Even though many of Vladimir Putin’s Western apologists – notably Noam Chomsky – would surely identify themselves as ardent anti-imperialists, for them, as we’ve seen over and over again, the old imperial notion of “spheres of influence” is still very much alive.
Consider an exchange that took place on a German TV talk show early last year. A Ukrainian journalist who was standing up for her country’s right to freedom and self-determination told Klaus von Dohnanyi, a German Social Democratic politician: “I don’t feel particularly good about how you speak about Ukraine, as though the country didn’t even exist.”
She couldn’t have put it more correctly: Americans and Western Europeans who are eager to “understand” Putin’s motivations and his supposed feeling of insecurity over being “surrounded” by NATO are deplorably quick to reduce Ukraine – a nation of 45 million people – to a chess piece, a bargaining chip, a buffer zone without any rights or will or mind or its own.
(As we saw last time around, right-wing British opinion columnist Peter Hitchens – not to be confused with his late, great brother, Christopher – had a succinct answer to concerns about Russia’s moves on Ukraine: “Who,” he sneered, “now cares about squalid Ukraine….?” Back in 1938, certain British commentators wrote similar things about the Sudetenland.)
Dohnanyi’s response to the Ukrainian journalist was nothing short of disgraceful: “You can’t simply remove yourselves from a zone of influence,” he lectured her.
Has Dohnanyi forgotten that the eastern part of his own country was, until not very long ago, a part of the USSR’s “zone of influence”? As writer Ralf Neukirch put it in Der Spiegel, “the Ukrainians…are being sacrificed on the altar of sympathy for Russia.” Or, rather, sympathy for Putin, whom his midguided apologists see not as a tyrant but as a victim – even as they view 45 million Ukrainians as troublemakers whose very existence is a problem and whose longing for freedom only adds insult to injury.
Another such apologist for Putin’s designs on Ukraine is Atlantic Monthly‘s Russia columnist Jeffrey Tayler, who, in March 2014, argued that Putin was right to view with a gimlet eye U.S. aid to that country under the 1992 Freedom Support Act.
American efforts under this act, of course, have been aimed at helping a people liberated from Communism to develop democratic institutions; instead of lauding this noble goal, Tayler urged his readers to sympathize with Russians who see the program as insidious, and himself described these aid efforts as “aggressive steps…to reduce Russia’s influence.” By seeking to help Eastern Europeans develop free institutions and economies, the U.S., in Tayler’s view, is expanding its “hegemony” – and is doing so “at Russia’s expense.”
Some of us might suggest that what’s increased “at Russia’s expense” is the freedom and prosperity of its former subject peoples. But Tayler is less concerned about those millions of free people along Russia’s borders than he is about poor Putin, who, he maintains, is convinced – and quite reasonably so – that he’s “locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government — and even, possibly, for his life.”
Yes, his life. Tayler omits to mention the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and assassination of countless Putin adversaries, but he does raise the absurd specter of the US taking out Putin – for it’s apparently just a short step, in Tayler’s view, from mischievously encouraging the spread of liberty in Putin’s backyard to ordering his assassination.
In Britain, the Guardian is home to several scribes who, it appears, can see Ukrainian freedom only through Putin’s eyes. John Pilger calls the 2014 Ukrainian revolution “Washington’s putsch in Kiev”; for him, Putin’s Russia isn’t an anti-democratic menace but an innocent victim of “provocation and isolation” by a U.S. government whose actions against it are “right out of Dr. Strangelove.” Fellow Guardian writer Seumas Milne agrees, calling Putin’s invasion of Crimea “clearly defensive” and expressing satisfaction that, thanks to Putin, “the east of Ukraine, at least, is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU.” Yes, you read that right: a columnist for the Guardian views NATO, not Putin, as a bully out to “swallow up” eastern Ukraine. Jonathan Cook, a former Guardianista, puts it like this: “Russia is getting boxed in by an aggressive Nato policy on its doorstep.” Again, everything’s upside-down: NATO’s the aggressor, Russia the prey.
Let’s wind up our overview of Putin’s apologists with a look at Daniel Larison, who’s been a regular contributor to the flagship paleocon journal American Conservative since 2004. Back in 2007, Larison published a piece in Taki Magazine (another paleocon sheet) entitled – no kidding – “Persecuting Putin.” In it, Larison – who was then a grad student in Chicago – condemned the “savage criticisms of Putin and his regime” by “putative” Western conservatives, whom he accused of a “lingering post-Cold War suspicion of Russia” and a “not-so-latent Russophobia.” If Westerners distrust Putin, Larison charged, it’s because “a relatively strong, assertive Russia poses an unacceptable threat to the ability of Washington and Brussels to dominate their desired spheres of influence in post-Soviet space.”
What about, um, the freedom of the countries in that “post-Soviet space”? Larison wrote so condescendingly about the spread of liberty to former Soviet republics and satellites that we found ourselves wondering exactly how old he is. We discovered that he got his Ph.D. in 2009. One suspects, then, that Larison is too young to remember the Cold War – too young to have ever set foot behind the Iron Curtain and experienced the genuine terror that was Soviet totalitarianism. Surely no American of conscience, we submit, could have lived through the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain and be able, in 2007, to write (as he does) about the freedom of Eastern Europeans as if it were simply a question of “spheres of influence” and of unsavory efforts by U.S. and European leftists to impose social democracy on people who belong, by nature, in the Kremlin’s orbit.
Larison, we’ll repeat, wrote that piece way back in 2007. He hasn’t changed his tune, however. Like his American Conservative colleagues Pat Buchanan and William S. Lind, he’s written one piece after another making it plain that he sees Putin’s Russia as a bastion of the “conservative” values that the U.S., in the paleocon view, has brutally betrayed. As James Kirchick observed last year in the Daily Beast, “Larison is a dependable Putin apologist no matter how egregious the Russian president’s behavior.”
Alas, that statement could be made about all too many of Putin’s useful idiots in the West, whose dependability is matched only by their moral dereliction.