Thursday, April 16, 2015

A different take on Ukraine, Russia and Putin

It seems to be the day for me to take stock of my positions and, perhaps, find them wanting. First I revisited my reflexive distrust of religious-freedom laws (not changing my opinion so much as opening up the possibility that I might do so down the line), and now I'm wondering how much of the political elite's Kool-Aid (TM) I've drunk with respect to Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin.

Part one of Patrick Smith's interview in Salon with Professor Stephen F. Cohen had the same effect on me as my brushes with Noam Chomsky: I reflexively reject the total repudiation of some of my most deeply held ideas about how the world works, but at the same time I'm left wondering whether I'm simply (and deeply) misinformed.

After all, at one time, ordinary people like me believed slavery was normal. There's no end to the harmful ideas people throughout history have held simply because nobody challenged those ideas.

Briefly, Cohen argues (as others have argued) that it was the United States that fomented the current crisis in Ukraine. We did it in the 1990s, with Bill Clinton's triumphalist insistence that the West "won" the Cold War. We like to think it was Reagan who used that rhetoric, but Cohen claims it was Clinton's words and deeds that really did the damage. The deeds in question center largely around the expansion of NATO beyond what Russia understood would be the alliance's limits.

Cohen also argues that there's a dangerous unanimity among the United States' major media outlets when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin. They all agree that Russia under Putin was the aggressor in Ukraine, that Ukraine is a fledgling democracy being crushed under Russia's hegemonist heel, and that Putin is a budding Hitler. The "demonization" of Putin, as Cohen put it, has had a calamitous effect on analysis and decision-making in Washington:

... the net result was to make rational analysis in Washington on Russian affairs at home and abroad impossible, because it was all filtered through this demonization. If we didn’t stop, I argued, it was only going to get worse to the point where we would become like heroin addicts at fix time, unable to think about anything except our obsession with Putin. We couldn’t think about other issues. This has now happened fully.
That's one of Cohen's key insights, one whose truth I can see for myself, and it makes me open to the rest of his arguments (though I'm suspicious that he is a little too eager to excuse all of Russia's actions).

Part two of the interview is to run next week, but part one contains quite enough food for thought for now.

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