This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, would-be-Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards and one-time-Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, used the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech to promote their new Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force Report, Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the US Can and Should Do.
Edwards and Kemp didn’t use Churchill’s rhetoric of 1946. Neither spoke of “an iron curtain” descending across Europe. Yet in 2006, there are whiffs of a new-fangled Cold War. This new chapter in US-Russian relations already has its own codewords, checkpoints and nuances. (Underlying the rhetoric is an American triumphalism, as represented by John Lewis Gaddis’s new history of the Cold War.) There is a hectoring tone and a familiar double standard, for example, when it comes to condemning Moscow for seeking allies and military bases abroad just as the Bush Administration is doing. As Russia expert and New York University Professor Stephen Cohen ( as well as longtime Nation contributing editor and, full disclosure, my husband) lamented at a conference on the Cold War held at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow last week, US-Russian relations are being remilitarized.
Talking before a group of nearly 200 Russian and Western scholars, journalists, and diplomats, Cohen observed that “most alarming, negotiations for reducing nuclear weapons have, in effect, been terminated by the Bush Administrations’ unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and by the essentially meaningless nuclear reductions agreement it imposed on Moscow in 2002. And all this, including new buildups on both sides, while Russia’s means of fully controlling its existing nuclear devices are less reliable than they were under the Soviet system.”
No one can claim that these are hopeful times in Russia. Twenty one years after Gorbachev came to power, little is left of the historic opportunities his reforms opened up for his country and for the world. Instead, as The Nation pointed out in a June 2000 editorial, (at a time when the US government cautiously welcomed Vladimir Putin as a man committed to “democratic” reform), the new President was more accurately described as “instinctively authoritarian.” And as The Nation also understood at that time–unlike so much of the American press–Putin’s rise to power was an outgrowth of Yeltsinism, which Washington had so assiduously supported through the 1990s.
It reflected “the emergence of an iron-handed leader who, by exploiting Russians’ desire for law and order, has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption” of the Yeltsin years. The anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are still evident. Last month, a survey conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, revealed that nearly 60 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler. (Not all of these were older people, as the conventional wisdom has it; a substantial number were young.)