We’ve been pondering The Nation, America’s top left-wing weekly, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Founded as a respectable organ of liberal opinion, it became, in the twentieth century, a megaphone for fans of Soviet Communism. A generation ago, on the brink of the fall of the Iron Curtain, The New York Times’s Richard Bernstein summed upwhere The Nation stood during the Cold War:
The Nation often argues…that the United States is at least equal as a menace to the world as the Soviet Union, perhaps worse; that the United States has been the primary culprit in fueling the arms race and that it has fomented much of the atmosphere of the Cold War; that the United States has perpetrated injustice in places like Central America and the Middle East because of blind anti-Communism.
Bernstein was actually being rather kind here: in fact, during the Cold War The Nation was fiercely, brutally “anti-anti-Communist,” smearing every critic of Communism as a hysterical McCarthyite reactionary. Routinely, the magazine’s contributors wrote about the anti-Communist “witch hunt” of the 1940s and 50s as if the presence of Communists in Hollywood, in Washington, and in New York media and intellectual circles were a feverish figment of paranoid far-right imaginations. In fact, more than a few of the Nation writers who pontificated piously about the presumably fascist “witch hunt” were themselves card-carrying Communists. The anniversary issue of The Nation includes a self-righteous piece by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about the Hollywood blacklist; it was not accompanied on its first printing, and is not accompanied now, by any acknowledgment that Trumbo was a devoted Stalinist, who in the service of his appalling political loyalties was prepared to do far more than simply blacklist his ideological opponents. The anniversary issue also presents a 1956 piece by W.E. B. DuBois complaining about the lack of attractive choices in the current presidential contest between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson; there is no mention here, either, that DuBois, at the time he wrote that article, was also a convinced Stalinist, who would have been glad to see the U.S. under the thumb of the mass-murdering Soviet dictator rather than in the hands of Eisenhower or Stevenson.
We’ve noted that the back pages of The Nation were ideologically sealed off from the front – but not always. In a theater review from 1964, reprinted in the anniversary issue, Harold Clurmanpraises Fiddler on the Roof –set, of course, in Tsarist Russia – as an admirable representation of the joy of collectivist living. Note that Clurman wrote this review just a decade after the death of Stalin, who’d murdered millions through forced collectivization (which The Nation, by the way, had applauded): “Is it any wonder,” wrote Clurman breathlessly in his review of the musical, “that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people?”
Clurman seems to have missed entirely the point that the characters in Fiddler on the Roof were poor, tormented victims of Tsarist tyranny and that, at the end, when they’re forced by that tyranny to flee their beloved village of Anatevka, the good news is that they’re all on their way to America, where – as the audience knows, but they don’t – their descendants will enjoy a degree of freedom and prosperity beyond those villagers’ wildest dreams, will escape the Jew-murdering totalitarians of twentieth-century Europe (including not only Hitler’s minions but also the Communist masters of the Gulag), and will one day be able to attend a Broadway play reminding them of just how lucky they are to be living in 1960s America and not turn-of-the-century Russia.
Not so long ago, we took a sidelong glance at Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the left’s flagship magazine, The Nation. Like her husband, Stephen F. Cohen, a longtime Ivy League expert on Russia, vanden Heuvel was a big apologist for the Soviet Union and is, today, a big fan of Vladimir Putin. Not to beat a dead horse – or a cadaverous ideology – but it would be remiss of us not to revisit Katrina, and her storied publication, in commemoration of what is, in more than one sense, a red-letter day in the history of American political journalism: namely, the 150th anniversary of TheNation, which was founded on July 6, 1865.
To celebrate this milestone, The Nation has published an extra-large special issue, a pdf of which is available for free online. It’s well worth perusing. Simply in terms of layout and design, it’s a beautiful piece of work. Among the dozens of articles drawn from the magazine’s immense archives are critiques of George Armstrong Custer’s attack at the Little Big Horn, the annexation of Hawaii, U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, and many other once-burning issues. There are also innumerable essays and reviews by such eminences as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Ray Bradbury, and poems by the likes of William Butler Yeats, W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop – a salutary reminder that, for a long time, the back pages of The Nation were deservedly respected for introducing the public to major literary works and for publishing serious literary and cultural commentary, all of which was more or less effectively sealed off from the ideologically saturated claptrap up front.
But when it comes to the articles in this anniversary number that have been drawn from the front of the book, the two key words are caveat lector – let the reader beware. For this special issue is a masterpiece of cynicism and dishonesty. First, the editors have selected – and silently edited – vintage texts that show off the magazine at its best; second, they’ve supplemented those texts with new material that positions those articles in the magazine’s history –and presents the magazine’s role in the history of the modern world – in a way that takes creative spinning, whitewashing, and airbrushing to new heights, presenting The Nation as a magazine that has always been right, even when everyone else was wrong, and that has always been good, even when everyone else was bad.
To be sure, in its early decades, The Nation was indeed a highly admirable mainstream journal. Its founders were Republican abolitionists who believed in liberty and democratic capitalism, and who argued for the equal rights of women and blacks. In the back of the book – the cultural pages – they published works by such luminaries as Henry James and Willa Cather.
Then…well, something happened. The Gilded Age came along – the era of the “robber barons” – and the capitalist abolitionists were succeeded by reflexively pro-labor, anti-capitalist “progressives.” They were (to put it mildly) soft on socialism, but they had valid points to make about the need for worker protections and safety nets.
From there on, however, it just got worse. In A Better World, a 1982 book about the relationship between Stalinism and the American intellectual left, William Oneill [sic] notes that after The Nation was purchased in 1937 by Freda Kirchwey, an outright Stalinist who’d been working at the magazine since 1918, she installed herself as editor-in-chief and turned the weekly, former “an open forum of the liberal left,” into “an organ of the Popular Front” – meaning, essentially, a propaganda mouthpiece for Stalin.
For Kirchwey and The Nation, solidarity with Stalin necessitated the denunciation and smearing of all critics of the Soviet Union, whether conservative or liberal, and the fierce, unequivocal rejection of any hint that the USSR might, in fact, be – like Hitler’s Germany, and even moreso than Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain – a cruel and evil totalitarian state. Kirchwey’s logic? As she put it herself, Communists, for all their imperfections, had “also fought for decent conditions for workers and the unemployed, for equality of rights for Negroes, for relief and aid to the victims of the civil war in Spain.” Yes, and Mussolini made the trains run on time. The current editors of The Nation – who tastefully omit to mention Kirchwey’s Stalinism in the anniversary issue – offer this outrageously lame explanation for her systematic refusal to so much as hint at the monstrous truth about life in the USSR: “Kirchwey and [her successor as editor-in-chief] Carey McWilliams felt that to couple a critique of McCarthyism with accounts of the situation in the Soviet Union would deflect attention from the threat to freedom at home.” Right. Just as The Nation of 2015 denounces Western “counterjihadists” today while acting as if jihadists themselves are a creature from some bestiary of the imagination, so did The Nation of yore pillory anti-Communists while all but pretending that Western Communism – a very real threat – was a fantasy.
August 1939 brought the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which Stalin fans capable of being honest with themselves recognized as a mammoth betrayal, an alliance of their greatest hero with their most despised enemy. Many of them felt driven, as Oneill puts it, to try “to explain what had gone wrong, and sometimes even where they had gone wrong personally.” Yet some on the American left “resisted this temptation.” Oneill identifies this resistance primarily with The Nation, “whose capacity for introspection,” he states, “was nonexistent.” Quite simply, the magazine “did not apologize for past errors,” and “[e]xcept when nursing grudges it had almost no memory, the world being born anew in its pages every week.”
The Nazi-Soviet Pact, in any event, was soon forgotten; a few weeks later Europe was at war, and the USSR was allied with Britain and France, and Stalin was once again a hero – in, above all, the pages of The Nation. And after the war was won, The Nation reliably provided its readers with (in Oneill’s words) sheer “fantasy” and “naked propaganda” about the victorious Uncle Joe and his workers’ paradise. InThe Nation during these years, Oneill points out, Russia was depicted as “alternately revolutionary and liberal – or sometimes both at once – as the need of the moment required.” Writing in The Nation in 1946, Walter Duranty described a purge by Stalin as “a general cleaning out of the cobwebs and mess.” (As one observerlater put it, “The Nation excused mass murder so long as it was red mass murder.”) When the USSR brutally turned the countries of Eastern Europe into Communist satellites, Kirchwey, far from protesting this savage act, supported it as a “process of revolution.”
As for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic republics, Oneill cites a suggestion by Reuters correspondent Alexander Werth that this, too, was just fine, because, after all, those republics had been run by fascists (or so the Kremlin said) – and besides, they weren’t “really countries” anyway.
Readers of the current incarnation of The Nation will find these two arguments very familiar: they’re precisely the same ones that vanden Heuvel and her husband employ today to justify Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine: (1) it’s (according to them) a fascist state, and (2) Ukraine is (to quote vanden Heuvel) “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.”
Then as now, you see, the countries “on Russia’s border” don’t matter to The Nation; all that matters is Mother Russia itself, which in 1917 became the beacon of hope for utopian ideologues and enemies of individual liberty around the world, and which, even all these years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, continues to serve the America-haters at The Nation as a counterbalance to American power and American values.
We’ve mentioned that The Nation‘s cultural pages were generally free of control by the editors who ran the front of the book. Sometimes this had results that might fairly be described as schizophrenic. Consider James Agee’s 1947 review of the now-classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which is reprinted in the anniversary issue. The review is a total slam – and what’s interesting about it is that what Agee is criticizing in the movie is precisely what’s wrong with the magazine for which he happens to be reviewing it. “I mistrust any work,” he writes, “which tries to persuade me—or rather, which assumes that I assume—that there is so much good in nearly all the worst of us that all it needs is a proper chance and example, to take complete control. I mistrust even more deeply the assumption, so comfortably stylish these days, that whether people turn out well or ill depends overwhelmingly on outside circumstances and scarcely if at all on their own moral intelligence and courage.” One could hardly pen a more stinging indictment of the dangerously credulous view of the world – trusting in the power and virtue of social engineering, and rejecting the importance and value of individual liberty and individual character – that informed the political pages of Kirchwey’s magazine.
What about The Nation during the Cold War? We’ll move on to that next time.
Even though many of Vladimir Putin’s Western apologists – notably Noam Chomsky – would surely identify themselves as ardent anti-imperialists, for them, as we’ve seen over and over again, the old imperial notion of “spheres of influence” is still very much alive.
Consider an exchange that took place on a German TV talk show early last year. A Ukrainian journalist who was standing up for her country’s right to freedom and self-determination told Klaus von Dohnanyi, a German Social Democratic politician: “I don’t feel particularly good about how you speak about Ukraine, as though the country didn’t even exist.”
She couldn’t have put it more correctly: Americans and Western Europeans who are eager to “understand” Putin’s motivations and his supposed feeling of insecurity over being “surrounded” by NATO are deplorably quick to reduce Ukraine – a nation of 45 million people – to a chess piece, a bargaining chip, a buffer zone without any rights or will or mind or its own.
(As we saw last time around, right-wing British opinion columnist Peter Hitchens – not to be confused with his late, great brother, Christopher – had a succinct answer to concerns about Russia’s moves on Ukraine: “Who,” he sneered, “now cares about squalid Ukraine….?” Back in 1938, certain British commentators wrote similar things about the Sudetenland.)
Dohnanyi’s response to the Ukrainian journalist was nothing short of disgraceful: “You can’t simply remove yourselves from a zone of influence,” he lectured her.
Has Dohnanyi forgotten that the eastern part of his own country was, until not very long ago, a part of the USSR’s “zone of influence”? As writer Ralf Neukirch put it in Der Spiegel, “the Ukrainians…are being sacrificed on the altar of sympathy for Russia.” Or, rather, sympathy for Putin, whom his midguided apologists see not as a tyrant but as a victim – even as they view 45 million Ukrainians as troublemakers whose very existence is a problem and whose longing for freedom only adds insult to injury.
Another such apologist for Putin’s designs on Ukraine is Atlantic Monthly‘s Russia columnist Jeffrey Tayler, who, in March 2014, argued that Putin was right to view with a gimlet eye U.S. aid to that country under the 1992 Freedom Support Act.
American efforts under this act, of course, have been aimed at helping a people liberated from Communism to develop democratic institutions; instead of lauding this noble goal, Tayler urged his readers to sympathize with Russians who see the program as insidious, and himself described these aid efforts as “aggressive steps…to reduce Russia’s influence.” By seeking to help Eastern Europeans develop free institutions and economies, the U.S., in Tayler’s view, is expanding its “hegemony” – and is doing so “at Russia’s expense.”
Some of us might suggest that what’s increased “at Russia’s expense” is the freedom and prosperity of its former subject peoples. But Tayler is less concerned about those millions of free people along Russia’s borders than he is about poor Putin, who, he maintains, is convinced – and quite reasonably so – that he’s “locked in a struggle not only for Russian dominance in its near-abroad, but for the future of his government — and even, possibly, for his life.”
Yes, his life. Tayler omits to mention the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and assassination of countless Putin adversaries, but he does raise the absurd specter of the US taking out Putin – for it’s apparently just a short step, in Tayler’s view, from mischievously encouraging the spread of liberty in Putin’s backyard to ordering his assassination.
In Britain, the Guardian is home to several scribes who, it appears, can see Ukrainian freedom only through Putin’s eyes. John Pilger calls the 2014 Ukrainian revolution “Washington’s putsch in Kiev”; for him, Putin’s Russia isn’t an anti-democratic menace but an innocent victim of “provocation and isolation” by a U.S. government whose actions against it are “right out of Dr. Strangelove.” Fellow Guardian writer Seumas Milne agrees, calling Putin’s invasion of Crimea “clearly defensive” and expressing satisfaction that, thanks to Putin, “the east of Ukraine, at least, is not going to be swallowed up by Nato or the EU.” Yes, you read that right: a columnist for the Guardian viewsNATO, not Putin, as a bully out to “swallow up” eastern Ukraine. Jonathan Cook, a former Guardianista, puts it like this: “Russia is getting boxed in by an aggressive Nato policy on its doorstep.” Again, everything’s upside-down: NATO’s the aggressor, Russia the prey.
Let’s wind up our overview of Putin’s apologists with a look at Daniel Larison, who’s been a regular contributor to the flagship paleocon journal American Conservative since 2004. Back in 2007, Larison published a piece in Taki Magazine (another paleocon sheet) entitled – no kidding – “Persecuting Putin.” In it, Larison – who was then a grad student in Chicago – condemned the “savage criticisms of Putin and his regime” by “putative” Western conservatives, whom he accused of a “lingering post-Cold War suspicion of Russia” and a “not-so-latent Russophobia.” If Westerners distrust Putin, Larison charged, it’s because “a relatively strong, assertive Russia poses an unacceptable threat to the ability of Washington and Brussels to dominate their desired spheres of influence in post-Soviet space.”
What about, um, the freedom of the countries in that “post-Soviet space”? Larison wrote so condescendingly about the spread of liberty to former Soviet republics and satellites that we found ourselves wondering exactly how old he is. We discovered that he got his Ph.D. in 2009. One suspects, then, that Larison is too young to remember the Cold War – too young to have ever set foot behind the Iron Curtain and experienced the genuine terror that was Soviet totalitarianism. Surely no American of conscience, we submit, could have lived through the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain and be able, in 2007, to write (as he does) about the freedom of Eastern Europeans as if it were simply a question of “spheres of influence” and of unsavory efforts by U.S. and European leftists to impose social democracy on people who belong, by nature, in the Kremlin’s orbit.
Larison, we’ll repeat, wrote that piece way back in 2007. He hasn’t changed his tune, however. Like his American Conservative colleagues Pat Buchanan and William S. Lind, he’s written one piece after another making it plain that he sees Putin’s Russia as a bastion of the “conservative” values that the U.S., in the paleocon view, has brutally betrayed. As James Kirchick observed last year in the Daily Beast, “Larison is a dependable Putin apologist no matter how egregious the Russian president’s behavior.”
Alas, that statement could be made about all too many of Putin’s useful idiots in the West, whose dependability is matched only by their moral dereliction.
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.
We’ve been talking about NYU Professor Stephen F. Cohen, Russia “expert” and Putin apologist extraordinaire. But so far we’ve failed to mention his #1 ally in his pro-Putin crusade – namely, world-class limousine lefty Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation, the Bible of America’s far left. In private life, vanden Heuvel is Mrs. Stephen F. Cohen; in public life, she shares her husband’s breathtakingly unequivocal support for Putin.
Famously, vanden Heuvel and her crew at The Nation don’t hesitate to lecture the U.S. and certain foreign countries – notably Israel – about what they’ve done or haven’t done, should or shouldn’t do. But when the subject is Putin’s Russia, vanden Heuvel’s line is the same as her husband’s: what Putin does is none of our business.
Cohen and vanden Heuvel characterize this position as one of “realism” and “common sense.”
It’s all quite fascinating, really. Neither the professor-husband nor his publisher-wife ever saw a U.S. military action that they liked; but when Putin sent tanks rolling into Ukraine, both rushed to his defense. Vanden Heuvel sneered at Americans who were concerned about Ukraine, calling them “armchair interventionists” and “rightwing rodeo warmongers” – as if it were they, not Putin, who’d just mounted an invasion.
Writing in the Washington Post in March 2014, vanden Heuvel dismissed Ukraine as “a country on Russia’s border, harbor to its fleet, that has had a fragile independent existence for barely 20 years.” Her point apparently being that because Ukraine hasn’t been around for very long, and because it’s a pretty vulnerable entity, its well-being and territorial integrity aren’t worth a great deal of consideration.
Could this argument be any more grotesque and odious? The reason why Ukraine didn’t have an “independent existence” before 1991 was that it was part of the Kremlin’s totalitarian empire; the reason why its independence since then has been “fragile” can be spelled in one six-letter word: Russia. Despite Putin’s dearest wishes, Ukraine is now a free and democratic country – a development he’d clearly like to reverse. Which is precisely why Ukraine has looked to the U.S. and NATO to help defend its freedoms.
Freedoms that vanden Heuvel – make no mistake – plainly views as an affront to Mother Russia. She actually complained in her Post article that “the post-Cold War settlement…looks more like Versailles than it does Bretton Woods.” Translation: just as the Versailles Treaty was unfair to Germany in part because it handed over German territory to France, Denmark, and other neighboring countries, the “post-Cold War settlement” was unfair to Russia because it liberated the captive nations of Eastern Europe from the Communist dictatorship that had been imposed on them and gave them freedom.
As we’ve noted earlier in connection with similar statements by Cohen, the only way to make any kind of sense of vanden Heuvel’s obnoxious line of thinking is to consider the source: like her hubby, she’s an old, dyed-in-the-wool leftist admirer of the Soviet Union and, as such, retains an intense affection for the idea of autocratic Kremlin power – and, especially, for the notion of the Kremlin as a crucial counterforce to the hegemonic power of the United States.
“Russia has legitimate security concerns in its near-neighbor,” wrote vanden Heuvel in the Post about Putin’s moves on Ukraine. “The Russian fear is far less about economic relations with the European Union…than about the further extension of NATO to its borders. A hostile Ukraine might displace Russian bases in the Black Sea, harbor the U.S. fleet and provide a home to NATO bases.” Got that? In vanden Heuvel’s view, Putin fears – legitimately – an invasion of Russia from across the Ukrainian border.
Outrageous. Then again, such outrageousness is part and parcel of The Nation‘s heritage. Throughout the Stalin era, The Nation was staunchly pro-Stalin, finding ways to apologize for every monstrous crime against humanity that good old Uncle Joe committed – from the Ukrainian famine to the Moscow show trials, from the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the postwar subjugation of Eastern Europe. Finding excuses for Putin, by comparison, is child’s play.
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?