Stephen F. Cohen: Still Putin’s #1 U.S. fan

putinemperorNext 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.

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Stephen F. Cohen

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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel and Cohen

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.

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Cathy Young

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.’”

putin9Putin’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.

Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine

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.

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The Boris and Natasha of Irving Place

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?

Max Blumenthal, Putin slimemeister

American journalist Liz Wahl, whose grandparents fled Hungary after the 1956 uprising was crushed by the Soviets, worked at the Russian TV network RT America for two years. Her job ended on March 5, 2014, when she quit live on-camera, denouncing her employers for serving up Kremlin propaganda about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Her resignation made headlines; she was widely interviewed. “RT is not about the truth,” she told Anderson Cooper on CNN. “It’s about promoting a Putinist agenda. And I can tell you firsthand, it’s also about bashing America.”

Her action drew predictable condemnation from her ex-bosses at RT America, who called it “a self-promotional stunt.” But that wasn’t all. The far-left website Truthdig.com ran a bizarre attack on Wahl co-authored by fanatical Israel-basher Max Blumenthal, son of longtime Clinton family bagman, consiglieri, and all-around political operative Sidney Blumenthal, and Rania Khalek, a freelancer for such unsavory outlets as Al Jazeera America and the anti-Israeli propaganda website Electronic Intifada.

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Max Blumenthal

In a staggeringly long article that read as if it had been dictated by Putin himself, Blumenthal and Khalek concocted a conspiracy scenario out of whole cloth, representing Wahl’s resignation not as an act of individual conscience but as a put-up job, orchestrated by a “cadre” of Putin-hating U.S. conservatives, chief among them journalist James Kirchick.

Kirchick had known Wahl for several months. In an interview with her posted at The Daily Beast shortly after her resignation, Kirchick wrote that he’d been aware of her growing ethical concerns about working for RT, and that he’d “encouraged her to follow her conscience in making a decision about her professional future.” Any decent human being who was even glancingly familiar with Kirchick’s record of courageous reporting from world trouble spots and of principled opposition to tyranny everywhere would have no trouble accepting his account at face value.

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Sidney Blumenthal

But Max Blumenthal, as he has already conclusively established, is far from the most decent of human beings. He’s made a career of slandering Israel and exculpating some of its most violent enemies. He’s also, as mentioned, the spawn of master manipulator and spinmeister Sidney (“Sid Vicious”) Blumenthal – the ultimate professional behind-the-scenes creep, the guy who gives pond scum a bad name, the man who was recently described by Reason editor Nick Gillespie as one of those “barely human” characters whose “rottenness ultimately overtakes and deforms whatever humanity they once might have possessed.” For Sidney’s scion, whose own oeuvre so far has demonstrated that he didn’t fall far from the tree, it’s only second nature, when confronted by an act of genuine moral principle on the part of an ideological opponent, to set about depicting it as a low scam, motivated by a lust for power, money, and/or attention. (To be fair, given Max’s family background, it’s fully possible that he’s incapable of believing there is such a thing as an act of genuine moral principle.) 

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James Kirchick

Thus the argument, made at epic length by Blumenthal and Khalek, that Kirchick was behind Wahl’s on-air resignation – and that Kirchick, in turn, was acting as part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, motivated not by principle but by an iniquitous desire to rekindle the Cold War. After all, look at Kirchick’s repellent connections: he “worked for part of 2011 out of Prague for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a media network funded by Congress (formerly backed by the CIA) that functions like the American answer to RT in Russian-aligned Eastern European countries.” (This is really all you need to know about Max Blumenthal: he’s the kind of guy who can equate Radio Free Europe with RT.)

But he and Khalek were just warming up. Kirchick, they pointed out, is now a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which is linked to something called FPI, which has ties to something called ECI, among whose advisers is some guy who lobbies for the “U.S.-oriented” (horrors!) Republic of Georgia. Aha! See? Gotcha! Kirchick is opposed to Putin not on principle but because he’s on the Georgian payroll. Blumenthal and Khalek backed up their fairy tale with nasty quotes about Wahl from RT employees, who were risibly presented as reliable sources with “no particular affection for Russian President Vladimir Putin or his policies.”

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Rosie Gray

Kirchick, by the way, wasn’t Blumenthal’s and Khalek’s only target. Also smeared was Rosie Gray, a writer for Buzzfeed, who’d committed the offense of writing a splendid, thoroughgoing exposé of RT entitled “How the Truth Is Made at Russia Today.” Like Kirchick, Gray – whose article on RT was as honest, fact-filled, and solidly reported as Blumenthal’s and Khalek’s was duplicitous and packed with innuendo – was also accused by them of being a Georgian tool.

Seth Mandel, writing in Commentary, summed up Blumenthal’s and Khalek’s piece quite aptly: “a textbook example of character assassination.” Indeed, their article made it crystal clear that Max has learned his father’s lessons well: namely, when you’re facing off against upstanding people who have the truth on their side, get to work misrepresenting the facts, inventing new ones, and throwing mud, confident that even the most outrageous lies, if repeated often enough, will convince at least some of your audience.

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Euromaidan square, December 1, 2013

Although Blumenthal does, admittedly, devote more of his time to reviling Israel than to vilifying Putin’s enemies, the article he co-wrote with Khalek wasn’t his only effort in this genre. In a February 2014 piece, he faithfully echoed the Kremlin line that the Euromaidan revolution – which, it will be recalled, overthrew a despotic, Russia-friendly oligarch and replaced him with a democratic Western-leaning government – was engineered by fascists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. Two months later, in a New York Times op-ed, Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski gave Blumenthal’s vile charges the response they deserved:

Putin Views Russian Arms On Display At ExpoTrue, such people were present at the square, but they were marginal figures, and slogans about ethnic purity never gained popularity. Yes, generally speaking, Ukraine has its skinheads and its anti-Semites and even serial killers, pedophiles and Satanists. They are not present in smaller or larger numbers than in any other country, even in the most mature European state.

None of which truths, needless to say, can be expected to deter Blumenthal in his efforts to serve Putin as loyally as his wily ol’ dad has served the Clintons.

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Konstantin Goldenzweig

Wahl, by the way, wasn’t the last RT reporter to resign for ethical reasons. Four months later, Sara Firth quit the network, admitting that she and her colleagues “work for Putin” and “are asked on a daily basis if not to totally ignore then to obscure the truth.” And just a few days ago, Konstantin Goldenzweig, the Berlin correspondent of Russia’s state-run domestic news channel, NTV, was fired after criticizing Putin in an interview with a German TV station. Goldenzweig said afterward that he was ashamed of having spread “propaganda,” which, he said, included being forced to report Kremlin-invented “news” that had no basis in fact and that had been concocted to defame Ukraine and its leaders. 

Funny how some people are capable of being ashamed – while others make a career out of never feeling any shame whatsoever.