Putin’s Pal

Stephen Cohen was once considered a top Russia historian. Now he publishes odd defenses of Vladimir Putin. The Nation just published his most outrageous one yet.

Vladimir Putin
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow July 17, 2014.

Photo by Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin via Reuters

A few months ago, at the height of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over Crimea, Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton, acquired a certain notoriety as the Kremlin’s No. 1 American apologist. As Cohen made Russia’s case and lamented the American media’s meanness to Vladimir Putin in print and on the airwaves, he was mocked as a “patsy” and a “dupe” everywhere from the conservative Free Beacon to the liberal New York and New Republic. Now, as the hostilities in eastern Ukraine have turned to the tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Cohen is at it again—this time, with a long article in the current issue of The Nation indicting “Kiev’s atrocities” in eastern Ukraine and America’s collusion therein. The timing is rather unfortunate for Cohen and The Nation, since the piece is also unabashedly sympathetic to the Russian-backed militants who appear responsible for the murder of 298 innocent civilians.

Some of Cohen’s critics have assumed that he is a lifelong leftist hack who simply transferred his allegiance from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. The truth is more complex. While Cohen regularly argued against anti-Soviet hawks in the Cold War–era in his TV appearances and writing (including a monthly column in The Nation, “Sovieticus,” in the 1980s), he was no fan of the Soviet regime, which blacklisted him from travel there from 1982 to 1985. He had friends among Soviet dissidents—gravitating, however, toward those of the democratic socialist or even Marxist persuasion. Cohen’s own interest in “socialism with a human face” was reflected in his scholarly work: His first book, published in 1973, was a well-received biography of Nikolai Bukharin, the Bolshevik leader and victim of Stalin’s purges who at one point advocated a mixed economy and more humane politics.

In the late 1980s, Cohen was an ardent enthusiast of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms; he and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, now editor in chief of The Nation, co-authored Voices of Glasnost: Interviews With Gorbachev’s Reformers, whose subjects—officials, journalists, and intellectuals—were all proponents of top-down change to bring about a kinder, gentler Soviet socialism. Those dreams ended in a rude awakening in 1991 with the demise of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet collapse is generally seen as the result of the system’s internal rot; Cohen, however, has blamed it on Boris Yeltsin’s power-grabbing, aided by the pro-Western “radical intelligentsia” that “hijacked Gorbachev’s gradualist reformation.” His antipathy to Yeltsin led him to sympathize with the views of those Russians who saw their country during the 1990s as “semi-occupied by foreigners—from shock-therapy economists to human-rights advocates,” and who credited Putin with taking it back. In Newsweek’s February 2008 roundup of expert opinions on Putin and his legacy, Cohen’s contribution—entitled “The Savior”—asserted Putin was the man who “ended Russia’s collapse at home and re-asserted its independence abroad.” As U.S.-Russian relations worsened, Cohen grew increasingly strident in his denunciations of the “demonization” of Putin by the American media.

Cohen’s new article in The Nation hits a new low. The charge Cohen makes is a serious one: that 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.” He is referring to the Ukrainian military assaults on cities and towns held by pro-Russian insurgents, including artillery shelling and air attacks.

The rising civilian toll of the fighting in eastern Ukraine is a fact. To what length governments and armies must go to avoid noncombatant casualties when waging war in populated areas, particularly against irregular fighters who may deliberately mix with civilians, is a dilemma that plagues modern warfare. (Cohen’s hero once tackled this issue head-on by carpet-bombing Chechen cities.) Concerns about possible “indiscriminate” and “disproportionate” use of force by the Ukrainian military in rebel areas have been raised by Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and the United Nations; most recently, Human Rights Watch has criticized the Kiev military’s use of Grad rockets in the fighting for Donetsk. None of them, however, have accused Kiev of war crimes. And, far from being hushed up by the American media, the story was covered both by the Daily Beast (whose reporting has generally been sympathetic to the pro-Western government) and by the Associated Press.

All three organizations also extensively document abuses and bona fide atrocities by the insurgents whom Cohen calls “resisters,” from kidnappings to savage beatings, torture, rape, and murder. Cohen entirely omits these inconvenient facts, conceding only that the rebels are “aggressive, organized and well armed—no doubt with some Russian assistance.” And he concludes that “calling them ‘self-defense’ fighters is not wrong,” since “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.”

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.

On this subject, Cohen’s narrative is so error-riddled that one has to wonder if The Nation employs fact-checkers. (According to The Nation’s publicity director, Caitlin Graf, “All of The Nation’s print pieces are rigorously fact-checked by our research department.”) Cohen asserts that after the fall of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, the far-right Svoboda party, and the paramilitary nationalist group Right Sector got a large share of Cabinet posts, including ones for national security and the military, because Ukraine’s new leaders were “obliged to both movements for their violence-driven ascent to power, and perhaps for their personal safety.” In fact, Svoboda (which has tried to reinvent itself as a moderate nationalist party, despite a genuinely troubling history of bigotry and extremism) got its Cabinet posts as part of a European Union–brokered agreement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders, made shortly before Yanukovych skipped town. Right Sector has no such posts—early reports that its leader, Dmytro Yarosh, got appointed deputy minister for national security were wrong—and the government actually moved to crack down on the group in April. Cohen also neglects to mention that the Svoboda-affiliated acting defense minister, Ihor Tenyukh, was sacked in late March and replaced with a nonpartisan career military man.

Cohen’s claims about the “mainstreaming of fascism’s dehumanizing ethos” in Ukraine are equally spurious—and rely heavily on Russian propaganda canards. Thus, he asserts that Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called the rebels “subhumans”; in fact, even the pro-government Russian newspaper Vzglyad admits this was an English mistranslation of nelyudi, literally “inhumans” or “monsters.” (The word also exists in Russian, and Russian officials have freely used it toward their own “resisters” in the Caucasus.) He reports that a regional governor (Yuri Odarchenko of the Kherson region) “praised Hitler for his ‘slogan of liberating the people’ in occupied Ukraine” in his speech at a Victory Day event on May 9. In fact, as a transcript and a video show, Odarchenko said that Hitler used “slogans about alleged liberation of nations” to justify invading sovereign countries and “the aggressor” today was using similar slogans about “alleged oppressions” to justify aggression against Ukraine. And, in Cohen’s extremely tendentious retelling, the May 2 tragedy in Odessa, where clashes between separatists and Kiev supporters led to a deadly fire that killed some 40 separatists, becomes a deliberate holocaust reminiscent of “Nazi German extermination squads.”

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.

There is no question that eastern Ukraine is currently dealing with a human rights catastrophe. All evidence suggests that it is overwhelmingly the responsibility of the Russia-sponsored militants, though there is almost certainly wrongdoing on the part of Kiev as well. If, as Cohen charges, the Obama administration, the “hawks,” and the “establishment media” are covering up for Kiev for political reasons, the U.N. and the leading human rights groups would have to be complicit in this cover-up.

It is embarrassing to see Cohen—once a serious scholar whose work was praised by the likes of British historian Robert Conquest—sink to the level of repeating Russian misinformation; it is no less of an embarrassment that The Nation would print something so shoddy. One likely element of truth in Cohen’s account is that Putin is indeed feeling the pressure of public sentiment in favor of saving Ukraine’s ethnic Russians from the “fascist junta”—not because of actual Kiev atrocities, but because the Kremlin has wound up a propaganda machine it cannot stop. By recycling this propaganda and giving it the imprimatur of a respectable American magazine, Cohen and The Nation are not doing Russia, or anyone, any favors.