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What Julia Ioffe Got Wrong About Stephen Cohen

The New Republic

The New Republic’s resident Russia hand Julia Ioffe has penned a pretty extraordinary piece on TNR’s website attacking NYU Professor emeritus and Nation contributor Stephen F. Cohen’s latest article on U.S.-Russia policy, which he co-authored with his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Cohen, perhaps the country’s foremost scholar of Russian studies, certainly doesn’t need my help in defending himself against what amounts to a scurrilous—and frankly hysterical—ad hominem attack on his work and character.

The premise of the Cohen/vanden Heuvel piece is pretty straightforward: the administration, via Peter Baker’s excellent piece of reporting in the April 19 edition of the New York Times, announced what amounts to a pretty major shift in U.S. policy toward Russia: it will aim to “isolate” Russia and make it a “pariah state.” Cohen and vanden Heuvel argue that such a shift—given its serious implications for U.S. foreign policy going forward—has been accompanied by disturbingly little public debate; and they correctly point out that what little debate there has been on the issue, it has been one-sided at best.

Now, whatever you think of the administration’s new policy—and as I wrote last week, I think very little of it—it is unarguable that 1) a policy which aims to make Russia a “pariah” state is indeed a significant departure from the previous policy of détente or reset, and 2) in the main, Cohen is correct in pointing out that the debate as being carried out on the major networks, cable outlets, and establishment press has been pretty stilted.

All in all, I have to say, as someone who has been following the debate fairly closely, the Cohen-vanden Heuvel thesis is pretty reasonable and was put forth in a similarly reasonable fashion. So what sort of confounds me is Ioffe’s virulent reaction to it. Was it triggered by the fact that Cohen cited The New Republic as one of the offending mainstream media outlets? That can’t be it. Was it the fact that he had previously criticized Ioffe’s TNR cover story of February 17th and this is payback time? Doubtful.

It’s useless to speculate, but, I must admit to being puzzled by the tenor of TNR’s coverage of Russia and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Ioffe, along with the lamentable Leon Wieseltier, has taken a pretty hard-line stand against what she views as Vladimir Putin’s revanchist foreign policy. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it leaves out a good deal, as when Ioffe writes:

It doesn’t seem to matter that NATO accession was not really on the table for Ukraine (just look at its military performance in recent weeks) and neither was EU accession because—warning: another meaningless detail!—Ukraine is a financial basket case, even worse than the basket cases the EU is already dealing with. It doesn’t matter to Cohen that both issues were matters of great debate inside that insignificant detail named Ukraine, and that the fact of their potential smuggling into this or that union might be something to be decided inside Ukraine, a sovereign and independent country trying in vain to regain its own territory captured by masked Russian gunmen.

Seems to me there are a few things to, as Ioffe would say, “unpack” here. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that Ukrainian accession to NATO was never really in the cards. If that’s true, then what was the purpose of section 2.3 of the EU-Ukraine association agenda which, among other things would have required the signatories to:

take measures to foster military cooperation and cooperation of technical character between the EU and Ukraine  [and] encourage and facilitate direct cooperation on concrete activities, jointly identified by both sides, between relevant Ukrainian institutions and CFSP/CSDP agencies and bodies such as the European Defence Agency, the European Union Institute for Security Studies, the European Union Satellite Centre and the European Security and Defence College.

And to say that Ukraine’s accession to the EU was also never on the table is simply belied by the fact of the aforementioned agreement. Ioffe also notes, correctly, that “masked Russian gunmen” have no place and should have no voice in deciding what path Ukrainian citizens choose for their country. But what is equally true is that masked Ukrainian neo-fascists also ought not to have been able, with U.S. and EU acquiescence, to violently overthrow a democratically elected—and yes, thoroughly corrupt and inept—regime that had agreed to early elections. The preference of Western cheerleaders of the Euro-Maidan for a coup d’état over an orderly transition could not have been clearer to the fringe elements who resorted to violence in Kiev in February.

Debate in a democratic society is something that we should all welcome, but I’m not entirely sure Ioffe’s gratuitous smack-down of Professor Cohen was either necessary or warranted.

James Carden is a TAC contributing editor and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.

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