The Nation backs Col. Putin

If The Nation’s endorsement of the Russian seizure of Crimea doesn’t make you spew, I envy your digestion.

Some time ago in this space, I identified The Nation as part of the “American-power-hating left” that fawns over Vladimir Putin, Asked for chapter and verse, I couldn’t find it, and removed the offending reference. (See the discussion in comments.)

It turns out that I was premature – would it be boastful to say “prescient”? – rather than actually wrong. Here’s The Nation’s editorial take on the first territorial acquisition in Europe made by military force since Hitler and Stalin launched World War II by trying to divide Poland between them. If it doesn’t make you spew, your stomach is stronger than mine. Bottom line: Now that Russia has taken Crimea, the only think to do is “negotiate” on the basis that Crimea is now part of Russia. In those negotiations, Russia is to give up nothing, while Ukraine is to be treated as a subordinate power whose sovereignty is modified to whatever extent its larger neighbor desires. If Russia wants Eastern Ukraine to “have a reasonable degree of autonomy” (i.e., be ruled by Russian proxies), why should anyone object? And of course the Ukrainian government must be “stripped of neofascists.” That is, the range of acceptable political opinion in Ukraine is to be determined in Moscow. No mention of “stripping” the Zhirinovsky faction from Russian politics, of course.

A full analysis would be a bore, so just a few samples of facts from which the editors of The Nation don’t bother to mention:

1. Russia agreed to “respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders” in the Budapest Memorandum, in return for Ukraine’s de-nuclearisation.

2. Thirteen of the fifteen members of the UN Security Council voted for a resolution holding that the Russian annexation of Crimea is illegitimate. Naturally, Russia vetoed it; even China merely abstained. (The Nation: “Crimea, now annexed to Russia …” The editorial does note that the seizure was a violation of international law, but hastily adds that the United States has no right to complain. Why flawed U.S. foreign policy implies that the Ukrainians should acquiesce in having their territory seized isn’t explained.)

3. Russian aggression does not enjoy universal support within Russia. The sort of liberal-minded Russians who, if they were Americans, would subscribe to The Nation, oppose it; some of them do so while under house arrest. There have been large anti-war protests in Moscow.

4. The acting president of Ukraine has announced that he will not approve the hasty and unfortunate (to say the least) action of the parliament that would have removed Russian as a second official language in areas with strong Russian minorities. Other than that, there is no actual evidence that anyone civil liberties are threatened Ukraine. Russia, of course, is a different story.

5. Two newspeople for the Kremlin-owned American version of RT have left, one voluntarily and one not, over RT’s Ukraine coverage. One of them is a 9/11 Truther, which gives you some idea the sort of “progressives” Putin employs. The Russian version of RT features a neo-Nazi as a “German journalist.”

6. In addition to grabbing Crimea, Russia is threatening to “protect” Russian minorities in Estonia and elsewhere. (I gather no one is allowed to mention the Sudetenland in this context, so I won’t.)

7. Putin is promoting a “Eurasian union” based more or less on the opposite of all Enlightenment values. His alliance with the Orthodox Church to suppress “foreign” religious activity, his homophobia (defending “traditional Russian values” from “aggressive minorities”), and his aggression are all part of the package.

But I urge you not to follow any of those links or believe what is in them. Otherwise you, too, might wind up “bellicose” and “hysterical,” in the authoritative view of the editors of The Nation. No sane person wants the U.S. to go to war over Crimea. But there’s a difference between admitting that an act of aggression can’t practically be reversed by force and pretending it’s not an act of aggression. The Obama Administration seems committed to making Putin and his cronies pay a price for what they’ve done. I understand why RT opposes them. Why The Nation does so is harder to figure. Maybe it’s just the persistence of a bad Cold War habits of reflexively opposing anything anti-Soviet. Susan Sontag got it right, and she still has it right:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

What’s bizarre is that, while it made a twisted kind of sense for leftists in the West to support what was nominally a left-wing government in the Soviet Union (never mind that it was actually an oligarchy), it makes no sense whatever for progressives to support a Russian government with a Rush Limbaugh ideology. Why is it hard to figure out which side to take, between an America led by a constitutional lawyer and a Russia headed by a career secret policeman?

Footnote I hadn’t seen this, or any reference to it. But Putin’s speech to the Reichstag State Duma has a remarkable passage, which completely trashes the idea pushed by some of his Western apologists that Russian troops didn’t move into Crimea:

… the President of the Russian Federation received permission from the Upper House of Parliament to use the Armed Forces in Ukraine. However, strictly speaking, nobody has acted on this permission yet. Russia’s Armed Forces never entered Crimea; they were there already in line with an international agreement. True, we did enhance our forces there; however – this is something I would like everyone to hear and know – we did not exceed the personnel limit of our Armed Forces in Crimea, which is set at 25,000, because there was no need to do so.

“Enhance” is very good, don’t you think?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “The Nation backs Col. Putin”

  1. The Budapest Memorandum has to be looking like a not-too-wonderful idea now for the Ukrainians. I can't imagine Putin going into the Crimea if the Ukraine was the fourth (or so) largest nuclear power in the world.

    The time to negotiate the status of the Crimea was when the USSR was breaking up. Russia could have made a more legitimate claim to the Crimean Peninsula at that time. Krushchev was born near the Ukraine-Russia border and was closely associated with the region. He engineered the transfer of the Crimea to Ukrainian SSR. The return to Russia might have been a reasonable thing to ask in the divorce proceedings. But it is not a reasonable thing to ask now.

  2. Brad deLong reproduces Putin's full speech to the Duma here.
    One indicator of the Russian people’s true views on the annexation will be tourism. Yalta used to be a nice warm place for reasonably well-off (not rich) Russians to go for a holiday. Then it became a destination for the same class of Ukrainians. Will the Russians come back? My guess that they will stick to Cyprus.
    A Ukrainian spokesman on TV made the good point that the general experience of such Russian protectorates – Trans-Dnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia – does not encourage hopes of investment, order and prosperity, let alone democracy.

  3. Stephen Cohen is (1) a Putin apologist who is also (2) married to The Nation's publisher. I daresay that stance will be hard-wired into the magazine for the foreseeable future.

    1. Yeah, some version of this. The only real – and genuinely disquieting – thing about this is that it was signed by the full editorial board; for many years now Stephen F Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel have been co-authoring Op-Eds about Russia that are quite astonishing in their willingness to defend the Kremlin establishment's positions – especially when you consider the too-left-for-most-Democrats position the magazine and vanden Heuvel in particular usually take at home.

  4. I have concerns about arming Kiev and I think we should keep in mind the need for Russian participation on Iran. But progressives dupes who think Putin is a benign actor protecting a small sphere of influence are seriously mistaken. Mark, and everyone, Wikipedia "The Foundation of Geopolitics" a tract still distributed to Russian statesman. They are a revanchist anti enlightenment power. Perhaps we shouldn't expand NATO, but we should be aware of the reality.

    1. Russia is obviously thuggish towards its neighbors. I definitely wouldn't think much of Russia if I lived in the Ukraine. But then, I wouldn't think much of the US if I lived in Cuba, either.

      However, from a purely geopolitical standpoint, Russia and China represent the only serious checks on American domination of the world. And since American domination of the world would be a very, very bad thing, both for Americans (because it would constantly intertwine us in military conflicts that kill Americans and would make us a target for terrorist blowback) and for the world (because we live up to Lord Acton's axioms about power just like everyone else in the world does), I wouldn't call Putin "benign" but I might call him necessary.

      1. Maybe. But Russian domination of its sphere doesn't seem to be working so well to the people who live there. I venture to say that Syria, Iran, Belarus would be much better off under American hegemony. The blowback thing is a good point.

  5. A full analysis would be a bore …

    Would it be too much of a bore to cite some example of actual fawning?

  6. To just go there on Sudentenland, if that and Austria had been all that Hitler had done (no other foreign conquests, no internal repression), he could have made a (shaky) claim to legitimacy. IOW the problem with Sudetenland isn't Sudentenland, it's everything else that Hitler did.

    That's the rub of the issue with Crimea. If Putin stops there, it was a bad means to a not-so-bad end. If he's thinking about going onward to Eastern Ukraine or Estonia, that would be bad all around.

    My current guess is we should arm Ukraine but avoid a boots-on-ground presence, and none of this stupid missile defense stuff the neocons keep argling about.

    1. The problem with this analogy is that the German takeover of the Sudetenland was never really about the German minority that lived there. That was just a manifestation of the real issue, which was a fundamental German hostility to the idea of the Czechs having an independent country or even an independent existence. (Their concept of Slovakia was more complicated, as they demonstrated after dismantling the whole country of Czechoslovakia.) They considered all of Bohemia to naturally be a German province that the Austrians had fumbled away through incompetence. So the idea of the Germans stopping after just taking the Sudetenland really had no basis in the policy of any conservative Germans and not just the Nazi Party.

      And something similar is true with Ukraine. The Russians, at least those with access to political power at this point, really don't think that there is any legitimacy in the idea of an independent Ukraine. The whole thing ought to be a part of Russia, as their reading of history says it always has been. And so any process that involves them slicing off a bit of Ukraine is inherently unstable, even if they don't take any further steps right now.

      1. I think you're right as to some Russians, although even those Russians would say Crimea is different. More important than what they might wish though is what they're willing to do next and whether we can influence things, even marginally.

        If regardless of their wishes they decide it's better to stop at Crimea, then I still think it's a bad means to a not-bad end.

        BTW, the best military option for a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine in my non-expert opinion would've been to do it at the same time as Crimea. Having not done it then increases the chance that they don't actually plan to do it. They'd still win regardless of the delay, but the win would've been easiest at the beginning.

        1. The means are bad enough that they make the end bad. Note that the ethnic cleansing of the Tatars is being repeated, so far by just getting them to leave the Crimea but the threats are there.

  7. Everything Mark writes here is only plausible if one forgets….or conveniently refuses to acknowledge….that the overriding issue here is the legitimate Russian fear and outrage over the consistent efforts of the United States to move NATO to the border of Russia.

    That is the relentlessly Unstated background to this entire controversy.

    The demise of the Soviet Union was negotiated away. The USA did not “win” the Cold War. The Russians and the USA ended it,

    But you needn’t take my word for that. Just read the book by Jack F. Matlock, JR., Reagan’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, “Autopsy on an Empire”.

    In addition, at that time, US secretary of State Baker assured the Russians that the USA would not seek to move NATO further East from Germany. Baker kept his word, but Clinton and Bush 2 did not.

    Mark and others here need to understand that the only issue here is that the Russians very understandably do not want thousands of “NATO” tanks and war planes and divisions sitting on their border.

    Think if the Warsaw Pact tried to camp out on the Rio Grande !

    All the Putin and Russia bashing deliberately or ignorantly overlooks the main issue in this dispute. The provocative American strategy of ringing Russia with the American war machine, i.e., NATO.

    It is most noteworthy Mark’s post and all Russia critics shrewdly or ignorantly fail to even mention what is the true issue in this matter.

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