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.
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.
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?