A pas­sion­ate and tena­cious de­fence of the mod­er­ate Vladimir Putin

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - GE­OF­FREY ROBERTS

bla­tantly self-serv­ing mil­i­tary and in­dus­trial in­ter­ests. Amer­i­can elites seem to have lost their fear of atomic war­fare, while there is lit­tle or no main­stream po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion to cur­rent hawk­ish poli­cies aimed at Rus­sia. As Co­hen points out, even at the height of the So­viet-Amer­i­can cold war – an ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle be­tween cap­i­tal­ism and com­mu­nism – there were many main­stream ad­vo­cates of de­tente with the USSR. Dur­ing the old cold war the com­mu­nist bloc acted as a buf­fer be­tween the two sides. The new cold war is be­ing fought di­rectly along Rus­sia’s bor­ders, most dan­ger­ously in a proxy civil war be­ing bat­tled out in Ukraine.

Among Co­hen’s many con­tro­ver­sial claims is that the great­est scan­dal in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics is not Rus­si­a­gate but In­tel­gate – the myth prop­a­gated by el­e­ments of the US in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity that Putin is at­tempt­ing to sub­vert Amer­i­can democ­racy. The rev­er­ence with which some lib­er­als greet pro­nounce­ments made by to­day’s in­tel­li­gence chiefs is in sharp con­trast to their past cri­tiques of the malev­o­lence and mis­in­for­ma­tion spread by the CIA, the FBI and other agen­cies.

An­other Co­hen tar­get is the hal­lowed in­sti­tu­tions of the Amer­i­can me­dia, es­pe­cially the New York Times and the Wash­ing­ton Post, whose re­port­ing on Rus­sia he sees as not merely ten­den­tious but ac­tively men­da­cious. The nar­ra­tive of the new cold war is driven by sto­ries pub­lished by these news­pa­pers that are based on un­ver­i­fied, anony­mous in­tel­li­gence. Ac­cord­ing to Co­hen, the Times credo of “All the News That’s Fit to Print seems to have be­come All the News That Fits”.

Bol­ster­ing Putin

Al­though the book fo­cuses on cur­rent af­fairs, Co­hen brings to bear a much-needed his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. The first post-So­viet Rus­sian-western clash oc­curred in 1998-1999 when Nato spon­sored the se­ces­sion of Kosovo and bombed Rus­sia’s ally, Ser­bia – an in­ter­ven­tion that Moscow later used to jus­tify its takeover of Crimea. If the past is any guide, western sanc­tions against Rus­sia will achieve noth­ing, ex­cept to bol­ster sup­port for Putin at home. Not­with­stand­ing the ac­cu­sa­tions of trea­son that greeted Trump’s sum­mit with Putin in Helsinki, he is not the first US pres­i­dent to favour de­tente with Rus­sia. That was the pol­icy of Dwight Eisen­hower, Richard Nixon and Ron­ald Rea­gan too.

Co­hen is by no means an un­crit­i­cal sup­porter of the Putin regime. While he sym­pa­thises with Moscow’s for­eign pol­icy he char­ac­terises its do­mes­tic polity as a “soft au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism” and sees Rus­sia as a so­ci­ety in tran­si­tion to a bet­ter democ­racy. What he fears is that western iso­la­tion of Rus­sia will blow the coun­try off the demo­cratic path. Wait­ing in the wings to re­place Putin are not pro-western lib­eral democrats – who have lit­tle sup­port in Rus­sia – but truly au­thor­i­tar­ian ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists. Hillary Clin­ton may have com­pared Putin to Hitler but the Rus­sian pres­i­dent is ac­tu­ally a mod­er­ate.

Co­hen gives the im­pres­sion that he is a lone voice op­pos­ing the spu­ri­ous nar­ra­tives cre­ated by the new cold war war­riors. He is dis­ap­pointed by what he calls the “si­lence of the doves”. In fact, the new cold war has many crit­ics, not least among Rus­sia ex­perts. In Europe, if not in the United States, there is a strong un­der­cur­rent of what the Ger­mans call Putin­ver­ste­hers – those who urge un­der­stand­ing of the Rus­sian point of view. Lib­eral elites may wax hys­ter­i­cal about the Rus­sian threat, but com­mon sense about Putin pre­vails among the gen­eral pub­lic.

The ti­tle of Co­hen’s book is in­tended not as a prophecy but a warn­ing. In the overex­cited de­bate about Putin and Trump, Co­hen chooses to es­chew mod­er­a­tion be­cause he be­lieves that in prac­tice that re­sults in con­form­ity with an anti-Rus­sia nar­ra­tive that is not only wrong but dan­ger­ous. This book will de­light his sup­port­ers and en­rage his op­po­nents, while read­ers of a mod­er­ate per­sua­sion will be able to ad­mire the pas­sion and tenac­ity of his re­sis­tance to the trend to­wards pro­vok­ing war with Rus­sia.

Ge­of­frey Roberts is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Univer­sity Col­lege Cork and a mem­ber of the Royal Ir­ish Academy

Co­hen re­jects the nar­ra­tive that Putin’s med­dling in US pol­i­tics led to Trump’s elec­tion.

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