Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Recent reports suggest that a formal meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is being seriously discussed in Washington and Moscow. Such ritualized but often substantive “summits,” as they were termed, were frequently used during the 40-year US-Soviet Cold War to, among other things, reduce conflicts and increase cooperation between the two superpowers. They were most important when tensions were highest. Some were very successful, some less so, others were deemed failures. Given today’s extraordinarily toxic political circumstances, even leaving aside powerful opposition in Washington (including inside the Trump administration) to any cooperation with the Kremlin, we may wonder if anything positive would come from a Trump-Putin summit. But it is necessary, even imperative, that Washington and Moscow try.
The reason should be clear. As Cohen first began to argue in 2014, the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its predecessor, and steadily becoming even more so. It’s time to update, however briefly, the reasons, of which there are already at least ten:
1. The political epicenter of the new Cold War is not in far-away Berlin, as it was from the late 1940s on, but directly on Russia’s borders, from the Baltic states and Ukraine to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Each of these new Cold War fronts is, or has recently been, fraught with the possibly of hot war. US-Russian military relations are especially tense today in the Baltic region, where a large-scale NATO buildup is under way, and in Ukraine, where a US-Russian proxy war is intensifying. The “Soviet Bloc” that once served as a buffer between NATO and Russia no longer exists. And many imaginable incidents on the West’s new Eastern Front, intentional or unintentional, could easily trigger actual war between the United States and Russia. What brought about this unprecedented situation on Russia’s borders—at least since the Nazi German invasion in 1941—was, of course, the exceedingly unwise decision, in the late 1990s, to expand NATO eastward. Done in the name of “security,” it has made all the states involved only more insecure.
2. Proxy wars were a feature of the old Cold War, but usually small ones in what was called the “Third World”—in Africa, for example—and they rarely involved many, if any, Soviet or American personnel, mostly only money and weapons. Today’s US-Russian proxy wars are different, located in the center of geopolitics and accompanied by too many American and Russian trainers, minders, and possibly fighters. Two have already erupted: in Georgia in 2008, where Russian forces fought a Georgian army financed, trained, and minded by American funds and personnel; and in Syria, where in February scores of Russians were killed by US-backed anti-Assad forces. Moscow did not retaliate, but it has pledged to do so if there is “a next time,” as there very well may be. If so, this would in effect be war directly between Russia and America. Meanwhile, the risk of such a direct conflict continues to grow in Ukraine, where the country’s US-backed but politically failing President Petro Poroshenko seems increasingly tempted to launch another all-out military assault on rebel-controlled Donbass, backed by Moscow. If he does so, and the assault does not quickly fail as previous ones have, Russia will certainly intervene in eastern Ukraine with a truly tangible “invasion.” Washington will then have to make a fateful war-or-peace decision. Having already reneged on its commitments to the Minsk Accords, which are the best hope for ending the four-year Ukrainian crisis peacefully, Kiev seems to have an unrelenting impulse to be a tail wagging the dog of war. Certainly, its capacity for provocations and disinformation are second to none, as evidenced again last week by the faked “assassination and resurrection” of the journalist Arkady Babchenko.
3. The Western, but especially American, years-long demonization of the Kremlin leader, Putin, is also unprecedented. Too obvious to reiterate here, no Soviet leader, at least since Stalin, was ever subjected to such prolonged, baseless, crudely derogatory personal vilification. Whereas Soviet leaders were generally regarded as acceptable negotiating partners for American presidents, including at major summits, Putin has been made to seem to be an illegitimate national leader—at best “a KGB thug,” at worst a murderous “mafia boss.”
4. Still more, demonizing Putin has generated a widespread Russophobic vilification of Russia itself, or what The New York Times and other mainstream-media outlets have taken to calling “Vladimir Putin’s Russia.” Yesterday’s enemy was Soviet Communism. Today it is increasingly Russia, thereby also delegitimizing Russia as a great power with legitimate national interests. “The Parity Principle,” as Cohen termed it during the preceding Cold War—the principle that both sides had legitimate interests at home and abroad, which was the basis for diplomacy and negotiations, and symbolized by leadership summits—no longer exists, at least on the American side. Nor does the acknowledgment that both sides were to blame, at least to some extent, for that Cold War. Among influential American observers who at least recognize the reality of the new Cold War, “Putin’s Russia” alone is to blame. When there is no recognized parity and shared responsibility, there is little space for diplomacy—only for increasingly militarized relations, as we are witnessing today.
5. Meanwhile, most of the Cold War safeguards—cooperative mechanisms and mutually observed rules of conduct that evolved over decades in order to prevent superpower hot war—have been vaporized or badly frayed since the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, as the UN General Secretary António Guterres, almost alone, has recognized: “The Cold War is back—with a vengeance but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.” Trump’s recent missile strike on Syria carefully avoided killing any Russians there, but here too Moscow has vowed to retaliate against US launchers or other forces involved if there is a “next time,” as, again, there may be. Even the decades-long process of arms control may, we are told by an expert, be coming to an “end.” If so, it will mean an unfettered new nuclear-arms race but also the termination of an ongoing diplomatic process that buffered US-Soviet relations during very bad political times. In short, if there are any new Cold War rules of conduct, they are yet to be formulated and mutually accepted. Nor does this semi-anarchy take into account the new warfare technology of cyber-attacks. What are its implications for the secure functioning of existential Russian and American nuclear command-and-control and early-warning systems that guard against an accidental launching of missiles still on high alert?
6. Russiagate allegations that the American president has been compromised by—or is even an agent of—the Kremlin are also without precedent. These allegations have had profoundly dangerous consequences, among them the nonsensical but mantra-like warfare declaration that “Russia attacked America” during the 2016 presidential election; crippling assaults on President Trump every time he speaks with Putin in person or by phone; and making both Trump and Putin so toxic that even most politicians, journalists, and professors who understand the present-day dangers are reluctant to speak out against US contributions to the new Cold War.
7. Mainstream-media outlets have, of course, played a woeful role in all of this. Unlike in the past, when pro-détente advocates had roughly equal access to mainstream media, today’s new Cold War media enforce their orthodox narrative that Russia is solely to blame. They practice not diversity of opinion and reporting but “confirmation bias.” Alternative voices (with, yes, alternative or opposing facts) rarely appear any longer in the most influential mainstream newspapers or on television or radio broadcasts. One alarming result is that “disinformation” generated by or pleasing to Washington and its allies has consequences before it can be corrected. The fake Babchenko assassination (allegedly ordered by Putin, of course) was quickly exposed, but not the alleged Skripal assassination attempt in the UK, which led to the largest US expulsion of Russian diplomats in history before London’s official version of the story began to fall apart. This too is unprecedented: Cold War without debate, which in turn precludes the frequent rethinking and revising of US policy that characterized the preceding 40-year Cold War—in effect, an enforced dogmatization of US policy that is both exceedingly dangerous and undemocratic.
8. Equally unsurprising, and also very much unlike during the 40-year Cold War, there is virtually no significant opposition in the American mainstream to the US role in the new Cold War—not in the media, not in Congress, not in the two major political parties, not in the universities, not at grassroots levels. This too is unprecedented, dangerous, and contrary to real democracy. Consider only the thunderous silence of scores of large US corporations that have been doing profitable business in post-Soviet Russia for years, from fast-food chains and automobile manufacturers to pharmaceutical and energy giants. And contrast their behavior to that of CEOs of PepsiCo, Control Data, IBM, and other major American corporations seeking entry to the Soviet market in the 1970s and 1980s, when they publicly supported and even funded pro-détente organizations and politicians. How to explain the silence of their counterparts today, who are usually so profit-motivated? Are they too fearful of being labeled “pro-Putin” or possibly “pro-Trump”? If so, will this Cold War continue to unfold with only very rare profiles of courage in any high places?
9. And then there is the widespread escalatory myth that today’s Russia, unlike the Soviet Union, is too weak—its economy too small and fragile, its leader too “isolated in international affairs”—to wage a sustained Cold War, and that eventually Putin, who is “punching above his weight,” as the cliché has it, will capitulate. This too is a dangerous delusion. As Cohen has shown previously, “Putin’s Russia” is hardly isolated in world affairs, and is becoming even less so, even in Europe, where at least five governments are tilting away from Washington and Brussels and perhaps from their economic sanctions on Russia. Indeed, despite the sanctions, Russia’s energy industry and agricultural exports are flourishing. Geopolitically, Moscow has many military and related advantages in regions where the new Cold War has unfolded. And no state with Russia’s modern nuclear and other weapons is “punching above its weight.” Above all, the great majority of Russian people have rallied behind Putin because they believe their country is under attack by the US-led West. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Russia’s history understands it is highly unlikely to capitulate under any circumstances.
10. Finally (at least as of now), there is the growing war-like “hysteria” often commented on in both Washington and Moscow. It is driven by various factors, but television talk/“news” broadcasts, which are as common in Russia as in the United States, play a major role. Perhaps only an extensive quantitative study could discern which plays a more lamentable role in promoting this frenzy—MSNBC and CNN or their Russian counterparts. For Cohen, the Russian dark witticism seems apt: “Both are worst” (Oba khuzhe). Again, some of this American broadcast extremism existed during the preceding Cold War, but almost always balanced, even offset, by truly informed, wiser opinions, which are now largely excluded.
Is this analysis of the dangers inherent in the new Cold War itself extremist or alarmist? Even SOME usually reticent specialists would seem to agree with Cohen’s general assessment. Experts gathered by a centrist Washington think tank thought that on a scale of 1 to 10, there is a 5 to 7 chance of actual war with Russia. A former head of British M16 is reported as saying that “for the first time in living memory, there’s a realistic chance of a superpower conflict.” And a respected retired Russian general tells the same think tank that any military confrontation “will end up with the use of nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia.”
In today’s dire circumstances, one Trump-Putin summit cannot eliminate the new Cold War dangers. But US-Soviet summits traditionally served three corollary purposes. They created a kind of security partnership—not a conspiracy—that involved each leader’s limited political capital at home, which the other should recognize and not heedlessly jeopardize. They sent a clear message to the two leaders’ respective national-security bureaucracies, which often did not favor détente-like cooperation, that the “boss” was determined and that they must end their foot-dragging, even sabotage. And summits, with their exalted rituals and intense coverage, usually improved the media-political environment needed to enhance cooperation amid Cold War conflicts. If a Trump-Putin summit achieves even some of those purposes, it might result in a turning away from the precipice that now looms.