The Kremlin's Kool-Aid

03/12/2015 10:09 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

We were nearing the end of dinner when the eminent personage leaned in my direction and began yelling at me.

Up to that point, the argument among the five of us at the end of the long table at the restaurant had been heated but at a conversational volume. The fact that we were arguing at all was at least partly my fault.

After all, I'd brought up the subject of Russia. Just before the entrees arrived, I confessed that I found the political situation in Moscow troubling. I made it clear that I thought the Russian leadership in no way progressive and that I sympathized with the isolated dissidents concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

The argument escalated. Just before the desserts arrived, the eminent personage told me in no uncertain terms that I'd gotten my priorities all mixed up. My concerns over human rights in Russia were nonsense. The number-one issue was to avoid nuclear war, which required close cooperation with the Kremlin. These sentences were delivered with all the finesse of an exasperated parent disciplining a misbehaving child.

As I stood up, mumbling something about my decision to forgo dessert, I suffered a brief spell of vertigo. I was suddenly not sure what decade I was in. I could have been having the same confrontation, more or less, in 1985 or 2015. I'd thought the Cold War had ended.

More importantly, I'd thought that the Cold War mindset had ended.

But as the science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote, "The future is already here -- it's just not evenly distributed." I'd somehow stumbled into one of those pockets of the past that coexist with the present and the future.

Alvin Toffler introduced the famous phrase "future shock." But I was experiencing "past shock," like when you wander off the main road and discover an Amish village going about its business as if it were 1850. Except that this anachronism was philosophical, not physical.

And it went far beyond the loudly expressed views of the eminent personage.

Neither East nor West

I came of age politically during the last years of the Cold War.

I campaigned in college against U.S. interventions in Central America and protested U.S. nuclear policy in the streets of New York and the halls of Congress. But as a Russian major, I was also acutely aware of the repressions that took place in the Soviet bloc. I refused to accept the bipolar thinking of the Cold War. I saw no reason to choose between Moscow and Washington. Geopolitics was not a multiple-choice test with only two possible answers.

I naively believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of this false dichotomy. I continued to critique U.S. foreign policy, but my opponents no longer told me that I should move to Russia if I didn't like what Washington was doing. I also continued to criticize the policies of the Russian government, but no one accused me any longer of being a State Department symp.

The challenge as I saw it in the 1990s was to create a European security structure that bound together both the United States and Russia according to international norms. Washington saw things differently. It was wedded to NATO, even though the alliance's raison d'etre had evaporated along with the Soviet Union. NATO not only crawled out from under the wreckage of the Cold War; it prospered.

I described the errors of NATO expansion in one of the first Foreign Policy in Focus briefs in 1996, our first year of publication.

"Russia has steadfastly opposed NATO expansion," I wrote at the time. "Virtually all political forces within the country view this policy as an encirclement, a containment that will lead to greater isolation. Thus, Russia is particularly sensitive about the inclusion of bordering countries....Since Russia poses a considerably diminished security threat to Europe, expansion is an aggressive act that threatens to undo decades of security cooperation and tilt Russia closer toward considering an anti-Western alliance with China or pariah states such as Iraq."

I stand by those views 20 years later. We pushed Russia into a corner, and Russia pushed back -- just as it said it would. Washington, in other words, deserves the lion's share of the blame for the persistence of Cold War thinking.

But none of that excuses or justifies what Vladimir Putin is doing today in Russia. He is, from economics to politics to social policy, about as far away from the progressive ideal as possible. Yes, of course, I support negotiating arms control treaties with him, working with him to resolve the conflict in Syria, and soliciting his support for a resumption of talks with North Korea. But that doesn't mean that I won't vigorously criticize his policies and bemoan the state of Russia today.


A week before the outburst of the eminent personage, I was participating in a conference on Ukraine in Toronto. In the audience, those who blamed everything on the "fascists in Kiev" squared off against those who blamed everything on the "imperialists in Moscow." I tried to present a different picture -- of the political diversity of the Ukrainian government and the legitimate security concerns of Russia -- while also offering a grim but workable solution to the crisis.

Afterwards, someone came up to me and asked why segments of the Western left were gaga over Putin and his crowd. "Do you think they're being paid by Moscow?" she asked.

I said no, I didn't think so. Except for a few outliers, progressives do things for principle, not profit, which is probably why we remain on the margins of U.S. politics.

But even when you take money out of the equation, her question is an interesting one, and worth exploring. Why do some voices on the left insist that what happened in Kiev last year was a "U.S. coup," that Russia's seizure of Crimea was somehow legitimate, that Moscow is blameless in the war that has raged in eastern Ukraine, and that Putin isn't systematically eliminating his opponents by throwing them in jail, pushing them into exile, or possibly having them killed?

Perhaps the people making these arguments get their information only from the English-language RT broadcasts. But when even the sensible journalist Glenn Greenwald starts to edge in this direction -- for instance, by exaggerating the influence of fascists in Ukraine today -- then clearly something else is at work here.

Russia Today

First, there is an entirely understandable concern that a new Cold War is emerging between the United States and Russia. This Cold War will, like its predecessor, at minimum produce some low-intensity conflicts, a war of words, and many missed opportunities to further international agreements on nuclear weapons, climate change, and so on. At worst, the confrontation could escalate into the nightmare of the Cold War: a nuclear war.

But many anti-nuclear protestors during the 1980s -- both here and in Europe -- were able to address both security questions and human rights issues. Indeed, the very concept of "human security" was an attempt to address the full spectrum of challenges from war to hunger to civil rights.

Certainly we must avoid the misuse of human rights issues, through politically motivated "linkage," to sabotage arms control agreements. But progressives have a distinguished record of upholding human rights issues even as we embrace pragmatic agreements -- with Iran, with North Korea -- that reduce the risk of war. The U.S. government is selective in its application of the human rights yardstick. Progressives should resist the temptation.

Another popular theme presents Russia as a counter-hegemonic force to the United States. This argument revives the old notion that the Soviet Union might have been nasty and brutish, but at least it represented a check on U.S. power in the world. This argument sounds very much like the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger, though turned on its head.

As frequent RT guest and anti-imperialist blogger Eric Draitser writes in "5 Reasons Why Leftists Should Support Russia," "Any self-described 'leftist' should immediately question their own position when they find themselves on the same side with Washington and NATO on questions of foreign policy, war, and peace. Russia has consistently (and with increasing assertiveness in the last few years) opposed the Empire's agenda in various corners of the globe." He offers only two examples: Syria and Ukraine.

But Russia is largely not interested in opposing U.S. foreign policy -- except where the interests collide in Russia's "near abroad."

Putin is perfectly happy with Washington's "war on terror," for the two countries see eye to eye on battling Islamic extremism. Only when Washington gets distracted by "democracy promotion" -- in Egypt or Syria -- does the Kremlin get antsy. But the rise of the Islamic State has led to a convergence of U.S. and Russian objectives (though Moscow still objects to coalition air strikes). Moreover, Moscow doesn't want Iran or North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons. And given its oil and gas interests, Russia is happy that the Obama administration hasn't been more radical in its efforts to arrest climate change.

And what are the "progressive forces" that Moscow is supporting around the world? It's a rogue's gallery: Syria's Assad, North Korea's Kim, Belarus's Lukashenko, Tajikistan's Rahmon, Egypt's Sisi. Sure, the United States has no better record when it comes to making deals with devils. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking that Putin represents a geopolitical alternative.

A third argument, that Russia offers an alternative to economic austerity, reflects the grave and legitimate disappointment with globalization and its effects. "Russia and its leaders are hardly trembling behind Kremlin walls," writes F. William Engdahl. "They are forging the skeleton of a new international economic order that has the potential to transform the world from the present bankruptcy of the Dollar System."

Although it's true that Russia is working with China and other countries on a BRICS bank that challenges the current international financial system, Putin hardly presents an economic alternative. His view of capitalism is, if anything, even more rapacious than the "Dollar System." Russia today is a playground of oligarchs where the state has helped facilitate the amassing of vast fortunes (and the occasional expropriation of vast fortunes like Khodorkovsky's). Income inequality is exacerbated by enormous regional disparities, with some areas of the country at the level of sub-Saharan Africa and others at the level of the EU.

Through it all, Vladimir Putin remains popular -- even more so now than before the Ukraine crisis broke out. The economy might have recently gone south, as a result of sanctions and falling energy prices, but Putin has racked up an 86-percent approval rating.

There's no reason to doubt these numbers. Russians have long favored an "iron fist" style of leadership, and Putin has delivered in spades, by stabilizing the economy, reducing violent crime, arresting population decline, and installing a puppet dictator in Chechnya to "solve" the crisis there (a dictator who, to give the Kremlin plausible deniability, is probably responsible for the murders of Putin's opponents). But Putin's popularity is not a sign of democratic health. After all, Russian respect for Stalin has also shot up over the last decade or so.

To get these poll numbers, Putin has put together a potent brew of nationalism, Orthodox Christianity, and social conservatism, all served with a splash of gaudy entertainment via state-controlled television. It's a cocktail that has proven attractive to right-wing politicians all over Europe, like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Marine Le Pen of France, and Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party.

Of course, like Greenwald, we should be concerned about the Azov Battalion and high-ranking extremists in the Ukrainian government (even if far-right parties like Svoboda and Right Sector have bombed at the polls). But the real darling of the far right is Putin. It's no surprise that European extremists are intoxicated by his authoritarian style. The mystery is why some on the left have also drunk the Kremlin's Kool-Aid.

Cross-posted on Foreign Policy in Focus.