Is Détente Really Dead?

Is Détente Really Dead?

Washington and Moscow observers are saying American allegations that President Trump is a Kremlin puppet have killed the new Russia policy he promised.


Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions about the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at

As Cohen explained to Batchelor last week—and as he further explains in a Nation article this week—there are no actual facts to support the six different allegations put forth in the US political-media establishment purporting to show that President Trump has been “compromised” by the Kremlin. Nonetheless, those allegations, along with the downfall of Trump’s national-security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, have had a big political impact on the possibility of Trump’s proposed détente with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Commentators in both capitals have concluded that such a possibility has been greatly diminished, possibly killed, because Trump no longer has a chance to muster political support at home for a new Russia policy. Cohen and Batchelor discuss this general subject in connection with the following points made by Cohen:

§ America specialists and others in the Russian policy elite closely follow commentary in US publications, especially in “leading” papers like The New York Times. They would have had a stunned reaction—as should American readers—to a series of articles and other features in the Times from February 16 through February 19 on the theme of a “Trump-Putin axis” in the White House (Paul Krugman, February 17). Indeed, the February 19 Times Sunday Review supplement was substantially dedicated to this allegation, from the front to the opinion page. They would have been astonished—as should every American—by an ominous statement quoted approvingly by Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (February 16) that “the bigger issue here is why Trump and people around him take such a radically different view of Russia than has been the case for decades.” That is, any critical thinking about US policy toward Russia since the 1990s is now under suspicion—a dangerously anti-democratic, McCarthyite, even Orwellian, accusation. No wonder Russian observers are concluding that any American rethinking about US policy in this regard has become impossible.

§ At the same time, Cohen emphasizes, there is a spectrum of policy views in the Russian political elite, from those strongly favoring a new détente with Washington to those “state nationalist patriots” who insist that previous détentes have been catastrophic for Russia. The Gorbachev-Reagan-Bush détente led, they say, to the end of the Soviet Union and to Russia’s collapse as a great power. The Yeltsin-Clinton détente of the 1990s resulted in a decade of Russia’s humiliation at home and abroad. In this respect, Cohen recalls, we are now witnessing a recapitulation of the tacit alliance between Cold War hawks in Washington and in Moscow during the preceding 40-year Cold War. Understandably, Russia’s pro-détente faction saw in the downfall of General Flynn a blow to their hopes of finding partners in Washington, in addition to Trump himself.

§ On the other hand, Cohen argues it is too early to write off the chances for a new détente. The 20th-century history of détentes suggests this is only the first battle and that more will follow, in Washington and in Moscow, though this struggle will certainly be fiercer than any previous one. Much will depend on how committed to détente are both Trump and Putin. Cohen is certain about Putin, though the Russian president has his own opponents. Cohen is less certain about Trump, though the new American president has certainly shown himself to be anti-establishment and determined in some other regards, for better or worse. Moreover, the significance of Flynn’s fall is probably overstated. Though perhaps a symbol of détente in Russia, he was politically assassinated in Washington mainly because he lacked political skills and had little support among the policy class, apart from Trump.

§ Cohen also points out that a few little-noticed acts of increased US-Russian cooperation are under way, though they may be fragile. More generally, he argues that decisions are usually made when the alternatives are carefully considered. The alternative to détente is an increasingly dangerous new Cold War, from Eastern Europe and Ukraine to Syria. Those dangers could erupt at any moment. If they do, will Congress remain in the thrall of its bipartisan Cold War majority led by Senators McCain, Graham, Schumer, Murphy, and other leading Republicans and Democrats? Or will Congress’s true representatives of America’s best interests finally end their Cold War complicity and speak out for a new US Russia policy, as they did when Reagan and Gorbachev summoned them in the late 1980s?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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