Speaking Truth to Power: Ukraine-Russia War Separates the Sheep from the Goats

Yesterday, while perusing the daily digest of Russia-related news and opinion to which former U.S. diplomats and businessmen based in Washington, D.C. are the principal subscribers, I came across a passage in the latest opinion piece by American historian, professor emeritus of Boston University, Andrew Bacevich:

I do not mean to minimize the thuggishness of Russia’s president or the barbarism of the Russian forces that have invaded Ukraine. Both deserve our condemnation

“Thuggishness” of Putin?  “Barbarism” of Russian forces amidst reports in The Financial Times yesterday that less than 400 Ukrainian civilians had thus far died in the war as it passed into its eleventh day, whereas by this point in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians had been wantonly slaughtered by the incoming waves of American troops destroying everything in their path to Baghdad.  These generalizations about Russia’s President and his forces could just as easily have been issued by Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld in their glory days, those unprosecuted, untouched war criminals.

In the past, going back more than a dozen years, I fairly regularly read Bacevich’s books, which he published at two year intervals, on how the United States errs in its wars of choice and I even put out reviews of a couple of his books. I was generally complimentary though I questioned his views on causality and the motor driving the U.S. fighting machine. I knew then that his strength was strategic and tactical analysis of military affairs, coming from his own life experience, not politics or economics as such. His interest in and knowledge of things Russian was always weak.  Then it did not matter; today it is of paramount importance to anyone who opens his mouth from a public platform.

Since Bacevich does not know much about Russia on his own, I assume he has been drawing upon the broad knowledge of Anatol Lieven, the recently recruited Senior Fellow to the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, of which Bacevich is President and Chairman of the Board.

Anatol Lieven bears a family name with great resonance to Russianists.  His older brother Dominic is the world’s leading historian of Imperial Russia. He has written invaluable volumes on the tsarist bureaucracy and its leading families, on how the Russians defeated Napoleon’s Grande Armée thanks to logistical superiority, vast numbers of horses, better discipline and élan rather than thanks to Father Winter, as has been supposed till now. These books were all extensively researched in Russian and Western archives, and he was the first to draw upon both sources this way.

However, Anatol is not Dominic.  His profession is journalism, notwithstanding his Ph.D. in political science, and as is customary in journalism he has written about a great many things, including as war correspondent for major media in Afghanistan and elsewhere. His Wikipedia entry lists nine “areas of expertise and interest.” Among them is Russia and the Former Soviet Union, but that does not prepare him for the role of Russia expert that he now assumes.  At the American Committee for US-Russia Accord, Lieven has been assigned pride of place, as a replacement for Professor Stephen Cohen, who passed away in September 2020, leaving an intellectual hole in the organization which none of the founders could fill on their own.

Anatol Lieven is also no Steve Cohen. Here is where we get to the point I highlight in the title of this essay:  the distinction between sheep and goats. Cohen was a goat; Lieven is a sheep. And whatever I am saying about Lieven could just as easily be said about a host of worthies who get prime real estate in the publishing world to opine on the issues of our day. Just to take a name out of a hat, I can point to the recent writings of one E. Wayne Merry, former State Department official whose recently issued op-ed piece “The consequence of being clueless in Ukraine” in The Hill sounds as if he was looking in the mirror when he was writing. His likening Vladimir Putin to Nicholas II, and the current military operation in Ukraine to the Russo-Japanese War is ignorant drivel.

In fact, my “sheep” are the vast majority of American and European academics who dance from foot to foot when passing through the minefield of Russian matters.

It is a constant feature among academic (and not only academic) lecturers to organize their talks about the 3 points of this or 4 points of that.  It is understandable; this is a trick of mnemonics.  It is also a constant when academic historians or political scientists approach controversial issues yet want to appear fair minded that they declare both parties to an issue as sharing the blame. This is precisely where Anatol Lieven comes into the picture.  In all of his writings, Russia is doing something illegal or vicious, even if there are, shall we say, extenuating circumstances, not to mention precedents in Western behavior which are still more illegal and vicious. And these casual insertions, like the sentences I quoted from Bacevich above, amount to taking the knee.

Besides the mindset of university dons to go for the middle ground, there is the greater factor of saying nothing which might cost them the respect and society of their peers, who are in very great proportion anti-Russian, in line with the general public thanks to the Information War.  Still worse, since tenured positions are getting rare as hen’s teeth, they can be simply dismissed for speaking without self-censorship and without due attention to the consensus views. This is particularly so in the highly politicized and divided USA, where anti-culture and wokism have established tyrannical control over what can be taught, what can be said that carries over into all subjects, not just race relations.

So Lieven is watching his P’s and Q’s, and Bacevich is getting bad advice on an issue which should be central to the work of the Quincy Institute.

All of this is not to say that there are no outstanding professors and think tank researchers who speak out, write openly against the present mass hysteria relating to Russia and try to bring sanity and realism to bear on policy by Speaking Truth to Power. The outstanding living exemplar is Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. His “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” published in the September-October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine was a tour de force and the act of a very brave man.

But when he wrote that piece, Mearsheimer was already battle-tested. In August 2007, he and Harvard professor Stephen Walt coauthored The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. For this book, both faced condemnation from peers and the threat of being drummed out of university life.  They survived, licked their wounds and resumed brilliant careers.

Now, when American intellectual society and policy makers need Mearsheimer most, he has stayed true to his North Star and is speaking out, writing in the same vein, explaining why the blame for the epic confrontation we see around us lies predominantly with the United States.  His latest interview in The New Yorker is well worth reading:  https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/why-john-mearsheimer-blames-the-us-for-the-crisis-in-ukraine    I also heartily recommend the video of Mearsheimer’s discussion of the same issues with veteran peace activist, former CIA analyst and intelligence briefer of American presidents, Ray McGovern: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppD_bhWODDc&t=2344s

Till his untimely death, the most widely known voice for reason in our approach to Russia, in our policy on European security was Professor Stephen Cohen, whom I got to know fairly well from our daily correspondence when setting up and then running The American Committee for East West Accord, on which I had multiple directorships to his chairmanship.

During the three years of our closest friendship, Cohen was living a tormented life because of the ostracism and flashes of hatred to which he was subjected by members of his own profession solely due to his being open-minded about Russia when most others were wallowing in Russophobia. 

Whereas in the late 1990s, Cohen was the toast of the town, was the expert whom American television channels went to for featured interviews to comment on developments in Moscow, as from 2014 he was blacklisted in a way very reminiscent of McCarthyism at its height. This was so even though Cohen always held back a bit, did not lay all his cards on the table, so as to avoid providing still more grist to his detractors.

Nonetheless, even if he was excluded from major media, in his final years Cohen maintained an audience that numbered in hundreds of thousands if not millions via his weekly radio chats dealing with the New Cold War. From transcripts of these programs, he assembled his final book, War with Russia? which was also his freest expression of  his inner convictions, holding nothing back.  I believe the medium of the spoken word helped greatly to shape the message of this book, which will constitute his legacy to American society.

Cohen was well aware of the cowardice of students and colleagues when facing possible censure of the mob rule that is the reality of university departments. He told me that he was especially tolerant of young faculty who had families to look after. He forgave them their silence on the issues of war and peace.

I am not so tolerant as was Cohen.  Those who must bite their tongues or lie to their colleagues and students to hold their jobs would do much better to turn to driving taxis or whatever and retain their self-respect.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

23 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power: Ukraine-Russia War Separates the Sheep from the Goats

  1. It is amazing the amount of hatred by the “west” towards Russia, when everyone concerned knew they were all playing with fire by denying Russia’s demand for respecting the issues they had with the security of its borders and conflict resolution. The tsunami of sanctions, quite idiotic as in the case of censure of artists, and shooting one’s own foot as in the economic realm, is quite unprecedented since WW2, and utterly hypocritical considering the mayhem the US and allies have caused since WW2, beginning with Korea, then Iran, onto Vietnam and further on encompassing the globe.

    It is quite stomach-turning to hear the constant peddling of the “we are an organization only for defense” when history since the 1990s clearly showed how aggressive NATO was and is. I think not being able to think back more than a year or two and thusly not being able to view actions by others in context is part of the malaise of European politicians of the late part of the 20th century until today.

    For American politicians, willful ignorance or ignoring the justified concerns with their foreign policy (which amounts to little else but “let the military solve it”) seems to be a mark of electability by an equally ignorant and arrogant public.

    Thanks for keeping us grounded in reality, and not succumbing to the narratives that are steering us onto the road to hell.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your refreshing and enlightening articles which give me hope that I’m not alone in my beliefs.
    My main reason for writing: how do I send a contribution for your work? If someone can provide this for me I’m very grateful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your courage and wonderful commentary. To me, the most amazing thing about all this is the continued silence on the security guarantees treaties proposed by Russia in December that the US and NATO spurned and Western media ignored. Their gist, as I understand them, is a withdrawal of NATO militaries to the positions they held in 1997 and the removal of all nuclear weapons to their owners home countries. Since no one in Europe felt insecure in 1997, why should we hesitate to return to those positions now? Why should the US and it alone be permitted to spread its nuclear arsenal not only into European countries but Asia and elsewhere across the globe? So long as these measures, plus the removal of sanctions, is all Russia is asking, peace movements across the West have no excuse not to embrace Russia’s proposals and to call on our governments to negotiate a new, peace-promoting security structure in Europe.


    1. De-Nazification, a cancellation of Ukraine’s request to join NATO (actually written into its current national constitution;) and recognition by Ukraine of Crimea as Russian Federation territory. (If NATO hadn’t have been so egregiously ‘grabby,’ it never would have been an issue about which to now have to contend.)


  4. You have raised a very important issue that is generally avoided. For my part, I sometimes think of the comment comparing an area of mathematics “to a mixture of pearl shells and sour dates, or of pearls and dung, or of costly crystals and common pebbles”. The problem is how to balance the “pearl shells” and “sour dates” when considering the writings of, say, Anatol Lieven… overall I remain grateful for the pearl shells. I am also more in Cohen’s camp when considering the plight of young faculty who have families to look after. There is plenty of blame to go around and reserve my main ire for those people in the media who relentlessly promulgate the most hateful attitudes towards Russia (and China). To quote another commenter from years ago: “More than anything else, I would love to see something like a “worldwide day of remembrance for the victims of journalism,” where we take time to remember the millions and millions of people who were killed thanks to journalists’ lies and exaggerations.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dear Gilbert, thank you for your wonderful work defending the truth. This is the fight worth fighting. We would suffocate in this Empire of Lies without your work and the work of wonderful people like you – many of whom I got to know from ConsortiumNews. Thank you again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Those who must bite their tongues or lie to their colleagues and students to hold their jobs would do much better to turn to driving taxis or whatever and retain their self-respect.”

    Totally agree.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have followed The American Committee for US-Russia Accord for years, from when it was the American Committee for East-West Accord. It was a bit of a surprise to read the statement that contained no nuance and completely condemned Russia.

    Your piece explains it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I too followed The American Committee for East-West Accord with great gusto, but now in its latest iteration find myself skipping it in my inbox for what I feel are obvious reasons. I would have liked to see Steve Cohen’s widow step up to carry on his philosophy as best she could—she after all was with him for most of his USSR/RF sojourns, and while not of his caliber, she is more aware than most of the on-the-ground realities in Russia. But I don’t see her picking up the torch, so that’s that. I stopped subscribing to “The Nation” even before, outside of Aaron Maté, the entire writing staff went full neocon during Russiagate. It illustrates how the old guard U.S. Trotskytists ended up to the right of Attila the Hun with Cheney and ilk. Something in the water or just the old genetic memory of the Czars?

    I appreciate the distinctions you made regarding the Lievens, Gilbert, it aids my comprehension while also explaining my discomfort with Anatol’s writings as of late.

    This is redundant, I skipped over this essay in favor of today’s, which did elicit these thoughts from me. I’m only including them here in case someone misses the following essay and its comments:

    “… This number, you will note, is higher than the total number of civilian deaths in the ongoing “barbaric” Russian in Ukraine as reported in The Financial times (characterization as “barbaric” by Andrew Bacevich, Chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft…”

    The Quincy Institute is the latest forum for Colonel Andrew Bacevich-Ret whose work I have followed and frequently-enough disagreed with over the years. I’ve always kept my disagreements especially polite for the memory of his son, KIA in Iraq as a combat officer. But I find Col Bacevich increasingly hardlining as the years go by, and not only that, his current perch at Quincy is no doubt well compensated as its strange bedfellow funders are no other than the never known for innocent and unconditional altruism Charles Koch and George Soros. There are reasons incest is to be avoided, even if and especially when it comes to the actual motives of families intimately tied by vast fortunes and empirically proven always questionable intentions.


    1. And I must say, for Bacevich’s perceived shortcomings due to a singularly biased military mind, Scott Ritter proves daily that it is not only a box from which a professional can emerge, but bloom and thrive while putting the historical record to excellent contemporary application. Ritter is doing spectacularly good work—readily available from archives—at Consortium News.


  9. Thank Gilbert Doctorow for standing standing firm. What has sadly become clear is that the leaders of Europe, meaning UK, France and Germany are more afraid of the USA than they are of Russia. How else can one explain the blind outrage evident among Europeans over the Russian incursion? Russia’s actions has exposed them as compliant impotent eunuchs (or vassals if you prefer). This exposure is the real source of their rage. It was already evident after the Maidan coup. Recall that the coup was ended by sniper fire. At the time, the Estonian FM reported to Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, that the “same bullets killed both sides”. Academic peer reviewed studies of thousands of videos have demonstrated, clear as day, that the sniper fire came from the opposition side of Maidan Square, specifically from Hotel Ukraine. Ashton’s response was “Oh dear! We must investigate that!” But neither she nor anyone else from the EU ever followed through, instead “respecting” the new coup installed government to do this. Meanwhile, with the snipers long vanished, the victims have been made into the martyrs of the Revolution of Dignity. A more successful regime change psy-ops operation coordinated with the MSM does not exist. All attention immediately turned to Crimea where the bad Russians “invaded” Crimea, an operation that was clearly justified as defense of their naval base in Crimea plus the wishes if the citizens. Victoria Nuland, giddy over her success at poking the bear, was caught flat footed. General Wesley Clark even told the Ukrainians scornfully “you gave it away without a fight”. All of this was considered in the west to be democratic. EU was silent. Why? Big Brother is watching, perhaps? Either that or they are (were) in up to their ears.


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