L’affaire Stephen F. Cohen – and Academic Dissent and Division on Ukraine

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel (New York Historical Society)

In recent weeks, renowned veteran Russia scholar, Professor Stephen F. Cohen, and his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, have been at the center of a controversy involving the Association of Slavic, Eastern European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES).

Much has already been written about this matter. For some background, see the article published in The New York Times on 28 January here and a listing of articles related to the situation, compiled by Sean Guillory, here.

However, within the context of this controversy, I would like to focus on one specific issue, i.e. that of Ukrainian academics, their reaction to Cohen’s work, and their suspected role in the ASEEES affair.

It is true that Cohen is not a specialist on Ukraine, though he does have some background on the country.  Overall, though, within Russian and Soviet studies, his primary focus has been, and continues to be, Russia itself rather than the other ex-Soviet republics.

Nevertheless, some Ukrainian academics in North America have used this perceived “weakness” as a means of discrediting Cohen’s views on Ukraine. One observer cited two Ukrainian-American scholars in this regard, Alexander Motyl and Serhii Plokhii, both of whom are known for their more nationalistic views. The observer alleges that such “aggrieved” Ukrainian-American academics have likely been at the forefront of the ASEEES’ considerations regarding Cohen. This may be correct, but it is important to clarify some significant aspects of this issue.

The narrative of Cohen being a Russianist who is “disconnected” from Ukrainian affairs and the post-Soviet republics is exceedingly problematic and over-simplistic. In fact, to criticize Cohen on his views on Ukraine simply on the basis that he does not specialize on the country is misleading and unfair.

Knowing Cohen personally, I can say that during this entire crisis, he has carefully and scrupulously consulted Ukrainian sources and made contact with specialists on the post-Soviet republics for his writings.  As someone who studies the former Soviet republics and the history of the Soviet nationalities policy with a tangential interest in Ukraine, I can confirm that what he has written on domestic developments in Ukraine is indeed factually sound.

Volodymyr Ishchenko

Volodymyr Ishchenko, lecturer of Sociology in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Further, the narrative of the “disconnected” Cohen also excludes dissenting views on the dominant narrative within Ukrainian studies. In fact, at least two Ukrainian academics, Ivan Katchanovski of the University of Ottawa and Volodymyr Ishchenko of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, would agree with many of Cohen’s viewpoints on Ukraine’s domestic politics.

Indeed, while many Ukrainian academics have hailed the Maidan as a “liberationist” movement, the more skeptical Ishchenko has instead characterized it as a “pro-neoliberal [and] pro-nationalist” movement led by elites who do not necessarily represent the interests of the people.  Both Katchanovski and Ishchenko, like Cohen, have also been highly critical of the presence of the far-right in the Maidan Revolution.

They are not alone. There are other Ukrainian academics who have dissented from the prevailing narrative as well. In their search for an objective reality of events, they often contradict nationalist viewpoints which have found a warm reception among influential anti-Russian hawks and members of the war party in the US political establishment. Indeed, the works of Motyl and the Canada-based, OUN-affiliated Taras Kuzio are prominently featured in Foreign Affairs, the main publication of the US foreign policy establishment. By contrast, dissenters, like Katchanovski and Ishchenko, have not received such privilege, despite the more objective and factual nature of their research.

Given their views, dissenting Ukrainian academics have often found themselves in difficult positions. Not only do they face difficulties with their more nationalistic and ideological colleagues in Ukrainian Studies in North America and Europe. They also face repercussions in post-Maidan Ukraine as well.

Ivan Katchanovski

Ivan Katchanovski, professor of Political Science at the University of Ottawa

For instance, the over 100-year-old Czech-built family home of Ivan Katchanovski in Lutsk, the center of historic Volhynia in northwestern Ukraine, has been unlawfully appropriated by the Kiev government. The beleaguered professor believes that his research on Ukraine’s far-right and on the Odessa and Maidan Snipers’ massacres was most likely the reason for this action. The aim, he believes, is to prevent and intimidate him from conducting further research on these subjects in Ukraine. His thorough investigation into the Maidan Snipers’ massacre is especially significant. It found that the snipers who shot and killed both protestors and police on the Maidan were most likely far-right activists. This inconvenient truth contradicts the official Kiev line which blames the massacre on former President Yanukovych.  On 11 February, a report by the BBC World Service seemed to corroborate Katchanovski’s investigation.

Katchanovski suspects direct involvement from officials in Kiev in the seizure of his property due to the fact that the original decision came from higher-ups.  Further, according to Katchanovski, Mykola Sorokopud, the head of the lawyers’ association of the Volyn Oblast, was directly involved in falsifying evidence against him in order to confiscate his property. Sorokopud is affiliated with the far-right group Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) as well as Ihor Palytsia, the current governor of the Odessa Oblast. Another Lutsk native, Playtsia is also connected with Right Sector. He runs the foundation “New Lutsk”, headed by Sorokopud’s wife, that finances members of Right Sector fighting in the Donbas in the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion.

As these facts demonstrate, the ASEEES-Cohen affair is not strictly about issues relating to free speech, censorship, and much-needed funding for a much-needed but neglected discipline. Ironically, this debate is also indicative of how the Ukraine crisis has divided the Slavic, Russian, Ukrainian, and Eurasian academic communities, much like in Ukraine itself. These divisions exist on multiple levels, whether they are between those willing or unwilling to take into account Moscow’s point of view, or between those who are pro-Kiev or anti-Kiev.

Indeed, in their official correspondences, the ASEEES has expressed concern regarding “splits within the organization.” One hopes that these “splits” are not so profound as to affect the objective judgment of the ASEEES, an organization that professes to encourage discussion and debate among its members.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the case.  Evidently, the crisis in Ukraine has cast a long shadow over a respected academic association that should know better.

Full disclosure: I am a proud member of the ASEEES and a MA graduate student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, focusing on the history of the Caucasus (especially Armenia and Georgia) in the Soviet era. My academic advisor is Ronald Grigor Suny, one of the signatories of the ASEEES letter in defense of Cohen and of the reply to the ASEEES. Like Cohen, he is a fellow scholar in the revisionist school of Soviet and Russian historiography.

Do the Donbas Rebels Want to Establish an Overland Corridor to Crimea?

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Map of the Donbas and Crimea (based on a 2015 UN Map of Ukraine)

Numerous observers of the recent events in Ukraine and Mariupol have concluded that the Donbas rebels seek to establish an overland corridor (or “land bridge”) to Crimea on behalf of the Kremlin. The claim, often repeated by pundits in the West, was also echoed by at least one Russian political analyst (Sergey Markov).

However, is this really the case? Do the Donbas rebels really want to establish an overland corridor to Crimea?

The facts and realities of the situation indicate, simply, “no.”

First and foremost, the Donbas region as a whole (including both Kiev-held and rebel-held areas) has no geographic link whatsoever with the Crimean peninsula (see the above map).  In order to establish a land bridge to Crimea, the rebels would need to invade the neighboring oblasti of Zaporozhia and Kherson on the Black Sea, both of which are not considered part of the Donbas.

Such an action would create a serious escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, something that Moscow has continuously stressed it wants to avoid.  There is also the question regarding the rationale for the creation an overland corridor to Crimea when Russia has already invested a lot to build a bridge to the peninsula across the Kerch strait to the Krasnodar Krai.

Even more importantly, since August, the rebels, especially the leader of the Donetsk Republic, Aleksandr Zaharchenko, have made it clear on numerous occasions that they do not have any territorial ambitions outside of the Donbas region.

In fact, in light of the most recent fighting between Kiev and the Donbas rebels, Zaharchenko vowed to push the front to the borders of the Donetsk oblast so that “no shells can fall on Donetsk.”  The recent Mariupol hostilities need to be comprehended in this context.

Mariupol is important to the rebels, not as a potential part of an overland corridor to Crimea, but as part of the Donbas region and part of the Donetsk oblast more specifically.  In fact, it is the second largest city in the Donetsk oblast after Donetsk.  It is also a major port, giving the rebels another “life line” to Russia.  These are the reasons for its importance.