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Why is this Russia ‘expert’ writing for an anti-Semitic outlet?

A founding member of a maligned American group has come to the defense of the bigoted Russia Insider site.

Strange bedfellows emerge when trying to whitewash the regime in Moscow.  (CREDIT: GETTY / MLADEN ANTONOV)
Strange bedfellows emerge when trying to whitewash the regime in Moscow. (CREDIT: GETTY / MLADEN ANTONOV)

A few years ago, a new group, calling itself the American Committee for East-West Accord (ACEWA), burst forth with a mission to try to help create “stable cooperation with Russia.” In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the destruction of Flight MH-17 by Moscow-backed forces, and the rolling sanctions regime aimed at a revanchist Kremlin, the group — which includes people like former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel among its board members — immediately became one of the most prominent organizations claiming to push dialogue with Moscow.

The organization, according to The Daily Beast, was the brainchild of a pair of scholars: Stephen Cohen, currently a professor emeritus at both New York University and Princeton University, and Gilbert Doctorow, described by ACEWA as “a frequent participant in public events devoted to the East-West confrontation over Ukraine.” As The Daily Beast wrote, “Cohen credited both himself and Doctorow with the idea of an advocacy group to counteract the new Cold War.”

A few years later, however, there’s no mention of Doctorow, one of ACEWA’s founding board members, on the organization’s website — or any trace of the dozens of articles and analyses from Doctorow that ACEWA had linked to in the past. The reason for ACEWA’s decision, first spotted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to scrub the site of any hint of Doctorow remains unclear, but it may be linked to Doctorow’s recent decision to defend Russia Insider, a pro-Kremlin site notorious for publishing rank anti-Semitism.

James Carden, ACEWA’s executive editor, told ThinkProgress that the decision to remove Doctorow’s material was due to “web maintenance [that] was called for in light of recent events.” Cohen, meanwhile, told ThinkProgress via email that the decision to remove Doctorow’s material was to “clarify that [there was] no ongoing ACEWA relationship with Doctorow after he left the Board.”

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Cohen added that Doctorow — who served as ACEWA’s European coordinator — left the board in March 2017, “and in effect several months earlier,” for reasons that “had nothing to do at all with Russia Insider.”

However, Doctorow’s relationship with Russia Insider significantly predates his departure from ACEWA; in March 2015, in fact, Russia Insider referred to Doctorow as an “invaluable [Russia Insider] contributor.” All of this, while ACEWA — which boasted former American ambassadors and corporate higher-ups on its roster — tried to position itself as the leading group dedicated to bridging the widening gap between Moscow and Washington.

Fascism and fellow travelers

The partnership between Doctorow and Russia Insider appears to have continued despite the swelling controversies swamping Russia Insider, a site that initially went live in 2014.

The same year Russia Insider praised Doctorow’s “invaluable” contributions, a series of leaked emails showed site founder and editor Charles Bausman requesting funding from Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch described as one of President Vladimir Putin’s “favorite businessmen.” As Bausman wrote to one of Malofeev’s associates, “I still need money!!”

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Russia Insider has since gained an outsized reputation for both pushing pro-Kremlin conspiracy theories and offering an increasingly far-right bent to its readers. To wit, one cross-posted piece from last September claimed that “America’s Jews are driving America’s wars,” while another exhorted readers to “Never, ever listen to what American Jews have to say about Russia.”

Doctorow even went as far as to “concede to [Bausman] the point that Jewish controlled media have been a big factor in the hate-Russia mania that sweeps America today.”

The site’s flirtations with fascism culminated earlier this year in a viscerally anti-Semitic screed, with an article stating that it’s “time to drop the Jew taboo.” The piece, written by Bausman, was roundly, and immediately, praised by white nationalists, from Republican Congressional candidate Paul Nehlen to Alt-Right.com — the latter of which described Bausman’s piece as a “ringing endorsement of our work.”

Bausman even provided an “article update” after publication, pointing to “an excellent discussion of this article and its significance on Richard Spencer’s weekly audio roundtable podcast ‘AltRight Politics’ from January 18, 2018.”

Meanwhile, the article was just as quickly condemned.

Indeed, as The Daily Beast found, the “flagrantly anti-Semitic post” was egregious enough to convince the Russian propaganda outlet RT to publicly denounce Russia Insider.

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For Doctorow, however, the piece didn’t appear to cross any lines. In a January 16 letter to Russia Insider — a letter Russia Insider decided to publish, and one described by the SPLC as “cautiously complimentary” of Bausman’s ramblings — Doctorow claimed that Bausman had “chosen [his] words very carefully so as to avoid giving unnecessary offense to anyone.”

Bausman, according to Doctorow, was “right,” as the “subject [Bausman had] placed on the table merits open discussion which it has not received.” Doctorow even went so far as to “concede to [Bausman] the point that Jewish controlled media have been a big factor in the hate-Russia mania that sweeps America today.” (For good measure, Doctorow made sure to describe pre-European-colonization West Africa as full of “primitive tribes.”)

When confronted with criticism of his support for Bausman and Russia Insider, Doctorow dug in. He wrote a second piece in February, saying, “I believe that breaking the taboo on the subject at hand could be useful, because the anti-Semitic rants are everywhere in Comments sections of leading media of all political persuasions.” The outlet in which Doctorow issued his response? Russia Insider.

Discussions and discord

While Doctorow has officially departed from ACEWA — and while ACEWA has attempted to wash its website of any reference to Doctorow — the fact that the group’s former European coordinator is apparently comfortable contributing to anti-Semitic sites like Russia Insider is the latest stumble undercutting the organization’s work.

From the outset, questions have swamped ACEWA’s efforts; as noted Russia expert Mark Galeotti said back in 2015, ACEWA is “depressingly unbalanced in their assumption of moral and geopolitical parity between the U.S. and Russia, as well as their unwillingness to describe what is happening in Ukraine as an act of aggression engineered by Moscow.”

“I do not practice collective denunciations based on guilt by association, having long been a student of the Soviet Stalin-era and seen where they led.”

Little, it appears, has changed since. Indeed, while ACEWA’s relationship with Doctorow presents its own raft of questions — especially given that he remained a board member while contributing to Russia Insider — many of the concerns circling ACEWA continue to stem from Cohen himself.

Where Cohen was once considered a luminary within the Russian scholarly community, his star has fallen precipitously over the past few years, such that he’s been described by The New Republic as “Putin’s American Toady.” Not only has Cohen described the illegal referendum in Crimea in 2014 as “legitimate” — language echoing leaders like Putin — but he has further questioned the notion that Russia invaded southern Ukraine, noting that Russia’s incursion was “an invasion only in the sense that [Russian troops] left the base on Crimea.”

The push-back against Cohen’s analysis has also extended beyond his writings. According to Coda Story, Cohen has “charged… that all of his enemies were ‘McCarthyists’ who were keeping him from speaking out.” Cohen’s writings at The Nation, where he works as a contributing editor, have also helped lead to “[s]taffers at The Nation… openly revolting against the magazine’s pro-Russian tilt,” per The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Cohen’s work has been endorsed by, among others, prominent white supremacist David Duke, whose website noted that Cohen “has no peer in his ability to destroy the anti-Russia and anti-Putin lies.”)

As it is, when asked via email whether he had any reaction to Doctorow writing for Russia Insider, Cohen offered a lengthy response:

If you look at list of [ACEWA] Board members, you see they are very diverse people. The ACEWA is not responsible for or necessarily endorses what individual Board members may do or say, or not do or not say. Apart from our sponsored events, there is no collective responsibility. Many, perhaps most, do not share many of my own publicly stated views, for example. I have my own opinions about Doctorow and Russia Insider, but they are my personal ones and have no bearing whatsoever on the ACEWA. I do not practice collective denunciations based on guilt by association, having long been a student of the Soviet Stalin-era and seen where they led.

While Cohen declined to share his “personal” opinions on the topic, he clarified in a separate email to ThinkProgress that ACEWA had “nothing at all to do with Doctorow’s position regarding the Russian Insider [sic] affair. Nor personally did I or Carden. Nothing. But nonetheless, perhaps for that very reason, you smell blood. Go at it.”

Doctorow, meanwhile, appears to have maintained his relationship with Russia Insider, with a recent piece claiming that the U.S. is “massively interfering in the Russian presidential campaign.” And the ACEWA has continued pushing on without him — while removing any link connecting them to Doctorow from their site.