Banality of Anti-Russian Criticism

Roger Cohen alone is not worth commentary or taking up the CP reader’s time, but as, more than a straw in the wind, an exemplary statement of the US foreign-policy position and even more America’s ideological center of gravity, coming down in both cases to global political-economic dominance on behalf of its system of advanced capitalism, he suits perfectly, as in his New York Times op-ed article, “Counterrevolutionary Russia,” (June 26). The Cold War has perhaps never been so seriously considered as realizable confrontation before now, the US positioning the EU via NATO to the Russian border while simultaneously seeking a cordon sanitaire around China looking to its isolation and dismemberment. (Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, if not child’s play, didn’t quite have, though melodramatic, the potential for global destruction found now in the admittedly more sotto voce onrush of events.) Cohen and The Times, good foot-soldiers in the cause of American imperialism, accordingly seek distractions as here to divert attention from the underlying dynamics of a rapidly bifurcating world.

He first mischaracterizes Russia’s global historical role, as though Stalin’s idea of socialism in one country was not operative, subsequent post-1945 expansion having to do with experiencing Nazi policies of extermination, a resultant horrendous loss of life and physical destruction growing out of World War II, and the necessity for security of Russian borders (now felt once again given US-EU-NATO expansion and prepositioning of troops and heavy weaponry on its borders), and for the present century, contriving a contrast, the opposite of expansion being an insularity and backwardness: “For much of the 20th century Russia was a revolutionary state whose objective was the global spread of communist ideology. In the 21st century it has become the preeminent counterrevolutionary power.” Immediately the analysis slips away from the raw meat of power politics, intervention, conquest of and expansion of markets, to the vague realm of what now is familiarly termed the culture wars—Russia and Putin incensed by same-sex marriage, etc. Thus, Cohen writes: “The escalating conflict between the West and Moscow has been portrayed as political, military and economic. It is in fact deeper than that. It is cultural. President Vladimir Putin has set himself up as the guardian of an absolutist culture against what Russia sees as the predatory and relativist culture of the West.”

Nothing like a black-and-white analysis, Russia’s absolutism and the West’s (sarcastically put) predatory and relativist culture—predatory (Cohen’s praise of capitalism as coequal with democracy and freedom as the article proceeds, making the charge tongue-in-cheek) and relativist (doesn’t he wish, for all that falls under exceptionalism takes on an absolutist quality), as meanwhile there is no attempt made to show Russian absolutism. In fact, no evidence is presented about Putin’s views and that of unnamed intellectuals, rendering the dichotomy suspect from the start. Better yet, the cultural diversion makes political correctness the substance driving the world system toward war. Forget about massive military expenditures, a global network of military bases, political leaders who demonize Putin and Russia as well as Li and China, for what is determinative is our adversaries’ hostility to rights which may be worthy in and of themselves (the list follows) but, to me, hardly rank with issues of war and peace, class privilege, labor and racial exploitation, food on the table, and if you pressed me, capitalism and the phenomena of alienation and surplus value, all of which are relevant to the shoring up of discriminatory social systems.

Hence, Cohen: “To listen to pro-Putin Russian intellectuals these days is to be subjected to a litany of complaints about the ‘revolutionary’ West, with its irreligious embrace of same-sex marriage, radical feminism, euthanasia, homosexuality and other manifestations of ‘decadence.’ It is to be told that the West loses no opportunity to globalize these ‘subversive’ values, often under cover of democracy promotion and human rights.” And I thought globalization had other things to be concerned about, still under cover of democracy promotion, whether Morgan, Chase or Monsanto, or overthrowing popular leaders, or simply arranging for joint-maneuvers with our friends and allies, all to the furtherance of US wealth and power. There is a Cold War. It is turning hot. It has nothing to do with radical feminism, euthanasia, and homosexuality. Yet Cohen cannot let go, his listing presumably disarming the reader so that Putin is boxed in as a phobic animal: “Putin’s Russia, by contrast, is portrayed in these accounts [still unnamed] as a proud bulwark against the West’s abandonment of religious values, a nation increasingly devout in its observance of Orthodox Christianity, a country convinced that no civilization ever survived by ‘relativizing’ sacred truths.”

Here we tap the American mindset, Cohen as Everyman, or at least archetypal member of the think tank cadre, Pentagon officialdom, and Executive up to and including POTUS. No, they do not go to the mat for cultural freedoms; hostility toward Russia and China are made of fears, memories, self-righteousness and hubris. We are asked to believe in the historical-structural-ideological continuity of Russia from the Revolution to the present, even knowing significant capitalistic features have developed over time, with still the residue of suspicion and mistrust that communism lurks in the bushes—a hatred (not too strong a term) having so much psychological investment to support it that we cannot let it die. Where would be the huge arms budget, on which Americans’ sense of security and identity depends, and the boost to economic growth and avoidance of depression, if such feeling/hysteria were not persistently cultivated? Yet to make the case for absolutistic religion, and with it cultural retrogradation, discontinuity has to be posited. Then, to confuse matters still more, the portrayal of religious dedication (what happened to godless Communism?) might well be appealing to many Americans, lessening tension and antipathy if the word got out. My point: forcing a contrast within Russian history as a means of politicizing conflict between the US and Russia, whilst still maintaining the continuity within Russia for the same purpose, is not a winning argument.

Perhaps absolutism is meant to be the not-so-hidden thread tying communism to counterrevolution, the continuity as discontinuity. Gratuitously, Cohen casts Crimea and Ukraine in a one-sided light, ignoring claims of Russia on the former, the US sponsored takeover (with enough fascist elements to go around) of the latter. The intended black eye, because said in passing, introduces the principal source of conflict: “Beyond Putin’s annexation of Crimea and stirring-up of a small war in eastern Ukraine (although large enough to leave more than 6,000 dead), it is the decision to adopt cultural defiance of the West that suggests the confrontation with Russia will last decades. [Cultural defiance becomes pivotal, in this case lengthening a conflict already assumed on other grounds.] Communism was a global ideology; Putinism is less than that. But a war of ideas has begun in which counterrevolution against the godless and insinuating West is a cornerstone of Russian ideology.”

That hidden thread, Communism to Putinism, predicates a common lust for power, punctuated by a presumed halcyon period dividing the two, a period in fact never entertained: “Gone is the post-Cold War illusion of benign convergence through interdependence. [The dating puts the onus squarely on Putin.] Something fundamental has shifted that goes far beyond a quarrel over territory. Putin has decided to define his power in conflict with the West. The only question is whether he has limited or all-out conflict in mind.” Excellent use of insinuation. One sees Russian troops massed in a giant armada up and down the East Coast. Does Putin, I query, define his power in conflict with the West, or does he have better things to do, such as the very modernization of Russia of which Cohen denies him (Russian backwardness—here Cohen is not alone in thinking—an act of faith) as beyond his and Russia’s scope?

This backwardness drives Russia eastward, perhaps menacing to America and the West because not an abject plea for friendship with the European Union. Cohen stumbles on something important: Western actions may be responsible for bringing Russia and China closer, although he denies their harmfulness and, again, backwardness (aka, absolutist, etc.), views China as rejecting the closeness: “This Russian decision [conflict with the West] has strategic implications the West is only beginning to digest. It involves an eastward pivot more substantial than President Obama’s to Asia. [Tell it to the Marines, given the carrier battle groups in place, and TPP as the economic complement to the military policy.] Putin is now more interested in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose core is China and Russia, than he is in cooperation with the G-8 (from which Russia has been suspended) or the European Union.” Russia, in passing, was suspended from the G-8 but China was excluded from TPP, whose purpose was and is such exclusi on, thereby bringing the two nations closer together.

As for their relationship, Cohen along with US-EU policymakers are confident (with fingers crossed) that it is a nonstarter given the logic of the analysis—backward Russia consigned to the historical dust heap: “China reciprocates this interest to some degree because a Moscow hostile to the West is useful for the defense of its own authoritarian political model [he couldn’t resist getting in this dig] and because it sees economic opportunity in Russia and former Soviet Central Asian countries. But China’s fierce modernizing drive cannot be accomplished through backward-looking Russia. There are clear limits to the current Chinese-Russian rapprochement.” It is as though everyone wants to eradicate Russia because of its supposed backwardness. One example of the authoritative geopolitical stand, in all its glibness: “As a senior European official attending a conference organized by Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs put it, Russia’s is a ‘loser’s challenge’ to the West, because it has given up on modernization and globalization, whereas China’s is potentially a ‘winner’s challenge,’ because it is betting everything on a high-tech, modern economy.”

And if Russia is not backward enough, let’s make it so. Its backwardness is a menace to the world. The punitive nature of the argument, not surprisingly, follows. Cohen writes, “Of course, being irrational and quixotic, losers’ challenges are particularly dangerous. Putin has gobbled a chunk of Ukraine after it pursued a trade pact with the European Union.” Now he is turning to intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. The question then becomes: “How should the West respond?” Its self-evident democratic purity answers for itself, to continue to draw power away from Russia: “It [the West] cannot alter the appeal of its values to the world—witness the hordes of people dying in the attempt to get into the European Union. (Rich Russians have also been pouring into the West in search of the rule of law.) So what Russia sees as Western ‘subversion’ (like the tilt of sane Ukrainians toward Europe) will continue—and it should.”

Yes, continue; pointedly there is shrillness here: the Russians lack the rule of law and “sane” Ukrainians tilt toward Europe. Not satisfied with that, Cohen calls for a more aggressive geopolitical posture: “The West must protect the right of peoples in the East-West in-between lands. [No doubt while this occurs, Putin is expected to sit on his hands.] The citizens of Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia and other states have the right to attain Western prosperity through Western institutions if they so choose. Poland and the Baltic states, now protected by membership of NATO, are inevitably magnets to them.” He mentions the very states where the military exercises and massive presence on the Russian border are taking place. (My recent CP article details the context of intimidation that Cohen lightly brushes over, even omitting reference to B-52s on the scene—yet which Putin is expected to ignore, what no Russian in light of the Nazi invasion of World War II could in good conscience do.)

Security of borders applies to Russia in point of monstrous human devastation more than to any other nation in modern times. Yet the writer proceeds insouciantly, “This new protection [of the in-between lands] should borrow from the policies behind Cold War protection of Germany: firmness allied to dialogue.” He quotes Tomasz Siemoniak of Poland, as did I, that NATO has been excessively cautious in its dealings with Russia, and then cites forces and materiel moved up to what has become the front: “NATO exercises in Latvia,” “a new 5,000-strong rapid-reaction NATO ‘spearhead force,’” and the move of “250 tanks and other equipment into temporary bases in six Eastern European nations [all of which] is something.” Yet, not enough; the prepositioning of a greater show of force is also occurring—a blatant provocation: “But the permanent and significant deployment of heavy weapons in the region is needed to send a message to Putin, as is greater European defense spending, and a clear commitment to maintain sanctions as long as Ukraine is not made whole with full control of its borders.” How about revisiting the overthrow of the legitimate government?

This is not a content analysis of a Roger Cohen op-ed in NYT; he is merely illustrative of the brainwashing which characterizes the privatization and militarization of American culture subjoined to a foreign-policy framework of war, intervention, and universal dominance. There are hundreds if not thousands of Roger Cohens inhabiting the nation’s think tanks and government/military offices—no better, no worse than he, all psychologically invested in the mythology of American Exceptionalism. His closing words in the piece extol what I find diminishes the nation’s democratic stature in the world: “In the end, the very Western ideas and institutions Putin demeans will be the West’s greatest strength in the long looming struggle against Russian counterrevolution.” What Cohen and his cohort cannot accept is that the United States is the supreme global example of counterrevolution.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at