A passionate and tenacious defence of the moderate Vladimir Putin
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”.
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.