Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Three little-noted developments unfolded during the G20 meeting in China last week. Cohen explains:
§ Following a private meeting with Russian President Putin, Obama backed off their agreement for joint military action against the Islamic State in Syria. Obama blamed a lack of trust in Putin, but clearly he had capitulated to powerful opposition in Washington to any rapprochement with Moscow. Obama said talks would continue, but yet another lack of resolve on his part was more likely to reinforce Putin’s lack of trust in Obama and make it harder to sell any such agreement to his own political elite in Moscow.
§ At the same time, Obama withdrew his own proposals to Moscow that would have made nuclear war considerably less likely: a mutual declaration by both sides of a doctrine of no-first-use of nuclear weapons and taking nuclear warheads off high-alert status, giving both leaders more than the current 14 minutes or so to determine whether or not the other side had actually launched a nuclear attack and to decide to launch a counter-nuclear attack—in effect, all-out nuclear war. Obama was said to have been persuaded by Strangelovian arguments by advisers that such a wise decision, long called for by experts, would undermine US national security.
§ And in Kiev, Poroshenko unilaterally reversed the order of steps required to implement the Minsk Accords to end the Ukrainian civil and proxy war by declaring that returning control of Ukrainian’s Eastern border with Russia to Kiev had to be the first step of implementation, not the final step as spelled in the Minsk agreements. In effect, Poroshenko’s announcement betrayed German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande, who had brokered the Minsk agreements and, unless Poroshenko relents, is the end of the only existing option for negotiating an end to the Ukrainian conflict. It is hard to imagine that Poroshenko took this step without the permission of the Obama Administration, and of Vice President Biden in particular, who has been in charge of the “Ukrainian project” at least since 2014.
In these connections, Cohen makes the following more general points regarding the G20 meeting and the new Cold War:
§ Two years ago, Obama declared his intention to “isolate” Putin in world affairs. At the G20 meeting, the Russian president was the most sought-after leader by other world leaders. Obama, on the other hand, seemed marginalized apart from the formal ceremonies. Whether this was because he is a “lame duck” president or is no longer taken seriously as a foreign-policy leader, or both, is a matter of interpretation.
§ Unlike in the American political-media establishment, there was little evidence of the demonization of Putin, the essence of US policy toward Russia for several years, at the G20 meeting. In this regard, America hardly seems to be the “leader of the free world.” Other countries, including European ones, may continue their drift away from Washington in their relations with Russia, making it more likely that the European Union will end its economic sanctions on Moscow in January.
§ As for the US presidential campaign, there was little evidence at the G20 meeting that other capitals took seriously Washington charges (all without actual evidence) that Putin’s Russia was trying to disrupt or influence the outcome of the election. In Europe, for example, a full debate is under way about relations with Russia, while in the US establishment anyone who proposes better relations, particularly Donald Trump, is subjected to McCarthyite charges of being a “Kremlin client” or “Putin puppet.” Undeterred, Trump renewed his call for what was called during the preceding Cold War “détente,” arguing that it would be better to have “friendly” relations with Russia, even a partnership, than today’s exceedingly hostile relationship. In effect, Trump has become the pro-détente candidate in the 2016 presidential election, a position once taken by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. The pro–Cold War party’s refusal to engage Trump on these vital issues, instead of Kremlin-baiting him, Cohen concludes, is detrimental to US national security and to American democracy.