Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Pointless and recklessly irresponsible new sanctions recently adopted almost unanimously by Congress against Russia are, as Cohen has long argued, evidence that the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor. Still worse, the sanctions, inspired more by unverified “Russiagate” allegations against Trump than by anything Moscow has actually done recently, further prevent him from seeking cooperation instead of conflict with the Kremlin, as previous presidents did and indeed as President Trump has tried to do. In themselves, sanctions are expressions of petulant attitudes, not real policy-making, and Moscow will cope with these as it has with many previous ones. After all, Russia has been under one kind of US sanction or another periodically for one hundred years, ever since Washington refused to recognize the new Soviet government in 1917 for 15 years, and without interruption since the Jackson-Vanick sanctions of the 1970s, followed by those of the Magnitsky Act, the ones leveled by former President Obama, and now these new ones. But today’s US-Russian relations really are, as President Trump has tweeted, “at an all-time & very dangerous low.” Consider, says Cohen, the following combination of factors, which are without precedent:
§ Unlike during the preceding Cold War, the new one includes three fronts fraught with the possibility of hot war between the two nuclear superpowers: in the Baltic region where NATO continues its provocative military buildup on Russia’s borders; in Ukraine, also on Russia’s borders, where the civil-proxy war could escalated at any moment; and in Syria, where US and Russia military forces are often fighting in close proximity. All are sites of miscalculations or accidents waiting to happen.
§ Meanwhile, US-Russian cooperative relations, diplomatic processes, and even nuclear-arms-control treaties built up over decades are unraveling, if not already destroyed. Efforts to bolster or revive them are blocked in Washington.
§ Also unlike during the preceding Cold War, there is no anti–Cold War opposition in mainstream American politics or media. In the past, there were always enough anti–Cold War members of Congress, particularly in the senate, to provide a rallying point for opponents of escalation across the country. Today there are almost none in either house. (The Senate voted 98 to 2 for new anti-Russian sanctions. Some members of Congress speak privately with alarm about the “trajectory of US-Russian relations,” but, intimidated by Russiagate allegations and the neo-McCarthyist slurring of dissenting voices, are reluctant to speak out.) What kind of democratic representative body is this, Cohen asks, one that neither debates nor takes opposing initiatives? And, he also asks, what kind of Democratic Party has this one become, one whose Russiagate loathing for Trump and Putin far exceeds its concerns for American national security?
§ The mainstream media bear heavy responsibility for this perilous situation. For years, according to Cohen, they have covered Russia, and its leader, President Putin, in particular, in slanted, unbalanced ways far worse than their reporting and commentary during the preceding Cold War. Editorializing about the “new Cold War,” there is no rethinking of US policy; Putin is solely to blame. (See, e.g., Washington Post editorial, Aug. 1.) When Moscow reacts to NATO’s build-up on its borders by fortifying its defenses within Russia’s borders, those countermeasures are “Putin’s saber-rattling.” (Gordon and Schmitt, New York Times, p. 1, Aug. 1.) Few if any alternative views are permitted in reported stories or on op-ed pages. The same is true of mainstream media coverage of “Russiagate,” which steadily escalates the new Cold War while all but preventing Trump from implementing his promise to “cooperate with Russia.” A study by Veteran Intelligence Officers for Sanity concluding that the theft of DNC e-mails during the 2016 presidential campaign was not a “Kremlin hack,” as is almost unanimously alleged, but instead, an insider leak, goes unreported in mainstream media and thus undiscussed. (For this, see Patrick Lawrence, TheNation.com, Aug. 9) Meanwhile, well-funded efforts to purge US media of “Russian disinformation,” that is, to censor American media, goes unopposed in establishment media. (For this, see James Carden, TheNation.com, Aug. 8) Alternative American media seem powerless to offset the political dominance of the establishment press and television networks, even though their aggregated contrarian reporting and commentary are readily available on Johnson’s Russia List and at eastwestaccord.com.
Considering all these unprecedented factors, it needs to be emphasized again: President Trump is right about this “all-time low & very dangerous” moment in US-Russian relations.
Having recently returned from Russia, Cohen reports that the political situation there is also worsening, primarily because of the Cold War fervor in Washington, including the politics of Russiagate and and new sanctions. Contrary to opinion in the American political-media establishment, Putin has long been a moderate, restraining factor in the new Cold War, but his political space for moderation is rapidly diminishing. His reaction to the congressional sanctions—reducing the number of personnel in US official outposts in Russia to the far lesser number of Russians in American ones—was the least he could have done. Far harsher political and economic countermeasures are being widely discussed in Moscow, and urged on Putin. For now, he resists, explaining, “I do not want to make things worse,” but he too has a surrounding political elite and it is playing a growing role against any accommodation or restraint in regard to US policy. Meanwhile, the pro-American faction in Russian governmental circles is being decimated by Washington’s actions; and, as always happens in times of escalating Cold War, the space for Russian opposition and other dissident politics is rapidly shrinking.
Cohen ends by asking, What is next? He sees little hope for effective opposition in the American political-media establishment, which seems to be afflicted by an unprecedented deficit of uninformed opinion and civic courage. In reaction to the sanctions, Russia will almost certainly move even closer militarily and financially toward China, Iran, and other Washington-designated foes. On the other hand, though Cohen admits this is a faint hope, “old” Europe may save us from even worse. The new sanctions ignorantly and arrogantly trespass on Europe’s sovereign right to decide its own energy security and corporate profits. Influential voices in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and elsewhere have loudly protested the way the sanctions could penalize their energy and other financial dealings with Russia. This goes, of course, to the heart of the “transatlantic alliance,” as do perhaps adumbrations of a desire for policies more independent of Washington’s domineering influence, especially regarding Russia, as suggested, for example, by new French President Macron.
Meanwhile, true to at least to one principle, President Trump seems as yet unwilling to bow completely to this Cold-War American Congress and the unrelenting media campaign against him, especially in regard to Russia. While signing the sanctions legislation, he called it “unconstitutional,” suggesting he may challenge it in court or avoid fully implementing it. His Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continues to be in regular touch with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. And reports suggest that US-Russian intelligence and military cooperation continues in Syria, even though one reason given for the sanctions was inanely said to be Russia’s anti-terror campaign in that country.
We are left then, Cohen points out, relying on Trump and Europe to save us from actual war with Russia. Whether this is tragedy or irony, it is of our own making.