SHADY

10.11.15 4:01 AM ET

Putin’s New American Fan Club?

Their board includes a famed ex-senator. Their goals couldn’t sound more benign. But a new outfit to promote “debate” between the U.S. and Russia has a decidedly pro-Putin lineup.

It is, most would agree, a worthy goal: to promote “open, civilized, informed debate” on Russian-American relations and bring about “a conclusive end to cold war and its attendant dangers.” But there are reasons to believe that the American Committee for East-West Accord, which is having its formal launch with a Capitol Hill event scheduled for November 4, may be involved in a less admirable mission.

“The more organizations there are having country-to-country conversations, exchanges and partnerships, the better, [especially in] an increasing atmosphere of anti-Americanism there and anti-Russianism here,” New School international studies professor and writer Nina Khrushcheva, a granddaughter of the late Soviet leader, told The Daily Beast in an email. Like several other analysts, however, Khrushcheva voiced concern that the group’s potential positive role was compromised by some of its members’ knee-jerk tendency to blame all tensions on the West while excusing the Kremlin’s and Vladimir Putin’s actions. 

The committee’s seven-person board of directors includes former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ), former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock, and former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper. But its co-founders are two men who were part of the group’s forerunner, the American Committee on East-West Accord, a pro-détente organization that existed from 1974 to 1992. Stephen F. Cohen, the Russian history scholar, earned a certain notoriety last year with his dogged defense of Putin at the height of the Russia-Ukraine conflict; Gilbert Doctorow, a like-minded Brussels-based U.S. expatriate and self-styled “professional Russia-watcher,” has had a long career in multinational business as well as scholarship and punditry. 

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cohen credited both himself and Doctorow with the idea of an advocacy group to counteract the new Cold War. “The model I had in mind was the American Committee, and it began to fester in my mind to re-create the equivalent,” says Cohen; the change from “on” to “for,” he says, was intended to make it “more proactive.” Both men began to publicly promote the initiative in early 2014. Doctorow, as ACEWA’s European coordinator, organized its first events in Brussels, including a panel last March that featured Cohen as well as Nation editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel, Cohen’s wife and frequent co-author on Russia-related issues.

Actively promoted in The Nation, ACEWA is clearly something of a Cohen-vanden Heuvel project. While vanden Heuvel is not a board member, Cohen told The Daily Beast that she “does help,” sometimes by mentioning the group’s activities to her contacts in Congress. Her father, William J. vanden Heuvel, a retired career diplomat and former United Nations ambassador, serves on the committee’s board and was even listed as its president in its incorporating papers. ACEWA also appears to have close ties to his philanthropy, the Melinda and William J. vanden Heuvel Foundation: The address listed on the committee’s tax filing last March is the foundation’s Manhattan address (and that of the investment firm Allen & Co., in which he is a senior adviser). None of the ACEWA representatives contacted by The Daily Beast would comment directly on whether the organization—whose U.S. budget is listed at $30,000 for this year—is financed by the vanden Heuvel Foundation; but both Cohen and Doctorow confirm that for now, its funding comes from board members.

Cohen’s views have been widely described as pro-Putin and “Moscow-friendly,” labels he has hotly disputed. Similar charges have been leveled at other people and organizations linked to ACEWA; the March 2015 World Russia Forum in Washington, D.C., where Doctorow made a pitch for the Committee, was skewered by The Daily Beast’s Jamie Kirchick as “a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.” 

To ACEWA’s founders, such language validates the need for the committee, showing that dissent from a bellicose, Russia-bashing party line is marginalized in American discourse. “McCarthyite” attacks on Russia-policy dissenters have been decried by Cohen, Doctorow (who hailed Cohen as the “Great American Dissident”)  and James Carden, the former National Interest columnist who is now editor of ACEWA’s website. 

Yet the drubbing Cohen has received was due largely to his propensity for crossing the line into Kremlinesque spin. During the Crimea grab, he asserted that “we don’t know that Putin went into Crimea”; later, he insisted that the Russia-backed insurgents of Donetsk and Luhansk were “resisters” with a valid claim to self-defense since those regions had “voted overwhelmingly for autonomy” (never mind that the separatist-controlled vote was a blatant farce and polls showed most locals opposing secession). 

Speaking to The Daily Beast, Cohen defended some of his statements; for instance, he explained that he did not know at the time whether the “little green men” who executed the Crimea takeover were new special forces sent from Russia or Russian troops already stationed there under a treaty with Ukraine. (In fact, they wore no insignia, and Putin claimed they were “local self-defense units.”) However, Cohen concedes that he might have been “insufficiently critical of Russia’s contribution to the crisis”—but says it was a “conscious strategy” to counteract a one-sided media narrative. “Russia’s side of the story was not being told, and I knew I was going to get grief for trying to tell it as I understood it,” says Cohen, adding that he was further constrained by very limited television airtime. 

Whatever one makes of this argument (which doesn’t account, among other things, for Cohen’s similarly skewed Nation articles), Cohen is also emphatic that he should not be the “personification” of the committee. “If you look at the seven members of the board, there are serious disagreements among us on various issues,” he says. “In fact, you could probably have a terrific debate just by putting the seven of us on the stage.”

Fair enough. Yet, disturbingly, at least one board member disagrees with Cohen from a more pro-Kremlin point of view—and that person is Doctorow, the committee’s co-founder. 

Doctorow’s peculiar outlook can be gleaned from his 2014 Nation article on U.S. and Russian media coverage of the Ukraine crisis. In it, he chides far-left academic Noam Chomsky for being slow to condemn “American bullying of Russia” because of “distaste for what he construed as Mr. Putin’s authoritarian regime” and praises Russian journalism for “emerging from pro-Western wishful thinking.”

In articles on his own blog and on Russia Insider, an American expatriate website with clear Putinist sympathies, Doctorow serves up a steady diet of frank Kremlin apologism and vitriolic attacks on Putin foes. A 2013 column waves aside Moscow’s ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans, many of them with disabilities, as no big deal since “the handicapped constituted no more than 10% of … international adoptions” and “the global numbers of such adoptions had been falling” even before the ban. Doctorow’s  commentary on the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov last February not only played up the theory of an anti-Putin provocation—either by Ukraine or by fellow oppositionists—but slammed the murdered man for “actively courting the enemy in what may easily be described before the dock as treason.”

Opposition treachery is a Doctorow leitmotif. An August column is subtitled, “Russian ‘liberals’ are hailed as heroes in the West. In Russia, they’re widely viewed as traitors”; the text leaves little doubt that Doctorow shares this view. The massive protests against election-rigging in late 2011 and the spring of 2012 are portrayed as a “seditious movement” financed with “U.S. dollars.” Yeltsin-era Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, the main target of the piece, is accused of “courting sedition” with a New York Times op-ed calling for regime change in Russia—and of being a de facto U.S. agent with “American handlers” during his tenure as minister. (Doctorow also calls Kozyrev “delusional” and makes unsubstantiated references to his past “mental breakdown.”) A 2013 blogpost brands the Carnegie Center Moscow think tank as “a nest of sedition,” singling out foreign policy analyst and then-Carnegie associate Lilia Shevtsova as the culprit. 

What does Cohen, who has often stressed his sympathy for Russia’s liberal dissenters, think of his partner’s crude dissident-bashing? “Gil has very strong feelings because he’s got this trilateral life,” Cohen told The Daily Beast, referring to Doctorow’s status as a U.S. citizen who divides his time between Belgium and Russia and has a Russian wife. He also stressed, once again, that “the seven [board members] probably disagree as much as we agree about specific issues.” 

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Certainly, other ACEWA board members hold substantially more moderate views. For instance, while Matlock’s commentary tends to emphasize alleged U.S. mistreatment of post-Soviet Russia as the principal cause of the conflict, he has also had harsh words on his blog for Russia’s conduct in the Ukraine crisis and the gross distortions in the Russian media’s Ukraine coverage. 

Nonetheless, a look the committee’s website leaves a clear impression of a Kremlin-sympathetic slant. While the “Analysis” section showcases some thoughtful commentary from mainstream publications with a “realist” foreign policy outlook, it also carries considerably more dubious fare such as the writings of Robert Parry (whose website, Consortium News, flogs “false flag” conspiracy theories about the shoot down of flight MH-17) and University of Ottawa Russian Studies professor Paul Robinson (whose leanings can be judged from a December article headlined, “Did Russia Start the War in Ukraine? No, She Ended It”). Doctorow is featured as well—including his August column smearing Russian liberals as traitors. 

Ironically, one of Doctorow’s targets, Shevtsova—now a Brookings Institution scholar still based in Moscow—told The Daily Beast she could support many of ACEWA’s stated goals. “There is nothing wrong about the attempt to create a framework for East-West Accord in times of confrontation,” Shevtsova said in an email. She also expressed agreement with several of the committee’s specific proposals, such as having the U.S. join the “Normandy Four” (Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and France) for talks on eastern Ukraine and resuming U.S.-Russian security dialogue. But Shevtsova voiced concern that ACEWA will advocate accommodation and “dialogue on Putin’s terms,” which means accepting the demand that Ukraine must stay in Russia’s “sphere of influence.” 

New York University political scientist Mark Galeotti likewise finds the committee’s initial proposals “admirable enough” on their face; however, he feels the group is “depressingly unbalanced in their assumption of moral and geopolitical parity between the U.S. and Russia, as well as their unwillingness to describe what is happening in Ukraine as an act of aggression engineered by Moscow.”

Michael McFaul, until recently U.S. Ambassador to Russia, raises another pertinent point. On all three policy goals stated on ACEWA’s website—restoring the 1991 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which deals with vulnerable nuclear material; preserving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty; and protecting “educational and related exchange programs”—the ball is in Moscow’s court. Says McFaul, “Russia decided to end Nunn-Lugar, Russia appears to be violating the INF treaty, and Russia is cutting [or] disrupting exchanges” such as FLEX, the Future Leaders Exchange program for high school students ended by Moscow a year ago. 

How does the committee address this issue? McFaul’s predecessor, Ambassador Matlock—who was extensively involved in U.S.-Soviet negotiations at the end of the Cold War—told The Daily Beast, “Obviously, both countries will have to agree to restore the Nunn-Lugar nuclear cooperation. Perhaps the Russian cooperation in reaching the agreement with Iran will encourage steps in that direction. It does not help, however, if senior U.S. and NATO officials continue to speak of Russia as an enemy country. It is not, by any reasonable standard.” 

As for exchange programs, Cohen says he and other committee members hope that “if our group became well-known in Russia as sensible Americans, that if we said, ‘Reinstate FLEX,’ maybe they’ll listen.” He also acknowledges that “it may be just wishful thinking.”

Other specific proposals, for resolving the Ukraine crisis, have been put forth by Sen. Bradley in a June column for Time featured prominently on the ACEWA website. (The Daily Beast made several unsuccessful attempts to interview Sen. Bradley for this article.) His five-point solution includes Russia’s withdrawal from eastern Ukraine and acceptance of Ukraine’s current borders “in a binding treaty”; Ukraine being allowed to join both the EU and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union while being permanently barred from NATO; and a lifting of all economic sanctions on Russia. 

The idea of Ukraine joining the EU but not NATO has been previously broached by high-level Ukrainian officials. But Russia’s withdrawal of its troops from eastern Ukraine (which would first require an admission that they are there!) and pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity could prove completely meaningless if Moscow finds it useful to carry on its “hybrid warfare,” backing local armies of disgruntled natives and Russian “volunteers” to continue the slow bleeding of the Kiev government. 

In explaining their view of ACEWA’s importance, both Cohen and Matlock stressed the crucial importance for the United States of rebuilding ties with Moscow. “The U.S. and its European allies will not be able to deal effectively with some of the most serious threats to our security and well-being unless we maintain a cooperative relationship with Russia,” Matlock told The Daily Beast. 

Few would disagree that a reliable partnership with Russia would be invaluable in dealing with such issues as terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The problem is that, as currently unfolding events in Syria remind us, Putin’s Russia simply cannot be a reliable partner.

The Cold War ended because the Soviet Union had a change of leadership and embarked on a course of reform. Can the current chill between the U.S. and Russia end without regime change in the Kremlin? Cohen’s answer is an emphatic yes: “Putin is 63 years old, he is still young enough and vigorous enough to change course. I believe he doesn’t think he’s been given a chance.” Cohen believes this shift in course could happen if Obama were to “throw the full weight of Washington behind the Minsk Accords,” help end the sanctions, and “ask for what [we] want from Putin in return."

Of course, Cohen’s optimism is predicated on his conviction that Putin has always wanted Russia to be a friend and ally to the U.S. and the West and was pushed into his current position by U.S. and NATO policies. But this view ignores ample evidence that Putin’s authoritarian and neo-imperial bent was there from the start of his rule—and that his notion of partnership is a Soviet-era model of “spheres of influence” that effectively reduces “lesser” countries to fiefdoms of greater powers. Until Russia has rejected Putinism, the new détente the committee champions will do little more than enable a repressive and untrustworthy regime.