Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Long History of Glenn Greenwald’s Kissing Up to the Kremlin

In his world, it seems America can do nothing right and Vladimir Putin can do nothing wrong.
June 6, 2022
The Long History of Glenn Greenwald’s Kissing Up to the Kremlin
Glenn Greenwald in 2014. (Photo by Lea Suzuki / San Francisco Chronicle / Getty)

In the months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, maverick journalist Glenn Greenwald has emerged as one of the loudest anti-Ukraine voices in the American media, with all the usual themes: transparent gloating over Russia’s apparent war gains in Eastern Ukraine; alarmism over United States support for Ukraine leading to World War III; even the flogging of “American biolabs in Ukraine” conspiracies in his Substack newsletter and in videos. While Greenwald has made overwrought claims about the “neo-Nazi menace” of the Azov Regiment, his only response to reports of Russian atrocities in Bucha has been to warn about the dangers of falling for “war propaganda” and “social media’s manipulations.”

This stance from Greenwald, a former lawyer who has been widely lauded for his investigative journalism and civil liberties advocacy, in particular, for his role in helping former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden expose illicit NSA surveillance and his Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of that story—has been met with bafflement and disappointment from many of his erstwhile admirers, who lament that “Glenn lost his way.”

But Greenwald has been baffling and disappointing legions of his progressive admirers for years with his cozy relationship with the MAGA right. And a look at his career shows that his pro-Kremlin affinity goes way back—as part of a more general tendency to sympathize with foes of the U.S.-led “neoliberal” (or “neoconservative”) international order.

I first locked horns with Greenwald, then a columnist for Salon, in the fall of 2008 over Russia’s war in Georgia—which, in retrospect, can be seen as the first trial run for the current war in Ukraine. In October, at the height of the McCain/Obama presidential race, Greenwald wrote a column blasting both candidates for peddling the “blatant falsehood” that Russia had attacked Georgia without provocation in August of that year:

Since all of the major candidates accept the deceitful premise about what happened—that Russia’s “aggression” against Georgia was “unprovoked”—nobody refutes it. . . . The propaganda is just asserted to be true by the political establishment and thus accepted by most of the citizenry, and then becomes the unchallenged foundation of all sorts of dangerous, militaristic policy orthodoxies.

It is true that Russia’s August 8, 2008 invasion of Georgia was not “unprovoked”: it was preceded by Georgia’s August 7 shelling of Tskhinvali, the capital of the disputed region of South Ossetia, in which several Russian peacekeepers were killed. Of course, even aside from the question of whether the Russian troops in South Ossetia were really acting as “peacekeepers,” the Georgian attack itself came in response to ongoing and numerous provocations by pro-Russia separatist rebels, including the shelling of Georgian villages and other ceasefire violations. Russian troop movements in the region may have also contributed to escalating tensions. And there was the more fundamental provocation of flooding South Ossetia with Russian passports in a concerted effort to create an enclave within Georgia where Moscow could claim a national interest by acquiring Russian citizens to protect.

But here’s the thing: neither Obama nor McCain had used the word “unprovoked” in describing the Russian attack on Georgia. Obama used “unacceptable” and “unwarranted”; McCain came closer to the substance of Greenwald’s claim by referring to Russia’s “naked aggression.” The only major political figure to accuse Russia of “unprovoked” invasion was Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, in an ABC News interview—and she was not only challenged by the interviewer, Charles Gibson, but criticized in mainstream media outlets, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

In reality, Georgia’s role in starting the conflict was widely acknowledged—not only by the media, but (for instance) by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a hawk and a strong critic of the Kremlin, who noted in a speech at the German Marshall Fund in September 2008 that “all sides made mistakes and miscalculations.” However, Rice noted some indisputable facts absent from Greenwald’s narrative: that the Kremlin “launched a full-scale invasion across an internationally recognized border,” “established a military occupation that stretched deep into Georgian territory,” and “attempt[ed] to dismember a sovereign country by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

Clearly, Greenwald’s issue was not that Russia’s invasion of Georgia was being wrongly treated as unprovoked, but that it was being rightly treated as unjustified. We went for another round of debate in which he again conflated the two—and argued that the Russians were cast as the baddies only because they had “lost the propaganda war” to Georgia and the American spin doctors. In reality, the Kremlin had lost that war for a simple reason: the bald-faced lies, particularly about a Georgian “genocide” in South Ossetia which had supposedly claimed 1,500 to 2,000 lives. (Later on, Russia quietly revised the civilian death toll down to about 150; an investigation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe concluded that many of those casualties may have been rebel combatants. Russian allegations of Georgian army atrocities such as execution-style shootings, rapes and targeted killings of children also proved unfounded.)

Rereading those exchanges today, the extent to which Greenwald’s arguments in 2008 parallel his arguments in 2022 is quite striking. Georgia’s struggling democracy, and its quest to free itself from the diktat of the authoritarian leviathan next door, is sneeringly dismissed as a “neocon project.” Shortcomings in Georgia’s democratic governance, such as the temporary shutdown of an opposition television station during a state of emergency in 2007, are touted as evidence that it’s too simplistic to contrast Georgia’s democratic aspirations to Russian authoritarianism. Never mind that in January 2008, Georgia held a presidential election recognized as free, competitive, and generally clean by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—while Russia’s election of Vladimir Putin’s handpicked heir Dmitry Medvedev in March of that year was a bad farce.

In a Guardian column four years later, in 2012, Greenwald took up the issue of human rights abuses in Russia—to condemn the supposed hypocrisy of Americans who condemn those abuses. There’s the classic of course political repression in Russia is bad, but trope: Greenwald allows that the imprisonment of three women from the Pussy Riot feminist punk band for an anti-Putin protest in a Moscow cathedral is “obviously repellent,” but then quickly switches to indicting the “opportunism” of “western denunciations of Russia’s disregard for free speech.” Quoting Russian journalist Vadim Nikitin, Greenwald accuses Pussy Riot’s Western supporters of ignoring other incidents that would be punishable even in a liberal democracy—e.g., one of the women’s “participation, naked and heavily pregnant, in a public orgy at a Moscow museum in 2008,” organized by an anarchist art group that “previously set fire to a police car and drew obscene images on a St. Petersburg drawbridge.”

One may quibble over details: for instance, the museum “orgy,” intended as a bizarre satirical protest against the Medvedev succession, was not quite public since the participants apparently made sure no visitors or staffers were present; “obscene images” refers to a crude chalk drawing of a gigantic phallus that rose to face the windows of the city’s FSB headquarters when the drawbridge was raised. But in any case, the relevance of these incidents to Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest seems dubious, especially since none of the women were involved in the arson or the drawbridge graffiti. What’s the point, other than to suggest that while the trio may have been wrongly jailed, they were no angels?

In fairness, Greenwald makes a valid point about the insufficient attention by the American media to War on Terror-related cases in which U.S. authorities held Muslim journalists on dubious evidence and with troubling due process violations. But surely that point could have been made without using it to whatabout Russian human rights abuses. And would it surprise anyone to learn that since then, Greenwald has had nothing whatsoever to say about the systematic persecution—including murder—of Muslim journalists, bloggers, and activists from the Tatar minority in Crimea after its 2014 annexation by Russia?

In fact, Greenwald’s see-no-evil-on-the-Russian-side stance during the events of 2014—the Crimea grab and Russia’s first, limited invasion of Ukraine—became flagrant enough to rankle some of his fellow leftists. Writing in the Huffington Post in March 2014, New York-based journalist Nikolas Kozloff praised Greenwald’s role in the Snowden scoop but also blasted him for soft-pedaling repression in places like Russia, Syria, and Belarus, simply because those regimes are “on the receiving end of U.S. foreign policy.” And in Foreign Policy, two-time Pulitzer winner Thomas E. Ricks ripped into Greenwald for “moral posturing” and finding excuse after excuse not to comment on Vladimir Putin’s actions.

Around the same time, Greenwald’s penchant for Russia-friendly spin was on particularly blatant display in one of his first articles for the Intercept, the web magazine he had just cofounded, skewering the notion that America’s free press stands in contrast to the subservient Russian media. The occasion was a 60-second on-air statement by RT (formerly Russia Today) host Abby Martin forcefully criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine. This, Greenwald claimed, showed far more “journalistic independence” than could be found in the ranks of “American media elites” who “love to mock Russian media” as vehicles for “shameless pro-Putin propaganda.”

But the comparison makes no sense.  RT is a Kremlin-controlled network for foreign consumption with virtually no audience in Russia. Inside Russia, television had been under strict government control since the early 2000s; at the time of Greenwald’s article, the country’s last independent TV news station, the cable channel Dozhd TV or “TV Rain,” was facing a government-orchestrated harassment campaign that caused most major cable providers to drop it and relegated it mainly to webcasting. (Dozhd was shut down completely in 2022 shortly after the start of the current war in Ukraine.)

Perhaps most hilariously, Greenwald updated the article to note:

The official RT account on Twitter seems perfectly proud of Martin’s statements, as they re-tweeted my commentary about her monologue condemning Russia’s actions.

Why, yes, RT was happy to use Martin’s statements and Greenwald’s commentary as proof that freedom of expression thrives in the Russian media. It takes a special brand of cluelessness to cite this as an exercise in pluralism, not propaganda.

Unsurprisingly, Greenwald’s 2014 piece endorsed the narrative that the “Revolution of Dignity” in Ukraine was the result of the United States and the EU “blatantly conspiring” (in the words of a writer Greenwald quoted) “against Russian interests there.” This is still Greenwald’s position in 2022; among other things, he has promoted the canard that then-U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland “picked [Ukraine’s] leader” after the removal of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych. (As I showed in a recent Bulwark article, the intercepted conversation on which that conspiracy theory is based took place nearly a month before Yanukovych’s ouster; it concerned the makeup of the new cabinet to be formed in a deal between Yanukovych and the pro-Western opposition, which the EU was helping negotiate.)

“None of that justifies the Russia invasion,” says Greenwald in one of his obligatory disclaimers. But the implication, clearly, is that it’s a “both sides” situation.

In my 2008 critique of Greenwald’s stance on Georgia, I wrote that his loathing of the Bush administration’s foreign policy had “turned into a knee-jerk tendency to be against whatever the ‘neocons’ are for, and consequently into a very real moral blind spot.” In the years since, the loathing has expanded to what Greenwald perceives as bipartisan U.S. imperialism; change “neocons” to “neocons/neolibs,” and that’s still the driving force behind Greenwald’s views. (A whole other article could be written about in Greenwald’s “anti-anti-” stance with regard to radical Islamism, which reached its nadir in 2015 with a campaign vilifying the slain journalists of Charlie Hebdo as anti-Muslim bigots for their equal-opportunity mocking of all religions.)

Greenwald’s coziness with the MAGA right is part and parcel of the same worldview: Trumpism is, after all, a rebellion against the neocon/neolib establishment he so despises. (This “enemy of my enemy” quasi-alliance seems to have muted Greenwald’s early criticism of Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, which he decried as “uniquely shameful” in January 2017.) On the question of Trump’s ties to Russia, where Greenwald was one of the early voices of skepticism, his core view is not so much that claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election are a “hoax”—though he has certainly implied as much; it’s that, as he told the New Yorker’s Ian Parker in 2018, hacking Democratic National Committee emails and using them to torpedo Hillary Clinton’s campaign is “the kind of thing that Russia does to the U.S., and that the U.S. has done to Russia, and to everybody else in the world—and far worse—for decades.” According to Parker:

He added that, even if Putin himself had ordered the hacking, “and worked with WikiLeaks and Michael Cohen and Jared Kushner to distribute the e-mails,” then this was still just “standard shit.”

Here too, Greenwald’s ideological slant does not mean that his critiques of American mainstream media are entirely worthless. It is quite true that many media outlets overplayed the “Trump/Russia collusion” angle, and people who should have known better ran with the idea that Donald Trump was actually Putin’s puppet. But Greenwald’s criticisms are often undercut by a tendency to cherry-pick, take things out of context, and omit salient details. In the case of “Russiagate,” those omissions include strong evidence that, even if Trump and his minions did not conspire with Russian agents to hack the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign to steal supposed dirt on Clinton, they were still willing and eager to get and use the hacked materials.

Or take the 2014 article holding up RT as a better model of independent journalism than the “elite media” in the United States. Greenwald rhetorically asks whether there was “a single U.S. television host” who forcefully criticized the invasion of Iraq in the lead-up to, or the early stages of, the war—forgetting Oprah Winfrey, who did a five-part series on her show questioning the war. (The first installment was accused of giving too much time to pro-war voices, but the next four earned praise from antiwar activists.) He also presents the cancelation of Phil Donahue’s MSNBC show in 2003 as due entirely to studio jitters over Donahue’s antiwar stance, even though even critical reports at the time noted that ratings and costs were also an issue. (Yes, Donahue’s show was, as Greenwald says, “the network’s highest-rated program,” but it lagged woefully behind competitors, had been expected to do much better, and was unusually expensive to produce because of a live studio audience.)

More recently, Greenwald’s treatment of the January 6th Capitol riot offers another instructive example. In April 2021, after reports that Brian Sicknick, a Capitol Police officer said earlier to have died from injuries sustained in clashes with rioters, had actually died of a stroke, Greenwald went on the Tucker Carlson show (and posted on his Substack newsletter) to proclaim his vindication and accuse the media of exploiting Sicknick’s death.

Given that Greenwald had taken a drubbing over “Sicknick trutherism” for questioning claims that the officer died due to being hit in the head with a fire extinguisher, he was entitled to an I-told-you-so. But his critique substantially bent the facts to indict the media. Thus, he asserted that reports of Sicknick’s death at the hands of the rioters relied entirely on speculation and anonymous law enforcement sources—even though official statements from the U.S. Capitol Police on January 7 and from the Trump Justice Department on January 8 stated unambiguously that Sicknick had died from injuries sustained in the clash with the rioters. (The only claim drawn from anonymous sources was that he was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher—perhaps based on video footage of a different Capitol Hill cop being hit with one.) Greenwald also claimed that the New York Times reported on January 8 that “Officer Sicknick’s skull was savagely bashed in with a fire extinguisher by a pro-Trump mob until he died.” But here is what the Times story actually said:

The circumstances surrounding Mr. Sicknick’s death were not immediately clear, and the Capitol Police said only that he had “passed away due to injuries sustained while on duty.” At some point in the chaos . . . he was struck with a fire extinguisher, according to two law enforcement officials.

Considering the story mentioned Sicknick “return[ing] to his division office” before his collapse, it seems unlikely that the Times was promoting the notion that his skull had been “savagely bashed in.” True, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff tweeted on January 9 that Sicknick was “clubbed to death” by pro-Trump rioters (he later deleted the tweet); but an overwrought Kristoff tweet is not as a Times news report.

(Meanwhile, Greenwald also praised a far-right website called Revolver News for being the first media outlet to question the standard Sicknick narrative—without bothering to mention that the Revolver News article offered an absurdly sanitized description of the mob as, basically, a bunch of confused and peaceful tourists.)

Now, Greenwald’s treatment of Ukraine follows the same pattern. For instance: after chiding the media for uncritically using “context-and-evidence-free photos and videos” from Bucha supplied by Ukrainian officials, he completely ignored subsequent verified, firsthand coverage of the Russian army’s horrific atrocities.

Once in a while, someone taunts Greenwald with an old quote from his blog, from when he used to be a pro-Iraq War Republican before converting to the antiwar cause:

And indeed, that 2005 quote is an uncannily accurate description of the new Glenn Greenwald from three years later and onward:

“The paramount desire to find fault and evil with the U.S.” as “the first and only real principle.”

“Selectively and endlessly highlighting and exaggerating America’s faults and downplaying, ignoring and even defending far worse flaws in others.”

“Making common cause with the most abusive and genuinely evil regimes and movements around the world, whose only virtue . . . is that they are opposed by the U.S.”

Check, check, check.

Add to this making common cause with the most noxious political forces inside the U.S. whose only virtue is that they are opposed by the neocon/neolib Blob.

One could debate to what extent Greenwald’s crusade against anything he sees as associated with American and Western imperialism undercuts the merits of his journalism (which has included genuinely brave coverage of political corruption in Brazil, where has lived for the past 17 years). One could also debate the extent to which the NSA surveillance revelations were a part of the same crusade—and to which this unquestionably important story was morally compromised by Snowden’s flight to Russia. What’s not in question is that, whatever good points he may make here and there about media groupthink or other issues, Greenwald views Western liberal democracy and its enemies through a horrifyingly distorted lens.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.