Is Stephen Cohen a Putin Apologist?
My target today is not Vladimir Putin himself but those who act as voices for his position even though they are critical of both Putin and what he has done in Russia. My main target is the renowned American scholar on Russia, Stephen Cohen, but there are more modest and less bombastic Canadian versions such as Mark MacKinnon, senior international correspondent for The Globe and Mail who has been a bureau chief in Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. MacKinnon has won the National Newspaper Award four times and is author of a 2007 study, The New Cold War Revolutions, Rigged Elections and Pipeline Politics in the Former Soviet Union. In Saturday’s Globe (8 March) he published a two-page spread entitled, “How the West Lost Putin” arguing that the bad blood between the West and Putin has been developing over the last fifteen years and has largely been the responsibility of the West which, over the years, never appreciated or offered any proper acknowledgement of Putin’s efforts to cooperate with the West.
Early on, Putin was torn between his KGB training and background and some attraction towards western democratic values expressed best in the early years when he was an aide to Anatoliy Sobchak, the reformist governor of St. Petersburg. He had expressed sympathy with George Bush after 9/11, shared intelligence and offered airspace for America’s war in Afghanistan, and even allowed the U.S. to create a no-fly zone over Libya. According to MacKinnon, he got bubkas (my expression, not his) in return and was gradually pushed into regarding the West as the enemy of Russia determined to hem Russia in, an interpretation that reinforced his view that the implosion of the USSR in 1991 was the greatest disaster to befall Russia.
However, my main concern is Stephen Cohen; I mention MacKinnon to indicate that Cohen is not alone in the position he adopts. In launching this criticism, I recognize that I am an amateur in contrast to the expertise of both Cohen and MacKinnon.
Several nights ago I watched and listened to Stephen Cohen on CNN and heard him describe two Ukraines: an eastern and southern Russian-oriented Ukraine and a western European-oriented Ukraine. He then went on to blame Obama specifically. He did not hold Putin responsible for the current crisis because, back in November, Obama, with the EU in tow, had “forced” the Viktor Yanukovych government to choose between Europe and Russia, playing an either/or game and not a both/and game. At the same time, Cohen criticised Obama and his predecessor for not paying sufficient attention to Russian sensitivities in the efforts to move NATO closer and closer to Russia’s borders and failing to understand that Russia had deep interests in the Ukraine and could not possibly tolerate a neighbour oriented against Russia.
According to Cohen, “every informed observer knows—from Ukraine’s history, geography, languages, religions, culture, recent politics and opinion surveys—that the country is deeply divided as to whether it should join Europe or remain close politically and economically to Russia. [So far, no problem!] There is not one Ukraine or one ‘Ukrainian people’ but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.” Cohen repeats this claim over and over; it has become his mantra. “Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle,” he repeats, “because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West.”
After Cohen made his pitch on CNN, I heard a very articulate refutation of Stephen Cohen’s first point from a young protest leader in Kyiv, Katryna Krak, about whom I was unable to find out anything further, but she is, for Cohen, a priori, not a very informed observer for she refutes Cohen’s refrain about his “two Ukraines.” She conceded that Ukrainians were truly divided over policy in that some wanted a more pro-Russian policy and others wanted a more pro-European policy. To her, Ukrainians were generally united in a) still being Ukrainian and b) wanting a democratic and honest government accountable and abiding by the rule of law. Indeed, the yearning for a democratic regime was a uniting force. To describe Ukraine as consisting of two Ukraines was insulting to Ukrainians and blind to genuine fears they had of using this political difference to divide Ukraine politically. After all, the US is divided into red states and blue states, but this would be no justification for suggesting there are two different Americas and two different peoples inhabiting America, but only suggesting that there are different parts of America which tend to be differentially oriented politically. But they are all Americans.
In a recent article in The Nation, to which Stephen Cohen is a contributing editor and his wife an owner, entitled “Distorting Russia: How the American media misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine,” http://www.thenation.com/article/178344/distorting-russia#, he accused the American media of malpractice, “failing to provide essential facts and context” and refusing to print opposing opinions. (Not my experience – see MacKinnon above as an example.) He accused the American media of being as ideological as they were during the Cold War. The misrepresentation began with ignoring the looting of essential state assets in the early nineties in favour of a narrative that depicted Russia as undergoing a difficult transition from communism to democracy. In doing so, the media supported the “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament and imposition of a ‘presidential’ Constitution, which dealt a crippling blow to democratization.”
Further, Cohen also repeated a claim he had made that the revolt in Kyiv was being controlled and orchestrated by fascist elements in Ukraine, a position Wolf Blitzer repeated only to be scolded vehemently by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Wolf Blitzer repeated a claim by Russia’s United Nations Ambassadoir Vitaly Churkin that Nazi sympathizers have taken power in Western Ukraine. Amanpour admonished Blitzer for repeating that charge. “You’ve got to be really careful putting that across as a fact,” Amanpour said. “Are you saying that the entire pro-European Ukrainians are anti-Semites? That’s what the Russians are saying and that’s what Professor Cohen is saying.”
Is the whole revolt really controlled by anti-semitic fascists? Did the American media really support an “armed destruction of a popularly elected Parliament”, a position that MacKinnon also seems to endorse? Did the American media support the imposition of presidential constitution that undermined the process of democratization which abetted Putin’s choke-hold on the Russian polity? That is not what I recall, but I remain open to being convinced if the evidence is persuasive, particularly since I do not trust my memory at all. Unfortunately, Stephen Cohen levelled these sweeping accusations with little evidence. The media was also accused of supporting the war in Chechnya that gave rise to terrorism in Russia’s North Caucasus thus enabling Putin to rig his own re-election in 1996. According to Cohen, most media reports in America still “give the impression that Yeltsin was an ideal Russian leader”.
I had no idea the American media had such a powerful effect on domestic Russian politics! Since Cohen supplied no evidence, though he accused journalists of shameful unprofessional practices, inflammatory writing, and even malpractice for failing to provide essential facts and context (an accusation that Cohen in his writings allegedly went back to American anti-Red coverage at the time of the Russian revolution as documented by Walter Lippman and Charles Merz), I decided to do a quick and fairly arbitrary check. I would simply google key words and see what came up on the presumption that if Cohen was correct, most newspaper articles that came up would support his views.
I first typed in “1993 American media coverage of Russian economic privatization”. The first item that popped up was chapter one of Stephen Cohen’s own 2000 book, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post Communist Russia that appeared in the New York Times apparently that year when Cohen levelled those charges in a book-length form, except in that chapter he went back to the Clinton years when he had to stand up single-handedly against the “Washington Consensus” and its crusade to convert Russia to a replica of American values in a condescending policy of American tutelage. I then recalled that it was true that America did adopt a policy of trying to teach the republics that broke away from the Soviet Union, including Russia itself, American democratic practices and the rule of law, the stability of political institutions and the values of free speech and democracy. I also noted how well they took in Hungary when I was there to help that country reform its refugee laws as well as in other former satellites such as Poland and the Baltic states.
However, as Cohen told the tale in 1990, that policy in Russia “crashed on the rock of reality”, Cohen’s reality that Russia was a very proud and great nation that resented such American chutzpah and, in turn, became more anti-American than it had been in the previous forty years that he had studied Russia. In turn, American investors, including his bête noir, George Soros, lost $80-100 billion in the 1998 crash, Soros’ Quantum Fund alone losing $2 billion. Why did this happen? Because, “according to a 1996 survey” Moscow correspondents reported on Moscow “through the prism of their own expectations and beliefs” resulting in a Manichaean and one-dimensional account as propounded by American officials in a tale told of the conflict between the liberal democratic economic and political reformers and “On the side of darkness was the always antireform horde of Communist, nationalist, and other political dragons ensconced in its malevolent parliamentary cave”. Yeltsin was the hero, “including Yeltsin’s designated successor, Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer”.
In telling of this massive one-sided tale, the support for his position, interesting enough, comes almost exclusively from the media itself, such as a 1999 study by two journalists that Chubais, one of the heroes of the so-called Washington consensus, had been “little more than a conduit for a corrupt regime”. Further, the Clinton administration and its media claque encouraged “Yeltsin’s unconstitutional shutdown of Russia’s Parliament and then cheering his armed assault on the elected body.” My own memory is that there had been a great deal of criticism of Yeltsin at the time and especially of the economic shock therapy in the transition from communism, criticism that, in particular, depicted the “unpaid wages and pensions, malnutrition, and decaying provinces”, but this may have been because I read the Canadian press or because my memory had been corrupted. Once again, it was an investigative reporter who, contrary to the Washington consensus revealed that, “The whole political struggle in Russia between 1992 and 1998 was between different groups trying to take control of state assets. It was not about democracy or market reforms.” It seems hard to prove a media consensus when it’s the media that offers the evidence of the criticism of that alleged consensus.
Robert Kaplan whose op-eds on the current crisis have appeared frequently, reviewed Stephen Cohen’s 2000 book. In that review, he began by focusing not on the errors of government officials, businessmen, academics and journalists, but on the difficulty in changing a country of 140 million people spread over seven time zones with seventy years of comprehensive totalitarianism following centuries of absolutism that “left an institutional and moral void”. This history, geography and demography when combined with the suddenness of the collapse made the problem of transformation “impossible to overcome”. However, then Kaplan departs from Cohen. “Cohen attacks people — including Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski — who understood in the 1980’s, as he did not, that Soviet Communism could not be salvaged. He fails to emphasize that the Russians never implemented much of the advice of the very experts he attacks for losing Russia. And his own advice — that we should not have bombed Serbia or expanded NATO and that we should adopt instead the ‘collective approaches’ of the United Nations, all for the sake of courting Russia — amounts to capitulation, not engagement.”
But then Kaplan commends Cohen for recognizing that the shock therapy would never work. “According to Cohen, a people’s historical experience supersedes economic theory. Thus, as he explains, what worked for Poland — a small, ethnically homogeneous country exposed to the Enlightenment, with a rudimentary market infrastructure even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall — would not necessarily work for Russia. Cohen provides a stimulating counter-chronology to challenge the official Washington view of post-cold-war Russia as a string of qualified successes and disasters avoided, in which good democrats, led by former President Boris Yeltsin, have battled bad neo-communists, particularly Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and foreign minister.”
Culture and history supersede economics. I, personally, could not agree more. On the other hand, culture and history do not quash economics and make change impossible. Within every culture can be found the elements of its own transformation. Cohen and Kaplan both point out that these were already present if they had not been blind-sided by the Chicago economic school, had trusted more in Mikhail Gorbachev’s belief in the rule of law and Primakov’s belief in the importance of institutional practices. Both of these Russian leaders opposed Yeltsin’s arnarchistic, bombastic propensities. As Kaplan concludes, “Cohen himself sounds somewhat like a missionary by ascribing so much importance to his own society’s impact on such a distant, vast and intractable country.”
In the next Google entry, Andrei Sheifer (a professor of economics at Harvard) and Daniel Treisman (Political Science, UCLA) in their study, “A Normal Country: Russia After Communism (Journal of Economic Perspectives 19:1, Winter, 151-174) write that Cohen’s viewpoint was the consensus, that the transformation in Russia from 1990 to 1999 had been a disastrous failure, particularly for the Russian people. The consensus depicts Russia not as a middle-income country but “as a collapsed and criminal state” a view supported by both left and right. President George Bush was a leading voice against this consensus when, in late 2003, he “praised President Putin’s efforts to make Russia into a ‘country in which democracy and freedom and the rule of law thrive’.”
Except, without the jingoism of George Bush, the two authors offer lots of evidence to conclude that, “We ﬁnd a large gap between the common perception and the facts. After reviewing the evidence, the widespread image of Russia as a uniquely menacing disaster zone comes to seem like the reﬂection in a distorting mirror—the features are recognizable, but stretched and twisted out of all proportion. In fact, although Russia’s transition has been painful in many ways, and its economic and political systems remain far from perfect, the country has made remarkable economic and social progress. Russia’s remaining defects are typical of countries at its level of economic development. Both in 1990 and 2003, Russia was a middle-income country, with GDP per capita around $8,000 at purchasing power parity according to the UN International Comparison Project, a level comparable to that of Argentina in 1991 and Mexico in 1999. Countries in this income range have democracies that are rough around the edges, if they are democratic at all. Their governments suffer from corruption, and their press is almost never entirely free. Most also have high-income inequality, concentrated corporate ownership and turbulent macroeconomic performance. In all these regards, Russia is quite normal.”
It appears that while the narrative was emerging as much more varied and nuanced, Cohen was still struck in the trope he had set down in 2000. Most commentators I read, whatever their many disagreements, do NOT ignore Russia having legitimate political and national interests as Cohen contends they do. They do object, however, to the means Putin resorts to express those interests or to any presumption that Russia’s interests a priori trump Ukraine’s national interests, especially to remain an independent and unified country oriented politically and economically west.
Finding logical consistency in Cohen’s argument is a challenge. Cohen castigates Putin on the one hand but sympathizes with him on the other hand. When it comes to American thought processes, any complexity and nuance drops away. Instead, he treats the media with a homogeneous, and wholly unsympathetic, portrait of a blind and one-sided industry while he repeatedly cites that same media to support his own views. “Anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s—only in the ‘autocrat’ Putin who, however authoritarian, in reality lacks such power. Nor is he credited with stabilizing a disintegrating nuclear-armed country, assisting US security pursuits from Afghanistan and Syria to Iran or even with granting amnesty, in December, to more than 1,000 jailed prisoners, including mothers of young children.” Sorry? Where else but in the media did I first find Cohen’s views expressed? While I myself reflected many in giving credit to Putin re both Iran and the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, Cohen goes far too far in giving credit to Putin for granting amnesty to the thousand jailed prisoners, many like the members of Russia’s Pussy Riot, two of whom are mothers, whose arrest and imprisonment he orchestrated and whom he allowed to be beaten up after their release by his thugs. Shame on you for this alone Stephen Cohen!
Why can’t we acknowledge that Putin has performed some commendable international diplomacy yet still regard Putin as a “thug”? Why do we have to be as simpleminded as the industry he finds so reprehensible, the very industry that gives him so much air time?
This is not the first time that Western observers have gotten twisted up over a Russian thug. Even Putin’s critics do not deny that he enjoys widespread support of 60-65% in Russia. But Stalin was also once a great hero of both the West and of Russians. Nor do such critics, again including amateurs such as myself, believe that democrats will necessarily succeed Putin. We are not unaware that even more formidable ultra-nationalists are in the wings and they would be a lot worse for the Russian people and for the West than Putin. But does this require apologizing for Putin, accepting his faults as an inconvenience?
The fact is that Cohen also operates within a Manichaean framework, only for him the greatest evil doers always seem to be American. Jeffrey Sachs is one of his targets. Sachs went to advise the Russians on reforms in 1991 and thus was part of America’s zealous missionary crusade in Russia. But here is Sachs’s defence in 2012. “I advised on how Russia could emulate the successful transformations underway in Eastern Europe. My work in Russia lasted from December 1991 to December 1993 (and I publicly announced my resignation January 1994). I stress these points because there is a long-standing narrative that says that I was out to help impose the “Washington Consensus,” a Milton-Friedman-style free-market economy. This is patently false. Yet it is repeated. It should stop being repeated. There is another narrative that says that I was ruthlessly in favor of a market economy and uninterested in the rule of law, institutions, or social justice. This is even more patently wrongheaded. I have always regarded economic reform, institution building, and social justice to go hand in hand. I have always fought corruption, and resigned from Russia in 1993 because I found corruption to be growing and out of control. I have always paid attention to the plight of the poor, and looked for progressive measures to support macroeconomic objectives (e.g. the end of hyperinflation) in ways that give sustenance and support for the poor. For 27 years, since the start of my work in Bolivia, I have been a consistent champion of debt relief for over-indebted low-and-middle-income countries, precisely to help these countries find the economic and fiscal space to support the poor and the investments needed to end poverty.”
Sachs was successful in Bolivia and in Poland but largely failed in Russia. To Cohen, the failure was because Sachs belonged to a Washington monolithic consensus.
Cohen mis-reports facts. I personally did some detailed investigations of the depth and breadth of anti-semitism and Cohen’s charge about “the proliferation of anti-Semitic slogans by a significant number of anti-Yanukovych protesters.” I concluded that there were certainly some, but they were a very minor part of the protest movement. I offered a sample of evidence in a previous blog.
Stephen Cohen may be a retired professor of Russian studies from New York University, but he is also a dogmatist, deliberately hypocritical, and a quasi-apologist for the same positions as Putin. He is as caught up in as Manichaean a framework as those he dismisses. But in his view, the really evil-doers are the Americans. His expertise does not trump my amateurism; it is flawed by contradictory assertions, unsupported claims, indifference to nuance, and sweeping oversimplifications.
Appendix on the Nuland-Pyatt Tape
As another example of America-bashing and Putin apologetics, Cohen cites the taped 11 December 2013 conversation between Victoria Nuland, the State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, and the US Ambassador in Kyiv, Geoffrey Pyatt, that proved that “high-level officials were plotting to ‘midwife’ a new, anti-Russian Ukrainian government by ousting or neutralizing its democratically elected president – that is, a coup.” (Mark MacKinnon also alluded to this evidence supporting Putin’s position.) The conversation was posted on YouTube. http://rt.com/news/nuland-phone-chat-ukraine-927/
President Viktor Yanukovich had offered to make opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk [leader of the fatherland opposition parliamentary faction] the new prime minister and award the position of deputy prime minister to Vitaly Klitschko [leader of the opposition United Democratic Alliance Reform (UDAR) party and a former heavyweight boxer – see Anderson Cooper’s interview with him on CNN 360 Live from Kiev, 6 March]. In that taped conversation, Nuland said: “I don’t think that Klitschko should go into the government. I don’t think it is necessary. I don’t think it is a good idea.” Pyatt replied: “In terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework.” “In terms of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together.”
It is clear that Nuland and Pyatt were NOT strategizing about how to make this come about. They were asserting their preferences and the reasons for them. This is what state department and foreign affairs officers do all over the world. There is no suggestion of how they could influence such an outcome let alone of any discussion of a coup, that is, an appropriation of power or a takeover. It is the opposite of a coup in two respects. It is advice on who should stay out of power to keep the democratic forces united. Second, it is advice and an indication of what Americans would support and not pressure, let alone coercive pressure, to bring about such an outcome. Observers, or rather listeners, seem to be exercised, not only about the use of “Fuck you” in referring to the use of the UN versus the EU, but the allegation that such talk and presumably advice is interference in the domestic affairs of another country.
When America expressed its preference for Pearson versus Diefenbaker, when Netanyahu signalled his preference for Romney rather than Obama – and these were not just officials – that did NOT constitute interference, let alone a coup, though in almost all cases, it is usually imprudent and poor diplomacy if such opinions are made public. But certainly they are the norm. The conversation nowhere implies that the United States “has been secretly plotting with the opposition”. That does not mean they were not, but the evidence does not support such an interpretation.
As Nuland sees it, Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk should be in charge of the new government and Klitschko would not get along with him. “It’s just not going to work,” was her opinion. This cannot be construed as the US acting as the midwife of the new government unless it could be shown that the US was offering financial incentives to different Ukrainian politicians to support the American’s beliefs. In any case, the Ukarainians clearly did not accept the American advice.