Democracy Now!’s not-so-good interview with Stephen Cohen on the Ukraine

See updates through August 28, 2014, at end of post.

One of the interesting things about the Democracy Now! program is that they will occasionally allow their guests to hang themselves. It is essential interview technique to not superimpose your own understanding upon that of the person you are interviewing,[1] and it is to Amy Goodman’s, Juan González’s, and the other Democracy Now! anchors’ credit that, at least insofar as I have observed, they abide by this rule very strictly.

There was an example of this today, in their interview with Stephen Cohen. Here is an excerpt:

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the famous leaked tape right now. The top State Department official has apologized to her European counterparts after she was caught cursing the European Union, the EU, in a leaked audio recording that was posted to YouTube. The recording captured an intercepted phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. Nuland expresses frustration over Europe’s response to the political crisis in Ukraine, using frank terms.

VICTORIA NULAND: So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it. And, you know, [bleep] the EU.

AMY GOODMAN: While Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s comment about the EU dominated the news headlines because she used a curse, there were several other very interesting parts of her conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

GEOFFREY PYATT: Let me work on Klitschko, and if you can just keep—I think we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. Then the other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych, but we can probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.
VICTORIA NULAND: So, on that piece, Geoff, when I wrote the note, Sullivan’s come back to me VFR saying, “You need Biden?” And I said, “Probably tomorrow for an attaboy and to get the deets to stick.” So Biden’s willing.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Pyatt, speaking with Victoria Nuland. The significance of what she is saying? She also had gone to Ukraine and was feeding protesters on the front line.
STEPHEN COHEN: Cookies, cookies. Well, here again, the American political media establishment, including the right and the left and the center—because they’re all complicit in this nonsense—focused on the too sensational, they thought, aspect of that leaked conversation. She said, “F— the European Union,” and everybody said, “Oh, my god! She said the word.” The other thing was, who leaked it? “Oh, it was the Russians. Those dirty Russians leaked this conversation.” But the significance is what you just played. What are they doing? The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.[2]

Say what? How do we get from the text in the recording to a coup d’état? It’s a non sequitur. It takes more of the form of an ambush style of interpretation, in which words which are, at best, ambiguous, more suggestive of an intense mediation effort than of a coup, are interpreted in the most malicious way possible, ascribing maximum malevolence.

“It’s certainly no secret that our ambassador and assistant secretary have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and political and economic reform,” [White House Press Secretary Jay] Carney said. “Ultimately, it’s up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future.”[3]

To its discredit, the Democracy Now! program assigned a title to the on line transcript of the interview that includes the word coup,[4] apparently endorsing Cohen’s interpretation.

It’s certainly true that the U.S. record in foreign affairs is one of a hegemon and that media coverage has, for the most part, been complicit in that hegemony, rarely challenging “official” positions.[5]

It is also true that Russia can be understood to be concerned as the West’s sphere of influence increasingly closes on Russia’s borders. But the mistake we must not make is to excuse Russian colonialism while condemning U.S. colonialism:

There was a wave of color revolutions in the former Soviet Space around then, in Georgia, in Kyrgyzstan, but the Orange Revolution in Ukraine was different because Ukraine is different. Ukraine is Slavic. Ukraine speaks Russian, even though the Western part insists on having its own tongue. Kiev is the cradle of Russian civilization. Ukraine, in Putin’s mind, is almost just another province of Russia, one that, by some accident of history and politics, has a different government and a different name.[6]

But Cohen only worries about U.S. imperialism,[7] not about a variety from a man apparently still traumatized by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991,[8] over 22 years ago:

STEPHEN COHEN: I mean that. I mean that Moscow—look at it through Moscow’s eyes. Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, began with the expansion of NATO in the 1990s under Clinton. Bush then further expanded NATO all the way to Russia’s borders. Then came the funding of what are euphemistically called NGOs, but they are political action groups, funded by the West, operating inside Russia. Then came the decision to build missile defense installations along Russia’s borders, allegedly against Iran, a country which has neither nuclear weapons nor any missiles to deliver them with. Then comes American military outpost in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which led to the war of 2008, and now the West is at the gates of Ukraine. So, that’s the picture as Moscow sees it. And it’s rational. It’s reasonable. It’s hard to deny.

But as for the immediate crisis, let’s ask ourselves this: Who precipitated this crisis? The American media says it was Putin and the very bad, though democratically elected, president of Ukraine, Yanukovych. But it was the European Union, backed by Washington, that said in November to the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country, Ukraine, “You must choose between Europe and Russia.” That was an ultimatum to Yanukovych. Remember—wasn’t reported here—at that moment, what did the much-despised Putin say? He said, “Why? Why does Ukraine have to choose? We are prepared to help Ukraine avoid economic collapse, along with you, the West. Let’s make it a tripartite package to Ukraine.” And it was rejected in Washington and in Brussels. That precipitated the protests in the streets.[9]

Let’s just briefly pause to consider the last part of that passage. Indeed, there are at least grounds for suspicion that Russia wants the Ukraine to be, if not in Russia’s orbit, at least neutral.[10] But what sort of neutrality is imposed from outside? Is this the neutrality of a sovereign nation or, rather, the neutrality of a demilitarized zone?

Cohen seemingly thinks Vladimir Putin is a hero. Cohen seemingly has forgotten that Putin has presided over the passage of laws that jeopardize anyone who espouses other than heteronormative views, imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, and generally clamped down on dissent:

His comments amounted to an oblique rebuttal to the growing international movement against Russia’s restrictive laws on homosexuality. Support for a boycott of Russia in the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games has widened with celebrities announcing they will not perform in Russia. Others including Joachim Gauck, the German president, have declined invitations for the event.

Mr Putin defended his government’s increasingly conservative values and decried the “review of norms of morality” in the West and elsewhere.

“This destruction of traditional values from above not only entails negative consequences for society, but is also inherently anti-democratic because it is based on an abstract notion and runs counter to the will of the majority of people,” Mr Putin said, adding there could be no benefit for society for treating “good and evil” equally.

In his 70-minute televised speech from an ornate Kremlin hall, Mr Putin said traditional family values where a bulwark against “so-called tolerance – genderless and infertile.”[11]

In contrast, look at Putin’s Moscow. The opposition has been fractured and scattered to the winds. They pose no clear or present danger to Putin’s rule. Moscow traffic moves as much as traffic in Moscow can move. There are no hobo opposition camps, no barricades. Moscow, to the stranger’s eye, has no complaints. This is Putin’s coveted stability in action, and it is in stark contrast to the lack of it in Kiev. Moscow’s liberals are watching Kiev with a mix of horror, envy, and admiration: they’re just like us, but look at what they’ve been able to do against a president they didn’t like. Which is why Russian state controlled television is also showing a live feed of Kiev burning: you want to overthrow the government, well, watch the tires burn black through the night and the dead bodies stack up. This is what instability looks like, this is what democracy looks like.

Last time Kiev had protests, Putin put the finishing touch on killing democracy in Russia. This time, he is already busy tightening the screws. He is cracking down on DozhdTV, Russia’s last independent television station. He has ordered a propagandist makeover of RIA Novosti, a state-owned but fairly modern news agency, installing a fire-breathing ideologue to run it (this guy, if you’re curious). Today, Ekho Moskvy, Moscow’s largest radio station that is often sympathetic to the opposition, got a new general manager, a woman with a decade-long resume of faithfully serving the state propaganda machine. State TV is broadcasting Goebbels-like “documentaries” about the opposition called “The Biochemistry of Betrayal.” People who don’t agree with Putin have found their sources of income choked off; many are fleeing the country.

Putin is tightening the screws, because this is what stability looks like and that, to Putin, by all accounts a man deeply traumatized by the chaotic, painful collapse of the Soviet Union, is worth any price. And the more unstable Ukraine gets, the tighter he’ll turn them. Just you wait.[12]

Cohen calls the Obama hypocritical:

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to [Obama’s] response.

STEPHEN COHEN: To what he just said? Shame. Shame. He is saying that the responsibility for restoring peace is on the Ukrainian government, and it should withdraw its security forces from the streets. But let me ask you, if in Washington people throwing Molotov cocktails are marching on Congress—and these people are headed for the Ukrainian Congress—if these people have barricaded entrance to the White House and are throwing rocks at the White House security guard, would President Obama withdraw his security forces? This is—this is—and do you know what this does? And let’s escape partisanship here. I mean, lives are at stake. This incites, these kinds of statement that Obama made. It rationalizes what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license, because he’s not saying to the people in the streets, “Stop this, stop shooting policemen, stop attacking government buildings, sit down and talk.” And the guy you had on just before, a so-called moderate leader, what did he just tell you? “We have lost control of the situation.” That’s what I just told you. He just confirmed that.[13]

Actually, whether they mean it or not, and whether or not U.S. policy is clear and consistent, an unnamed U.S. official did call for talks and Obama did criticize violence[14]:

“We expect peaceful protesters to remain peaceful and we’ll be monitoring very closely the situation,” [Obama] said during a meeting with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada in Toluca, Mexico. . . .

The U.S. official also took aim at Russian claims that the United States and other Western powers were fueling the Ukrainian crisis by meddling and “courting the protesters.” The official countered that the U.S. position has been “transparent” – to allow for peaceful protests and to foster dialogue that will move Ukraine toward free and fair elections.[15]

The trouble here is that with Democracy Now!‘s interview, you have to have been paying at least the level of attention I have been to know all this and you need some sort of education to recognize Cohen’s non sequitur and what I call an “ambush” style of interpretation. Quality coverage assures that the viewer/listener/reader gains this background. So for me, the interview is useful. I can place it in a broader context with fuller information.

I doubt, however, that most of Democracy Now!‘s audience will be as critical.

Update, February 21, 2014: A systematic refutation of Stephen Cohen’s and others’ points maligning the Ukrainian opposition may be found in a New York Review of Books article by Timothy Snyder.[16] I strongly recommend it.

Update, August 28, 2014: Those who have persisted in seeing the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization as the sole aggressor in Ukraine surely now have some explaining to do as it now appears that Russian troops have invaded. Russian President Vladimir Putin is “not even making a good-faith effort to come up with explanations that anyone in the United States or Europe could believe,” Stephen Long, an international security expert at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told McClatchy News. “No matter what Russia calls it, it’s been obvious for a long time that Russia is actively involved.”[17]

  1. [1]Ruthellen Josselson, Interviewing for Qualitative Inquiry: A Relational Approach (New York: Guilford, 2013).
  2. [2]Democracy Now! “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup,” February 20, 2014,
  3. [3]Lesley Clark, “White House implicates Russia in leaked call between US diplomats,” McClatchy, February 6, 2014,
  4. [4]Democracy Now! “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup,” February 20, 2014,
  5. [5]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power: The Media and Public Policy, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995); Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End, 1989); David Halberstam, The Powers That Be (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000); Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  6. [6]Julia Ioffe, “What’s Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare,” New Republic, February 18, 2014,
  7. [7]Democracy Now! “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup,” February 20, 2014,
  8. [8]John B. Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1993); Julia Ioffe, “What’s Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare,” New Republic, February 18, 2014,
  9. [9]Democracy Now! “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup,” February 20, 2014,
  10. [10]Fred Weir, “Russia tells West it’s time for common ground on Ukraine – or else,” Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2014,
  11. [11]Damien McElroy, “Vladimir Putin claims Russia is moral compass of the world,” Telegraph, December 12, 2013,
  12. [12]Julia Ioffe, “What’s Happening in Kiev Right Now Is Vladimir Putin’s Worst Nightmare,” New Republic, February 18, 2014,
  13. [13]Democracy Now! “A New Cold War? Ukraine Violence Escalates, Leaked Tape Suggests U.S. Was Plotting Coup,” February 20, 2014,
  14. [14]Sam Sturgis and Hannah Allam, “Experts: U.S. travel restrictions on Ukraine officials not likely to move events,” McClatchy, February 19, 2014,
  15. [15]Sam Sturgis and Hannah Allam, “Experts: U.S. travel restrictions on Ukraine officials not likely to move events,” McClatchy, February 19, 2014,
  16. [16]Timothy Snyder, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” New York Review of Books, February 19, 2014,
  17. [17]Stephen Long, quoted in Matthew Schofield, “Russia appears to invade Ukraine, opening 2nd front,” McClatchy, August 28, 2014,

7 thoughts on “Democracy Now!’s not-so-good interview with Stephen Cohen on the Ukraine

  • March 1, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    Just finished reading your article.

    It’s bullshit.

    The US should stay the fuck out of other people’s business.

    Pot calling the kettle black.

    You are one of those naive people who thinks the police is their friend.


  • May 28, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    You cut the text of the call. Listen to/read the whole call and you’ll be able to understand why Cohen says they are plotting a coup.

    • May 31, 2014 at 1:34 am

      I only have what was in the Democracy Now! transcript. But a large part of this problem goes well beyond this, to an insistence on viewing Ukraine through the prism of a ‘great power’ conflict between the U.S. (NATO) and Russia. Julia Ioffe comments on this here and the problem I see is of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If one insists on seeing Ukraine not as Ukraine but rather as a superpower conflict, then one can create that conflict. This does not make anyone safer.

  • June 17, 2015 at 6:36 am

    You are one naive dumbass–perfect for a position within the institutions of ideological herding and indoctrination.

    Stephen Cohen has been one of the few voices of sanity on this issue.

    The U.S. Has clearly been the instigator and aggressor in this conflict.

    What is sad is that people like you don’t have the gumption to stray from the imperial narrative–so you simply avoid discussing this issue.

    You are a traitor to humankind–a total, obsequious hack.

    Your not so much brainwashed as you are scared to depart from the imperial narrative.

    You shouldn’t be trusted to guide youth.

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