‘Apologists for Putin’ and America’s discussion of the Ukraine crisis

 Name calling, i.e. ad hominem arguments, are just one of a whole series of violations of the ancient art of public debate that America’s War Party practices daily with regard to the Ukraine crisis. What we have here is a ‘burn before reading’ mentality, a new know-nothing-ism. Read on…




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‘Apologists for Putin’ and America’s discussion of the Ukraine crisis

                         by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


In brief during his appearance on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on CNN a week ago, and at greater length in an interview with Newsweek magazine published on 14 March (‘The American Who Dared Make Putin’s Case’), Professor Emeritus of NYU and Princeton Stephen Cohen responded directly to recent attacks from commentators on Russian and Ukrainian affairs who denounce him as an ‘apologist for Putin.’ The brouhaha arose over his recent article ‘Distorting Russia’ in The Nation, where he set out both the issues in the news that have been presented to the American public by its mass media in a wholly irresponsible, unprofessional manner, and also detailed the distortions in the writings on Ukraine of one of the most visible and prolific professors turned pundits today, Timothy Snyder.

Cohen tells the name-callers that he is the only American patriot among them, since he identified Putin as ‘the best potential partner we had anywhere in the world to pursue our national security’ whereas the Russophobe policies of his critics have made an active opponent of this potential friend and so have greatly complicated management of global security issues. 

Cohen also very gently raps his detractors across the knuckles for using name-calling to avoid engaging him in direct debate over facts and issues:

“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.”

Given what I say in my book, Stepping Out of Line, given what I say in each of the essays published here and republished on the us-russia.org website, the charge “apologist for Putin” is at least as applicable to me as it is to Stephen Cohen.  And while I share with him the defense of being a true patriot where others are false patriots, I have a different case to make for my partiality to Mr. Putin, who is, and I have no sense of embarrassment in saying this, the hero of our times not just for Russia but for world governance.


His being a hero does not mean I would like to have him as a neighbor or that I take an interest in his personal affairs.  He is my hero because he is the only figure on the world stage who stands up to American hegemony.  The Chinese remain rather circumspect except when something very, very close to their security interests arises, like American presidents receiving the Dalai Lama or the Americans rallying to the Japanese side on the issue of those South China Sea islands. Western Europe is all giving the US the finger in their pockets while lining up like so many ducks on the issues of the day like sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.


So, what relevance does Putin’s standing up to American hegemony have to my claims of being a true patriot?  It goes back to the principle of power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The post-Cold War triumphalism in America brought in the false notion that the country could finally set about arranging what it saw as global public goods without any concessions to the opinions and interests of other nations. A bipolar world, a musclebound world of two superpowers, one representing the beacon of freedom on the hill and the other, the Evil Empire, to put it concisely in Ronald Reagan’s comic book bullet points, had yielded to a Golden Age of rule by the just.

However, it did not take long for the Just to exercise their military force in ways that were an abomination and in direct contradiction to the stated values of protecting human rights, spreading democracy and the like. The unilateral use of force outside the framework of the United Nations beginning under Clinton, continuing under Bush in his Iraq invasion and extending to Obama and American assistance to regime change and murder of Gaddafi in Libya under the guise of imposing a no-flight zone demonstrated to anyone with a sense of fairness and humane values that only dualism keeps goodness from degenerating into evil. Here is the true sense of Vladimir Putin’s widely cited and almost universally misconstrued statement that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the great catastrophe of the 20th century.

In consequence, over the past 20 years American elites have become deeply corrupt, a corruption of the soul, of the mind. I won’t attempt to characterize the guy or gal in the street, who may or may not be ‘the salt of the earth’ as the American folk culture believes, since the street is not very interested in world affairs.  


My second reason for joining the brawl is to expand upon what is wrong with the counter-party’s methodology of argumentation. In a word, it is anti-intellectual, or know-nothing in the literal sense. Name calling, i.e. ad hominem arguments, are just one of a whole series of violations of the ancient art of public debate that America’s War Party practices daily. They are contemptuous of the subject (Putin and Russia) and so also contemptuous of their audience. They do not engage the arguments we put up; they ignore them, speak past them, or pigeonhole them into categories generally considered to be covered with opprobrium such as ‘Cold War thinking.’

The bipartisan War Party of Neocons and Progressive Internationalists is operating under a propaganda cloud that even its directors cannot see through and is stumbling towards the Armageddon that far wiser men than today’s presidential advisers avoided precisely by taking their opponents seriously and measuring risks with dispassionate precision.

During the Cold War, Soviet military capability, in particular its missile arsenal, tended to be exaggerated by our expert community for the sake of getting military appropriations through Congress. Today our elites speak disparagingly of Russian military force as passé, inapplicable to present operational objectives. Both extremes in interpretation were/are wrong, but the second is vastly more dangerous as it removes the element of respect that is vital if wars are to be averted.

On these pages and in Stepping Out of Line, I have systematically analyzed the writings of some of the most eminent American experts  on Russia, demonstrating how they are complacent, coddled by never being subjected to direct debate with others of differing views.  One such essay, a rebuttal to the analysis of Vladimir Putin’s pre-election policy paper on foreign policy written by the former head of the Carnegie Center Moscow, Andrew Kuchins, and published in Foreign Affairs magazine in March 2012 is as relevant to what passes for analysis of the Kremlin position on Crimea and Ukraine today:

Kuchins’ ‘analysis’ of the Putin foreign policy paper is big on emotion and small on cool analysis. It could easily have been written without ever opening the paper. Indeed, in his 3 pages of text Kuchins never engages the Russian leader intellectually, never responds directly to his reasoning. Kuchins believes he says it all when he castigates Putin for a ‘brash posture toward Washington,’ as if being dismissive were enough to close the issue of dealing with the pest in the Kremlin.”



              ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2014



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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.