On a recent Friday evening, the prominent Russia historian Stephen Cohen took the mic before an audience of 3,000 in Toronto to debate Western policy toward Russia in light of the Ukraine conflict.
Over the next 90 minutes, the man renowned for his pioneering scholarship on the Soviet Union accused the West of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin with NATO expansion, stoking potential war with Moscow, and failing to acknowledge its responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine in the last 15 months.
For those who have followed Cohen’s commentary, it was hardly surprising that many of his arguments dovetailed with a narrative pushed by the Kremlin, which portrays its seizure of Crimea as a response to Western meddling in Ukraine.
But toward the end of his debate with two strident Putin critics -- former world chess champion Garry Kasparov and journalist Anne Applebaum -- Cohen delivered a preemptive aside tailored for those who dismiss him as a dupe for the Russian leader.
"I am not pro-Putin," Cohen, a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, told the crowd. "I have no sentimental attachment to Putin whatsoever. He’s a subject -- as a historian, to me -- of study."
It was a caveat unlikely to convince critics of Cohen, 76, whose fierce condemnation of the West’s role in the Ukraine conflict and more forgiving assessment of the Kremlin’s have made him arguably the most divisive American public intellectual commenting on the crisis today.
Even respected Russia specialists who, like Cohen, advocate for a U.S.-Russian relationship based on realism say Cohen is essentially defending the Kremlin’s agenda in the West.
"There are experts, and I put myself in this group, that understand why Putin did this and what his goals are, but I think most of those people would also not justify them,” Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University, told The Huffington Post last year. "The difference is what Steve Cohen does is not only understand him, but he says Putin is right."
Cohen concedes that he “has not spent much time detailing the ways in which the Kremlin or Putin or the Russian leadership have contributed” to the conflict in Ukraine, where fighting between government forces and Moscow-backed separatists in the east of the country has killed more than 6,100 people since April 2014.
If I said there are two sides to every story and Russia can’t be 100 percent to blame for this crisis, the answer would be: ‘Putin is Hitler, and Cohen is a Putin apologist.’”-- Stephen Cohen
"When you write or broadcast, you get limited space or time, and you choose what’s most important," he told RFE/RL in a recent interview. "And since the analysis and narrative I wanted to present was entirely absent in mainstream America, I focused on that."
Cohen says he has no problem with criticism of his arguments. The accusations of being a Kremlin water carrier, however, clearly irritate him.
“My analysis may have been wrong, but I can only think of one or two people [in the United States] who made an effort to engage me on that level,” he said.
“Instead, if I said there are two sides to every story and Russia can’t be 100 percent to blame for this crisis, the answer would be: ‘Putin is Hitler, and Cohen is a Putin apologist.’”
Cohen’s opinions have indeed put him at odds with a consensus among Western governments, scholars, and political commentators who say Russian interference and aggression clearly unleashed and continue to fuel the conflict in Ukraine.
And while he has said Russia is “involved militarily” in Ukraine and “abetting” separatist forces in eastern Ukraine -- claims that Moscow continues to deny despite mounting evidence of such involvement -- Cohen said he believes “unwise American policies” bear about 80 percent of the blame for the crisis.
I think I and the others who speak out like me are the patriots of American national security.-- Stephen Cohen
He frames his unyielding criticism of Western policy toward Russia and Ukraine as a matter of patriotic duty.
“Because American national security is so fundamentally involved, I think I and the others who speak out like me are the patriots of American national security, and those who slur us and do not engage the issue seriously are not being patriots of American national security,’” he told RFE/RL.
Cohen has also echoed theories promoted by the Russian government and widely rejected by Western officials and analysts, such as the possibility that a fighter jet may have downed a Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine in July 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
Western officials say evidence suggests the passenger jet was struck by a BUK missile fired from separatist-controlled territory. Cohen said he may have misspoken and that he did not intend to give the impression that he believes a fighter plane shot down the airliner. He leaves open the possibility -- often suggested by Russian media -- that Ukrainian forces were responsible.
“The information that’s come out is that in all likelihood it was a BUK,” Cohen said. “But in whose hands, we do not know.”
Links to Cohen’s commentary are regularly disseminated by Russia’s diplomatic corps on social media and embraced by state-owned Russian media like the global news network RT, where he is frequently brought on to pillory Washington and Brussels.
Cohen says that he watches the network, which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called a “propaganda bullhorn” for the Kremlin, in order “to get the Russian perspective” on world events.
RT has also allotted considerable airtime to conspiracy theorists. Cohen says he tries to avoid segments “where they have me with people whom I consider to be a little batty.”
“I don’t want to be considered batty,” Cohen told RFE/RL. “And sometimes, when you go out with batties, everyone thinks you’re batty.”
Cohen, author of the groundbreaking and definitive biography of Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin, retains many admirers in the academic world, even among those who say he has distorted the events in Ukraine.
"Stephen Cohen has been a mouthpiece for a mass murderer...-- Lynn Lubamersky, Boise State University
In an open letter to Cohen in February, historian Joshua Sanborn accused him of deploying straw men and portraying the ouster of the Kremlin’s ally, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in February 2014 as primarily the work of “semi-fascist” protesters on Kyiv’s Independence Square -- the Maidan -- while giving Yanukovych’s riot police a free pass.
“Of course, not all protesters on Maidan were peaceful, but is there really no space to mention that police fired into the crowds, killing many, and that these killings made Yanukovych’s further tenure as president deeply problematic, perhaps even impossible?” wrote Sandborn, head of the history department at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
Sanborn is among the more than 130 members of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), who signed a letter supporting Cohen in a scandal that erupted over a dissertation prize that was to bear Cohen’s name.
Cohen and his wife, the American magazine publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, pulled their offer of several hundred thousand dollars for the grant after members of the U.S.-based organization objected to having his name attached to the prize.
The ASEEES board has called a "special meeting" to discuss the controversy on May 11 in Pittsburgh and on May 4 published dozens of comments from members on the matter. Most of the published input supported accepting the gift and naming it after Cohen.
“Cohen's 40 years in the field as a scholar and educator should make the organization bend over backwards to avoid any possible implication of rejecting philanthropic gifts because of political statements made in the public domain,” wrote Michael David-Fox, a historian of Russia and the Soviet Union at Georgetown University.
A handful of scholars voiced their objections to Cohen’s ties to the gift, however.
"Stephen Cohen has been a mouthpiece for a mass murderer and the ASEEES does not have my support if it reverses its earlier decision and allows for the creation of any fellowship in his name," wrote Lynn Lubamersky, an associate professor of history at Boise State University.
Cohen told RFE/RL that depending on the outcome of the May 11 meeting, he may reexamine his association with an existing ASEEES-administered dissertation prize bearing his name and that of his late mentor, historian Robert C. Tucker, that vanden Heuvel’s Kat Charitable Foundation has sponsored for a decade.
Sanborn wrote in his open letter that he hopes Cohen’s commentary on the Ukraine conflict will move in the direction of “more richness, complexity, and believability.”
If this doesn’t happen, Sanborn added, "I’ll read your pieces with gritted teeth, but my respect for your career will remain."