Putin is not our friend: A response to Caitlin Johnstone

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Did she have to apologize for the Crimean land grab to make her point?

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Initially, I was very reluctant to write a piece criticizing Caitin Johnstone. I am a big admirer of her work and have always approved her articles in my group the Alliance against Establishment Hypocrisy, as well as sharing them on my own wall. In many ways, she has been the most consistent anti-establishment voice of the progressive movement. She holds no punches and is ruthless to all hypocrites. A major part of her appeal is her ability to write in down-to-earth language. However, her informal approach does not mean that we should lower our standards of intellectual honesty.

My main area of disagreement is regarding Johnstone’s assessment of Russian foreign policy. Every writer has their strengths and weaknesses, and, up until now, I’ve been willing to let her ignorant comments about Putin slide because overall she is doing great work and I do not wish to introduce divisions into the movement. But while I agree with the general sentiment in her article "Why You Should Definitely Keep Talking About Seth Rich," Johnstone has really crossed a line for me.

She writes that "The Crimean peninsula is a crucial strategic location, and at the request of the Crimean people Russia annexed it from America’s puppet regime in Ukraine." This is an careless repetition of the propaganda being pushed by RT, a news channel literally funded by the Russian government. It completely ignores that the Crimean Tatars are the historical people of the Crimean peninsula and they have been unanimously opposed to the Russian annexation all along and to ignore their wishes is to deny their right to national self-determination. It’s important to keep in mind that the reason they are a small minority in their homeland is that they were subjected to one of the worst genocides of the 20th century at the hands of Moscow. It also brushes aside the fact that it is the first forcible annexation of territory in Europe since WWII and sets a destabilizing precedent everywhere in the former USSR where there is a sizable Russian-speaking minority. Annexing the sovereign territory of Ukraine is a blatant violation of the Westphalian principle of sovereignty that has been the basis of international relations since 1648. As an American of Finnish heritage, it calls to mind all too vividly the USSR’s annexation of 10% of Finnish territory after Stalin’s all out-invasion of Finland in the winter of 1939, an often forgotten chapter of the war when Russia was an aggressor who divided Europe with Hitler.

I'd be being generous to say that she didn't realize that the referendum did not include the option of staying part of Ukraine (it was either join Russia or separate from Ukraine) because if she was aware of this fact, it means she is deliberately pushing propaganda but is okay with that because it aligns with her narrative. I’m not going to go as far as Josiff Ezekilov, who recently accused her of being a paid Russian troll. We all get carried away sometimes, and I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But won't pretend that it does not hurt her credibility. In all fairness, while Russia is incompetent at many things, like giving its citizens a decent standard of living, thanks to the Cold War, they are very good at propaganda and even very intelligent people are susceptible to it. Anyone can spread Russian propaganda without being propagandists. No, I’m not falling for the Russia hysteria. The US establishment has decided to scapegoat Russia for its own failures and I stand side by side with Johnstone in resisting this. At the same time, Russian propaganda is real and is toxic. Let us not forget that internet troll factories, the precursor to Correct the Record, were pioneered by Putin.

The main source for Johnstone's views on Russia seems to be Stephen Cohen. She writes "this man is an internationally renowned expert in this field. If you disagree with what he’s saying, you can safely assume that you are wrong, get the fuck over yourself and start absorbing this new information." I think Cohen does bring a valuable perspective to the table, especially in stating in stark terms how dangerous the current situation is in US-Russian relations. But there are things he doesn't discuss that necessitate consulting other sources. Just because a scholar has dedicated his life to studying Russia doesn't mean he is the ultimate authority. I saw Cohen in person at the ASEEES conference in Washington DC in November. He was on a panel with five experts on Russia and it was a very contentious panel—lots of disagreement. This is why scholars never rely on one source. Every scholar has some axe to grind and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Cohen is not the only expert who has dedicated his life to US-Russian relations. There are many. They are a dime a dozen. Cherrypicking one of them that resonates with one’s confirmation bias is intellectually weak and would never fly in an academic setting.

Saying "get the fuck over yourself" if you're not completely on board with Cohen is an ad hominem insult to the intelligence of every Russian scholar. What is your expertise on Russia that would allow you to judge him as a source? What books have you read? Can you count them on one hand? What original peer-reviewed research have you done? I, for one, did not spend $50,000 and two years of my life to earn an MA in Russian History to be talked down to by someone who probably never gave a single thought to Russia prior to the manufactured Russiagate scandal.

The important perspective that Johnstone ignores is that, while the US scapegoating Russia for Clinton's loss in the 2016 election is reckless and deteriorates US-Russian relations even further, Putin himself is a threat to world peace. Putin's obsession since he took office has been to re-establish Russia's "superpower" status. What this means in practice is being able to call the shots in sovereign nations on Russia's border, what Russian strategists call the "near abroad." While his actions in Ukraine were an outgrowth of this doctrine, the main reasons for it had less to do with grand Russian strategy than distracting the Russian population from his administration's corruption and ineptitude. It was based on the desperation of seeing his popularity going down the toilet and needing to manufacture a crisis to stir patriotism or else he wouldn't be re-elected.

But his ambitions are much wider than the near abroad. Putin’s obsession with NATO, a defensive organization, is based on the fact that he wishes to remove American power from the European continent, and project Russian power in its place. This is why the Russian government has given clandestine funding to far right parties all across Europe. Even more revealing of his cynical disregard for human life, Putin's military involvement in Syria has pursued the goal of targeting civilians in order to exaccerbate Europe's refugee crisis and thereby weaken the EU. This is not something the West can allow and the only thing that brought him back from the brink was the West's crippling regime of sanctions.

Just as the US establishment’s scapegoating of Putin needs to be stood up to, world peace equally depends on containing Russian power. The important point is that the US and Russia are on the brink of war both because of the US and Putin and the US establishment's culpability does not make Putin the good guy. Apologizing for Putin was completely unnecessary for Johnstone to make her point.

Ultimately, fellow progressives need to hold each other accountable and it is my sincere hope that Johnstone will take this criticism in stride. I criticize merely one aspect of her otherwise top-notch writing. Her greatest strength is in criticizing the US establishment, but when it comes to Russian foreign policy, she is out of her league. Good analysis requires taking all perspectives into account and what she said about Crimea was careless. Let the chips fall where they may, but this issue is bigger than anyone's feelings and is too important for me to say nothing.