The Media's New Cold War
Instead of considering the role of Russia's national interests and US behavior, most commentators, especially the Post's, insisted relentlessly that Putin's conduct in Ukraine was driven by a "crude neoimperialism" and was "the centerpiece of a concerted and dangerous Russian imperial strategy" throughout neighboring states once part of the Soviet Union (Post editorial and Diehl op-ed, Dec. 2, 6; similarly, editorials Nov. 23, Nov. 25, Dec. 21, Dec. 26, Diehl op-ed, Jan. 3). It is here that the press's double standard abandons all pretense of objectivity: In most of these former Soviet regions where the Kremlin is accused of "imperial meddling," from the Baltics in the West and Georgia in the South to the states of Central Asia, there are now US and NATO military bases, with more being planned. They too go unmentioned, along with the essential question, widely discussed by scholars, of whether they are part of an ever-expanding American empire.
Double standards can produce strange onsite reporting. Visiting Moscow, Applebaum was shocked that even an 18-year-old Russian woman studying at an American college was "really upset" by the prospect of a pro-US government in Ukraine. The young woman tried to explain: "If all of these countries around us join NATO...Russia will be isolated." But Applebaum was unmoved, traducing the woman's concern as a "belief that Russia has a right to an empire" (Post, Dec. 15). What kind of reasoning, we may ask, causes an American journalist to construe a young Russian's worry about her country's military encirclement as "imperial nostalgia"? (Would the same be said about US anxieties over the appearance of Russian bases in Canada, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America?)
If Washington, unlike Moscow, is not engaged in "imperial meddling" in the former Soviet territories, why has it been so involved with Ukraine's politics? The official and standard editorial answer is that US motives are entirely altruistic: As several editorials and well-funded democracy activists have assured us, the United States is "seeking not to recruit a new Western client but to defend the democracy and independence that most Ukrainians want" (Post editorial, Nov. 25, and, similarly, Michael McFaul op-ed, Dec. 21). That is, the Post continued, "the real struggle in Ukraine is not about geopolitical orientation; it is about democracy," insisting that to think otherwise was an "absurdity" (Dec. 2 and 26). In a similar but more avuncular vein, a Times editorial (Dec. 4) advised Putin "to abandon the foolish notion that someone is trying to steal 'his' Ukraine," which a Boston Globe editorial (Dec. 28) dismissed as "Putin's paranoia."
No one in Russia's political class believes such assurances, not even its rapidly dwindling pro-American faction, and with good reason. In the same Washington Post editorial pages that have become the vanguard of the neo-cold war crusade, the columnist Charles Krauthammer revealed a very different meaning of the Ukrainian conflict: "This is about Russia first, democracy only second.... The West wants to finish the job begun with the fall of the Berlin Wall and continue Europe's march to the east.... The great prize is Ukraine" (Dec. 3).
Krauthammer's unsentimental candor confirms the Kremlin's growing alarm over the Western bases gathering around Russia like a tightening noose. But if it needed weightier confirmation, Russia got it from Richard Holbrooke, erstwhile candidate for Secretary of State in a Democratic administration and leading spokesman for what passes for foreign-policy thinking in what remains of that party, speaking now in his bipartisan capacity.
Just back from Kiev, Holbrooke exulted over Ukraine's impending "final break with Moscow" and urged Washington to "accelerate" its membership in NATO, which "virtually defines our core zone of security in half the world" (Post op-ed, Dec. 14). With the kind of experienced diplomacy certain to reassure Moscow about this further (nonimperial) encroachment, Holbrooke told Chris Matthews on Hardball (Dec. 13) that a President Yushchenko should immediately be invited to Washington to "address the joint session of Congress." Holbrooke wasn't freelancing. The Post's "not-about-geopolitical-orientation" editorials have been inconsistent or duplicitous, calling at the same time for NATO to welcome Yushchenko's Ukraine "with open doors" (Dec. 10; similarly, Oct. 31 and Dec. 26), a policy still being pushed on its op-ed page in the new year (Steven Pifer, Jan. 1).
The conflict over Ukraine alone may not be enough to launch a new cold war against Russia, but the US press's indictment of Putin, a leader it once hailed for his "commitment to building a democracy" (Michael Wines, Times, July 9, 2000), has been growing rapidly for more than a year. It began in earnest in October 2003, when the Kremlin jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia's richest oligarch and owner of its largest oil company, Yukos, on charges of fraud, embezzlement and tax evasion. Ukraine and Yukos, now being broken up and returned to state control, are regularly cited together as prime evidence that Putin, and Russia itself, are hopelessly authoritarian and without "minimal standards" of democracy, rule of law and private property (Myers, Times, Dec. 19). The Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant and Wall Street Journal editorialist Holman Jenkins Jr. were even more damning. The first anathematized Putin's Kremlin as "Russian thugs masquerading as a government" (Dec. 21), while the second equated Putin with Saddam Hussein (Jan. 5), an association implying the need for US action.
And not merely that. Putin, according to the Times columnist Kristof, is "guiding Russia...into fascism," a line also being promoted by neocon cold warriors such as former CIA director James Woolsey. Lest readers think they might have been better off with the Soviet Union, whose leader Mikhail Gorbachev did more than anyone else to end the last cold war in 1989, Kristof quickly adds: "Still, a fascist Russia is a much better thing than a Communist Russia." (Larger questions aside, I think instinctively of the many Jews who survived fascist death camps in Eastern Europe only because they were liberated by "Communist" soldiers.) And lest Nation readers think that only American journalists are capable of such hyperbolic commentary, the trendy British historian Niall Ferguson, now at Harvard, warned readers of the Daily Telegraph (Jan. 1) that Putin may be becoming a Hitler, "a fully fledged Russian führer," and an equal "threat to the rest of the world."