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Stephen F. Cohen | The Nation

Stephen F. Cohen

Author Bios

Stephen F. Cohen

Contributing Editor

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War and his The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin are now in paperback. 

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This article is an expanded version of Stephen F. Cohen's commentary in the May 5 issue.

The Bush Administration and its cheerleaders in the media are claiming
that the "remarkable success" of the US war in Iraq proves its opponents
were "spectacularly wrong"--even, some charge, unpatriotic. Intimidated
by these allegations and the demonstration of overwhelming American
military power, many critics of the war are falling silent. Indeed, the
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, no doubt speaking for
several of the party's presidential candidates, has rushed to urge that
"the war...not be on the ballot in 2004."

But critics of the war have no reason to regret their views. No sensible
opponent doubted that the world's most powerful military could easily
crush such a lesser foe. The real issue was and remains very different:
Will the Iraq war increase America's national security, as the Bush
Administration has always promised and now insists is already the case,
or will it undermine and diminish our national security, as thoughtful
critics believed?

In the weeks, months and years ahead, we will learn the answer to that
fateful question by judging developments by seven essential criteria:

(1) Will the war discourage or encourage other regional "preemptive"
military strikes, particularly by nuclear-armed states such as, but not
only, Pakistan and India?

(2) Indeed, will the Iraq war stop the proliferation of states that
possess nuclear weapons or instead incite more governments to acquire
them as a deterrent against another US "regime change"?

(3) Will the war, and the long US occupation that seems likely to ensue,
reduce the recruitment of young Arabs by terrorist movements or will it
inspire many new recruits?

(4) With or without more recruits, will the war decrease or increase the
number of terrorist plots against the United States, whether at home or
abroad?

(5) Will the war help safeguard the vast quantities of nuclear and other
materials of mass destruction that exist in the world today, and the
expertise needed to operationalize them, or make them more accessible to
"evil-doers"?

(6) In that connection, will Russia--which has more ill-secured devices
of mass destruction than any other country and which strongly opposed
and still resents the US war--now be more, or less, inclined to
collaborate with Washington in safeguarding and reducing those weapons
and materials?

(7) Finally, considering the rampant anti-Americanism it has provoked,
will the war result in more or fewer governments willing to cooperate
with--individually or in multinational organizations like the United
Nations--George W. Bush's stated top priority, the war against global
terrorism?

It is by these crucial (and measurable) criteria that the American
people, and any politician who wants to lead them, must judge the
Administration's war in Iraq and President Bush's own leadership. Those
of us who were against the war and continue to oppose the assumptions on
which it was based fear that future events will answer these questions
to the grave detriment of American and international security. As
patriots, we can only hope we are wrong.

Barely six months after Russian President Vladimir Putin became the Bush Administration's most valuable ally in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the promise of a historic US-Russian partnership is being squandered. Indeed, this second chance to establish a truly cooperative relationship with post-Communist Russia--after the lost opportunity of the 1990s--is being gravely endangered by Bush's own policies.

During the weeks after September 11, Russia's contribution to the US counterterror operation in Afghanistan exceeded that of all of America's NATO allies together. Not only did Moscow provide essential intelligence information, it allowed the Pentagon to use its airspace and crucial Soviet-built airfields in Central Asia. It also stepped up its military assistance to the Afghan Northern Alliance, which Russia had supported long before September 11 and which did most of the ground fighting until recently. Even Russia's pro-Western lobbies are now asking, "What did we get in return?" Or as a leading member of the Parliament defense committee told us, "After September 11, we thought we were strategic partners, but America is an unreliable partner who completely disregards the interests of Russia."

Indeed, the arrival of the two of us in Moscow in March coincided with the Los Angeles Times revelations about the Pentagon's new nuclear doctrines, which continue to include Russia as a possible target of a US attack. It was the lead story for days in Russia's media, and most of the headlines and commentary were angrily anti-American. Komsomolskaya Pravda, Moscow's largest-circulation newspaper, featured a half-page illustration of a muscular Bush as Rambo, cradling a machine gun and flanked by his warriors--Rumsfeld (in a metal-studded headband, brandishing a bloody sword), Cheney, Powell and Rice. Protests against US policy and Bush himself reached such levels that the US ambassador called in Russian journalists to chastise them for being anti-American.

His lecture did nothing to squelch anti-US sentiments, which had diminished after September 11 but are now growing rapidly. Symptomatic was the view, widely expressed in media commentary and public opinion polls, that a US-led plot had deprived Russian athletes of gold medals at the Salt Lake City Olympics. Scarcely less resented was Bush's decision to impose tariffs on Russian steel, which increased belief in American hypocrisy about the virtue of "free markets."

More serious, however, is the opinion spreading across Moscow's political spectrum that the Bush Administration's war on terrorism now has less to do with helping Russia--or any other country--fight Islamic extremism on its borders than with establishing military outposts of a new (or expanded) American empire ("a New Rome," as a leading politician's aide remarked to us) with control over the region's enormous oil and gas reserves as its primary goal. Even Russians who consider themselves pro-American are understandably finding it increasingly difficult to counter this charge.

After all, viewed from Moscow, since September 11 the Bush Administration seems to be systematically imposing what Russia has always feared--a hostile military encirclement. This is not merely the product of anti-US conspiratorial theories. In fact it is likely that by 2003, there will be a US or NATO military presence in at least eight or nine of the fifteen former Soviet republics--four or all five of the Central Asian "stans," Georgia and the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Not surprisingly, President Putin, Bush's alleged "partner," is coming under increasing high-level attack in Moscow as a result of White House policies. Putin's policies have unleashed angry charges that he is "losing" Central Asia and the Caucasus while succumbing to US imperialism. Of special importance, and virtually without precedent in Soviet or Russian history, has been a series of published "open letters" signed by retired generals, including one of former President Yeltsin's defense ministers, accusing Putin of "selling out" the country and "betraying" the nation's security and other vital interests.

The Kremlin is, of course, trying to defend what Putin's supporters call his "strategic choice" of an alliance between Russia and the United States and to discount the Bush Administration's recent steps. But a fateful struggle over that choice--and perhaps Putin's leadership itself--is clearly under way in Russia's political class. A pro-Western newspaper headline responded to the Pentagon's new strategic doctrines: America Prepares Friendly Nuclear Strike for Russia. Even given Putin's personal popularity with the Russian people and his backing by the Western-oriented energy oligarchs, it seems unlikely that he can go along with this fictitious "partnership" much longer.

If nothing else, the new US strategic thinking, including its enhanced status for tactical nuclear weapons, strengthens elements in the Russian military that have lobbied since the 1990s for giving "surgical" battlefield nukes a larger role in the Kremlin's own doctrine. As a leading Russian military specialist argues, the new US doctrine gives the Russian military additional arguments for new testing and deployment. "If the United States resumes real nuclear tests to make the new weapons," he wrote in early March, "Russia will soon follow." Indeed, in late March the head of the Parliament defense committee called on Putin to upgrade Russia's nuclear weapons capability in response to the US missile defense program.

All this suggests that the scheduled May summit between Bush and Putin, in Russia, may turn out to be little more than a show designed to promote the two leaders' political fortunes, but that does nothing to achieve today's most urgent security need--sharp reductions in both sides' nuclear arsenals. ("Storing" instead of destroying warheads, as Washington insists on doing, for instance, would not actually reduce those weapons or Moscow's growing sense of military insecurity.)

None of this is in America's true national interest. The post-cold war nuclear world, as this magazine has long pointed out, is more dangerous than was the cold war itself. The primary reason, September 11 notwithstanding, remains the instability of Russia's post-Soviet nuclear infrastructures. CIA director George Tenet has emphasized, for example, the imminent danger that Russia's nuclear devices, materials and knowledge might become the primary source of proliferation.

The Bush Administration's policy of treating Russia not as a real partner, with its own legitimate national interests, but merely as a part-time helper when it suits US purposes as well as a potential nuclear target only increases these dangers. In this fundamental sense, the United States today has an Administration whose Russia policies are endangering America's national security.

The monstrous events of September 11 have given the United States a second historic chance, after the squandered opportunity of the 1990s, to establish a truly cooperative relationship with post-C

A baccalaureate should be an occasion to celebrate the present and express optimism about the future, but I must come to you today with very bad news about Russia, my subject of study, and therefore with great alarm about the future. If America's post-cold war triumphalism has led you to believe we are now safer than we were before, I recommend an adage Russians use only partly in jest: "An optimist is an uninformed pessimist."

The bad news is this: Because of what has happened in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union ten years ago, you are graduating into a world more dangerous than ever before. For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized nation is in a process of collapse. The result is potentially catastrophic.

Most of Russia's essential infrastructures--economic, social, technological--are in various stages of disintegration. The state is virtually bankrupt, unable to reinvest in those foundations or even regularly pay the wages and pensions of its own people. The country has been asset-stripped, impoverished and left on the verge of a "demographic apocalypse," as a Moscow newspaper recently termed it. Technology is breaking down everywhere, from electricity and heating to satellites.

In these and other ways, Russia has been plunging back into the nineteenth century. And, as a result, it has entered the twenty-first century with its twentieth-century systems of nuclear maintenance and control also in a state of disintegration.

What does this mean? No one knows fully because nothing like this has ever happened before in a nuclear country. But one thing is certain: Because of it, we now live in a nuclear era much less secure than was the case even during the long cold war. Indeed, there are at least four grave nuclear threats in Russia today:

§ There is, of course, the threat of proliferation, the only one generally acknowledged by our politicians and media--the danger that Russia's vast stores of nuclear material and know-how will fall into reckless hands.

§ But, second, scores of ill-maintained Russian reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines--with the destructive capacity of nuclear weapons--are explosions waiting to happen.

§ Third, also for the first time in history, there is a civil war in a nuclear land--in the Russian territory of Chechnya, where fanatics on both sides have threatened to resort to nuclear warfare.

§ And most immediate and potentially catastrophic, there is Russia's decrepit early-warning system. It is supposed to alert Moscow if US nuclear missiles have been launched at Russia, enabling the Kremlin to retaliate immediately with its own warheads, which like ours remain even today on hairtrigger alert. The leadership has perhaps ten to twenty minutes to evaluate the information and make a decision. That doomsday warning system has nearly collapsed--in May, a fire rendered inoperable four more of its already depleted satellite components--and become a form of Russian nuclear roulette, a constant danger of false alarms and accidental launches against the United States.

How serious are these threats? In the lifetime of this graduating class, the bell has already tolled at least four times. In 1983 a Soviet Russian satellite mistook the sun's reflection on a cloud for an incoming US missile. A massive retaliatory launch was only barely averted. In 1986 the worst nuclear reactor explosion in history occurred at the Soviet power station at Chernobyl. In 1995 Russia's early-warning system mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American missile, and again a nuclear attack on the United States was narrowly averted. And just last summer, Russia's most modern nuclear submarine, the Kursk, exploded at sea.

Think of these tollings as chimes on a clock of nuclear catastrophe ticking inside Russia. We do not know what time it is. It may be only dawn or noon. But it may already be dusk or almost midnight.

The only way to stop that clock is for Washington and Moscow to acknowledge their overriding mutual security priority and cooperate fully in restoring Russia's economic and nuclear infrastructures, most urgently its early-warning system. Meanwhile, all warheads on both sides have to be taken off high-alert, providing days instead of minutes to verify false alarms. And absolutely nothing must be done to cause Moscow to rely more heavily than it already does on its fragile nuclear controls.

These solutions seem very far from today's political possibilities. US-Russian relations are worse than they have been since the mid-1980s. The Bush Administration is threatening to expand NATO to Russia's borders and to abrogate existing strategic arms agreements by creating a forbidden missile defense system. Moscow threatens to build more nuclear weapons in response.

Hope lies in recognizing that there are always alternatives in history and politics--roads taken and not taken. Little more than a decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, along with President Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, took a historic road toward ending the forty-year cold war and reducing the nuclear dangers it left behind. But their successors, in Washington and Moscow, have taken different roads, ones now littered with missed opportunities.

If the current generation of leaders turns out to lack the wisdom or courage, and if there is still time, it may fall to your generation to choose the right road. Such leaders, or people to inform their vision and rally public support, may even be in this graduating class.

Whatever the case, when the bell warning of impending nuclear catastrophe tolls again in Russia, as it will, know that it is tolling for you, too. And ask yourselves in the determined words attributed to Gorbachev, which remarkably echoed the Jewish philosopher Hillel, "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

It is imperative to focus on the essential reason Americans must unequivocally oppose the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia.

A fateful crossroads in American-Russian relations is being obscured by
Bill Clinton's impeachment and war against Iraq.

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Stephen F. Cohen went on CNN to talk about the opportunity Putin is giving the USA.