Next week and the week after, in honor of Vladimir Putin’s sixty-third birthday, we’ll be examining some of his most ardent European fans – among them a Dutch rapper, a former Italian prime minister, a British billionaire, and a Norwegian historian. Today, however, we’ll be taking yet another look at a fellow whom we’ve discussed here several times before, and who may be Putin’s most stubbornly loyal cheerleader in the whole U.S.A.
We’re talking, of course, about Stephen F. Cohen, a veteran academic luminary (Princeton, NYU) who, back in the day, was considered a top expert on the Soviet Union and is now increasingly recognized as one of the current Kremlin regime’s most aggressive and shameless apologists.
If we keep bringing up Cohen on this site, it’s because he keeps bringing up Putin – almost invariably in the pages of The Nation, the weekly rag owned and edited by his rich lefty wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel. Our subject today: his latest propaganda effort, a June 30 piece entitled “The Silence of American Hawks About Kiev’s Atrocities.” It’s full of passages calculated to paint the Ukrainian government as a pack of savages, to depict pro-Russians living in the eastern Ukraine as helpless victims, and to cast Putin in the role of the peaceful leader who’s displaying exemplary restraint in the face of a brutally violent enemy:
Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” tactics have created a reign of terror in the targeted cities. Panicked by shells and mortars exploding on the ground, menacing helicopters and planes flying above and fear of what may come next, families are seeking sanctuary in basements and other darkened shelters….an ever-growing number of refugees, disproportionately women and traumatized children, have been desperately fleeing the carnage….By mid-July, roads and trains [to Russia] were filled with refugees from newly besieged Luhansk and Donetsk, a city of one million and already “a ghostly shell.”
Throughout his piece, Cohen defends the Kremlin’s thug-in-chief (“however authoritarian Putin may be, there is nothing authentically fascist in his rulership, policies, state ideology or personal conduct”) while repeatedly flinging the word fascist at democratic Ukrainian leaders and groups and parties. In short, he’s perpetrating good, old-fashioned Stalin-era-style Nation journalism, taking us back to the days when, in the Marxist-soaked minds at that publication, the Soviets were the real heroes in the struggle against fascism, and the Western Allies (at best) Johnny-come-lately amateurs who reaped the rewards of victory in World War II and hogged the credit. Cohen finds it important, for example, to point out that Putin’s “brother died and [his] father was wounded in the Soviet-Nazi war” (yes, that’s right, “the Soviet-Nazi war”) and to warn us that “tens of millions of today’s Russians whose family members were killed by actual fascists in that war will regard…defamation of their popular president [i.e., any suggestion that he’s a fascist] as sacrilege, as they do the atrocities committed by Kiev.” So there.
On July 24, in Slate, the Russia-born American journalist Cathy Young, who is a contributing editor at Reason, gave Cohen precisely what he had coming to him for this most recent boatload of disinformation.
First Young made a few telling points about Cohen’s background: during his years as a “Soviet expert,” he befriended some Soviet dissidents, though they were usually “of the democratic socialist or even Marxist persuasion.” During the Gorbachev period, he and vanden Heuvel co-authored Voices of Glasnost, a collection of interviews with “proponents of top-down change to bring about a kinder, gentler Soviet socialism.” Then the USSR fell, the result, in most people’s view, of “the system’s internal rot,” although Cohen blamed it on “Boris Yeltsin’s power-grabbing, aided by the pro-Western ‘radical intelligentsia’ that ‘hijacked Gorbachev’s gradualist reformation.’”
Putin’s rise won Cohen’s cheers – and Putin’s brutal regime, as we’ve observed repeatedly on this site, has won Cohen’s unwavering praise. But this newest article by Cohen, as Young puts it, “hits a new low.” Cohen sums up his thesis as follows: “the pro-Western Ukrainian government, aided and abetted by the Obama administration, the ‘new Cold War hawks’ in Congress, and the craven American media, is committing ‘deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not done so already.’” Young notes that while Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the U.N. have reacted to the fighting in the Ukraine by raising concerns of the sort that they routinely, and properly, raise about any and every armed conflict, none of them have suggested that Ukraine is guilty of war crimes.
She further points out that while these organizations have documented acts of rape, kidnapping torture, and murder by “the insurgents whom Cohen calls ‘resisters,’” he “entirely omits these inconvenient facts, conceding only that the rebels are ‘aggressive, organized and well armed—no doubt with some Russian assistance.’” No doubt indeed. Cohen also argues that “calling them ‘self-defense’ fighters is not wrong,” because “their land is being invaded and assaulted by a government whose political legitimacy is arguably no greater than their own, two of their large regions having voted overwhelmingly for autonomy referendums.” Really? Here’s what Young has to say about those “referendums”:
Is Cohen the one person in the world who puts stock in the results of the Donetsk and Luhansk “referendums,” which even Russia did not formally recognize? Pre-referendum polls in both regions found that most residents opposed secession; they were also, as a U.N. report confirms, kept from voting in the presidential election by violence and intimidation from the insurgents. Nor does Cohen ever acknowledge the known fact that a substantial percentage of the “resisters” are not locals but citizens of the Russian Federation—particularly their leaders, many of whom have ties to Russian “special security services.” Their ranks also include quite a few Russian ultranationalists and even neo-Nazis—a highly relevant fact, given that much of Cohen’s article is devoted to claims that Ukrainian “neo-fascists” play a key role both in the Kiev government and in the counterinsurgency operation.
Young goes on to catalogue the factual mistakes – or outright lies – in Cohen’s piece, which she describes as “so error-riddled that one has to wonder if The Nation employs fact-checkers.” She rightly dismisses his absurd “claims about the ‘mainstreaming of fascism’s dehumanizing ethos’ in Ukraine,” which, she points out, “rely heavily on Russian propaganda canards.” Then there’s this:
In a downright surreal passage, Cohen argues that Putin has shown “remarkable restraint” so far but faces mounting public pressure due to “vivid accounts” in the Russian state-run media of Kiev’s barbarities against ethnic Russians. Can he really be unaware that the hysteria is being whipped up by lurid fictions, such as the recent TV1 story about a 3-year-old boy crucified in Slovyansk’s main square in front of a large crowd and his own mother? Does Cohen not know that Russian disinformation and fakery, including old footage from Dagestan or Syria passed off as evidence of horrors in Ukraine, has been extensively documented? Is he unaware that top Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin himself, have publicly repeated allegations of war crimes that were quickly exposed as false, such as white phosphorus use by Ukrainian troops or a slaughter of the wounded in a hospital? But Cohen manages to take the surrealism a notch higher, earnestly citing the unnamed “dean of Moscow State University’s School of Television” (that’s Vitaly Tretyakov, inter alia a 9/11 “truther”) who thinks the Kremlin may be colluding with the West to hush up the extent of carnage in Ukraine.
Yes, eastern Ukraine is undergoing a human-rights crisis. As Young notes, every bit of evidence indicates that it’s “overwhelmingly the responsibility of the Russia-sponsored militants.” But for the likes of Stephen F. Cohen, his devoted spouse, and their comrades at The Nation, what are mere facts alongside a fealty to the Putin line that’s every bit as deeply seated as their forerunners’ determination, back in the days of Stalin, to be reliable cogs in Uncle Joe’s monstrous mendacity machine?