Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Archive for March 2014

OK, He’s Not Stalin

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One of the problems I find with The Nation is that reading its content makes me ask, “which nation?” Surely not the United States. Surely not a country I would want to live in.

Once again this is on display in the March 3 article by Stephen Cohen, “Distorting Russia” []. The article has a mixture of well-grounded criticism and PR for Russian interests, with a dollop of standard-issue internationalism thrown in. So let’s work through it. All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the article.

There are notable exceptions, but a general pattern has developed. Even in the venerable New York Times and Washington Post, news reports, editorials and commentaries no longer adhere rigorously to traditional journalistic standards, often failing to provide essential facts and context; to make a clear distinction between reporting and analysis; to require at least two different political or “expert” views on major developments; or to publish opposing opinions on their op-ed pages. As a result, American media on Russia today are less objective, less balanced, more conformist and scarcely less ideological than when they covered Soviet Russia during the Cold War.

Welcome to Earth, Dr. Cohen. Have you been living on a desert island for several decades? News reporting in general is failing to adhere to journalistic standards, does not provide essential facts and context and does not distinguish between reporting and analysis. Journalists often report the fact of a persons’ opinion as if it were a fact about an event. The decline of journalism is not a sudden revelation.

As to “conformist,” I must ask, conforming to what? This charge, and the unsubstantiated way it is thrown around, appears to owe a heavy debt to Mrs. Stephen Cohen, a.k.a. Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation.

The history of this degradation is also clear. It began in the early 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union, when the US media adopted Washington’s narrative that almost everything President Boris Yeltsin did was a “transition from communism to democracy” and thus in America’s best interests.

While I don’t agree that the narrative originated in Washington or was as clear-cut as he renders, Cohen has a point. When the media were paying attention to Russia at all, they tended to paint everything going on as not-Soviet and therefore wonderful. As Cohen cites, there was a lot of disruption, corruption (more on this later) and abuse of power going on.

Since the early 2000s, the media have followed a different leader-centric narrative, also consistent with US policy, that devalues multifaceted analysis for a relentless demonization of Putin, with little regard for facts.

I do not believe that this was true since the early 2000s. I will say that there was a natural mistrust of a man who rose through the KGB ranks. However, certainly recent events have prompted journalists looking to build stories with cognitive simplicity to paint Putin as a black hat. The Pussy Riot episode and the repression of Russian dissidents have fed into this.

The Evil Vladimir narrative is accelerated by his position on homosexuality, which is at odds with Western orthodoxy on the subject. In January, Putin made a statement that Russia must cleanse itself of homosexuality, triggering stories such as this:

Inside of Russia, the consensus is that as soon as the Olympic torch goes out, enforcement of the so-called “anti-propaganda law” and the state-sanctioned violence that accompanies it will increase.  New laws, such as the proposal to tear children away from same-sex families, will likely be passed.  And the wholesale destruction of civil society, of which the anti-gay laws, the “Foreign Agents” law, the NGO law, and dozens of administrative measures, will continue.
— “Putin’s Post-Sochi LGBT Crackdown”, The Daily Beast,

Look at the verbs in the above text. They are all future tense. They cannot possibly be facts, because they have yet to happen. Even the “wholesale destruction of civil society” which, if it is happening, needs to be substantiated, “will continue”. The continuation of an trend which is arguable but not confirmed is itself a future occurrence. So where are the facts here? It may be a fact that some people have this opinion, but that does not make this factual reporting.

And consensus among whom? The evidence from Russia is that his policies in these areas do obtain some popular support, and in fact he is building his political position by going after such easy targets as gays.

If nothing else, American journalists gave terrorists an early victory, tainting “Putin’s Games” and frightening away many foreign spectators, including some relatives of the athletes.

The Sochi Games were seen by all parties as symbolic, and as anyone who has sat through a high school literature class knows, symbolism is in the eye of the beholder. Symbolism is naturally subjective and we won’t get far arguing about it.

The Sochi Games will soon pass, triumphantly or tragically, but the potentially fateful Ukrainian crisis will not. 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 result could be a permanent confrontation fraught with instability and the threat of a hot war far worse than the one in Georgia in 2008. These dangers have been all but ignored in highly selective, partisan and inflammatory US media accounts, which portray the European Union’s “Partnership” proposal benignly as Ukraine’s chance for democracy, prosperity and escape from Russia, thwarted only by a “bullying” Putin and his “cronies” in Kiev.

While it is true that Kiev is the heart of Russia’s historical civilization, the Moscow governments have done much to cut that heart out, not the least of which is the Holodomor, the Ukrainian Terror Famine of 1930-33. We still argue about the number of millions of people who died in that man-made event. The Ukrainians have never forgotten an event that most American readers don’t even know happened.

At the same time, the southern and eastern districts of the Ukraine are heavily populated with ethnic Russians. In the time-honored East European tradition, these people expect reprisals when the Ukrainians take power, and ill-advised measures such as voiding the right of local governments to conduct business in the Russian language feed this fear.

This map shows the geographic dimensions of the problem the Ukraine faces. The ethnic Ukrainian people, in Kiev and to the west, supported the party of Yulia Tymoshenko and Alexander Turchinov in 2012. The ethnic Russian minorities, who are in fact majorities in the Crimea and nearly so in Donetsk, supported the party of Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, there is another population center, Lviv, which Poles call Lwów and Germans call Lemberg. This region was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and folded into what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They are much more western-oriented than anyone in Kiev, let alone Kharkiv.

So Kiev and Lviv don’t want to be dragged into Russia, while Kharkiv and Simferopol don’t want to be dragged away from Russia. However, the 1994 Budapest Memoranda, which Russia signed, guarantees the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. So the borders of the Ukraine are a legal fact and the use of force by Russia to overturn this is an abrogation of her treaty commitments.

Perhaps the largest untruth promoted by Snyder and most US media is the claim that “Ukraine’s future integration into Europe” is “yearned for throughout the country.” But 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. There is not one Ukraine or one “Ukrainian people” but at least two, generally situated in its Western and Eastern regions.

Thus, as shown in the map, there are really two polities as Cohen identifies. However, there is one sovereign nation. By advocating a Russian “right” to interfere in the affairs of the Russian minority in Kharkiv, Donetsk and the Crimea, Cohen is simply being the mouthpiece for an aggressive Russian effort to reassemble the Soviet Empire.

Furthermore, if one wants to get all historical, consider what that part of the world looked like 500 years ago:

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Poland and Lithuania, 1635

Compare this to the green area map from 2012. This historical heritage is important because the areas under Polish-Lithuanian rule would have experienced much more of contemporary European thought developments than would the areas under Russian control. It makes the Ukrainian people much more European than the Russians.

Again without any verified evidence, [Snyder] warns of a Putin-backed “armed intervention” in Ukraine after the Olympics …

Well, Snyder got that one right, didn’t he?

But the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia. Whether this longstanding Washington-Brussels policy is wise or reckless, it—not Putin’s December financial offer to save Ukraine’s collapsing economy—is deceitful. The EU’s “civilizational” proposal, for example, includes “security policy” provisions, almost never reported, that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.

And this is the point at which I really part company with Cohen. In the great tradition of naïve idealist foreign policy, everything is so black-and-white that if you are not telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, it is deceitful. It is a heritage that The Nation is firmly rooted in and Dr. vander Heuvel — er, Dr. Cohen appears to have swallowed whole.

And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran. Should not Obama himself have gone to Sochi—either out of gratitude to Putin, or to stand with Russia’s leader against international terrorists who have struck both of our countries?

Gratitude? You have got to be kidding me. If President Obama still has his face pressed into his press clippings, he is too overwhelmed with the wonderfulness of himself to have gratitude toward anyone. If he has let any reality in, he has to be aware that Putin played him. In any event, American foreign policy would have been much more effective if people in power were not listening to people like Cohen.


One wants to react by saying that Eastern Europe and Russia are more complicated than we understand, but upon reflection, they are really simpler. Strength and power are respected, and the posturing that is required to get on in America or Western Europe doesn’t cut any ice over there. The tactics that work in the West, where powerful people obsess about being perceived as fair and equitable, are non-starters in other parts of the world where that behavior is understood as a weakness to be exploited. If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.

I return to a speech — well, a rant, really — given by Ambassador Alexander Konuzin in 2011:

You say Russia has only interests. Who doesn’t?

Exactly. We have interests, the Ukranians have interests and the Russians have interests. Naturally they come into conflict. We will pursue our interests as the Ukranians pursue theirs and the Russians theirs. We will use language that puts our actions in the best possible light, as will the Russians. We will use the language of diplomacy while availing ourselves of all options to achieve our policy goals, just like the Russians, the Chinese, the French and everybody else on the planet with two neurons to rub together. To return to the Ambassador:

Are you prepared to be a subject of international relations, or only an object?

A subject makes things happen. An object is something things happen to. Under the guidance of the idealists at The Nation, we would be objects in international relations. Include me out.

Who Is Vladimir Putin?

Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.
— Vladimir Putin, 2005

Vladimir Putin was born in 1952 in what was then Leningrad, and served in the KGB (secret police) for 16 years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. He retired to enter politics in 1991.

There is no such thing as a former KGB man.
— Vladimir Putin

He rose rapidly in politics, and joined the federal administration in 1996. At the end of 1999, Boris Yeltsin surprised the nation by resigning and named Putin as Acting President. He had been President or Prime Minister of Russia ever since, and has put his own stamp on national policy.

He has his own personal website:

Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.
Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country’s integrity. Oligarchic groups — possessing absolute control over information channels — served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.
— Vladimir Putin

The evidence of his actions suggests that Putin wants what he believes is best for Russia and the Russian people. He sees this through the lens of Russian history, traditions of strength and his KGB training and experience.

We don’t need a weakened government but a strong government that would take responsibility for the rights of the individual and care for the society as a whole.
— Vladimir Putin

This outlook is not unique to former KGB officers. Even dissidents such as Solzhenitsyn, when they looked west, saw mostly chaos, weakness and randomness. Indeed, the Smart Money in 1900 among Western intellectuals was that liberalism could not survive against the cohesion and unity of the totalitarian state.


Anglo-American standards of corruption are much different than found in the rest of world. The idea that it is morally objectionable to enrich oneself while in office through graft, backscratching and insider trading is much stronger in our tradition than in others.

Neither Russia nor the Ukraine have had a William Pitt in their history to advance the standards of conduct in government office. The Orange Revolution of 2004 petered out because it appeared to have simply handed the country over from one gang of thieves to another. Yanukovych, who took power in 2010, upped the ante both in terms of pillaging the country and repressing dissent.

The Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone, it seems.
— Vladimir Putin, 2006

When he was starting to appear to lose control of the country in January, Prime Minister Medvedev said, “We need partners who are in good shape and for the authorities that work in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective, so that people don’t wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat.” Yanukovych got the message, but he lost support of the people upon whom he depended to carry out his orders.

The demonstrators in Kiev and particularly in Lviv are looking for something more. Yulia Tymoshenko was welcomed back to freedom but not back to power. She was seen as part of the problem by the Maidan demonstrators. However, when Yanukovych prosecuted her for corruption, it was obviously an attempt to criminalize a political opponent, a standard play from the Soviet-era playbook.

However, it is one thing to aspire to better, and another to implement it. The economy is a shambles from all this looting; who will clean up the mess? How do you stay in power without being able to buy political love through corruption and cronyism? How do you get a nation from where it is to where it aspires to be?

Cognitive Simplicity

I recall, back in the 1980s, all these discussions over the issue of “can we trust Gorbachev?” Yes, we could trust Gorbachev to do what he believed to be best for the Soviet Union and its people. He didn’t need our permission to run his country.

Similarly, Putin will do what he believes to be in Russia’s interest. We won’t agree that what he does is even in the interest of all the Russians, but then he won’t agree that what our government does is in the interest of all the Americans, either.

The American media gives the impression of providing most stories about Russia as filler to an audience that has very little interest. The truth on the ground is at once both simpler and more complex. It requires understandings of culture, history and attitudes much different than ours. It can’t be reduced to the Goodies and the Baddies, and it can’t be delivered effectively in a two-minute segment.


Written by srojak

March 2, 2014 at 1:00 pm