We’ve been looking at some of the leading Putin apologists – from Pat Buchanan and Christopher Caldwell on the right to Stephen F. Cohen and John J. Mearsheimer on the left. These guys are among Vlad’s most reliable defenders, and most of them rarely interrupt their justifications long enough to acknowledge that, well, the fella does have one or two unpleasant items on his résumé.
But it’s also worth checking in on what we might call the “yes, but” brigade. These folks profess to deplore many of Putin’s actions – but they’re also quick to find excuses for them. Plus, they’re top-notch at engaging in Cold War-style moral equivalence, pointing out actions by the West that they consider comparable to Putin’s own more nefarious deeds.
Take Peter Beinart, the anti-Zionist Jewish author of The Crisis of Zionism (2012), who in March 2014 took time out from demonizing Israel to urge his readers to put themselves in Putin’s shoes. Not only, he noted, do NATO members now border Russia on the west; the former Soviet republics along Russia’s southern border are all linked to NATO through the “Partnership for Peace” program or “provide NATO countries with some basing, transit, refueling, or overflight rights for use in the Afghan war.” In short, “the West’s frontier has moved further east than almost anyone could have imagined a couple of decades ago” – and we should therefore try to be understanding about the fact that Putin finally pushed back in Georgia and Ukraine, and should recognize that if those two countries are now in a “terribly vulnerable” position, we’re the ones who put them there by taking NATO right up to their boundaries.
Another member of the “yes, but” club is Anatol Lieven, a British writer at the left-wing New America Foundation. In a March 2014 piece, Lieven all but accused Ukrainians of inviting Putin’s invasion with their geopolitically ill-advised enthusiasm for freedom. Until recently, wrote Lieven, Ukraine’s saving grace was that “a certain middle ground of Ukrainians” were drawn both to the West and to Russia. No more, alas: their increasing tilt toward the Free World, in Lieven’s eyes, spells nothing but trouble.
Lieven’s far from the only Brit in the “yes, but” squad. On the right, there’s Peter Hitchens, who back in February 2012 offered up a big dose of “buts,” admitting that Putin “is without doubt a sinister tyrant at the head of a corrupt government,” that his “personality cult…is creepy,” that he was unquestionably responsible for the “lawless jailing of the businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” the “hideous death in custody of the courageous lawyer Sergei Magnitsky,” the “murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko,” and so on. But still, declared Hitchens, “I like Vladimir Putin.”
What about Ukraine? Hitchens had an easy answer to that one: “Who now cares about squalid Ukraine….?” Besides, if Putin is nervous these days, it’s only because he’s president of a country that “not unreasonably…feels itself constantly vulnerable to invasion.” And therefore he invades his far smaller neighbors? Now there’s a unique line of argument.
Yes, Russia has indeed been invaded in the past – by Napoleon in 1812 and by Nazi Germany in 1941. But in the last century it’s far more often been the invader than the invadee: the USSR went into Finland in 1939, Poland in 1920 and 1939, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia in 1940, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (after having engineered a Communist coup in that country in 1948). In recent times, then, there have been many more east-to-west than west-to-east invasions across Russia’s western border. But while the likes of Peter Hitchens expect us to take Putin’s supposed, and utterly unrealistic, fear of Western invasion seriously, they want us to ignore the profoundly legitimate fears of small countries that still remember being terrorized by Soviet totalitarianism.