“Yes, but”

Vladimir Putin at a navy parade in Severomorsk
Vladimir Putin

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.

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Peter Beinart

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.

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Anatol Lieven

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.

Peter Hitchens
Peter Hitchens

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.”

putin20Why? 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.

Stephen F. Cohen, Putin apologist

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Stephen F. Cohen

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.

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Vladimir Putin

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.

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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.)

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Mikhail Khodorkovsky

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?

(FILES) A file picture taken on July 20,
Pussy Riot

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?