Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussion of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments of these discussions, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Cohen points out that for more than a decade Russia—certainly its state and leadership—has been increasingly demonized and thus delegitimized by the American political-media establishment. This began with the personal vilification of Russian President Vladimir Putin but has grown into a general Russophobic indictment of Russia itself and any of its citizens with whom Americans may have had encounters. Nearly two years of “Russiagate” allegations, which still remain unproven, have more than implied that “contacts” or “ties” with anyone “linked to” Russian officialdom, directly or indirectly, are inherently suspicious, if not treasonous. (See, for example, statements by John Brennan and James Clapper.) According to former vice president (and would-be president) Joseph Biden, today’s Russia, which “is brazenly assaulting the foundations of Western democracy” everywhere, is apparently no less a nefarious menace than was communist Soviet Russia.
More recently, “crimes” attributed to the Kremlin in the UK and Syria (also yet to be proven) have expanded the condemnation beyond charges customarily leveled against Soviet Russia. Thus, the UK foreign minister, echoing Washington, indicts today’s Russia for its “malign behavior in all of its manifestations…whether it is cyberwarfare, whether it’s disinformation, assassination attempts, whatever it happens to be.” On April 20, the DNC went further, seeking a formal indictment of “whatever it happens to be” by suing the Russian government for conspiring with the Trump campaign to deprive Hillary Clinton of her rightful victory in the 2016 presidential election. Central figures in this “act of unprecedented treachery”—few deeds could be more criminal—are stated to have been “people believed to be affiliated with Russia.”
It follows, of course, that such a criminal Russia—frequently termed a “mafia state,” also incorrectly—can have no legitimate national interest anywhere, not even on its own borders nor perhaps even at home. And with such a state, it also follows, there should be no civil relations, including diplomacy, only warfare ones. Lost, forgotten, or negated in this widespread reasoning is why Russia was generally understood to matter so greatly to US national security during the 40-year Cold War that the result was myriad forms of cooperation, even official episodes of détente, that kept that perilous conflict from becoming something much worse. The reasons also apply to Russia today. Briefly summarized:
— Even middle-school children presumably know the most existential reason. Like the United States, Russia possesses enormous arsenals of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones. A conventional US-Russian war—as both sides are now flirting with in Syria and may soon do so in Ukraine or the Baltic region—could easily slide into nuclear war. In this connection, at a recent meeting of Washington’s highly respected Center for the National Interest, several well-informed experts thought that on a scale of 1 to 10, the chances of war with Russia today are 5 to 7. The only safeguard is, of course, the highest form of cooperation: diplomacy. Still more, this Cold War includes a new existential danger in the form of international terrorists in pursuit of radioactive materials to make their attacks immeasurably more devastating and their consequences more enduring. (Imagine, for example, the planes of 9/11 with radioactive material aboard, or the bombings in so many cities around the world.) Full-scale anti-terrorism cooperation with Russia, which has experienced many such attacks and thus developed the kind of intelligence needed, is an essential safeguard against such a calamity.
— Almost equally important is the reason usually called “geopolitical.” Even after the Soviet Union, Russia remains the largest territorial country in the world and possesses a disproportionate share of the planet’s natural resources, from energy, iron ore, nickel, timber, diamonds, and gold to fresh water. It is also one of the world’s leading exporters of weapons. Still more, Russia is located squarely between East and West, whose civilizations are in considerable conflict, and indeed part of both. Many months ago, Cohen raised the possibility that Russia might “leave the West,” driven out by the new Cold War or by choice. That possibility is now said by a top Kremlin aide and ideologist to be inescapable. Herein lies another fallacy constantly repeated by the American media: that sanctioned Russia is “isolated from the international community.” This is merely an Anglo-American-European conceit. Multidimensional relations between “Putin’s Russia” and non-Western countries such as China, Iran, India, and other BRIC nations are thriving. And it is there that most of the world’s territory, people, resources, and growing markets are located. In short, were Russia to leave the West, talk of America’s “global leadership” would become even more hollow. Put differently, what would “globalization” be without Russia and its partners?
— Given all the warfare talk in the US political-media establishment, consider also Russia’s renewed military capabilities or, as strategists like to say, “capacity to project power.” There is no reason to doubt Putin’s March 1 inventorying of Moscow’s new weapons systems. The US unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 triggered a new nuclear-arms race, and Moscow may have won it. Even if not, Russia demonstrated its more than equal military capabilities by destroying ISIS’s entrenched grip on Syria following its intervention in September 2015, even though many American pundits and others falsely claim this was an American achievement. When there is military parity between Washington and Moscow, as there was during the preceding Cold War and as there is again now, it is time to cooperate. Otherwise, as President Ronald Reagan liked to say when he decided to meet the Kremlin halfway, there will be no winners.
— On the positive side, however, there is Moscow’s capabilities for conflict resolution, including, but not only, its vote on the UN Security Council, where the ultimate diplomatic cooperation should take place. Various examples could be cited, but remember only Russia’s essential role in the nuclear-weapons agreement with Iran; its behind-the-scenes part today in attempts to resolve the conflict with North Korea; its potential as an essential partner in bringing peace to Syria; and the role it is likely to play when the United States finally decides to leave Afghanistan. Given a chance, Russia can be a vital peacemaker, and there is ample reason to think that the Kremlin is ready to do so if again met halfway by Washington.
During the preceding Cold War, when Cohen first developed his own “contacts” and “ties” with Russian society and, yes, even with Kremlin officials, he often said, “The road to American national security runs through Moscow.” The same is no less true today. For reasons he has often discussed, the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its predecessor. Meanwhile, US-Russian cooperation seems barely a remote possibility, especially while Russia is so unrelentingly criminalized by American political-media elites. On the other hand, President Trump’s ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, stated publicly on April 24: “My president has said repeatedly that he wants a better relationship with Russia…with Putin…. You can call it a desire for détente.” If so, it is imperative to support the president’s initiative, even if only this one.