On Thursday, President Donald J. Trump enjoyed a rapturous reception in Warsaw’s Krasiński Square, speaking to a crowd of thousands in front of a monument to the roughly 200,000 men, women, and children who lost their lives in the city’s 1944 uprising against Nazi occupiers.
If you observed the spectacle of this American president puffing himself up as the leader of the free world before a largely bused-in crowd of Poland’s far-right, xenophobic Law and Justice party without a growing sense of nausea, then you either weren’t paying attention or have, perhaps understandably, become inured to Trump’s breathtaking vulgarity.
Trump’s Warsaw speech was sufficiently jingoist and militarist to win praise from, among others, neoconservative publicist William Kristol, who tweeted: “Trump’s speech in Warsaw was an appropriate, even eloquent, speech worthy of a president speaking for America.”
After the speech, it was on to Hamburg, Germany, where Trump is set to take part in the G20 summit. He will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where there will be much to discuss.
If we agree that the essential meaning of the term “Cold War,” as defined by Princeton and NYU professor emeritus Stephen F. Cohen, is a “relationship between states in which exacerbating conflicts and confrontation are dominant in more areas than not and usually, though not always, short of military fighting,” then it is all too obvious that today’s meeting between Putin and Trump takes place during a second and perhaps even more dangerous Cold War between the United States and Russia.
Still worse, the new Cold War is being played out on at least four fronts, each with the potential—the nuclear age being what it is—to turn catastrophic.
While the media tends to play to the lowest common denominator by running stories about the “body language” of Trump and Putin, serious people like former defense secretary William Perry, former secretary of state George Shultz, and former senator Richard Lugar have rightly noted in a letter to Trump last week that “Crisis instability between the United States and Russia remains unacceptably high.”
And that is all too true given the four-front nature of the new Cold War.
Eastern Europe: US and Russian military aircraft have had numerous close calls in the skies above the Baltic and Black seas. Meanwhile, the United States and NATO have deployed thousands of troops along Russia’s western border in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Romania; the United States has also installed a ground-based missile-defense system that the Russian government believes violates previous arms-control agreements. It has been reported that, in response, Russia has begun testing a long-range cruise missile in violation of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Ukraine: Beginning in the winter of 2013–-14, the United States and its European allies began a campaign of political and economic interference in Ukrainian affairs, which culminated in a popular uprising and the overthrow of a democratically elected president and led to a civil war involving Russia and Russian-backed forces in the east. The conflict, which continues to simmer till this day, has devastated the eastern, Russophone part of the country at the cost of nearly 10,000 lives and over a million displaced. Meanwhile, the United States and NATO continue to actively train and equip Ukrainian forces whdf
Cyberspace: Will Trump call out Putin for his alleged meddling in the 2016 election? Perhaps. But the assumption that it will be Trump and not Putin to broach the subject of interference is perhaps misplaced. Putin himself may raise the issue, after all, as he surely knows (and Trump surely doesn’t) that, when it comes to the interference in the internal political affairs of other countries, the United States makes Russia look like a rank amateur.
According to a study by Carnegie Mellon researcher Dov Levin, between 1946 and 2000 the United States interfered in no fewer than 80 foreign elections. American meddling in Ukrainian politics in 2013–14 is but the most recent and well-known example. Perhaps a more fruitful avenue of engagement over cybersecurity would be for the presidents to renew talks over a Cyber Treaty that were abandoned by the Obama administration.
Democrats who await the emergence of smoking-gun evidence of Russian interference might admit that the media’s intensive focus on the allegations (an independent investigation into which The Nation endorsed in a January 16 editorial) has sucked much of the oxygen out of the room, leaving the vast majority of Americans with precious little conception of what is really at stake in the coming talks between Trump and Putin.
For example, how many Americans are aware that the United States and NATO have a military base in Yaroviv, Ukraine, from which it trains Ukrainian soldiers to fight Russian-backed proxies in the east?
How many are aware that Russia and China signed a Cyber Treaty in 2015, which the Obama administration declined to sign onto and which would have, if implemented in good faith, disallowed the kinds of electoral interference the Russians are alleged to have committed?
How many are aware that in response to the United States shooting down a Syrian fighter jet in June, the Russians suspended the “deconfliction” channel by which US and Russian militaries share operational intelligence to prevent a disastrous accident from taking place?
Given the dire ramifications of war between the United States and Russia, tomorrow’s meeting between Putin and Trump is the most fateful meeting between an American and Russian leader since Reagan’s meeting with Gorbachev in the woods around Geneva in 1985.
Would that we had an American statesman up to the challenge.