“Ukrainian and Russian women have good genes. Unlike Jewish.”
I was standing in a high-ceilinged reception room at the Russian Embassy in Washington when Alex, an “attorney” of Russian-Ukrainian origin living in New York, offered this observation. We had only been making small talk for a few minutes when he aired his views on the relative attractiveness of Semitic females. At this point, I decided it would be a good idea to make a mad dash for the vodka.
The occasion was the Russia World Forum, an annual confab of Russia scholars sympathetic to Moscow, businessmen with interests in Russia, and various outcasts on both ends of the American political spectrum. The event is sponsored by a motley crew of institutions ranging from a Russian vodka bar and restaurant in DuPont Circle to the Russian Center for Science and Culture, whose head was recently investigated by the FBI for espionage.
Under the rubric of “Advancing a Constructive Agenda for US-Russian Relations,” the main activity of the Forum is a series of panel discussions. “The current polcy [sic] of threatening and implementing sanctions,” the conference program states, would likely be “damaging to the Western geopolitical, security and economic interests.”
Speaker after speaker, with few exceptions, denounced American policy towards Russia, defended the actions of Vladimir Putin, and ferociously attacked anyone who disagreed with them. The discussions took place at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, with an after party at the Embassy.
His Excellency Sergei Kislyak, Russia’s Ambassador, delivered the opening remarks. He could not understand why Washington and Moscow are at such loggerheads, given all our two nations have in common. The “ideological divides” of the Cold War are no longer, he declared, and there exists “not a single issue that has to put Russia and the U.S. apart,” as if the first, forcible annexation of territory on the European continent since World War II were but a speck in the otherwise harmonious picture of U.S.-Russia relations. He aslo claimed that both countries are “market economies,” and, like America, Russia too has a “democratic system.”
It’s one thing to say that we should try to better “understand” where Putin, and Russians more generally, are coming from. But there is a world of difference in analyzing the Kremlin perspective so as to better shape American policy, and sympathizing with it. Most of the speakers at the Forum fall into the latter camp.
The American system was represented, by two, state-level American politicians there: Alaska Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie.
Both men were recruited to gush about the importance of U.S.-Russian relations for their respective state economies, and warn against any moves that might set those relations back. “The first question I’m always asked is can I see Russia from my house,” Treadwell joked in reference to the former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, before getting to the more serious business. “Do not forget: we are neighbors because people will be affected.” Tell that to the Ukrainians.
Ritchie took to the stage to complain about how a “U.S.-Russia Innovation” forum originally scheduled to take place in St. Paul in March was “frozen” by the State Department as a result of Russia’s invasion of Crimea. “You don’t call them and tell dinner’s off because Washington called and said, ‘cancel dinner,’” he said. Apparently, Russia’s blatant overthrow of the European security order shouldn’t interfere with Midwestern hospitality.
I approached Ritchie afterwards on the sidelines of the forum. A voluptuous Russian blonde with exposed cleavage, straight out of The Americans, was being overly friendly and he seemed eager to escape (neither voluptuous Russian women, nor their intended targets, schlumpy American men, were in short supply at the day’s events). Did he not see how U.S. sanctions on Russia are intended as a non-violent means of persuading it to respect international norms and treaties? “I’m the Secretary of State of Minnesota and my policy is bringing jobs and investment and trade and innovation to my state,” he replied. Smiling, he handed me a business card with his information written in both English and Russian.
In a decidedly less toothy mood was NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, perhaps the most infamous American apologist for the Russian government. After warning that the Western-instigated “new Cold War” might provoke the use of “tactical nuclear weapons,” he then moved onto more serious business: how the media, Congress, and think tank community are not giving enough time to hear the arguments of one Stephen F. Cohen.
“It was different in the ’70s and ’80s,” Cohen lamented. “We were organized, we had a political lobbying group, we had allies everywhere.” Ah, yes, the ’70s and ’80s, when the Soviets were on the ascendant all over the globe from Nicaragua to Angola to Afghanistan, and Moscow could count on legions of sympathizers across the Western world to justify its every move. Today, unfortunately, “We, the opponents of this new Cold War, are few in numbers and virtually alone, without influential allies and support.”
Worse, Cohen added, was that the people who disagree with him do so rather vigorously. “What I’ve written and said on television and radio since February has brought upon me an unprecedented personal assault,” he complained, listing some of the terms that have been used, entirely accurately, to describe him: “Putin’s #1 American apologist” (presumably yours truly), “dupe,” (New York’s Jonathan Chait) “toady,” (The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe) and “generally Putin’s best friend,” that last being Daily Beast contributor Cathy Young’s tart phrase.
“I have never replied to these bits of slander until today,” Cohen said, telling his rapt audience that, while “they are directed at me” they’re “meant to apply to others in this room and others opposing American policy.” These “ad hominem slurs and distortions” launched by vicious “character assassins” are meant to “stifle democratic debate in America about this historic crisis…We, the dissenters, are the truly democratic Americans.” As for the Russians beaten up and thrown in jail for peacefully demonstrating against Putin, or the gay activists beaten up and thrown in jail for saying that homosexuality isn’t a sickness, or the largely forgotten Crimean Tatars now once again living under Russian subjugation, Cohen doesn’t have the time.
Barry Goldwater is not the sort of man you might expect Stephen F. Cohen to paraphrase. “Claiming that moderation in a time of such crisis is no virtue,” the martyr of American Russian studies declared. “It lulls us into conformism and deference.” True to that mangled maxim, Cohen then started talking like an extremist. Echoing a point he made a few days ago on the Kremlin-funded television network RT, he unfavorably compared the Ukrainian government’s self-described “anti-terrorist operation” in the southeast against Russian-backed separatists to the Union’s attempts to sway the southern Confederacy. “What kind of government calls its own citizens who are politically protesting ‘terrorists?’ A government that wants to kill them. Lincoln didn’t do this. He appealed to the confederacy.”
Leaving aside William Tecumseh Sherman’s burning the entire city of Atlanta and its environs to the ground, it takes a mind either utterly naïve or so warped by Russian propaganda to label actions like last weekend’s shooting down of a military transport plane, killing all 49 people on board, a form of “political protest.” Cohen also seems to believe that the separatists in the east are all Ukrainian citizens, when a large degree of evidence suggests that many of them are in fact Russians. It is, after all, hard to imagine from where else these “political protestors” got their hands on the weaponry capable of bringing down a plane. As the indispensible Interpreter Magazine concludes in an exhaustive report documenting Russian support for the insurgency, the “methodical intersection of the Russian government’s diplomatic, propagandistic, and military actions with the military and political realities on the ground in eastern Ukraine prove that at the very least Russia’s military intelligence complex is coordinating its efforts with the pro-Kremlin separatists in order to destabilize eastern Ukraine and increase Russia’s control over post-Yanukovych Ukraine.”
It’s one thing to say that we should try to better “understand” where Putin, and Russians more generally, are coming from. Not even the hawkest of hawks would argue against that. But there is a world of difference in analyzing the Kremlin perspective so as to better shape American policy, and sympathizing with it. Most of the speakers at the Forum fall into the latter camp.
One of the defining traits of the dictatorship, the mafia state, the kleptocracy, is that it attracts the sleaziest sort of Americans. There was Webster Tarpley, former operative in the Lyndon LaRouche cult, 9/11 Truther, and all-around conspiracy theorist, who has speculated that the 2011 massacre of Norwegian Labor Party youth members by a right-wing extremist was in fact a NATO “false flag” operation intended to punish Norway for withdrawing from the military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Qadaffi. There was Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who, when I debated him a few months ago on television, analogized 9/11 to the “Reichstag fire,” asking if $5 billion in American support for civil society organizations in Ukraine was, in its own way, a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty tantamount to or even more egregious than Russia’s armed invasion of Crimea. There was a representative from an American “pro-family” organization praising Putin’s standing up to his own country on issues like homosexuality and family planning. “Russia is one of the best countries on these issues,” I overheard him coo to a surprised and grateful Russian woman outside the Embassy.
Standing in the cavernous hall of the Embassy, with a giant painting of Red Square hanging on the wall, large gentlemen with earpieces staring suspiciously at the guests, and an instrumental version of “Careless Whisper” playing in the background, I felt like I was in the RT green room. Not long after arriving, I decided it was time to leave. The stuffed eggplant and fake caviar weren’t cutting it, and dinner with my Jewish boyfriend was waiting.