Andrei Sakharov must be rolling in his grave.
The late Russian nuclear physicist was the most prominent dissident in the Soviet Union. For his warnings against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and in defense of basic civil rights, the Kremlin targeted him with vicious slander campaigns and forced him into internal exile. When Sakharov won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1975, Soviet authorities prevented him from traveling to Oslo; he sent his wife, Elena Bonner, to accept it. In honor of his memory, the European Parliament awards an eponymous prize to activists who embody the spirit of the late Russian human-rights campaigner.
So it was a bit odd to hear Edward Lozansky, president of the American University in Moscow, invoke Sakharov’s name when he called the 35th annual World Russia Forum to order last Thursday afternoon in a cavernous Senate hearing room. The first such confab transpired on May 21, 1981, in honor of Sakharov’s birthday, and at a time when U.S.-Russian relations were at a low point. Ronald Reagan had just entered office, the Soviets were ramping up their intervention in Afghanistan, and both sides were beginning to fight a proxy war in Angola. It was this rise in tensions that prompted Lozansky to inaugurate the forum as a means of fostering dialogue between the rival superpowers.
Whatever noble purpose the event might have served back in the heady days of the Cold War, however, it has since lost its luster. Today, the World Russia Forum is no more than a gathering of Kremlin apologists, conspiracy theorists, and other assorted nut jobs.
Offering introductory remarks was Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who, over the course of a three-decade career in Washington, has made the improbable journey from Cold Warrior to slavish defender of the Russian regime. Rohrabacher, who came to Washington as speechwriter for the Reagan White House, is now doing the same sort of legwork for his old nemeses in the Kremlin, who, in his view, are worthy allies in our shared struggle against militant Islam. “We could not have done it without them,” is how he described Russian cooperation in our overthrowing the Taliban, apparently laboring under the belief that granting the United States overflight rights to bring down a radical Islamist regime on its southern flank somehow represented a concession on the part of Moscow.
Rohrabacher told the audience how, following the 2004 Beslan school massacre, in which nearly 200 children were killed after being taken hostage by Chechen terrorists, he called a “high-level person” in the George W. Bush administration to propose that the president “go to Beslan and stand shoulder to shoulder with Putin.” Tying America’s struggle against Islamist terrorism with Russia’s would be inadvisable on several levels, not the least of which is that Russia’s way of dealing with the problem largely consists of leveling entire cities. Indeed, this is a tried-and-true Russian strategy dating back to their war in Afghanistan—a war that Rohrabacher himself took part in as a fighter with the mujahideen—when the Russians inflicted nearly a million deaths. As for Beslan, to this day, parents of the victims criticize Putin for his handling of the crisis, alleging that their children lost their lives as a result of the botched rescue effort, as was the case when Putin ordered his security services to pump poison gas into a Moscow theater seized by Chechen terrorists. Thankfully, wiser heads within the White House prevailed, and the Bush-Putin photo op never happened. (Rohrabacher was the only elected official who turned up at the event. Lozansky said that Sen. Amy Klobuchar reserved the room, revealing a strange Minnesota connection: At last year’s World Russia Forum, which took place just months after the annexation of Crimea, the Minnesota secretary of state spoke in opposition to sanctions, complaining about how a “U.S.-Russia Innovation Forum” scheduled to take place in St. Paul had to be canceled on orders from the State Department.)Next up was the redoubtable Stephen Cohen, America’s most notorious Kremlin apologist. Falsely labeling the conflict in Ukraine a “civil war,” Cohen called for a “new détente” between Russia and the United States. This would suit Cohen well, as the old détente effectively conceded Soviet mastery over Eastern Europe, which is exactly what Cohen wants the West to do today. Cohen lamented how, not long ago, “both sides had legitimate spheres of influence,” (or what he prefers to call “zones of national security”) yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union, America and its allies disregarded the “conception of parity” and “treated Russia as a defeated nation.” Washington’s relationship to Moscow has since been characterized by “constant meddling in Russia’s internal affairs,” and the problem has only gotten worse. “This vilification of a Russian leader is unprecedented,” constituting nothing less than “an illness.” Cohen would presumably prefer all those gays, journalists, and other liberals—in the true sense of the word, not the form in which Cohen and other “progressives” of his ilk have perverted it—would just shut the hell up.
Following his rant, I posed a question to Cohen. Let us concede that the United States has a “sphere of interest” in Europe, called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is a defensive alliance composed of democratic nations that employ their sovereign decision-making powers to join a voluntary group. The Russian sphere, as the Soviet sphere before it, consists of countries that are cajoled, blackmailed, threatened, and then—if those tactics don’t work—invaded by Russian occupation troops. That was the case when Hungarians bravely rose up in protest of Soviet-imposed communism in 1956, and it is no less the case today when Ukrainians decided to move West and endured the annexation of their territory and an ongoing bloody war as a consequence. The Russian “zone of security” produces exactly the opposite: insecurity, since it is established by brutal invasion and maintained by violent subjugation.
There was very little coherence in Cohen’s meandering response, other than his assertion that the “original intent of NATO has been lost” now that the Soviet Union is no more. Many would have agreed with Cohen before February 2014, when Russia hadn’t yet invaded Ukraine, but I would simply ask Cohen to survey people in Poland or the Baltic states whether NATO still serves an important purpose. Donning the cap of a NATO strategist, a bizarre pose for him to take considering how much he loathes the alliance, Cohen asserted that the “only criteria” for membership should be whether “admission of additional countries increases security” in Europe.
“Twenty years of evidence shows this has not been the case,” he claimed, before mouthing verbatim Kremlin talking points with the assertion that “the Ukraine crisis is a direct outcome of the decision to expand NATO,” bemoaning the “insecurity created by reckless NATO expansion.” On the contrary; had the Baltic states and former Warsaw Pact members not joined NATO, the security situation in Europe would be much more tenuous than it already is today. Before their membership, these nations’ status vis a vis Russia was ambiguous, constituting a security gray area. Today, they all have—at least in theory—a rock-solid security guarantee as members of the world’s strongest military alliance.
But all this talk about NATO and its role distracts from the more basic moral question: Who is Stephen Cohen to decide the fates of tens of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe? What really irks Cohen is that, with the downfall of the Soviet Union, there was no one left to challenge America as the world’s sole superpower. That unipolarity is simply something that leftists such as Cohen cannot accept. And so they are willing to defend any thug and tyrant, no matter how illiberal, who stands in America’s way.
It says something about your intellectual credibility as a scholar of Russia when the only outlets to feature your work are Russia Today and The Nation, the magazine edited by your spouse. Addressing the confab, Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel praised her publication as one that “repeatedly champions ideas labeled ‘heretical’ only to see them championed as conventional wisdom later.” People who challenge the conventional wisdom on the situation in Ukraine are “marginalized and vilified” here in these United States, she complained (as opposed to those who express “heretical” ideas in Russia, who—if they’re not shot in the back four times like opposition leader Boris Nemtsov—are thrown in jail). Like her husband, vanden Heuvel criticized the “demonization” of Putin, as if the man’s critics needed to invent facts about his horrible record, and took a surprising swipe at The Washington Post, where she writes a column, calling it “Pravda on the Potomac. A regime change newspaper.” (Which is more than can be said of The Nation. It’s just Pravda, in English).
Vanden Heuvel introduced a panel of has-bens, “formers” all around: former AP reporter Robert Parry, former UPI editor Martin Sieff, former International Herald Tribune Asia bureau chief Patrick Smith, and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, now the proprietor of the internationally renowned news source RayMcGovern.com. Like all regular guests of RT, the men channeled embitterment over their flailing careers into critiques of the “mainstream media.” Parry, who accused the U.S. government of withholding information about the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, complained about how no one in the State Department returns his calls. McGovern spoke of Russia’s “so-called aggression” in Ukraine before asking, “How can Russia trust a serial liar? And by that I mean John Kerry.” It was at some point in the midst of Sieff’s spiel about how the Western powers were leading us back to the carnage of World War that I decided I had better things to do.