It’s a pleasure to report that in recent weeks, awareness of Professor Stephen F. Cohen‘s role as an ardent Putin apologist seems to have risen, at least in certain circles. In an April 28 New York Times op-ed, Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski slammed Cohen’s view that Ukraine is part of Russia’s sphere of influence, pointing out that Cohen
overlooks the question of whether the countries that fall within [that sphere] are there by choice or coercion. Ukraine is willing to be in the Western sphere of influence because it receives support for civil society, the economy and national defense — and Russia does nothing of the kind.
Also, added Sierakowski, “Cohen and others don’t just defend Russia; they attack the pro-democracy activists in Ukraine.”
A week later, at the website of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Carl Schreck weighed in, noting that “[e]ven respected Russia specialists who, like Cohen, advocate for a U.S.-Russian relationship based on realism say Cohen is essentially defending the Kremlin’s agenda in the West.” Schreck quoted Lynn Lubamersky, an associate professor of history at Boise State University, as calling Cohen “a mouthpiece for a mass murderer.”
Schreck also cited a recent debate with Garry Kasparov and Anne Applebaum – two of the sharpest and best-informed critics of Putin’s Russia alive today – at which Cohen had “accused the West of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin with NATO expansion, stoking potential war with Moscow, and failing to acknowledge its responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine in the last 15 months” – a line of argument, Schreck pointed out, that largely “dovetailed with a narrative pushed by the Kremlin, which portrays its seizure of Crimea as a response to Western meddling in Ukraine.” Denying in an interview with Schreck that he’s a fan of Putin, Cohen insisted that, on the contrary, he’s a “patriot of American national security,” while those who criticize him – including, apparently, Kasparov and Applebaum – are not.
A key point about Schreck’s piece is that he didn’t attack Cohen – not in the slightest. He reported on the plain fact that many people, including a number of Cohen’s fellow Russia experts, consider the guy a Putin apologist; also, Schreck interviewed Cohen, got his side of the story, and presented it at considerable length – and with apparent fairness. This is called proper journalistic conduct. But it was too much for economist Paul Craig Roberts, who savaged Schreck – and Radio Liberty – at the website of Pravda, itself an institution not widely known for its fealty to proper journalistic conduct.
As we’ve discussed previously, Roberts, a former Wall Street Journal editor and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Reagan, has become “a hard-core propagandist” for Putin, “serving up breathtaking, bald-faced claims that are almost always the very antithesis of the truth.” At the Pravda site, Roberts rechristened Radio Liberty as “Radio Gestapo Amerika” and accused it of attacking “distinguished Americans who are known and respected for their allegiance to the truth.” In addition to calling Schreck a “propagandist” for “Washington’s agendas,” Roberts took on Lubamersky, denying her charge that Putin is a mass murderer and adding that “[t]he mass murderers of our time are George W. Bush and Obama, and clearly Cohen is not a mouthpiece for them.”
Another Putin apologist whom we’ve mentioned before, Robert Parry, also tore into Schreck. We’ll look at him tomorrow.
James Kirchick, writing in the DailyBeast 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?
If Pat Buchanan is probably Vladimir Putin’s most prominent fan on the American right, the Russian strongman’s leading admirer on the American left may well be a gentleman named Stephen F. Cohen.
If you’re of a certain age and are in the habit of watching the Sunday morning political shows and perusing the op-ed page of the New York Times, you’ve likely been encountering Cohen for decades. He’s almost surely America’s most high-profile “Russia expert.” A professor at Princeton from 1968 to 1998, he’s now at NYU.
Back when there was a Soviet Union, of course, the proper label for a guy like Cohen was “Sovietologist.” In those days, like many other members of the breed, he was also more than a bit of a Sovietophile, meaning that he (a) had a soft spot – to put it mildly – for Bolshevism and (b) regarded the Cold War as being at least as much America’s fault as the USSR’s.
Yes, Cohen openly acknowledged the (shall we say) unfortunate aspects of Soviet rule; but instead of viewing them as inevitable consequences of Communist ideology, he blamed them on Stalin – the idea being that after Lenin got the Soviet experiment off to a promising start, Stalin made a wrong turn and wrecked everything. If not for him, who knows what utopia might have been achieved?
(Case in point: Cohen’s 1998 Times review of Gulag Archipelago. While accepting Solzhenitsyn’s criticisms of the Gulag, Cohen drew the line at his “indictment of the whole Bolshevik tradition,” which he called “one-sided.” Yes, Aleksandr, we’re all sorry you had to spend all those years in the Gulag as punishment for writing a letter, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to let you go around smearing Communism.)
Today, Cohen’s a fan of Vladimir Putin. In the last couple of years, in a blizzard of writings, talks, panel discussions, and the like – most notably a February 2014 Nation essay, “Distorting Russia,” and a lengthy March 2014 interview with Newsweek – Cohen has absolved Putin of blame for pretty much everything the guy has done.
The conflict in the Ukraine? “Putin didn’t bring this on,” Cohen insists. “He didn’t want it. It was the last thing he wanted.” The tanking Russian economy? Cohen actually puts a positive spin on it, claiming that “some of its indicators are better than US ones.” The 2006 murders of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow and Putin critic Aleksandr Litvinenko in London? Cohen says there’s not “a shred of evidence” to tie Putin to the killings, and calls the charges “exceptionally vilifying.” Pro-democracy Russian activists? Repeatedly, Cohen has sought to discredit them, saying that their “policies are rarely examined.” And he’s consistently pointed to Putin’s sky-high popularity, omitting to note that when a population is force-fed pro-regime propaganda and opposition voices are systematically silenced, poll numbers are hardly a fair measure of anything.
Ah, there’s nothing like a true believer.
Not only has Cohen roundly dismissed concerns about Putin’s saber-rattling, his imprisonment of critics, his demonization of gays, etc., etc.; he’s slandered those who do express concern about any of this stuff, calling them “shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory” and accusing them of lacking his own “expertise” and of failing to provide the “multifaceted analysis” that he presumably proffers. Putin’s critics, Cohen charges, refuse to give the Russian president credit for his good deeds: for example, just before the Sochi Olympics, he freed over a thousand prisoners, “including mothers of young children.” Cohen neglects to mention that many of those prisoners – mothers of young children included – had been jailed in the first place for criticizing Putin’s regime.
Among them, incidentally, was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, who was punished for his disapproval of Putin by being stripped of his billions and tossed into the slammer. Khodorkovsky’s jailhouse memoir, My Fellow Prisoners (2014), is an eloquent portrait of life inside a Putin prison. Has Cohen read the book? One strongly doubts it. For Cohen, Putin’s incarceration, torture, and (yes) murder of his opponents is a veritable non-issue. (You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs.)
Also a non-issue for Cohen are Putin’s harsh new antigay laws. Indeed, instead of denouncing those laws, Cohen has assailed Western gays for going to Russia and making a fuss about them. Presumably Cohen, good lefty that he is, thinks that the Freedom Riders who traveled to the American South in the 1960s to fight for civil rights were courageous heroes; but Western gays fighting for the rights of gays in Russia? Mind your own business, he instructs them. “I don’t remember any Russians coming over here and telling American gays how to fight for their rights.” Reminded by a Newsweek interviewer that “things are dire for gay people in Russia,” Cohen shot back: “how is that our concern?…Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights?”
Did Cohen feel this way about the rights of blacks in apartheid South Africa? Does he feel this way about Palestinians? One suspects not.
As for Pussy Riot, the pro-democracy punk protest group, Cohen actually told Newsweek that “[i]n 82 countries they would have been executed for what they did.” Later, confronted with facts that contradicted this statement, Cohen revised his remarks, saying that “Pussy Riot would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them.” The point, in any case, being what? That Putin is somehow less of a bad guy for murdering his critics because his counterparts in places like North Korea and Iran do the same thing?
Is it any surprise that an NYU professor who’s willing to imply that the brave young women of Pussy Riot deserve execution has been welcomed as a frequent guest on the Kremlin-owned “news” network, RT, and as a regular blogger at the Kremlin’s Voice of Russia website?