Taking Aim at Criminalizing Russia: Stephen Cohen Challenges A Rampant Mania

Bamboozling the public prepares them for bombing those we demonize

On April 25, 2018 Stephen Cohen, unraveller of myths extraordinaire, wrote an article on “Criminalizing Russia” in The Nation (republished in War with Russia: from Putin to Ukraine to Trump an Russiagate [2022]). We are increasingly aware that the bamboozling of the citizenry prepares them for whatever bombing will follow. We are also aware that those we bomb and maim and destroy are first demonized. Noam Chomsky (in Who rules the world? [2016]) informs his readers that the Israeli government deplored the savagery of the Palestinians by deeming them “two-headed beasts” (Prime Minister Menachem Begin), “drugged roaches scurrying around in a bottle” (Israeli Defence Forces Chief of Staff Raful Eitan), “like grasshoppers compared to us” whose heads should be “smashed against the boulders and walls” (Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir)—or more commonly, just ‘Araboushim,’ the slang counter part of ‘kike’ or ‘nigger’ (p. 24-25).

Cohen states boldly that for more than a decade, the “US political-media establishment has increasingly demonized, delegitimated, and now criminalized the Russian state and its leadership.” It began, the brave Stephen states, with “personal vilification of President Putin and has grown into a general indictment of Russia as a nation” (p. 176). The present Russia-Ukraine conflict has intensified both Putin’s vilification and banishment of Russia from the company of nations. “Get out of here, you Russians!” We will burn Dostoevsky and Tolstoy’s novels, shred Turgenev’s poetry, we will ban the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets from our stages, remove Valery Gergiev’s conductor’s wand and fire Anna Netrebko from singing opera, ban the music of Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky or Dimitri Shoshtakovic, ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon or competing at the Olympics.

In his wonderful book, Return to Moscow (2017), Tony Kevin, former diplomat to Russia and Poland, counters the anti-Russian mania. He admires Russia’ steady seriousness of purpose. This is a country ready to confront big questions. It is not a trivial or superficial or small-minded country. The Russian language itself is a wonderful instrument, a most beautiful and subtle language with the finest gradations of meaning, in expressing verbs of emotion especially. And the music, the art, the literature—how could one not love this country, the more one knows it?” (p. 35).

Where does this banishment end? Cohen states forthrightly that President Obama’s “former intelligence chiefs John Brennan and James Clapper and other US authorities have told us, any Russian ‘linked to the Kremlin,’ Moscow officialdom generally, ‘oligarchs,’ or certain traits is inherently suspicious” (p. 177). Inherently—in your nature to not be trusted. Colonizers do not trust the ones they are subjugating. Never.

Crimes of Russia

“’Crimes,” Cohen avers, “said to be committed by today’s Kremlin, from America and the UK to Syria, have expanded the indictment beyond charges once leveled against Soviet Russia” (ibid.). Stephen has lots of choices to illustrate this form of idiocy. Washington Post world affairs columnist Joe Scarborough devoted a column warning his readers multiple times that “our democracy is under attack by the Russians.” Echoing Washington, Canada’s foreign minister indicted Russia for its “malign behaviour in all of its manifestations…whether it is cyberwarfare, whether it’s disinformation, assassination attempts, whatever it happens to be” (ibid.). That just about covers it.

On April 20th, the Democratic National Committee, “still morning its defeat in 2016, went farther. It is seeking a formal indictment of ‘whatever it happens to be’ by suing the Russian government for conspiring with the Trump campaign to deprive Hillary Clinton of her rightful victory in the 2016 presidential election. Central figures in this ‘act of unprecedented treachery’ are stated to be ‘people believed to be affiliated with Russia’” (ibid.).

Fearless Stephen tells us that, once criminalized as a “mafia state,” Russia can have “no legitimate national interests anywhere, not on its own borders or even at home. And with such a state, it also follows, there should be no civil relations, including diplomacy, only warfare ones” (ibid.). Perhaps slapping sanctions on Russia with impunity, left, right and centre, presupposes that fighting is always better than talking, because talking requires trust.

Cohen points out that: “Lost, forgotten, or negated in this mania is why Russia was generally understood to matter so greatly to US national security during the 40-year Cold War that the result was myriad forms of growing and prolonged cooperation, even official episodes of détente. The reasons also apply to Russia today” (ibid.). Why the cooperation? Even middle-school kids presume to know why – “Like the United States, Russia possesses enormous arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. A conventional US-Russian war—as both sides are now flirting with in Syria and may soon do so in Ukraine or the Baltic region—could slip into nuclear war earlier, at a recent meeting of Washington’s highly respected Center for the National Interest, several well-informed experts thought that on a scale of 1 to 10, the chances of war with Russia today are 5 to 7” (p. 178). As I write, I bet it’s now closer to 8 or 9.

Not a good idea to isolate Russia

As I made my way through the marvelous, but dispiriting, Failed Crusade: America and the tragedy of post-communist Russia (2001), Cohen cries out many times at how serious Russia’s collapse into chaos, disarray and plundering during the 1990s was, given the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union. He reminds his readers that it is a terrible matter for the US and allies to persecute Russia: terrorists pursue radioactive materials for attacks. The Kremlin is needed to prevent this. Cohen urges us to really face up to Russia’s status in the geopolitical world. Russia remains the “largest territorial country in the world. It possesses a disproportionate share of the planet’s natural resources, from energy, iron ore, nickel, timber, diamonds, and gold to fresh water. It is also squarely between East and West, whose civilizations are in conflict, and part of both. Months ago I raised the possibility that Russia might ‘leave the West,’ driven out by the new Cold War or by choice. The possibility is now said by a top Kremlin aide and ideologist to be inescapable” (ibid.). It certainly seems to me (four years after he wrote these words), that US/EU/NATO is forcing Russia out of the Euro-security zone. Russia desires to “protect its own borders” and has not expanded towards American borders.

Here we have it – “sanctioned, criminal Russia is ‘isolated from the international community’” – a western media conceit. “’Putin’s Russia’ and non-Western countries such as China, Iran, India, and other BRIC nations are thriving. And it is there that most of the world’s territory, people, resources, and growing markets are located. For them, Russia is not criminal but an eagerly sought partner” (ibid.). Cohen reminds, as well, that there is “military parity” between the US and Russia: the “road to American national security runs through Moscow.” But, alas, “This necessity may now seem futile, as US political-media elites mindlessly criminalize Russia” (ibid.). This wounded and beautiful and powerful country does not need criminalization.



Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.