The New Apologists for Vladimir Putin — on the Right and the Left
Along with Putin, Cohen depicts the demonstrators in Ukraine as hardly “right-minded oppositionists,” but in reality as a group whose politics are never examined and which, he implies, is most likely made up of far-Right extremists and includes fascists and anti-Semites. He believes that “a new Cold War divide between West and East may now be unfolding, not in Berlin but in the heart of Russia’s historical civilization.” The now ousted president of Ukraine is depicted by Cohen as presiding over a real democracy, and not anything like what he believes are the false portrayals by the historian Timothy Snyder, whose articles in The New York Review of Books paint a not-so-rosy view of the old Yanukovych regime.
To Cohen, the crisis arose only because NATO expansion in Eastern Europe forced Putin and Yanukovych to rightfully protect Russia’s national interests. Moreover, U.S.-funded groups in Ukraine were interfering with domestic politics by bringing NGOs to fund democracy promotion, while trying to put provocative missile-defense installations in countries like Poland, meant to “subordinate Ukraine to NATO.”
He is angry that at the Sochi Olympics, the U.S. sent a low-level delegation, which infuriated Putin because it included “retired gay athletes.” How dare the United States do such a thing, knowing that Putin believes gay people should have no rights? What Obama should have done was go to Sochi himself, “either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries.”
Professor Cohen, we all remember, was sad at the demise of the Soviet Union. He hoped it would not collapse and that it would remain in existence under the leadership of his beloved Mikhail Gorbachev. The last Soviet leader, Cohen believed, would have created a democratic communist state built in the tradition of the purged and executed Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, of whom Cohen wrote an admiring biography.
The liberal columnist Jonathan Chait gets it correctly. Writing about those he terms Putin’s “pathetic dupes,” he singles out Stephen Cohen and accurately calls him “a septuagenarian, old-school leftist who has carried on the mental habits of decades of anti-anti-communism seamlessly into a new career of anti-anti-Putinism. The Cohen method is to pick away at every indictment of the Russian regime without directly associating himself with its various atrocities.” It is not surprising that Cohen is frequently a guest on the Kremlin’s TV propaganda outlet, Russia Today, just as he would have been welcome on Soviet stations in the Gorbachev era. In a recent radio interview, Cohen writes:
I can't remember any Soviet communist leader being so personally villainized, that is we wrote bad things about Khrushchev, about Brezhnev, about Andropov, but we disliked them because they represented an evil system. We didn't say them themselves were thugs, murderers, assassins, which are words that we attach to Putin.
I think Professor Cohen should look a little more, because I recall plenty of people referring to the Soviet leaders as “thugs” and worse.
The truth is that Cohen analyzes Putin just as he analyzed the Soviet Union, for which he always apologized. In an interview in the new print Newsweek (not online), Cohen said:
We hit Russia’s borders under Bush because NATO was in the Baltics. Then we had this episode in Georgia in 2008 because we crossed Russia’s red line in Georgia. We’ve crossed it in Ukraine. I don’t understand why people don’t see this. That if you send, over a 20-year period, a military alliance which has it’s political components -- includes missile defense, includes NGOs that get money from governments but are deeply involved in politics in those countries, includes the idea of revolutions on their borders -- then eventually you’re going to come up against a red line that, like Obama, they’re going to act on.
It’s the old apology for the Soviet Union by the Communists and fellow-travelers brought up to date to explain away Putin. Stalin and his minions in the West used to explain every Soviet action as a fault of “capitalist encirclement,” to which the poor USSR had to act to defend itself. So Cohen believes now we “went a bridge to far” in Ukraine. Putin had to act to defend the just national interests of Russia.
As for the suppression of gays in Russia, Cohen points out they were suppressed in America when he grew up. Moreover, he says that 85 percent of Russians believe homosexuality is a disease or a choice. And there is no popular support in the country for gay rights. In other words, we may not like it, but one has to respect the feelings of the Russian public, and not inflict our values and decisions on them. He goes on to say “it’s not our concern,” and sarcastically remarks: “Are we supposed to form a brigade and go there and liberate Russian gays?” That is, my friend the historian of Russia Louis Menashe puts it, “reminiscent of turning back criticisms of the USSR with: "What about the Negroes lynched in the South!"
Once again, leftists like Stephen Cohen join with paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan in opposing a stand for democracy, and in charging critics of Putin with unfairly and aggressively opposing Putin’s supposed just and necessary policies. When will we learn the lessons we should have learned from the past?