The Media's New Cold War
By Stephen F. Cohen
31 January 2005 Issue
Thirteen years after the end of the Soviet Union, the American press establishment seemed eager to turn Ukraine's protested presidential election on November 21 into a new cold war with Russia. Still worse, its greatest enthusiasts were not the usual Russophobes but influential opinion-makers and publications reputed to be exemplars of balanced, moderate, even liberal, outlook.
An essential element of the last, forty-year cold war was manichean, double-standard thinking on both sides that relentlessly vilified the other, denied it had any legitimate national interests outside its own borders and blamed it for every conflict. The result was to maximize differences, minimize mutual understandings and inspire a nearly catastrophic nuclear arms race. Consider, then, recent commentary in the mainstream American press on the US-Russian conflict over Ukraine, which might not have ended with the victory of the candidate favored by Washington, Viktor Yushchenko, on December 26.
Its basic premise was that events in Ukraine were, in the alarmist formulation of Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl, "disturbingly reminiscent of...1947-48" (Dec. 6). His colleague at the Post, Anne Applebaum, was more Churchillian: "Looking back, we may...see 2004 as the year when a new iron curtain descended across Europe" (Nov. 24). Not surprisingly, the sole cause of this fateful possibility of "a renewed cold war," in the equally foreboding words of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (Dec. 15), is said to have been "massive and malign Russian intervention in Ukraine" to help Moscow's favored candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, as the Post charged repeatedly in a torrent of editorials (Oct. 31, Nov. 23, Nov. 25, Dec. 2).
Considering that Russian President Vladimir Putin had courted the West for five years, even taking the unprecedented step of publicly endorsing President George W. Bush's re-election, how was the Kremlin's "remarkably Cold War" campaign for Yanukovich, as the Post's editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt denounced it (Dec. 13), to be explained? The possibility that Russia may have a legitimate security or other national interest in Ukraine, to which it has been intimately, even familially, related for centuries by geography, traditions, language, religion, economics and intermarriage, was flatly ruled out. Indeed, according to an approving report in the Times by Elisabeth Bumiller (Nov. 30), Washington "Russia specialists say [Putin's] involvement in Ukraine is his most serious offense yet in American eyes." (Apparently not in Ukrainian eyes: In a survey done at the end of December 2004, 83 percent of Ukrainians expressed having a "good" opinion of Russia, and 50 percent even regretted the end of the Soviet Union.)
Nor was it asked if Putin might have been reacting to the well-known (to the Kremlin, at least) U.S. "involvement" in Ukraine on behalf of Yushchenko. The indignant complaint that Moscow organized a "mass influx of Russian celebrities" to promote Yanukovich (Stephen Sestanovich, Post op-ed, Nov. 19), for example, seemed especially disingenuous in light of a State Department official's boastful testimony to a House committee on December 7 that the U.S. government had sent its own legion of notables to Ukraine. They included Senators John McCain and Richard Lugar, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former President George H.W. Bush, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright and former NATO commander and Democratic presidential candidate Gen. Wesley Clark.
Even leaving aside Putin's retort that an election more democratic than the protested one in Ukraine can hardly be expected in US-occupied Iraq this month, there is another, evidently forgotten, American precedent. In a repeated "news analysis," a Times correspondent (Steven Lee Myers, Nov. 24; similarly, Dec. 19) assured readers that the Kremlin leader's great offense was having "stepped on accepted diplomatic protocol by campaigning so overtly on Mr. Yanukovich's behalf." Perhaps Putin thought his conduct was accepted protocol based on the Clinton Administration's flagrant "campaigning" for the re-election of America's "friend," Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996. That "intervention" included exceedingly undiplomatic boosterism, a $10 billion IMF loan, U.S. political strategists dispatched to Moscow to advise Yeltsin's campaign, attempts to pressure a liberal rival to drop out in his favor and effusive apologies for both his pro-oligarchical economic policies and his murderous war in Chechnya.
(An important sidebar: Nostalgia for Yeltsin, "who embraced the West," as Erin Arvedlund reminisced in the Times on December 2, informed much of this American commentary. Indeed, according to Kristof, "the West has been suckered by Mr. Putin. He is not a sober version of Boris Yeltsin." Not noted, and still less explained, is that Yeltsin is probably the most despised political figure in Russia today and Putin certainly the most popular by far.)
Instead of considering the role of Russia's national interests and U.S. behavior, most commentators, especially the Post's, insisted relentlessly that Putin's conduct in Ukraine was driven by a "crude neoimperialism" and was "the centerpiece of a concerted and dangerous Russian imperial strategy" throughout neighboring states once part of the Soviet Union (Post editorial and Diehl op-ed, Dec. 2, 6; similarly, editorials Nov. 23, Nov. 25, Dec. 21, Dec. 26, Diehl op-ed, Jan. 3). It is here that the press's double standard abandons all pretense of objectivity: In most of these former Soviet regions where the Kremlin is accused of "imperial meddling," from the Baltics in the West and Georgia in the South to the states of Central Asia, there are now U.S. and NATO military bases, with more being planned. They too go unmentioned, along with the essential question, widely discussed by scholars, of whether they are part of an ever-expanding American empire.
Double standards can produce strange onsite reporting. Visiting Moscow, Applebaum was shocked that even an 18-year-old Russian woman studying at an American college was "really upset" by the prospect of a pro-U.S. government in Ukraine. The young woman tried to explain: "If all of these countries around us join NATO...Russia will be isolated." But Applebaum was unmoved, traducing the woman's concern as a "belief that Russia has a right to an empire" (Post, Dec. 15). What kind of reasoning, we may ask, causes an American journalist to construe a young Russian's worry about her country's military encirclement as "imperial nostalgia"? (Would the same be said about U.S. anxieties over the appearance of Russian bases in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America?)
If Washington, unlike Moscow, is not engaged in "imperial meddling" in the former Soviet territories, why has it been so involved with Ukraine's politics? The official and standard editorial answer is that U.S. motives are entirely altruistic: As several editorials and well-funded democracy activists have assured us, the United States is "seeking not to recruit a new Western client but to defend the democracy and independence that most Ukrainians want" (Post editorial, Nov. 25, and, similarly, Michael McFaul op-ed, Dec. 21). That is, the Post continued, "the real struggle in Ukraine is not about geopolitical orientation; it is about democracy," insisting that to think otherwise was an "absurdity" (Dec. 2 and 26). In a similar but more avuncular vein, a Times editorial (Dec. 4) advised Putin "to abandon the foolish notion that someone is trying to steal 'his' Ukraine," which a Boston Globe editorial (Dec. 28) dismissed as "Putin's paranoia."
No one in Russia's political class believes such assurances, not even its rapidly dwindling pro-American faction, and with good reason. In the same Washington Post editorial pages that have become the vanguard of the neo-cold war crusade, the columnist Charles Krauthammer revealed a very different meaning of the Ukrainian conflict: "This is about Russia first, democracy only second.... The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe's march to the east.... The great prize is Ukraine" (Dec. 3).
Krauthammer's unsentimental candor confirms the Kremlin's growing alarm over the Western bases gathering around Russia like a tightening noose. But if it needed weightier confirmation, Russia got it from Richard Holbrooke, erstwhile candidate for Secretary of State in a Democratic administration and leading spokesman for what passes for foreign-policy thinking in what remains of that party, speaking now in his bipartisan capacity.
Just back from Kiev, Holbrooke exulted over Ukraine's impending "final break with Moscow" and urged Washington to "accelerate" its membership in NATO, which "virtually defines our core zone of security in half the world" (Post op-ed, Dec. 14). With the kind of experienced diplomacy certain to reassure Moscow about this further (nonimperial) encroachment, Holbrooke told Chris Matthews on Hardball (Dec. 13) that a President Yushchenko should immediately be invited to Washington to "address the joint session of Congress." Holbrooke wasn't freelancing. The Post's "not-about-geopolitical-orientation" editorials have been inconsistent or duplicitous, calling at the same time for NATO to welcome Yushchenko's Ukraine "with open doors" (Dec. 10; similarly, Oct. 31 and Dec. 26), a policy still being pushed on its op-ed page in the new year (Steven Pifer, Jan. 1).
The conflict over Ukraine alone may not be enough to launch a new cold war against Russia, but the U.S. press's indictment of Putin, a leader it once hailed for his "commitment to building a democracy" (Michael Wines, Times, July 9, 2000), has been growing rapidly for more than a year. It began in earnest in October 2003, when the Kremlin jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest oligarch and owner of its largest oil company, Yukos, on charges of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. Ukraine and Yukos, now being broken up and returned to state control, are regularly cited together as prime evidence that Putin, and Russia itself, are hopelessly authoritarian and without "minimal standards" of democracy, rule of law and private property (Myers, Times, Dec. 19). The Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant and Wall Street Journal editorialist Holman Jenkins Jr. were even more damning. The first anathematized Putin's Kremlin as "Russian thugs masquerading as a government" (Dec. 21), while the second equated Putin with Saddam Hussein (Jan. 5), an association implying the need for U.S. action.
And not merely that. Putin, according to the Times columnist Kristof, is "guiding Russia...into fascism," a line also being promoted by neocon cold warriors such as former CIA director James Woolsey. Lest readers think they might have been better off with the Soviet Union, whose leader Mikhail Gorbachev did more than anyone else to end the last cold war in 1989, Kristof quickly adds: "Still, a fascist Russia is a much better thing than a Communist Russia." (Larger questions aside, I think instinctively of the many Jews who survived fascist death camps in Eastern Europe only because they were liberated by "Communist" soldiers.) And lest Nation readers think that only American journalists are capable of such hyperbolic commentary, the trendy British historian Niall Ferguson, now at Harvard, warned readers of the Daily Telegraph (Jan. 1) that Putin may be becoming a Hitler, "a fully fledged Russian führer," and an equal "threat to the rest of the world."
Most Russians see all of this very differently. Hearing the U.S. charges against Putin, they wonder why Washington backed the "pro-Western" Yeltsin so enthusiastically in the 1990s when he destroyed an elected parliament with tank cannons, organized several elections at least as "fraudulent" as the invalidated one in Ukraine and arranged the unlawful oligarchical looting of state property. (Ukrainians, incidentally, might wonder why their outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, also being vilified by the American press, was so grandly feted by the U.S. government in Washington in 1996 and was even given the now anti-Kuchma Freedom House's annual Freedom Award.)
Above all, Russians see, behind Washington's proclamations of "strategic partnership," a triumphalist, winner-take-all policy toward post-Soviet Russia. Ukraine and other Soviet republics were part of their security; now Washington is demanding them for "our core zone of security." (Indeed, Diehl, writing in the Post on January 3, now urges a U.S. policy that would result in something well beyond mere cold war - promoting a Ukraine-like "struggle" not only in Belarus, a former Soviet people even more intimately related to Russia, but "even in Russia" itself.) So too with Yukos oil. Once it belonged to the Russian state, whose impoverished citizens saw it as part of the nation's wealth that might be their salvation; but Khodorkovsky was on the verge of selling his "privatized" controlling stake to a U.S. oil giant.
It is right to wish democracy well everywhere and, in this connection, easy to be critical of Putin's policies at home and toward Ukraine. (The extent to which democracy actually triumphed in Ukraine, as heralded almost unanimously in the U.S. media, depends on whether the very large and well-organized pro-Yushchenko crowds in the streets, the "orange revolution," intimidated the Supreme Court into ruling in his favor and the Parliament into changing the electoral laws while the electoral process was still under way.) But the American adage "There are two sides to every story" never seems to apply even to post-Communist Russia. Was it really Putin, or only Putin, who "dusted off cold war vocabulary" (Arvedlund, Times, Dec. 2); resorted to "anachronistic East-West terms" (Post editorial, Dec. 2); treated Ukraine "like a geo-strategic prize" (Bumiller, quoting a Bush Administration official, Times, Nov. 30); and represented the "specter of this new iron curtain" (Applebaum, Post, Nov. 24)?
Manichean allegations are an augury of cold war, as is something else. Among the most odious practices of the forty-year cold war - always in the name of freedom and democracy - was the casting of doubt on the patriotism of anyone who challenged its orthodoxies. When the editor of The Nation cited reports that both Russia and the United States had been deeply involved in Ukraine's politics, the Post editorialist Applebaum slurred her (my wife, I confess) as a "freedom-hater" (Post, Dec. 1). A "pro-democracy" missionary, in an instructive example of undemocratic discourse, lumped "left-wingers in The Nation" with Putin and the dictator of Belarus (McFaul, Post op-ed, Dec. 21). And in an editorial comment in The New Yorker (Dec. 20/27), the "liberal" George Packer revived the practice in its fullest form: "The Nation [is] once again taking the Russian side of the Cold War."
Which "cold war" do Packer and the others have in mind? Evidently, a new one already under way - at least in influential American circles. If so, much is likely to follow, none of it good for democracy in Ukraine, Russia or anywhere else.