its independence since then has been “fragile” can be spelled in one six-letter word: Russia. Despite Putin’s dearest wishes, Ukraine is now a free and democratic country – a development he’d clearly like to reverse. Which is precisely why Ukraine has looked to the U.S. and NATO to help defend its freedoms.

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Freedoms that vanden Heuvel – make no mistake – plainly views as an affront to Mother Russia. She actually complained in her Post article that “the post-Cold War settlement…looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods.” Translation: just as the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany in part because it handed over German territory to France, Denmark, and other neighboring countries, the “post-Cold War settlement” was unfair to Russia because it liberated the captive nations of Eastern Europe from the Communist dictatorship that had been imposed on them and gave them freedom.

As we’ve noted earlier in connection with similar statements by Cohen, the only way to make any kind of sense of vanden Heuvel’s obnoxious line of thinking is to consider the source: like her hubby, she’s an old, dyed-in-the-wool leftist admirer of the Soviet Union and, as such, retains an intense affection for the idea of autocratic Kremlin power – and, especially, for the notion of the Kremlin as a crucial counterforce to the hegemonic power of the United States.

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Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor,” wrote vanden Heuvel in the Post about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. “The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union…than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases.” Got that? In vanden Heuvel’s view, Putin fears – legitimately – an invasion of Russia from across the Ukrainian border.

Outrageous. Then again, such outrageousness is part and parcel of The Nation‘s heritage. Throughout the Stalin era, The Nation was staunchly pro-Stalin, finding ways to apologize for every monstrous crime against humanity that good old Uncle Joe committed – from the Ukrainian famine to the Moscow show trials, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the postwar subjugation of Eastern Europe. Finding excuses for Putin, by comparison, is child’s play.

How did Stephen F. Cohen become a Putin fanboy?

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Stephen F. Cohen

James Kirchick, writing in the Daily Beast last year, called him “perhaps the most infamous American apologist for the Russian government.” Eschewing the word “perhaps,” Jonathan Chait of New York magazine identified him as “[t]he most prominent intellectual apologist for Putin.” And Cathy Young of Slate called him “the Kremlin’s No. 1 American apologist.”

We’re talking – again – about Stephen F. Cohen, America’s highest-profile Russia “expert.” He’s vigorously rejected his critics’ characterizations of him, insisting: “I am the only American patriot.” He’s made a career of labeling those who don’t share his take on Russia as ignoramuses and/or liars, but these days he’s gotten into the habit of expressing righteous outrage at those lesser beings who now dare to put him down for his outrageously Putin-friendly views. To criticize him on such grounds, he says, is “scurrilous” and “defamatory.” His critics, he declares, are “neo-McCarthyites” who “are trying to stifle democratic debate by stigmatizing” him. And yet, himself using a McCarthyite term, he’s argued that it’s “un-American” for his critics to challenge his pro-Putin statements as robustly as they have; such intense criticism, he says, is “a form of censorship.”

Funny that a guy who defends Putin – who engages in real censorship, to the point of having his critics beaten up, imprisoned, tortured, and killed – should accuse other folks of censorship just because they don’t share his perverse admiration for this tyrant.

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Vladimir Putin

Funny, too, that a radical leftist who used to shill for the USSR should become an equally fervent apologist for Putin – a man who, despite his KGB history, is usually categorized as a right-wing nationalist. Or maybe not so funny? After all, the Kremlin is still the Kremlin. No, Moscow’s corridors of power may no longer be decorated with portraits of Marx and Engels and Lenin, but, hey, you can’t have everything.

Think of it this way: for Cohen, this whole business isn’t just about Russia. It’s also very much about America. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that, in the eyes of far-left types like Cohen, the fall of the Soviet Union wasn’t a blessing but a disaster – because it made America the world’s sole superpower. We’re talking here about people who, quite simply, don’t view America as a benign force in the world. They’re eager to see America contained, humbled, kept in check. And the simple fact is that an aggressive, autocratic, nationalistic Russia can do that just as well as an aggressive, autocratic, Communist USSR.

Indeed, to listen to Cohen, it’s America, not Putin’s Russia, that is the real aggressor in this match-up. Take the Magnitsky Act of 2012, which denies U.S. visas to Russian officials responsible for the 2009 death of human-rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The law passed both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support and was signed by President Obama. Human-rights groups around the world praised the law, as did pro-democracy activists in Russia; polls showed that most Russians supported it, too. But Cohen savaged the act, calling it “a very harsh Cold War law,” and even signed a statement denouncing it.

Or consider his take on NATO – a classic case of through-the-looking-glass thinking. Consistently, Cohen speaks of NATO as a brutal threat – not a defense against a brutal threat. Putin’s saber-rattling in Eastern Europe is understandable, Cohen argues, because “twenty years of NATO’s eastward expansion has caused Russia to feel cornered.” He ignores entirely the fact that if Russia were a genuinely free country with no belligerent international ambitions, it wouldn’t perceive NATO expansion as a threat; on the contrary, a truly free Russia could itself be a member of NATO.

But then again, just as in the Cold War days, the word “freedom” is barely in Cohen’s vocabulary. He actually told an RT interviewer that the U.S. has, in effect, said to NATO members in Eastern Europe that they “can punch Russia in the nose and hide behind NATO.” In other words, Cohen has the nerve to depict countries like Estonia and the Czech Republic – which for decades were subjugated and brutalized by Moscow – as anti-Russian aggressors. And he talks as if NATO had forced itself on these countries, rather than being invited and gratefully welcomed by them as a bulwark of their freedoms.

It’s bizarre: Cohen endlessly asserts Russia’s right to act in its own national interest, but he seems not to recognize the right of any former Soviet republic or satellite to its own national interest. If Poland or Ukraine or Latvia perceives Putin’s Russia as a threat to its freedom and sovereignty, why shouldn’t it be allowed to do whatever it feels is necessary in its own defense – including join NATO?

For a long time, Cohen’s routine answer to this question was simple and confident: Putin, he averred, doesn’t represent a threat to any of his neighbors. In speech after speech and interview after interview, Cohen contended it was “ridiculous” to think Putin would make a military move into Ukraine or Poland or the Baltics.

Then Putin invaded Ukraine.

Yet even that invasion didn’t silence Cohen. He continued to treat the liberation of the Eastern European and Baltic nations a quarter-century ago – and the aspiration of their citizens to become full members of the Free World – as offenses against Russia by an aggressive U.S. Clearly, the very concept of a “Free World,” or of its opposite, is off Cohen’s radar. For him, none of this is about freedom or tyranny – it’s about spheres of influence. Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union for most of the twentieth century; it’s been an independent country for just over a couple of decades; ipso facto, it’s a part of Russia’s proper sphere of influence.

Which, for Cohen, means that the Ukrainian people’s own desires are irrelevant. If most of them want to be closer to the West, which for them means freedom and peace and prosperity, than to Russia, which means the opposite of all those things – well, too bad for them. Ditto the Lithuanians, the Slovaks, and the rest. Because they were once part of the totalitarian Soviet empire, Russia has the right to an unquestioned “sphere of influence” over all of them – a right, even, to re-conquer them, if it wishes, and turn these now free and democratic nations back into exploited and terrorized subject states. Freedom be damned.

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It’s a detestable way of thinking – a morally repellent legitimization of the Russification of the Soviet “republics” after 1917, and of Stalin’s Communization of Eastern Europe after World War II. But this is precisely the view of Putin’s Russia that Cohen now preaches in the media – and, presumably, to his students at New York University.

Which raises the question: how does NYU feel about the fact that a member of its faculty is a one-man PR outfit for a tyrant?

Stephen F. Cohen, Putin apologist

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Stephen F. Cohen

If Pat Buchanan is probably Vladimir Putin’s most prominent fan on the American right, the Russian strongman’s leading admirer on the American left may well be a gentleman named Stephen F. Cohen.

If you’re of a certain age and are in the habit of watching the Sunday morning political shows and perusing the op-ed page of the New York Times, you’ve likely been encountering Cohen for decades. He’s almost surely America’s most high-profile “Russia expert.” A professor at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, he’s now at NYU.

Back when there was a Soviet Union, of course, the proper label for a guy like Cohen was “Sovietologist.” In those days, like many other members of the breed, he was also more than a bit of a Sovietophile, meaning that he (a) had a soft spot – to put it mildly – for Bolshevism and (b) regarded the Cold War as being at least as much America’s fault as the USSR’s.

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Vladimir Putin

Yes, Cohen openly acknowledged the (shall we say) unfortunate aspects of Soviet rule; but instead of viewing them as inevitable consequences of Communist ideology, he blamed them on Stalin – the idea being that after Lenin got the Soviet experiment off to a promising start, Stalin made a wrong turn and wrecked everything. If not for him, who knows what utopia might have been achieved?

(Case in point: Cohen’s 1998 Times review of Gulag Archipelago. While accepting Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of the Gulag, Cohen drew the line at his “indictment of the whole Bolshevik tradition,” which he called “one-sided.” Yes, Aleksandr, we’re all sorry you had to spend all those years in the Gulag as punishment for writing a letter, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to let you go around smearing Communism.)

Today, Cohen’s a fan of Vladimir Putin. In the last couple of years, in a blizzard of writings, talks, panel discussions, and the like – most notably a February 2014 Nation essay, “Distorting Russia,” and a lengthy March 2014 interview with Newsweek – Cohen has absolved Putin of blame for pretty much everything the guy has done.

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The conflict in the Ukraine? “Putin didn’t bring this on,” Cohen insists. “He didn’t want it. It was the last thing he wanted.” The tanking Russian economy? Cohen actually puts a positive spin on it, claiming that “some of its indicators are better than US ones.” The 2006 murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London? Cohen says there’s not “a shred of evidence” to tie Putin to the killings, and calls the charges “exceptionally vilifying.” Pro-democracy Russian activists? Repeatedly, Cohen has sought to discredit them, saying that their “policies are rarely examined.” And he’s consistently pointed to Putin’s sky-high popularity, omitting to note that when a population is force-fed pro-regime propaganda and opposition voices are systematically silenced, poll numbers are hardly a fair measure of anything.

Ah, there’s nothing like a true believer.

Not only has Cohen roundly dismissed concerns about Putin’s saber-rattling, his imprisonment of critics, his demonization of gays, etc., etc.; he’s slandered those who do express concern about any of this stuff, calling them “shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory” and accusing them of lacking his own “expertise” and of failing to provide the “multifaceted analysis” that he presumably proffers. Putin’s critics, Cohen charges, refuse to give the Russian president credit for his good deeds: for example, just before the Sochi Olympics, he freed over a thousand prisoners, “including mothers of young children.” Cohen neglects to mention that many of those prisoners – mothers of young children included – had been jailed in the first place for criticizing Putin’s regime.

Among them, incidentally, was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was punished for his disapproval of Putin by being stripped of his billions and tossed into the slammer. Khodorkovsky’s jailhouse memoir, My Fellow Prisoners (2014), is an eloquent portrait of life inside a Putin prison. Has Cohen read the book? One strongly doubts it. For Cohen, Putin’s incarceration, torture, and (yes) murder of his opponents is a veritable non-issue. (You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs.)

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Also a non-issue for Cohen are Putin’s harsh new antigay laws. Indeed, instead of denouncing those laws, Cohen has assailed Western gays for going to Russia and making a fuss about them. Presumably Cohen, good lefty that he is, thinks that the Freedom Riders who traveled to the American South in the 1960s to fight for civil rights were courageous heroes; but Western gays fighting for the rights of gays in Russia? Mind your own business, he instructs them. “I don’t remember any Russians coming over here and telling American gays how to fight for their rights.” Reminded by a Newsweek interviewer that “things are dire for gay people in Russia,” Cohen shot back: “how is that our concern?…Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights?”

Did Cohen feel this way about the rights of blacks in apartheid South Africa? Does he feel this way about Palestinians? One suspects not.

As for Pussy Riot, the pro-democracy punk protest group, Cohen actually told Newsweek that “[i]n 82 countries they would have been executed for what they did.” Later, confronted with facts that contradicted this statement, Cohen revised his remarks, saying that “Pussy Riot would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them.” The point, in any case, being what? That Putin is somehow less of a bad guy for murdering his critics because his counterparts in places like North Korea and Iran do the same thing?

(FILES) A file picture taken on July 20,
Pussy Riot

Is it any surprise that an NYU professor who’s willing to imply that the brave young women of Pussy Riot deserve execution has been welcomed as a frequent guest on the Kremlin-owned “news” network, RT, and as a regular blogger at the Kremlin’s Voice of Russia website?

Pat and Putin – a love affair

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Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin has invaded other countries – but, hey, they used to be part of the USSR, and who are we to question his desire to bring them back into the Kremlin’s loving embrace? He’s had his critics imprisoned, tortured, poisoned – but, hey, you can’t deny that the Russian people love him! Also, he’s terrorized gay people – but, hey, it’s all in the name of protecting Russian youth from perversion.

Such is the reasoning of one American conservative after another who think the Russian despot is the bee’s knees.

Never mind that he’s driven the Russian economy into the toilet. They like his style. They like his demagoguery. They like his contempt for the EU and UN. (They don’t seem to realize that it’s possible to disapprove of these institutions without becoming a Putin fanboy.) And they like the speeches in which he celebrates “traditional values” and his country’s Christian heritage – never mind that he’s pretty much as far as possible from a model of gospel virtues.

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Pat Buchanan

We’ve seen how respected conservatives like Christopher Caldwell have found ways to reduce Putin’s perfidy to a handful of peccadillos. But the real master of pro-Putin propaganda is good ol’ Pat Buchanan. When the Kremlin was the headquarters of a dictatorship that ruled a so-called “union” of so-called “republics” and that identified itself as Marxist-Leninist, Buchanan was among its fiercest adversaries in the West; now that the Kremlin is the headquarters of a dictatorship that rules Russia alone in what is supposedly a non-Marxist republic, he is one of its fiercest defenders in the West.

In September 2013, for example, he praised a New York Times op-ed by Putin in which the Russian president assailed the U.S. position on Syria and decried the concept of American exceptionalism. A few months later, Buchanan extolled a speech by Putin condemning NATO expansion. “When he talks about the Cold War he has a valid point,” Buchanan insisted on an episode of the McLaughlin Group.

The Soviet Union,” Buchanan explained, “took its army out of Germany, out of Eastern Europe, all the way back to the Urals. They dissolved the Warsaw Pact. And what did we do? We moved NATO into Central Europe, into Eastern Europe, into the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. We’re trying to bring in Ukraine, trying to bring in Georgia. He’s saying, ‘Get out of our space; get our of our face.’”

Why is Pat so big on Putin? Largely because Buchanan, famous for his “culture war” speech at the 1992 G.O.P. Convention, sees Putin as a brother-in-arms – a fellow culture warrior out to rescue traditional values from Western secularism.

In August 2013, for example, Buchanan mocked Western outrage over Putin’s new Russian law against “homosexual propaganda” – which could lead to imprisonment for anybody, gay or straight, who had anything positive to say about gays or even about any particular gay individual. Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Buchanan reminded readers that the “unnatural and immoral” nature of homosexual acts “remains Catholic teaching.” So, he argued, “if we seek to build a Good Society by traditional Catholic and Christian standards, why should not homosexual propaganda be treated the same as racist or anti-Semitic propaganda?”

Buchanan also ridiculed Western support for the gutsy women of the anti-Putin rock group Pussy Riot, who, as he put it, “engaged in half-naked obscene acts on the high altar of Moscow’s most sacred cathedral.” He asked: “Had these women crayoned swastikas on the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., would the [Washington] Post have been so sympathetic?”

For Buchanan, Putin’s crackdown on gays and protests and so on was all part of an admirable effort “to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism.” Quoting Putin’s statement that the “adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped turn it into one of the largest world powers,” Buchanan asked: “Anyone ever heard anything like that from the Post, the Times, or Barack Hussein Obama?”

Four months later, Buchanan again found occasion to extol the Moscow martinet. “In the culture war for mankind’s future,” he asked rhetorically, “is he [Putin] one of us?” For Buchanan, the answer was clearly yes. Putin has blasted the U.S. for supposedly revising “moral and ethical norms” and equating “good and evil.” Buchanan helpfully provided a “translation” of Putin’s critique: “to equate traditional marriage and same-sex marriage is to equate good with evil.” For Buchanan, plainly, the validity of this charge was self-evident. “Our grandparents,” he lamented, “would not recognize the America in which we live.”

Most Americans and most people around the world, Buchanan went on to argue, share his and Putin’s “traditional values” orientation. “Only 15 nations out of more than 190,” he noted, recognize same-sex marriage. “In the four dozen nations that are predominantly Muslim, which make up a fourth of the U.N. General Assembly and a fifth of mankind, same-sex marriage is not even on the table.”

Putin Views Russian Arms On Display At Expo

Predicting a 21st century in which “conservatives and traditionalists in every country” would be “arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite,” Buchanan made clear that he was on the former side, arm in arm with Putin, the Communist rulers of China and North Korea, the tyrants of sub-Saharan Africa, and the brutal Islamic regimes of countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran (where gays are, of course, executed), and against the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe.

Again: one can deplore many aspects of 21st-century Western culture without throwing one’s lot in with the world’s most murderous despots.

Putin’s U.S. fan club

 

Vladimir Putin is a thug, a gangster, a demagogue, who has gained popular approval in Russia by encouraging his people’s most barbaric impulses and demonizing everything civilized. Yet he has his Western admirers.

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin

We’ve examined lefty movie director Oliver Stone‘s unsavory enthusiasm for Putin, ditto that of conservative journalist Christopher Caldwell, who’s characterized Putin’s Western critics as “harsh” – a word he seemed loath, interestingly, to use in describing Putin’s own imprisonment, torture, and assassination of pro-democracy dissenters.

Now we’ll look at a few other right-wing Putin fans.

  • First up: Jacob Heilbrunn of The National Interest. Just as Caldwell slammed Putin’s Western critics as “harsh,” Heilbrunn chided them for “pummeling” Putin – a thought-provoking choice of words, given that Putin literally has people pummeled (and worse). In response to a London Times article noting parallels between his actions and those of Joseph Stalin, Heilbrunn asked: “But is he really that bad?”

Yes, Heilbrunn recognized his obligation to accept a degree of criticism of Putin: “No one is under the illusion that Putin is a very nice man or that he isn’t in charge of a pretty nasty regime.” But he held out the illusion that Putin is “creating a stable foundation for a democratic state as emerged in Spain after the death of Francisco Franco.” Sheer fantasy.

  • Let’s move on to Rod Dreher, a sometime contributor to National Review and Weekly Standard, who wrote in August 2013 that while he “deplore[s] the anti-gay violence taking place in Russia today,” he “agree[s] with Pat Buchanan when he says that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is defending traditional Christian moral standards and actual Christians more than America is.” While the West has become “post-Christian,” argued Dreher, Putin’s Russia is “in important ways more conscious of its Christian history and character than the United States.”

Four months later, Dreher returned to the topic, saying that while Putin, through “our Western eyes,” might look like “an authoritarian who hates gay people,” what really matters is that “Putin is playing a long game here, a game that is far more serious and consequential for the survival of his country than American culture warriors can see.”

raimondo
Justin Raimondo
  • Or check out Justin Raimondo, who, writing in January 2015, mocked concerns about the corruption of Putin’s regime – saying that the roads in Russia, for example, can’t possibly be any worse than the ones in his own neck of the woods in northern California – and rejected the idea that Putin was eroding political freedoms or that his elections were rigged. Raimondo denied that Russia is on its way to being a “failed state”: “Russia is nowhere near becoming anything like, say, Somalia, a classic failed state.”

Similarly, “Russia is very far from being a ‘dictatorship’”: Putin’s suppression of opposition parties and media isn’t all that much worse, Raimondo claimed, than the situation in the U.S. For Raimondo, Putin isn’t an aggressor but a victim – namely, of a “wave of Russophobia.” Besides, however bad Putin may be, he insisted, some of Russia’s other potential leaders are much worse, and if any of them gain power, it’ll be the West’s fault.

  • Then there’s surgeon, author, and presidential aspirant Ben Carson, who in February 2014 wrote that “there may be some validity” to Putin’s claim that the US and Europe had become godless. “While we Americans are giving a cold shoulder to our religious heritage,” Carson averred, “the Russians are warming to religion. The Russians seem to be gaining prestige and influence throughout the world as we are losing ours.”
  • Writing in the same month, William S. Lind, former director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, celebrated Putin for helping Russia to “emerg[e] once more as the leading conservative power” Quoting Putin’s criticism of same-sex marriage, his statement that many Europeans are ashamed of their religious convictions, and his insistence on “the rights of the majority,” Lind asked: “Should we not cheer a Russian president who dares to defy “political correctness?”

While America, he concluded, “is becoming the leader of the international Left[,] Russia is reasserting her historic role as leader of the international Right.” He called on his fellow American conservatives to “welcome the resurgence of a conservative Russia.”

Franklin Graham
Franklin Graham
  • In March 2014, Billy Graham’s son and successor, Franklin Graham, praised Putin for cracking down on homosexuality, favorably contrasting his brutal suppression of gays to President Obama’s “shameful” support for the human rights of gay people. “Putin is right on these issues,” Graham asserted, saying that Putin had taken an admirable “stand to protect his nation’s children.”

Graham asked: “Isn’t it sad…that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue — protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda — Russia’s standard is higher than our own?”

Conservatives like these used to despise the Soviet Union. But they’ve made a role model out of Putin’s Russia, which is basically the Soviet Union with a makeover.

Still, none of them is quite as eloquent in his enthusiasm for Putin’s tyranny than Pat Buchanan, who once upon a time was perhaps the fiercest Cold War combatant of them all. We’ll move on to his perverse praise for Putin next time.