We’ve seen how some of Vladimir Putin’s Western apologists belong to the “yes, but” brigade. They’re quick to acknowledge that he’s a pretty vile character, and yet they feel moved to defend the guy – or even, as in Peter Hitchens‘s case, claim to like him.
Chomsky mocked the idea that Russia’s move on Ukraine should be viewed as a crisis. After all, as so many of his fellow Putin apologists have pointed out, Ukraine is in Russia’s “neighborhood.” He also helpfully cited polls supposedly indicating that people all over the planet overwhelmingly consider the U.S., not Russia, a “pariah state” and “the greatest threat to world peace.” So there.
Chomsky, of course, is in a category all his own. But when it comes to standing up for Putin, the guy who puts even him in the shade is almost certainly Paul Craig Roberts. An economist who once worked as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, Roberts has since gone off the deep end, contributing regularly to Counterpunch – the journal of the loony, Jew-hating far left – and routinely siding with Putin against the U.S. Indeed, “Putin apologist” is far too feeble a term for Roberts; he’s a hard-core propagandist, pure and simple, serving up breathtaking, bald-faced claims that are almost always the very antithesis of the truth.
Here’s just a sampling. In Roberts’s lexicon, the people running the Ukraine are “Washington’s stooge government in Kiev”; the Eastern European countries who’ve joined NATO to protect themselves from being re-incorporated into the Kremlin’s empire are “NATO’s vassals.” The U.S., charged Roberts in July 2014, “is at work through its Kiev proxy murdering citizens in eastern and southern parts of present-day Ukraine that once were part of Russia.”
Meanwhile Putin’s the good guy, standing up alone to “Washington’s crimes against humanity” and striving in vain “to find a peaceful settlement” that would help “the Ukrainians who are being attacked” on orders from Washington. Putin’s only fault, in Roberts’s eyes? His failure “to realize that his reasonableness is not reciprocated by Washington.” Summing up: “Putin has done what he can to avoid conflict. Now he needs to do the right thing, as he did in Georgia and Crimea.”
If Roberts isn’t on the Kremlin payroll, he should be; he’s doing a PR job for Putin that should be the envy of any Hollywood publicity mill.
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.”
Why? Because Putin “stands – as no other major leader does in the world today – for the rights of nations to decide their own business inside their own borders.” Also, he’s good for retirees: think of “the millions of older people who have – under Putin – received their pensions regularly, and been able to save without fear of inflation, thanks to the Moscow government’s prudent and astute use of oil revenues”! (And Mussolini made the trains run on time.) Hitchens actually cited a friend’s mother “who lived most of her life in conditions of unbelievable Soviet drabness” but who now, presumably thanks to Vlad, “looks forward to regular holidays on Turkish Mediterranean beaches.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.”
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.
We’ve seen how far-left filmmaker Oliver Stone admires Kremlin gangster Vladimir Putin for his “new authoritarianism” that, in his view, gave Russians their “pride back.” Stone is far from the only Western cultural or intellectual figure who has a soft spot for the former KGB thug, but he’s something of an exception to the rule: most of Putin’s fans in the West, as it happens, aren’t left-wingers like Stone who like Putin because he reminds them of Fidel Castro but social conservatives who like Putin because they see him as a hero of “traditional values.” Indeed, all he has to do is say the words “traditional values” and they start salivating.
Never mind that Putin’s “traditional values” are pre-democratic and pre-modern; never mind that they’re part and parcel of all the worst chapters of both Tsarist and Soviet history – the pogroms, the Gulag. Putin’s disdain for gay rights and other such Western phenomena – a disdain shared and applauded by the likes of Pat Buchanan – is nothing new; contempt for Western “decadence” was a staple of Soviet propaganda from 1918 to 1989. What Putin is encouraging with his “traditional values” rhetoric is the perpetuation, and even revival, of a self-destructive, pathological culture whose hallmarks are maudlin self-pity, dictator-worship, a love of cruelty and physical brutality, rampant alcoholism, and the often violent oppression of Jews and other minorities.
But you’d never know that to read apologists like Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard, who in September 2011, while not quite admitting that he himself celebrated Putin, was eager to provide reasons why others might do so: “he saved the country from servility”; he “[f]lout[ed] western norms”; he has “address[ed] real problems.” Caldwell dismissed Western critics of Putin, such as Le Monde, as “harsh” and “condescending.” And he suggested that if Putin is less than a saint, well, it’s largely the fault of NATO, whose “moralistic adventure in Kosovo humiliated Russia and its Serbian allies unnecessarily.”
As for Putin’s offenses, they were relegated by Caldwell to the “yes, but” category: yes, “the west can deplore” Putin’s imprisonment of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his invasion of Georgia, and his assassination of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and dissident Aleksandr Litvinenko, “but it cannot ignore the reality of Russian sentiment.”
In his 2011 piece, Caldwell seemed hesitant to praise Putin too overtly; this hesitancy pretty much disappeared in an article he published this February, in which he scorned Obama, Hollande, and Cameron for their “ostentatious” boycott of the Sochi Olympics while praising the “level-headed” decisions of Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and Turkey’s Islamist despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend the games. Caldwell dismissed attention paid to “alleged corruption around Olympic construction” as “obsessive,” calling it “a local story.” Besides, he argued, haven’t other Olympic games also been corrupt? He offered a good deal of this sort of argumentation: yes, Putin has introduced undemocratic laws, but haven’t other governments done the same?
Caldwell was more critical of the gutsy anti-Putin protesters of Pussy Riot, whom he criticized for interrupting worship at a church, than he was of the punishment Putin meted out to them. He expressed less concern about Putin’s assault on Russian freedom, as exemplified by his brutal crackdown on gays, than about rulings by U.S. judges in favor of same-sex marriage. He even trivialized Putin’s persecution, torture, and ten-year imprisonment of billionaire businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, calling it a cause “beloved of western elites.”
In short, a disgraceful performance by a guy who’s often viewed as a relatively moderate conservative and whose work appears in places like The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic Monthly.
But, as we’ll see, Caldwell is far from alone on the right.