Putin and Fellow Travelers

In a previous article here, I took on what I called “Trumpism on the Left” with a focus on Stephen Cohen’s defense of the Trump-Putin bromance in The Nation magazine.  A friend of mine suggested that the title of the article should have been “The Strange Case of Stephen Cohen,” implying perhaps that “Trumpism on the Left” was an unjustified generalization from a single example.  Cohen, as I noted fleetingly, is not alone in his affinity for Putin and by extension Trump.  What my piece lacked was the context of other advocates of the two leaders, which I try to provide in what follows.

The Nation, it appears, is experiencing a kind of schizophrenia where Trump is concerned.  On most issues, it opposes his policies.  The article that precedes Cohen’s takes critical notice of the plutocratic and militaristic composition of Trump’s cabinet.  The motive for defending Trump’s Russian connection, it would appear, is not so much affection for Trump as it is sympathy for what it perceives as Russia’s beleaguered situation vis a vis the West (America and the European Union).  Cohen’s argument, made elsewhere in defense of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, is that Ukraine has been traditionally in the Russian orbit and that NATO and the European Union have hubristically extended their ambition to the Russian border.  American indignation about Russian ambition therefore is in bad faith, given its own adventures in countries abroad when it felt its national interests to be in jeopardy.  The argument, not without merit from a real politik perspective, is that NATO had tried to reach into what has been acknowledged to be the Russian sphere of influence.  Believing as he does in the rationality and rightness of Putin’s foreign policy, he would, I imagine, advocate suspending sanctions against Russia and trust it to decide the fate of Eastern Europe and any other area where it determines its interests to lie.  It is the case that the United States has never abandoned its commitment to the Monroe Doctrine in its vigilance about Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere.  Consider our behavior toward the Soviet presence in Cuba.  Would an American government tolerate an anti-American revolution in Mexico?  There is, however, a significant difference between the behavior of the European Union and NATO, on the one hand, and the behavior of the Russians, on the other.  The Europeans have simply set out the welcoming mat to the Ukrainians, while the Russians have sent in troops to enforce their will.  The United States may have disqualified itself as an agent of indignation over Russian aggression, having acted as it did in Iraq, for example, but why should the moral failure of the United States justify Russia’s aggressiveness?  Should critics on the left allow themselves the asymmetry of condemning imperialism of the West while justifying Russian real politik?

Cohen is not alone in his sympathy for Putin.  In my book The State of Our Disunion, I note the views of the late Tom Hayden and Jackson Lears.  In “The Cold War that Threatens Democracy,” March 17, 2014) while acknowledging Russia’s “illegal occupation of Crimea,” Hayden shifted the blame to the US for “ignoring democratic outcomes where they are inconvenient.”  He had in mind the democratic election of Yanukovich, Russia’s ally, who was deposed by “mob action” in the street, not by the electoral process.  He glossed over Yanukovich’s corruption.  As I remark in my book, “It is strange to read a criticism of mass [he calls it mob] action, given his own history of leading such action against an elected administration during the time of the Viet Nam war.”  (I doubt that Hayden would have tolerated the characterization of the action that he led as “mob” action.)  In pointing to and exaggerating the fascist element in the street actions in Ukraine, Hayden insinuated that Europe and NATO are friendly to fascist militias, recalling, as he did so, an old habit of the Stalinist left indiscriminately calling out all its adversaries as social fascists. Yes, Yanukovich was forced out, but that hardly justifies the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the forcible seizure of Crimea.  In Hayden’s view, Russian transgressions paled, almost by definition, next to US and Western responsibility.  Hayden even downplayed Putin’s reputation as an autocrat, comparing him to Castro and Chavez, whom he viewed as victims of US oppression.  It is hard to resist the suspicion that we had here what I have elsewhere characterized as a return of the politically repressed: the old left liberal sympathy for the Soviet Union, the disintegration of which, in Putin’s words, was the greatest disaster of the twentieth century.

We would not expect that critics on the left would turn for support of its views to the conservative “realist” tradition of real politik, but that is the case.  Its preeminent contemporary exponent is Henry Kissinger, a bete noir of the left.  Like Cohen and Hayden, Jackson Lears protests the American demonization of Putin, and he invokes Kissinger as an authority.  “For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy, it is an alibi for the absence of one.  Putin is a serious strategist—on the premises of Russian history.  Understanding US values and psychology are not his strong suits.  Nor has understanding Russian history and psychology been a strong point among US policy makers.”  Kissinger is consistent in taking both Russia and the United States to task from his realist perspective.  Not so Lears and his fellow travelers, who judge American behavior from an idealistic perspective, while granting Putin license to act freely in the realistic interests of his own government.  Here is Lears delivering judgment of American foreign policy: “Idealistic talk of promoting democracy, however sincere, has often served to legitimate the familiar imperial aims of creating markets and investment opportunities; realistic definitions of national interest have been inflated to justify dubious imperial adventures, from carpet bombing Hanoi to assassinating Salvador Allende—as the self-proclaimed realist Henry Kissinger made clear” (London Review of Books, 5 February, ‘15)  Nowhere in Lears’s discussion is the same kind of moral judgment applied to Putin.  Putin’s hard-nosed realism seems sufficient justification for his imperial aims.  The double standard on which the US is judged to operate does not seem to apply in the judgments of Putin’s Russia by Cohen, Hayden, and Lears.

In an article in London Review of Books, “Eat Your Spinach (2 March, ’17), Tony Wood, very much in the spirit of Cohen’s critique, cites an account of Putin’s asking President Clinton whether he “would be hospitable to Russia joining NATO,” to which Clinton is reported to reply after some hesitation, awkwardly repeated three times, “personally I would.”  Wood interprets the response as an expression of reluctance, though the writer who reported the exchange understood it as an instance of “successive presidents from Clinton…to Obama” trying “to integrate Russia into the Western world.”  Given Putin’s efforts to destabilize the European Union, one can understand hesitation in having Russia enter it with the power of the veto.

And then there is Glenn Greenwald, collaborator with Snowden and Assange in the leaking of classified Intelligence information, whose ideology is to doubt the truthfulness of any and all information issuing from Intelligence agencies.

What is striking about Western apologists for Putin, left and right, is their empathy for the Russian loss of great power status and the lack of empathy for the little countries they once dominated and wish to recover.  Christopher Caldwell, Senior Editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, in an essay for the publication of Hillsdale College’s IMPRIMIS (March, 17), “How to Think About Vladimir Putin,” makes the “populist conservative” argument for the Russian leader that closely resembles the view from the left.  He is critical of Western insensitivity to the Russian trauma over the collapse of the Soviet Union.  He compares Putin favorably to other great leaders, the Turks’ Ataturk and Erdogan, “preeminent statesmen” he calls them, who restored the power of their country.  Against evidence that is increasingly coming to light, Caldwell sees Putin as targeting “the armed plutocracy,” “the oligarchs,” who benefited from the collapse of the Soviet system.  (Putin has targeted those oligarchs opposed to his authoritarian rule, but oligarchs remain within his own circle, himself and his prime minister included, who have become enormously wealthy while in power.)  Caldwell views Putin as a symbol of national sovereignty in its battle with globalism, blind, perhaps deliberately, to Putin’s aggressive indifference to the sovereign integrity of Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya and the Baltics.  The apologists for Putin would profit from reflecting on Western powers, Britain and France, countries that relinquished their empires, and learned to respect the sovereignty of the countries formerly under their rule.   The war being waged against globalism in behalf of national sovereignty is reactionary.  It is animated by a nativism that inspires hostility among racial and ethnic groups.  Its outcomes will not be respect for the sovereignty of nations, but rather the restoration of imperial spheres of influence that have led to the terrible wars of the past.

Every nation has the right to affirm and protect its sovereignty, but its imperial interests (if it is an empire) do not deserve the same consideration—certainly not in our post-imperial/post-colonial age.  Russia has every right to defend itself against NATO, if it had aggressive designs against Russian territory, but NATO has acted as a defensive, not an offensive, alliance.  It does not, and should not, respect Russia’s sense of entitlement to the republics that were under Tsarist and Soviet domination.  As is the case with Russia, the European Union must respect the boundaries of nations contiguous with it, but nothing should prevent it from being hospitable to countries that wish to join it voluntarily.  Russia in turn has the right to court countries to join it and to lobby against efforts in those countries to join the European Union, but it has no right to use military force to enforce its will.  (Imagining myself having to make the choice, I would choose the democracy of the European Union over the autocracy of the Russian Federation.) It is absurd to speak of Russia and its present behavior as embodying the principle of sovereignty against globalism.  Its foreign policy is motivated by sheer opportunism, which takes the form of defending the sovereignty of countries sympathetic to its own interests and the sovereignty of those hostile to its adversaries.  Trump and Putin have this in common: they put their respective national or rather personal interests First.  Putin’s support for Trump is no guarantee of their collaboration.  Trump is a wild card, evident, for example, in his 180 degree turn in firing missiles in Syria, Putin’s client state.