Stephen Cohen is a Russian historian of some note who is presently pooh-poohing all the evidence in favor of the Trump Regime being a Russian-manipulated threat to our freedom. His dissenting views have caused him to be the target of no small amount of hate for some time.
He’s wrong, of course. Putin is indeed a threat. However, it’s interesting to examine history a bit and determine just why he persists so stubbornly in his wrongness when (being an intelligent and educated person) he should know better.
There’s a huge truth that underlies his beliefs, the truth of Russophobia. The latter is a very real thing, and played no small part in the West dismissing any commitment to freedom and democracy and backing strongman politics in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed.
There was this bias, shaped by decades of Cold War rhetoric, that saw Russians (and Slavs generally, and Eastern Europeans more generally) as something slightly less than the full human beings Western Europeans are. Being an ignorant and insufficiently-cultured people, they weren’t really responsible enough to handle full democracy. Like children need parents, they needed a nice big dose of authoritarian control. So creating an imperial presidency for Yeltsin was seen as a reasonable thing to do.
It almost happened to Poland in the 1990s. A few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Poles, frustrated with economic “shock therapy” that was making the masses suffer, elected a socialist government. There was much hand-wringing about how the stupid Poles were too dumb not to vote ex-communists back into power. (Poland had been a one-party state. That the politicians of all parties, not just the socialist one, were ex-communists was of course conveniently ignored.) Thankfully, not much came of it. The “ex-communist” bogeyman was shown to be the phantom threat it actually was when the socialists eventually lost an election and promptly proceeded to hand over power to the victors, just like any political party should do in a democracy.
But I digress. The rise of Putin soon enough proved that in supporting the creation of a strongman presidency in Russia, the West had created a Frankenstein’s monster.
This was actually convenient for the American Right, who had run into a problem: pure capitalism is an unstable economic system which has difficulty producing much economic growth, because it lurches destructively from boom to bust. Interventionist economic policy is needed to stabilize it, but such policy is ideologically inconvenient: once you’re doing it, you’ve ceded the ability to cling morally to the principle of laissez-faire and you’ve opened the door to social democracy or modern liberalism. The Cold War had provided an out for the Right: military Keynesianism; spend on Cold War military programs instead of social ones to stabilize the economy.
So the response to the failure of Russophobia was not a questioning of how anti-Russian bias had fostered unwise support for a strongman, but an embrace of even more Russophobia. Previous promises made about not expanding NATO eastward were reneged on multiple times. The new NATO countries were required to modernize their militaries (which gave the US military-industrial complex new markets). Plus the fear could be used to rationalize more militarism at home, too.
It is this which Cohen has been fighting all these years. Unfortunately, the real world is a messy and complex place. As I wrote earlier, a Frankenstein’s monster had been created. It’s now clear just how much a threat that monster is.
Is it a monster created by Western hubris and Russophobia? Yes. Is it a monster that a less bigoted and Machiavellian foreign policy decades ago could have avoided? Probably, yes. But, it is also a present danger that now must be faced. The genie is now fully out of the bottle.
I find the return to a new Cold War loathsome, too. However, at this point in time, it’s probably the least loathsome of several bad options available. The West made its bed and must now lie in it.