The Vladimir Putin Fan Club
Annexation of Crimea has caused a great many American writers and thinkers to reconsider previous assumptions. A typical response came from the New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner: “Mitt Romney Was Right About Russia,” ran the headline of his blog post, citing the 2012 Republican presidential candidate’s comments, which characterized Russia as the most important antagonist of the United States. And yet the Russian strongman has found himself an eager and willing audience in the United States among a bizarre, bipartisan crew of intellectual, academic, and journalistic dupes. A new cohort of those Lenin once called the “useful idiots” is asserting itself.
First and foremost there is Stephen F. Cohen of the Nation. The New York University professor, who taught for decades at Princeton, has put his compatriots on the left in a bind. After all, Vladimir Putin has recently prosecuted a feminist performance-art group, instituted a harsh anti-gay law that equates homosexuality with pedophilia, and taken the side of dictators in the Arab Spring. His invasion of Ukraine was the last straw for many looking for an excuse to ditch the authoritarian thug without appearing too much like the conservative hawks they disdained. Not Cohen. He has doubled down.
On March 1, CNN asked Cohen for his perspective. “It’s a crisis of historic magnitude,” he intoned ominously. “If you ask how we got in it, how we got into the crisis, and how therefore do we get out, it is time to stop asking why Putin—why Putin is doing this or that, but ask about the American policy, and the European Union policy that led to this moment.”
The fault lies in Washington and Brussels, Cohen explained, for their attempts to forge closer military and economic ties with Ukraine. The following morning, Cohen was back on CNN, this time to lecture host Fareed Zakaria that we’ve got the Russian president all wrong: “Putin is not a thug. He’s not a neo-Soviet imperialist who’s trying to create—re-create the Soviet Union. He’s not even anti-American.” What is he then? Well, Cohen says, he’s just “intensely historically pro-Russian.”
Putin is also “the least authoritarian” Russian ruler “in centuries,” he explained. None of this is Putin’s fault anyway: “He did not create this Ukrainian crisis,” noted Cohen. “It was imposed on him and he had no choice to react.” The very next day Cohen was back on CNN, this time to offer Wolf Blitzer a CliffsNotes version of the entire Ukraine crisis: “Putin said to Washington and to Brussels, to the European Union, why are you forcing Ukraine to choose between Russia and the West? Why don’t we do a joint economic aid to Ukraine? And our answer was, ‘No, it’s either/or. It’s our way or the highway.’ And now you are where you are.”
Blitzer was baffled. Surely, he said, Putin was at least partly to blame. The professor’s response was that CNN would have to go elsewhere for the other perspective; Cohen’s purpose was “pushing back against the American narrative.” That was, in fact, exactly why he had been invited on the show. Cohen wrote a cover story for the Nation in early March that essentially declared everyone was wrong save Stephen F. Cohen.
Liberals scratched their heads. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait dubbed Cohen’s apologetics “pathetic.” Newsweek called him “The American Who Dared Make Putin’s Case.” But Cohen deserves credit for his consistency. He has been apologizing for Russian strongmen for decades.
Cohen’s 50-year career in Russian studies arose from an early interest in seeking what he calls “political alternatives,” when he first began to contemplate whether there might have been a viable alternative to segregation in his native Kentucky. When he applied that “what if” template to the Soviet Union, he began seeing reformers everywhere—by which he did not mean the dissidents trying to delegitimize the regime but apparatchiks inside it who were interested in the possibilities of modernizing it.
Because potential reformers existed within the Soviet Union, Cohen argued then, the empire wasn’t a monstrous Communist dictatorship. It was something more complex, more interesting. “I was not surprised by the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev as the Soviet leader in 1985,” he crowed in his 2009 book Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives.
An earlier volume, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia (2000), portrayed the post-Cold War order not as a massive liberation of the oppressed peoples of Europe but as an American-driven campaign to bring Russia to its knees.
Failed Crusade is primarily a compilation of Cohen’s columns and interviews from the 1990s, whose intent is to establish Cohen as a visionary and sage. When read today, after what has happened in Crimea, Failed Crusade establishes him as Putin’s own John the Baptist—his herald, his prophetic witness.
In it Cohen warns against “preventing Russia from regaining strong influence over the former republics.” He blames the “missionary and intrusive nature of U.S. policy” for Russia’s “growing anti-American backlash.” He accuses Bill Clinton of “becoming [Yeltsin’s] cheerleader, accomplice, and spin doctor, and thus implicating America in some of his most ill-advised and even wicked deeds.” He forecasts a return to dictatorship as an understandable Russian response to American support for Yeltsin’s policies, which “have awakened a historical demon.”
Putin is, according to Cohen’s 2009 book, the indispensable man. “Putin’s disappearance,” Cohen writes, could plunge Russia—and thus American security interests in the region—into crisis. Putin’s successor would probably be “less accommodating” and more hostile toward the United States than Soviet leaders had been. The reason for the belligerent Russian response, according to Cohen, is the “growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by U.S. and NATO bases.”
This idea—that the United States didn’t help collapse the Iron Curtain but simply relocated it from Berlin to Russia’s border through the expansion of NATO in the 1990s—is not Cohen’s exclusive property. It forms the basis for the Putin apologia across the political spectrum. So-called foreign-policy realists have rallied around this view, as have old-school paleoconservatives and some of Cohen’s fellow leftists. That NATO, a defensive alliance dedicated to promoting and preserving democracy in Europe, would be blamed by so many for the thuggish actions of a revanchist autocrat is an abject lesson in how those hostile to the projection of American and Western power have adapted to the post–Cold War world.
The realists found their champion in the retired diplomat Jack Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He took to the pages of the Washington Post on March 14 to echo Cohen’s analysis. Expanding NATO, he said, “seemed to violate the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe.” Even so, Matlock says, Putin came to power in 2000 displaying a “pro-Western orientation.” And what, Matlock asked, “did he get in return?
“Some meaningless praise from President George W. Bush, who then delivered the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin: further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the ‘color revolutions’ in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan; and then, testing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.”
Now that Russia was on the march, Matlock continued, the Obama administration appeared intent on “encouraging a more obstructive Russia”—as if Barack Obama, the champion of the “reset,” actually would want to spend his second term flicking the ears of his counterpart in Moscow.
Matlock’s column tracked closely with the grudge the academic-realist community has long held against NATO, which had been voiced the day before in the New York Times by the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, best known as co-author (with Stephen Walt) of the seminal text for the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theorists.
“The taproot of the current crisis is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” Mearsheimer wrote. According to Mearsheimer, the West further provoked Putin by offering Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych a trade agreement with Europe. Mearsheimer writes, “Mr. Putin offered Ukraine a better deal in response, which Mr. Yanukovych accepted.” Well, of course he did. Yanukovych was a pro-Putin autocrat who had thrown his leading political rival into prison. And Mearsheimer conveniently neglected to mention that Putin’s method of “negotiation” included the viable threat of invasion and cutting off winter gas shipments along with levying billions in sanctions against Kiev.
The deal Mearsheimer considered superior spurred popular protests in the Ukrainian capital that hurled the country’s politics into a state of chaos. Mearsheimer blamed the United States for “backing” the protesters—that is, vocally supporting self-determination and human rights. Putin viewed the pro-Western government that took over after Yanukovych took flight as a “direct threat”—and no wonder! “Who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asked rhetorically, as if the question were self-evidently rational instead of quite piercingly ludicrous.
Mearsheimer’s collaborator, Stephen Walt, was waving the same realist flag from his perch at Foreign Policy magazine. “The real question,” he wrote, “is why Obama and his advisers thought the United States and the European Union could help engineer the ouster of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and expect Vladimir Putin to go along with it?” The casting of Barack Obama and John Kerry as imperial putschists circling Putin’s palace speaks volumes about the intellectually adrift state of noninterventionism and great power politics in 2014. This is “realism” in its current, most debased form.
The Paleoconservatives have been having their say as well. One clearinghouse for Putin apologia is the website of the The American Conservative, the magazine founded by Patrick J. Buchanan. Senior editor Daniel Larison is the resident NATO skeptic and anti-interventionist, and he has found creative ways to punch the American bullies breathing down Putin’s neck. As Russia prepared to annex Crimea, Larison declared that “the case for a punitive response to Russia’s incursion is remarkably weak.”
When the Russian attack inspired the bout of “Romney was right” admissions on the right and the left, Larison unloaded: “All that Romney demonstrated as a candidate was a knee-jerk hostility to Obama’s policies and equally reflexive hostility to improving relations with Russia. To the extent that he had a coherent idea for how to approach Russia differently, he thought that Russia should be provoked at every turn and that cooperation should be avoided.” Romney never said any such thing, but forget it, Larison was rolling.
A few days later, at the suggestion that Ukraine might need Western support now more than ever, Larison raged: “Pursuing NATO membership would be exactly the sort of divisive and controversial move that Western governments should be discouraging the new government from making, and it could end up triggering more Russian intervention.” There was that formulation again: could end up triggering more Russian intervention. A more straightforward way to say that would be: The states in Russia’s near-abroad are perpetually at risk of Russian invasion. Interestingly, the two countries Russia has invaded under Putin are not members of NATO. This key fact undermines the notion that Putin is the one who needs protection from the expansionism of others.
When New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called for abandoning illusions about Putin’s Russia, Larison was happy to offer his own example of just such an illusion: “If there’s one constant in U.S. Russia policy, it is the belief that the U.S. and our allies can goad and irritate Russia as often as they want on as many issues as they like without having to worry about the consequences. Western governments are allowed to goad Russia on many issues, but Moscow mustn’t ever respond in kind, and when it does Western leaders express shock that it would do such a thing.”
What kind of moral relativism does it require to believe that Russia’s repeated invasions of its neighbors are “in kind” responses to American policy toward Europe? There was something of an answer in Larison’s next post. He admitted that Russia’s invocation of “the Kosovo precedent”—the NATO-backed humanitarian intervention that ended the Balkan wars, creating an independent Kosovo—was not precisely analogous to Russia’s intervention in Crimea. But he readily picked up the cudgel of Western hypocrisy: “The Kosovo intervention,” he writes, “was one of the most egregious examples of Western double standards on international law and sovereignty of the last twenty-five years, and it was only a matter of time and circumstances before other governments would make use of it to justify their own interference in the internal affairs of other states.”
This is another throwback to the Cold War, and one Putin himself is fond of, called “Whataboutism.” The essence of Whataboutism is to turn any complaint about Russia into an accusation that whatever it might be doing, the West is doing and has done worse. Despite the constant protestations that the Cold War is over, these attempts to turn criticism of the Kremlin back on the critics are often nothing more than a Putin-era version of anti-anti-Communism.
Whataboutism is only one half of the paleoconservative defense of Putin. The other half verges on outright admiration for him. And no one has so seamlessly floated from the sympathetic to the sycophantic as Patrick J. Buchanan himself.
Buchanan opened his December 17 column with a question: “Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative?” He elaborated a bit, following up with: “In the culture war for mankind’s future, is he one of us?” Buchanan went on to discuss a 2013 Putin speech railing against progressive cultural values. Buchanan beseeched his readers to consider if the blood-soaked tinpot kleptocrat wasn’t on to something. After all, here in America, Buchanan complained, the judiciary took it upon themselves to declare “homosexual acts to be constitutionally protected rights.”
Buchanan then added: “While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind.” The whole column was like a paleocon inversion of a Yakov Smirnoff routine. What a country! Buchanan seems to be saying admiringly—of Russia.
And Buchanan isn’t the only one saying it. In Moscow last June, Republican Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Steve King described the results of a fact-finding mission to Russia they took after two Russian Americans set off bombs at the Boston Marathon. After dismissing concerns about the brutality of Russia’s antiterror operations in the North Caucasus, the two Americans played up Putin’s cynical embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church and his defense of the Christian faith in making their argument that he was an ally in the fight against Islamic extremism.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine did not change Rohrabacher’s view. On March 25, he chided his fellow congressmen for condemning Russia “when no one lost their life in an attempt to make sure the people of Crimea had a right to control their destiny and their own self-determination.” It is sad to note that Rohrabacher had spent eight years as a speechwriter in the Reagan White House before his election to Congress.
In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, leftist journalists found themselves in the remarkable position of feeling it necessary to defend Putin’s own propaganda network against a fellow journalist who had decided to cleanse herself. In 2011, Liz Wahl was working as a reporter in the Northern Mariana Islands when RT offered her a position in Washington D.C. Wahl was soon one of the network’s brightest on-air proponents of Whataboutism. She grew increasingly uncomfortable with the coverage, however, and the way RT took advantage of inexperienced journalists such as herself. So, at the end of her live broadcast on March 5, she looked into the camera and said: “I cannot be part of a network funded by the Russian government that whitewashes the actions of Putin. I’m proud to be an American and believe in disseminating the truth. And that is why after this newscast, I’m resigning.”
The reaction from the left was swift. A writer for the liberal website Firedoglake.com named Kevin Gosztola left Wahl a message saying that he was working on a piece about her for a new media organization. He was particularly exercised about Wahl’s friendship with the writer James Kirchick,1 with whom she had been in touch both before and after her resignation. According to Wahl, Gosztola threatened her: “We’re going to be putting forward some allegations about you and your time at RT…If you have something to say for this story to defend yourself before we go ahead and publish, you have about 24 hours.” Gosztola left Kirchick a similar message.
Gosztola’s angry voicemail messages were posted online, and his piece on Wahl never materialized. But an article titled “How Cold War-Hungry Neocons Stage Managed RT Anchor Liz Wahl’s Resignation,” by Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek, did pop up on March 19. Their piece was a textbook example of character assassination of someone the left now viewed as a traitor to the cause. Blumenthal and Khalek portrayed Wahl as a “disgruntled” employee whose “unprofessional behavior” earned her censure from her employers. Neoconservatives such as Kirchick, applauding Wahl for standing up to the Kremlin, were really manipulating her “to propel the agenda of a powerful pro-war lobby in Washington.”
The previous week, a writer for Buzzfeed named Rosie Gray had published a deeply reported piece about RT, exposing the atmosphere of censorship and the Kremlin’s heavy-handed oversight of the network. Blumenthal and Khalek declared Gray an unacknowledged mouthpiece for the Georgian government, while another writer for Firedoglake accused her of sleeping with another reporter in order to get access to negative information about Russia. He also took aim at Gray’s father, the novelist Peter Abrahams. None of Gray’s meticulous reporting was challenged on factual grounds. She had simply been asking questions, and that was sufficient cause for the Kremlin’s defenders on the American left to drag her name through the mud, derogate her family, and seek to sully her professional reputation.
Putinism, it appears, has something for everyone. No ideological glue binds the Putin fan club together. For paleoconservatives unnerved by the spread of progressive cultural values and willing to empower the state to stem the tide, Putinism clothes the naked public square. For liberals who see unrestrained capitalism as a form of anarchic looting, Putinism puts the state back where it belongs: in control. For the anti-war left, Putinism means standing up to American imperialism when the rest of the world will not. For the anti-interventionist right, Putinism acts as a necessary break on American proclivities to participate in global alliances instead of minding our own business. And for the anti-anti-Communists, Putinism is their delayed gratification at the expense of the Cold Warriors who invited this backlash by pressing their victory.
In reality, Putinism is a violent, paranoid kleptocracy with no moral force, and those who make common cause with it, or seek to excuse it away, have surrendered any claim to moral probity.
1 Kirchick, a COMMENTARY contributor, has an article in this issue on page 37.