If there’s a popular consensus out there, you can be sure that Stephen F. Cohen is going to disagree with it, because that’s the kind of original thinker Stephen F. Cohen is. In fact, he’s so original, he’ll even disagree with a consensus that doesn’t exist, as he does in his most recent column, penned with his wife and employer, Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor-in-chief of The Nation. In it, Cohen alleges that Barack Obama has unilaterally declared a new Cold War against Russia, and that the entire monolithic crowd girded by the Washington Beltway has been utterly, silently complicit.
Except, of course, The Nation. “There are notable exceptions,” the disinterested couple writes, “including this magazine, but none close enough to the mainstream to be 'authoritative' inside the Beltway.”
There’s a whole tome to be written about the self-aggrandizing martyr complex on display here: Only the great and brave Stephen F. Cohen dares defy this Washington stampede to cold war—or, you know, any consensus out there.
For example, the consensus that Vladimir Putin is, at best, a problematic leader. The great and brave Stephen F. Cohen disagrees. The Russian president that the Beltway crowd bashes for vanquishing dissent, democracy, press freedoms, human rights, a fair and independent judiciary, the president who is once again back to starting armed conflicts in his backyard is actually a pretty great guy—mostly because he is sticking it to the Beltway crowd.
The moral imperative of sticking it to Washington and American hegemony is so pressing, so important, that, in true revolutionary fashion, the facts can easily be subsumed under the greater mission. So can the weird juxtaposition of the super-lefty Cohen defending a revanchist, nationalist, imperialist, conservative Putin who has established an oligarchy in Russia. But Stephen F. Cohen has been such a brave defender of Putin for so long, that he can probably just write these things in his sleep and not think too hard about it.
Yesterday’s column, though, reached a new low, sinking to a depth where the counter-intuitive becomes simply the counter-factual. But if you’re trying to paint a picture of a Pyongyang-like Washington, why bother mentioning all the hawks criticizing what they think is a feckless White House policy, or the realists and lefties calling on Obama to engage with Russia instead of isolating it? Why bother with Mitch McConnell’s call to arm the Ukrainians, or Dana Rohrbacher’s strange paeans to the Kremlin? Why bother with the legislation introduced in Congress just yesterday that would pressure the White House to do more—you know, alter its Russia policy? But really, why bother with anything if it doesn’t fit into the same pro-Putin argument you’ve been making for years?
He is even worse on the actual conflict itself. Cohen writes:
Both sides in the confrontation, the West and Russia, have legitimate grievances. Does this mean, however, that the American establishment’s account of recent events should not be questioned? That it was imposed on the West by Putin’s “aggression,” and this because of his desire “to re-create as much of the old Soviet empire as he can” or merely to “maintain Putin’s domestic rating.” Does it mean there is nothing credible enough to discuss in Moscow’s side of the story? That twenty years of NATO’s eastward expansion has caused Russia to feel cornered. That the Ukraine crisis was instigated by the West’s attempt, last November, to smuggle the former Soviet republic into NATO. That the West’s jettisoning in February of its own agreement with then-President Viktor Yanukovych brought to power in Kiev an unelected regime so anti-Russian and so uncritically embraced by Washington that the Kremlin felt an urgent need to annex predominantly Russian Crimea, the home of its most cherished naval base. And, most recently, that Kiev’s sending of military units to suppress protests in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine is itself a violation of the April 17 agreement to de-escalate the crisis.
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
Facts overlooked include all the ink that’s been spilled—including by some rather prominent establishment pens—contemplating how all of this is happening because we foolish Westerners have taunted the Russian bear. Also the fact that the government in Kiev is an explicitly provisional one, and that, as a first order of business, it set up elections to remedy this—elections that Russia is now doing its very best to upend.
But whatever. That’s not even the best part. The best part is the fact that lefty scholar Stephen F. Cohen, chronicler of Bukharin and champion of the workingman, scathing critic of American imperialism, turns out to be a straight-up great-man, great-game American imperialist. This whole thing with Crimea and Donetsk, you see, is all about the West and Russia. Actually, no, fuck that, it’s all about America. Cohen, the anti-Americanist, somehow becomes the perverse inverse of an American patriot, ascribing far too much agency to the very power he despises, giving it all kinds of powers it doesn’t actually have, like the ability to solve this thing.
What about Russia? Does proud, resurgent Russia embody any kind of inherent traits—or people, or actors, or political, historical, processes—that aren’t simply the anti-mirror to the West’s? What about the fact that the anti-Americanism in Russia flared not because of NATO expansion? Or the fact that it came at a time of great U.S.-Russia cooperation? What of the fact that anti-Western sentiment in Russia erupted first in the Kremlin and its television stations; that its lava then oozed down the country’s slope in response to internal Russian political events, namely, the pro-democracy, anti-Putin protests that broke out in the winter of 2011-2012? The fact that Putin’s cronies cynically played the Western agent/fifth column card to help Putin win the presidential election in March 2012, and then couldn’t really plug up that volcano, or really want to—well, yeah, why would Stephen F. Cohen consider that when we know from the get-go that it was all America’s fault?
And here’s another small detail Cohen doesn’t want to clutter your mind with: Ukraine. You may have heard of it, it’s been in the news a bunch recently, and it’s a country of 46 million people, each of whom thinks and wants and may even want some say in this. But, shhhh, why?
Ukraine, you see, is just "a former Soviet republic" and a catalyst for feelings between Russia and the West. It’s a thing that can be “smuggled into NATO” because its desire or non-desire to be in NATO is automatically less important than how that “smuggling” would make Russia feel. It doesn’t seem to matter that NATO accession was not really on the table for Ukraine (just look at its military performance in recent weeks) and neither was EU accession because—warning: another meaningless detail!—Ukraine is a financial basket case, even worse than the basket cases the EU is already dealing with. It doesn’t matter to Cohen that both issues were matters of great debate inside that insignificant detail named Ukraine, and that the fact of their potential smuggling into this or that union might be something to be decided inside Ukraine, a sovereign and independent country trying in vain to regain its own territory captured by masked Russian gunmen. (How, I wonder, does Cohen feel about invasions if they involve certain North American powers and certain Middle Eastern countries?)
I won’t even get into the fact that the actions of the pro-Russian thugs and the idea of joining Russia are actually hugely unpopular in eastern Ukraine, but why would we ask Ukrainians if Russia is upset?
Also, that broken February 21 agreement that Cohen and the Kremlin love to talk about so much? Russia didn’t sign it because Russia thought it was a pretty terrible agreement.
But whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is history. “Future historians will certainly find some merit in Moscow’s arguments, and wonder why they are being widely debated in, for example, Germany, but not in America,” writes Cohen. He even starts his op-ed with an evocation of the world-historical. “Future historians will note that in April 2014, nearly a quarter-century after the end of the Soviet Union, the White House declared a new Cold War on Russia,” he writes.
Future historians, whoever they are, are obviously going to be a monolith, a kind of Sanhedrin that will think unanimously and by consensus, unlike, say, present historians who make careers out of disagreeing with other historians. Something that Cohen, once a renowned academic, should know all about.