Editor’s Note: The following are adapted from remarks by Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University and New York University, delivered at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on November 24, 2015.
I am delighted to be here in San Francisco with you. The farther you go from Washington and the mainstream media, the better introductions you get!
Some of you may know that the small group of us who have been protesting against the American policy since the Ukraine crisis began two years ago have been described in harsh and derogatory language as “Putin’s apologists, Putin’s useful idiots and Putin’s best friends in America.”
Paris should have changed everything, but for these people it hasn’t. I clicked on the Internet this morning and there it was again. So let me begin with a word about myself.
My answer to these charges is that, “No, I, not you, am a patriot of American national security.” And I actually have been since I started studying Russia about 50 years ago. I started out in Kentucky and then went to Indiana University, and old friends here today can testify that I was doing this many years ago. Along the way I came to a conviction, exactly how and why doesn’t matter, that American national security runs through Moscow. It means that an American president must have a partner in the Kremlin—not a friend, but a partner. This was true when the Soviet Union existed, and this is true today.
And it is true whichever existential or grave world threat you may emphasize. For some people it is climate change, for others it is human rights, for some it is the spread of democracy. For me, for quite a while, it has been the new kind of terrorism that afflicts the world today. These terrorists are no longer “non-state actors.” These guys are organized, they have an army, they have a self-professed state, they have ample funds and they have the ability to hurt us gravely in many parts of the world. Everyone seems to have forgotten 9/11 and Boston, but Paris should have reminded us of what’s at stake.
So for me, international terrorism is the threat in the world today that should be America’s national-security priority. And I mean it should be the top priority for the president of the United States, whether he or she is a Republican or Democrat. It is the existential threat represented by a combination of this new kind of terrorism, religious, ethnic, zealous civil wars—and, still worse, these guys desperately want the raw materials for making weapons of mass destruction. A cup of radioactive material in those planes on 9/11 would have made Lower Manhattan uninhabitable even today.
Terrorists today are using conventional weapons, bombs, mortars, and guns. But if they had a cup of this radioactive material in Paris, Paris would have needed to be evacuated. This is the real threat today. This kind of threat cannot be diminished, contained, still less eradicated unless we have a partner in the Kremlin. That is the long and short of it; note again, I didn’t say a “friend” but a partner. Nixon and Clinton went on about their dear friend Brezhnev and their friend Yeltsin; it was all for show. I don’t care whether we like the Kremlin leader or not; what we need is recognition of our common interests for a partnership—the way two people in business make a contract. They have the same interests and they have to trust each other—because if one person violates the agreement, then the other person’s interests are harmed.
We don’t have this with Russia, even after Paris, and this is essentially what I’ve been saying we need for the past several years. In return people say that my view is “pro-Putin” and unpatriotic, to which I say, “No, this is the very highest form of patriotism in regard to American national security.”
So I will make a few points today, very briefly and rather starkly, rather than give a lecture. I’m less interested in lecturing than in finding out what others here have to say.
My first point is this: The chance for a durable Washington-Moscow strategic partnership was lost in the 1990s after the Soviet Union ended. Actually, it began to be lost earlier, because it was Reagan and Gorbachev who gave us the opportunity for a strategic partnership between 1985–89. And it certainly ended under the Clinton administration, and it didn’t end in Moscow. It ended in Washington—it was squandered and lost in Washington. And it was lost so badly that today, and for at least the last several years (and I would argue since the Georgian war in 2008), we have literally been in a new cold war with Russia. Many people in politics and in the media don’t want to call it this, because if they admit, “Yes, we are in a cold war,” they would have to explain what they were doing during the past 20 years. So they instead say, “No, it is not a cold war.”
Here is my next point. This new cold war has all of the potential to be even more dangerous than the preceding 40-year Cold War, for several reasons. First of all, think about it. The epicenter of the earlier Cold War was in Berlin, not close to Russia. There was a vast buffer zone between Russia and the West in Eastern Europe. Today, the epicenter is in Ukraine, literally on Russia’s borders. It was the Ukrainian conflict that set this off, and politically Ukraine remains a ticking time bomb. Today’s confrontation is not only on Russia’s borders, but it’s in the heart of Russian-Ukrainian “Slavic civilization.” This is a civil war as profound in some ways as was America’s Civil War.
Many Ukrainian antagonists were raised in the same faith, speak the same language, and are intermarried. Does anyone know how many Russian and Ukrainian intermarriages there are today? Millions. Nearly all of their families are intermixed. This continues to be a ticking time bomb that can cause a lot more damage and even greater dangers. The fact that it is right on Russia’s border, and in effect right in the middle of the Russian/Ukrainian soul… or at least half of Ukraine’s soul… since the half of Ukraine yearns to be in Western Europe, this makes it even more dangerous.
My next point and still worse: You will remember that after the Cuban missile crisis, Washington and Moscow developed certain rules of mutual conduct. They saw how dangerously close they had come to a nuclear war, so they adopted “no-nos,” whether they were encoded in treaties or in unofficial understandings. Each side knew where the other’s red line was. Both sides tripped over them on occasion but immediately pulled back because there was a mutual understanding that there were red lines. Today there are no red lines. One of the things that Putin and his predecessor President Medvedev, keep saying to Washington is: You are crossing our red lines! And Washington said and continues to say, “You don’t have any red lines. We have red lines, and we can have all the bases we want around your borders, but you can’t have bases in Canada or Mexico. Your red lines don’t exist.” This clearly illustrates that today there are no mutual rules of conduct.
In recent years, for example there have already been three proxy wars between the United States and Russia; Georgia in 2008, Ukraine beginning in 2014, and prior to Paris… it appeared Syria would be the third. We don’t know yet what position Washington is going to take on Syria. Hollande made his decision; he declared a coalition with Russia. Washington, as they understand in Russia, “is silent or opposed to a coalition with Moscow.”
Another important point: Today there is absolutely no organized anti–cold war or pro-détente political force or movement in the United States at all—not in our political parties, not in the White house, not in the State Department, not in the mainstream media, not in the universities or the “think tanks.” I see a colleague here, nodding her head, because we remember when, in the 1970s through the 1980s, we had allies even in the White House, among aides of the president. We had allies in the State Department, and we had senators and members of the House who were pro-détente and who supported us, who spoke out themselves and listened carefully to our points of view. None of this exists today. Without this kind of openness and advocacy in a democracy, what can we do? We can’t throw bombs to get attention; we can’t get printed in mainstream media, we can’t be heard across the country. This lack of debate in our society is exceedingly dangerous.
My next point is a question: Who is responsible for this new cold war? I don’t ask this question because I want to point a finger at anyone. I am interested in a change in US policy that can only come from the White House, although Congress could help. But we need to know what went wrong with the US-Russia relationship after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, and why… or there won’t be any new thinking. And there will be no new policy. At this point, there is no new thinking in the American political-media establishment. There is a lot of new thinking in the European Parliament. There is a lot of angst in the French media and in Germany and in the Netherlands and even Cameron in London is rethinking.
The position of the current American political media establishment is that this new cold war is all Putin’s fault—all of it, everything. We in America didn’t do anything wrong. At every stage, we were virtuous and wise and Putin was aggressive and a bad man. And therefore, what’s to rethink? Putin has to do all of the rethinking, not us.
I disagree. And this is what has brought the outrageous attacks down on me and my colleagues. I was raised in Kentucky on the adage, “There are two sides to every story.” And these people are saying, “No, to this story, the history of Russian and American relations, there is only one side. There is no need to see any of it through the other side’s eyes. Just get out there and repeat the conventional mainstream establishment narrative.” If we continue doing this, and don’t address the existing situation, we are going to have another “Paris” and not only in the United States.
This is why I say we must be patriots of America’s national security and rethink everything. For whatever reason, the Clinton Administration declared a “winner-takes-all policy” toward post-Soviet Russia. It said, “We won the Cold War.” This isn’t true. Former ambassador to Moscow Jack Matlock during the Reagan-Gorbachev era explains in his books what happened as he stood by Reagan’s side at every step of the negotiations with Gorbachev. The reality is that the Clinton administration adopted unwise policies in its winner-take-all approach. What were the consequences of these policies? There were a lot of consequences. The worst was, it blew the chance for a strategic partnership with Russia at a turning point moment in history.
The four US policies that have most offended Russia and still offend them today are obviously the following:
1) The decision to expand NATO right to Russia’s borders: It’s nonsense when we say Putin has violated the post–Cold War order of Europe. Russia was excluded from the post–Cold War order of Europe by NATO’s expansion. Russia was pushed “somewhere out there” (beyond a zone of security). Russia kept saying, “Let’s do a Pan-European Security Arrangement like Gorbachev and Reagan proposed.” The NATO-expanders said, “This is not military, this is about democracy and free trade, it’s going to be good for Russia, swallow your poison with a smile.” And when the Russians had no choice in the 1990s, they did; but when they grew stronger and had a choice, they no longer stood by silently.
Russia started pushing back, as any Russian leader would have done who was sober and had the support his own country. I don’t say this as a joke. By the end, Yeltsin could barely walk. He was pushed out of the presidency, he didn’t resign voluntarily. But the point is, anyone could have predicted this situation back in the 1990s—and some of us did so, often and as loudly as we were permitted.
2) The refusal on the part of the United States to negotiate on missile defense: Missile defense is now a NATO project. That means missile-defense installations, whether on land or sea (sea is more dangerous) are now part of NATO expansion and its encirclement of Russia. Missile defense is part of the same military system. Russians are absolutely convinced that it is targeted at their nuclear retaliatory capabilities. We say, “Oh no, it’s about Iran, it’s not about you.” But go talk to Ted Postel at MIT. He explains that latter-stage missile defense is an offensive weapon that can hit Russia’s installations. It also violates the IMF Agreement because it can fire cruise missiles. Meanwhile we are accusing Russia of developing cruise missiles again; and they have begun doing so again because we are back in an unnecessary tit-for-tat arms race for the first time in many years.
3) Meddling in Russia’s internal affairs in the name of democracy promotion: In addition to funding the National Endowment for Democracy’s “opposition politics” programs across Russia and Ukraine—are you aware that when Medvedev was president of Russia and Ms. Clinton and Michael McFaul had their wondrous “reset” (which was a rigged diplomatic game, if you looked at the terms of it), that Vice President Biden went to Moscow State University and said that Putin should not return to the presidency. He then said it directly to Putin’s face. Imagine, Putin comes here in the next few weeks and tells Rubio or Clinton they should drop out of the US presidential race!
Are there any red lines left anymore when it comes to our behavior toward Russia. Do we have the right to say or do anything we wish? This extends to everything, and it certainly extends to politics. The White House simply can’t keep its mouth shut, being egged on by vested anti-Russian lobbies and mainstream media. We all believe in democracy, but like it or not, we will not be able to impose democracy on Russia; and if we could, we might not like the democratic outcomes that might result.
So ask yourself, Is there a Russian position that needs to be carefully thought through in the aftermath of Paris? And does Russia have any legitimate interests in the world at all? And if so, what are they? What about their borders? Do they have legitimate interests in Syria?
4) My last point is a prescriptive hope (until Paris, I didn’t think there was much hope at all). Now there is still a chance to achieve the lost partnership with Russia, at least in three realms.
• Ukraine: You know what the Minsk Accords are. They were formulated by Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, and President Putin. They call for a negotiated end to the civil war in Ukraine. They recognize that the conflict has been primarily a civil war and only secondarily a matter of Russian aggression. I don’t care what American mainstream media says—this has been basically a Ukrainian civil war. To put an end to that civil war would be exceedingly security-building today.
• Syria: before Paris I thought there was almost no chance for an American coalition with Russia. Part of it… and I’m not big on psychological analyses, but at least in part it was due to Obama’s mind-fix about Putin. He resents him and speaks out about him in ways that are not helpful. But with Paris and Hollande announcing that there is now a French-Russian coalition, with Germany agreeing, and I would say almost all of Western Europe is on board, there is a chance, but only if the White House seizes the opportunity. We will see very soon.
• The false idea that the nuclear threat ended with the Soviet Union: In fact, the threat became more diverse and difficult. This is something the political elite forgot. It was another disservice of the Clinton administration (and to a certain extent the first President Bush in his reelection campaign) saying that the nuclear dangers of the preceding Cold War era no longer existed after 1991. The reality is that the threat grew, whether by inattention or accident, and is now more dangerous than ever.
Last year, in an unwise pique of anger, Russia withdrew from the Nunn-Lugar Initiative which you may remember was one of the wisest pieces of legislation that Congress ever passed. In the 1990s, we gave Russia money to lock down and secure their materials for making weapons of mass destruction. In addition we paid salaries to their scientists who knew how to make and use these materials and who might otherwise have gone to Syria, Yemen, or the Caucasus to sell their knowledge in order to employ themselves. Russia did withdraw but said it wants to renegotiate Nunn-Lugar on different terms. The White House has refused. After Paris, one hopes that Obama picked up the phone and said, “I’m sending someone over, let’s get this done.”
Unfortunately, today’s reports seem to indicate that the White House and State Department are thinking primarily how to counter Russia’s actions in Syria. They are worried, it was reported, that Russia is diminishing America’s leadership in the world.
Here is the bottom line: We in the United States cannot lead the world alone any longer, if we ever could. Long before Paris, globalization and other developments have occurred that ended the monopolar, US-dominated world. That world is over. A multipolar world has emerged before our eyes, not just in Russia but in five or six capitals around the world. Washington’s stubborn refusal to embrace this new reality has become part of the problem and not part of the solution. This is where we are today… even after Paris.