The New Apologists for Vladimir Putin — on the Right and the Left
We live in strange times. The Cold War is over, yet when it comes to Russia seeking to maintain its control of Ukraine, a new group of apologists for Vladimir Putin has emerged. Once again, the group in the West supporting the hegemonic attempts of control of Ukraine by the authoritarian Putin regime is made up of stalwarts on both the Right and the Left.
Support for Putin on the Right comes from the paleoconservatives led by Pat Buchanan, the editors of The American Conservative, and the writers for the website Anti-war.com. The entire group comes from the precincts of what historians call the Old Right, a phenomenon that harks back to the old isolationism of pre World War II conservatives and the large group they organized, the America First Committee. Their motivations have been succinctly summarized by James Kirchick.
A new concern has been added to the traditional non-interventionist trope. They are favorable to much of Putin’s growing domestic positions on issues such as the growing repression of gays in Russia, actions which they also look kindly upon and wish were social policy in the United States. Opposition to gay rights is combined with support for Putin’s attempt to build what he calls a Christian Russia, and concern for what Buchanan sees as something greatly lacking in the secular United States. In his book Suicide of a Superpower, Buchanan titled two chapters “The End of White America” and “The Death of Christian America.” He seems to be saying, “If only we had a leader in the United States with the vision of Vladimir Putin.” Indeed, he asked in one column, “Is Putin One of Us?” His answer, as you have undoubtedly guessed, is yes:
Nor is [Putin] without an argument when we reflect on America’s embrace of abortion on demand, homosexual marriage, pornography, promiscuity, and the whole panoply of Hollywood values.
Our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live.
Moreover, Putin asserts, the new immorality has been imposed undemocratically.
The “destruction of traditional values” in these countries, he said, comes “from the top” and is “inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.”
Does he not have a point?
As he bluntly says, America is not the nation “we grew up in,” and Putin sees Americans as “pagan and wildly progressive,” a statement with which Buchanan obviously agrees.
On the Left, leading the charge that the neo-cons are again trying to push us into war -- a charge they assert whenever anyone makes an analysis with which they do not agree -- is The Nation magazine and its writers and editors. And the number-one supporter and apologist for Putin is the historian of modern Russia, Stephen Cohen of Princeton and New York University. In the past two weeks, he has been on Fareed Zakaria’s TV program, on CNN, and on whatever other media outlets call upon him.
In Cohen’s cover story in a recent issue of The Nation, of which his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel is both publisher and editor-in-chief, he claimed that American media coverage of Putin and Russia is “less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.” According to Cohen, Putin has worked to support American interests in stabilizing his nuclear-armed country, assisted U.S. security interests in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, and has magnanimously freed over 1000 political prisoners.
Evidently, Professor Cohen does not acknowledge that in Syria, for example, Putin has managed to box the U.S. into working with and bolstering the Assad regime, to which Russia constantly gives new battle-ready helicopters, and which to this day has brutally seen to the horrendous deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens, all brought down with Russian assistance. We are somehow supposed to believe that this is in our security interests.
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?