Stephen Cohen, a professor emeritus at Princeton and NYU, has found himself in strange company lately.
An academic with generally progressive beliefs married to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor-in-chief of the left-leaning Nation, he has a view of events in Ukraine that urges Americans to understand Putin’s point of view.
In his article “Distorting Russia,” Cohen wrote that American “demonization” of Putin in news coverage amounts to “toxic” “media malpractice” that verges on the alarmist language of the Cold War.
Others have gone further. They have praised Putin’s robust actions and his fierce defense of the Russian national interest. Conservative icon Pat Buchanan recently wondered if comparing Putin to Hitler goes a straw too far, and unsurprisingly defended Putin’s anti-gay policies.
American Conservative writer Rod Dreher agrees with Buchanan, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani praised Putin as “what you call a leader.” Even Sarah Palin, with her famous view of the Russian mainland from her Alaskan kitchen window, seems to have considered Putin’s invasion of Ukraine an inevitability back in 2008.
But while their opinions have gone largely unremarked, Cohen has been widely derided as a Putin apologist. Yet former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of all people, has backed him up.
Cohen says he is the real American patriot and those who are pressing President Barack Obama and the European Union to counter the Russians in Crimea are a danger to our national security.
Cohen is one of the foremost Russia scholars in the U.S.. He advised President George H.W. Bush on the USSR, has taught Russian studies at Princeton and NYU, has written eight books on modern Russian history, and has published columns in the Washington Post, Reuters, and elsewhere.
What do you think of those who have called you a Putin apologist?
My answer to the name-calling is two-fold. The reality is, among the people who attack me, I am the only American patriot. I’m a patriot of American national security. Before this began, Putin was the best potential partner we had anywhere in the world to pursue our national security. To quote a line I wrote many years ago, “American national security still runs through Moscow.”
The discouraging thing is we were beginning to see that in Syria in August, when Putin literally saved Obama’s presidency. When Obama was trapped and he didn’t want to attack, he couldn’t get the support of his own party, he couldn’t get Congress. Putin delivered Assad and the chemical weapons.
Putin and [Russian foreign minister] Lavrov had been in the shadows pushing Iran to open a conversation with the United States, because Obama’s been under pressure to attack Iran too. Not to mention the fact that Russia facilitates the supply of about 60 percent of the material going to NATO and American forces fighting in Afghanistan.
The trouble is, when it comes to Russia, if you say what you think you’ve got to be prepared for people to call you names. Or as they usually put it in most of the mail I get, “How much is the Kremlin paying you?” Not enough, believe me.
Have you been called a Putin apologist before?
I’ve been through this before because I’m old and this happened during the last Cold War. Back then the argument was how best to approach the Soviet Union. Should we work toward “détente,” as it was called, and what that meant was creating areas of cooperation that would buffer the conflicts in a way that nobody would resort to nuclear weapons.
Passions ran very high and in those days they basically red-baited us. So they’d say you were pro-communist, or pro-Soviet, or pro-Kremlin, or apologist. But the difference was that on our side there was an organization called the American Committee on East West Accord. It was kind of a lobby group that formed to talk to congressmen and presidents and op-ed editors.
There was Donald Kendall of Pepsi Co., and Tom Watson who was head of IBM at the time, and [the architect of America’s post-World War Two Soviet containment policy] George Kennan, who was alive and very active. So there were a lot of very eminent and conservative people involved.
It wasn’t a clear sort of left/right conservative/liberal divide, so if they were going to call me [anti-American] then were they going to call the head of IBM that too?
I began warning everyone in 1990, in the 90s when Clinton began to move NATO towards Russia, that this was going to lead to exactly what it’s led to. I’ve been writing about this not only in the Nation but in the Washington Post, and in my books, that if we keep this up, we’re like a Western Pac-man heading East, gobbling up all the way until we hit Russia’s border.
We hit Russia’s borders under Bush because the Baltic republics became NATO members. 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 Russia, includes the idea of revolutions on their borders -- then eventually you’re going to come up against a red line that, unlike Obama, they’re going to act on.
Ukraine has always been the brass ring for these people. That’s what they wanted and they went a bridge too far in Ukraine. Any Russian leader who has legitimacy at home would have had to do some version of what Putin is now doing. They’d push back.
So for saying this, I’m called a Putin apologist. These people have no understanding. They don’t care about real national security.
So I’m the patriot. I’m the one who cares about American national security. And all they’re doing is the old kind of [Joseph] McCarthy-ite red baiting.
You mention that Obama should have demonstrated his “gratitude to Putin” by going to the Olympics. Why?
That wasn’t my main point, but that was just like my mother taught me: When someone does something nice for you, don’t spit in their face. Has everybody forgotten 9/11 and Boston?
I wrote that Obama should have gone to Sochi for one day, stood alongside Putin when terrorists were threatening to blow up the Olympics, to show that on international terrorism they stand shoulder to shoulder. That would have been fantastic leadership but [Obama] wound himself into a pretzel on this gay issue and he couldn’t do it.
And so now I’m accused of being against gays. If I say we need a united front against international terrorism which is savaging Russia and has hit us twice, most recently in Boston, they just say, “He’s against gays”. What kind of discourse is this? These people are irresponsible. They are unpatriotic because it’s un-American to call people names like that. That kind of talk is bad for American national security.
If they really disagree with me, let them publish something that says Cohen is wrong about this and he’s wrong about that and here is the way you should look at it. That’s absolutely fine. Maybe I am wrong. But I’d like to hear why.
And if they think it was a wise policy to push NATO all the way from Berlin -- breaking a promise we made to Gorbachev that NATO would not move one inch to the East -- pushing it all the way to the Russian border, then let them explain why it’s a wise policy. But they won’t tell you the truth because the true mode of describing this, in so far as they think about it, is they want to strip Russia of every national security asset it has.
Ukraine is the prize, but they’ve gone too far and now we’re in a horribly dangerous situation. Horribly dangerous. Certainly the worst of your lifetime. And if you have any kids and you have grandkids, they’re going to live with the outcome of what we’re witnessing today. And it’s the fault of the White House and the Congress and the EU.
Putin didn’t bring this on. He didn’t want it. It was the last thing he wanted. But now he’s reacting. I wasn’t alone, but I’m just speaking for myself. I warned them this would happen, but they don’t listen.
They have ideologues in positions of foreign policy making like [former U.S. ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul. He’s an ideologist, he’s not a diplomat. If you’re going to appoint people like this to be your primary policy makers and advise the President ...
You know what Hillary Clinton said today? She equated Putin with Hitler. And she wants to be President of the United States. She’s going to have some nice conversations with him if she gets elected.
But how can you negotiate with Hitler? When Mrs. Clinton said that she disqualified herself from the Presidency. Then she goes on and says but of course we’ve got to de-escalate and negotiate. Well, then don’t call him Hitler. If you can’t connect those dots you don’t want to be President.
Even Obama said that Putin was like some spoiled kid slouching around the classroom. It’s undignified for the President of the United States to speak like that.
I don’t recall when we had Soviet leaders that anybody spoke like that about. We didn’t like Brezhnev because we didn’t like his political system, but it wasn’t personal. Nixon got along just fine with Brezhnev. They liked each other.
[Putin], by the way, is the most consequential -- consequential doesn’t mean good or bad -- most consequential leader of the 21st century. He’s been in power 14 years. He towers over everybody else. The only other leader who might be in his company is Merkel.
The last three American presidents have been foreign policy failures, war-makers. You’d think there’s a little bit of envy in here that he’s been so successful in representing the interests of his nation and our presidents have screwed it up. One failed war after another.
That’s what the Russians think, by the way. I was there in December and I was asked, why, why are they going on about Putin? Are they jealous? And I had to stop and think. I don’t know. Maybe they are.
But here’s the point: In a democracy you get out of terrible crises through discourse. There’s no discourse in this country. All you’ve got are these people saying that Putin’s delusional. I mean, this is the new thing? He’s delusional?
No. The people who are delusional are the people who says he’s Hitler. If he’s Hitler then it’s Munich. And if it’s Munich then we’ve got to go to war tomorrow, right? Can they think one foot in front of the other? No.
They’re in the grip of this crazy syndrome that Putin’s the most evil guy we’ve ever seen when all he’s done really to offend them is get Russia back on its feet. We loved Yeltsin because he was drunk and he said yes to everything. And then you get a sober guy and he’s going to defend Russia’s interest whether they’re right or wrong as he sees it. That’s what national leaders are supposed to do. And diplomats are supposed to sit down and sort this out.
You say this is Putin defending national interests, whether they be right or wrong. Does that preclude action on the part of the U.S. if the U.S. determines them to be wrong?
That we debate. But here’s how I open the question: Does Russia have any legitimate national interests at all on its borders? Because the tacit assumption is that it has none, not even in Crimea. Now, if that’s the position you begin with, it’s a nonstarter, because every state, even little states, put particularly great states, have those interests.
So I use this analogy, but it’s not perfect: Let’s say tomorrow that suddenly Russian power -- political, economic -- shows up in Canada, on our border, and in Mexico. Do we just say then, Oh, every people has the right to decide it’s own future? Do we say that?
And if we say that Russia should get out of Crimea, which is preposterous, what about Guantanamo? It’s a complete double standard. Whether they think this way because they’re stupid, because they’re deceitful, or because they’re just confused, I don’t know.
My main point is that we, not Putin, have managed to move the divide of the new Cold War from Berlin, where it was semi-safe, right to Russia’s borders. Maybe it’s not an iron curtain, but divided Berlin was the divide for 45 years. Now we’ve moved it right plunk to a divided Ukraine. And Ukraine was divided by God and history, not by Putin.
But do you think there’s absolutely reason to say it was wrong of Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine?
We don’t know that Putin went into Crimea. We literally don’t know. We’re talking about “facts” that are coming out of Kiev, which is a mass of disinformation.
Do you think it might not have been Putin?
No, no, no, that’s not what I mean. We don’t know. I think I know, but I don’t know for a fact. And as a scholar I stick to what I know.
There are, it would appear, about 9,000 Russian troops milling around Crimea, on the streets, guarding buildings. There’s a naval base there. So by law, by contract, Russia has every right to be there. They have an infantry protecting it’s strategic facilities.
I think they took the troops that they’re moving around Crimea from the Crimean naval base. I don’t know that they actually sent troops across the Russian-Crimean border. So if we’re going to use the word invasion we need to be precise.
Now [Putin] did do something. He mobilized some troops he had there. There’s no doubt about that. He may have broken the terms of the contract he had with Ukraine governing troop movement at that naval base. That may be the case. But have you heard the story about the snipers?
Everybody blamed Yanukovych for the snipers that killed people in Kiev on Maidan Square. I said at the time, how can we know who killed whom? How do we know? I said let’s wait. Now, evidently, the Estonian foreign minister told the foreign minister of the European Union that those were not government Yanukoyvch snipers, they were snipers from the right-wing movement in the streets, that it was a provocation.
But I don’t know if it’s true. If this turns out to be true, can you turn the clock back? Can you say Yanukoyvch was legitimate and right? Can you bring him back to Kiev? No, that train left the station. When people such as myself say, Can we get the facts before we decide? they say, “Putin apologist!”
But the protests in Ukraine still happened, whether or not those snipers were under Yanukoyvch’s direction.
It was a very peaceful protest in November and into December. And John McCain went there and stood alongside one of the fascist leaders and put his arm around him. He didn’t know who he was. And [Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs at the United States Department of State] Victoria Nuland, we now know was plotting to overthrow the government, because we have the tape telling the American Ambassador, Here’s how we’re going to form a new government.
That’s called a coup d’etat. Yanukoyvch was elected legally. Everybody said that election was fair.
Do you see any merit in the protests?
Of course. But let me turn it around. Let’s say the tea party says that Obama has violated American law and the Constitution through Obamacare. They surround the White House. They throw fire bombs at the White House security guard. Obama flees and the tea party puts Ted Cruz in the White House. Do we say that’s democracy?
So how is it democracy in Ukraine? Why couldn’t they wait, by the way? The next presidential election was one year away. Why didn’t Washington and the EU say no? We’re democracies; that’s not how we do it. Peacefully protest all you want, but don’t throw firebombs at the policeman because if you did that in any democratic capital we’d open fire.
Look what they did in London. Look what they did in Greece. Look what we did to Occupy [Wall Street]. They weren’t even violent and we beat them up and pepper sprayed them. That’s what we do.
We believe you’ve got a right to peacefully protest. You get a permit and you go there and you can stay there until snow falls. That’s your right -- if you don’t block the traffic. But you can’t throw firebombs at policemen. That’s true in any country, in any democracy. But suddenly from our point of view it’s okay in Kiev. They’re freedom fighters.
So Yanukoyvch, who was democratic elected, flees and now you’ve got a government in Kiev with no legal legitimacy in Ukrainian or international law that we’re now being told is a paragon of virtue. And you’ve got a parliament where they scared away the majority deputies who represented the governing party. And you’ve got a parliament passing crazy laws.
[Secretary of State John] Kerry went there and tried to chill them out and I guess he did because they pulled back on some of the things they had done. Because the tail is wagging the dog.
You’ve mentioned that the American media has misrepresented several aspects of Russia, including the situation for gay people there. So how has the media misrepresented the crackdown on gay rights?
Well [the media] don’t know the history. Homosexuality was a crime in Soviet Russia. When I lived in Russia in the 70s and 80s our gay friends lived in fear of being arrested. They were not in the closet, they were in the basement.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993. After that gays began to emerge in public. Not the way it is here, but you know. Then they began to apply for permits to have gay pride marches, and cities’ governments reacted badly.
Why? Russia’s a very traditional country. All the polling we have shows that approximately 85 percent of Russians think that homosexuality is either a disease or a choice. You and I say that’s horrible. How can they be so primitive? And I can tell you how.
That’s the way people thought in the U.S. when I grew up, when I lived in Kentucky or Indiana. And even when I came to New York in the 1960s. What changed it? Enlightenment. Gays fought for their rights. It was a long struggle.
But even today we have eight or nine states with much more repressive gay laws than they have in Russia. The Russian law was a stupid law, because, first of all, legally it’s not enforceable. Secondly, it incites homophobia.
But the fact is there is no substantial popular opinion in Russia that favors gay rights. None. Nor was there any here 30 or 40 years ago. I don’t remember any Russians coming over here and telling American gays how to fight for their rights.
I grew up in the segregated South. I don’t recall any Russians coming over here and telling black folk how to get their rights. This is a universal rule. You win your rights in your own country or you never have them. All we’ve done is made it worse [for Russian gays]. As my gay friends in Russia say, “Yesterday I was a faggot; now I’m an American faggot.” It’s just made things worse for gays there. And sensible gays, politically conscious gays in Russia, will tell you that.
So you think US intervention has made things worse for gays in Russia?
I don’t think it, I know it. I can give you the names of Russian legislators who told me that they wanted to get rid of [the law] and wanted to talk to Putin. But you can’t do that when you turn it into another barricade between America and Russia. Do you think this Ukrainian thing is going to be good for Russian gays?
But things are dire for gay people in Russia. We’ve seen plenty of reports about that.
I didn’t say they were doing fine. But how is that our concern? Are we supposed to form a brigade and go there and liberate Russian gays? You win your rights whether you’re a black person or a Jew or a gay or a person of Islamic descent in this country by fighting for them. That’s the way it works in a democracy.
Why is it America’s job to go over there and sort out the gay problem when 85 percent of Russians think they should have no rights? They’ve got to struggle at home and most intelligent gays know that. That happened in this country over and over and over again.
By the way, before we get too sanctimonious, I read in the New York Times that violent acts against gays in New York City doubled in 2013 over 2012. Can we clean up our own house first?
What do you think the goal is of the people who are criticizing you?
It’s a form of censorship. I know people in American universities who think as I do and they’re afraid to speak out and I say, shame on them. There’s nothing to be afraid of in this country. Be afraid in Russia. But here, what are they going to do?
Alright, so you won’t get that great job you wanted, or you might not get the promotion. You get tainted, you become toxic, you get labeled.
They want to silence me. Calls I’m getting are threatening me. I would disregard it as silly except I’m too alone. I need others to come out of the political closet.
We are on the cusp of war with Russia. Others see now that it’s stretched too far. Even [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, for god’s sake, said the other day, Maybe we ought to all calm down and think a little. Good for Harry Reid.
[Senator] Rand Paul said we need ask ourselves if maybe we have contributed to this debacle. And on a panel on CNN the other night, I almost fell off my stool. I say to them what I said to you, that we’ve been pushing this on the Russians and we bear a heavy responsibility. Putin’s not innocent, but we can’t get out of this unless we share some of the responsibility. And I thought, boy am I about to get flogged.
And you know what [former Representive Newt] Gingrich says? “I agree with Professor Cohen.” [Editor's note: A transcript of the show has Gingrich saying there was “a lot of accuracy" to what Professor Cohen said.] He says we have overextended, we haven’t been wise in our approach to Russia. We need to think what we’re going to be doing. And I almost wept, except I was on television. That was a lifeline to me.
You don’t think he’s just using that to have something to wave at Obama?
Yeah, you’re right. They’re bashing Obama a lot, saying he brought this on because of Syria and everything. It’s complete nonsense.
You know why I think Newt Gingrich said this? Because he’s an educated man. He’s an historian. He thinks historically. He’s smart. And he doesn’t have any presidential ambitions now. So now he’s speaking from his core.
What do you think of Pussy Riot?
Somebody did a survey. In 82 countries they would have been executed for what they did [Editor’s note: Unable to locate the survey, Cohen revises this statement to say that Pussy Riot would have faced criminal charges in many countries and the death penalty in several of them]. I don’t know what would happen if it happened in St. Patrick’s [Cathedral, New York]. About 15 years ago a young couple went into St. Patrick’s, took off their clothes and had sex in St. Patrick’s and they were arrested. I don’t know exactly what happened to them.
One of the problems in Russia is they don’t have much administrative justice where you get a suspended sentence and a fine and you have to go wash all the graffiti off the subways. They have it but they need to develop it because a lot of people should never be in prison or given prison terms instead of probation. They need to reform the judicial system.
In Russia when it happened the whole country was against them. When they went to prison the country softened up and said “Poor girls. They seemed kind of nice.” You know what they were doing before they went to prison? They would go into supermarkets, strip, lay on their back, spread their legs apart and stuff frozen chickens in their vagina.
There were people in there with their kids shopping and Russian authorities did nothing. They didn’t arrest them.
[Pussy Riot] did do something really funny. There’s a drawbridge, I forget whether it’s in Moscow or St. Petersburg. They created a penis on it, so when the drawbridge went up it became an erect penis. That’s actually pretty funny. I mean, that’s clever. [Editor's note: This prank was not done by the protest group Pussy Riot and instead by the Russian contemporary art group "Voina." Cohen points out that Pussy Riot is considered to be an offshoot of Voina, and famously jailed Pussy Riot members Nadezhda "Nadya" Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich were formerly part of Voina.]
But you go to the most sacred church in Russian that Stalin had blown up in the 30s and [they rebuilt] it. It wasn’t just “Putin’s bad!” they were singing. They cleaned the song up later when they put it on the internet. there was scatology in there too. It was bad opposition politics.