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.)
Cohen emphasizes that while V-E (Victory in Europe) Day—a major American holiday, on May 8, when he was growing up in Kentucky—is no longer observed, Victory Day, on May 9, remains the most sacred Russian holiday, a “holiday with tears.” And so it was this year. The day was marked by commemorations across Russia, not only by the military parade on Moscow’s Red Square. The annual events are sponsored by the government, as US media unfailing point out, but the “holiday with tears” is embraced by an overwhelming majority of the Russian people, and for understandable historical reasons.
Most Americans today believe that “we defeated Nazi Germany,” as President Obama wrote on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, a misconception promoted by Hollywood films that portray the US landing at Normandy in June 1944 as the beginning and eventual end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. In truth, America won the war in the Pacific, against Japan, but the Soviet Union fought and destroyed Hitler’s war machine on the “Eastern Front” almost alone from 1941 to 1944, from Moscow, Kursk, and Stalingrad, and eventually to Berlin in 1945. Some 75 to 80 percent of all German casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. By the time US and British forces landed at Normandy, Hitler had relatively few divisions available to withstand the successful invasion, many more still embattled against the Soviet Union.
Soviet losses were almost unimaginable. More than 27 million Soviet citizens died, 60 to 70 percent of them ethnic Russians. Some 1,700 Soviet cities and towns were all but destroyed. Most families lost a close or extended member. Perhaps most tellingly, only three of every hundred boys who graduated from high school in 1941–42 returned from the war. This meant that millions of Soviet children never knew their fathers and that millions of Soviet women never married. (They were known as “Ivan’s widows,” many doomed to lonely lives in the often-harsh postwar Soviet Union.) This is an enduring part of Russia’s “holiday with tears.” This is in large measure why so many Russians, not just the Kremlin, have watched with alarm NATO creep from Germany to their country’s borders since the late 1990s; why they resent and fear Washington political claims on the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia; and why they say of NATO’s ongoing buildup in the Baltic states and Poland that “never has so much Western military power been amassed on our borders since the Nazi invasion in June 1941.” All of this history and living memory underlies Russia’s reaction to the new Cold War.
Meanwhile, on May 8 and 9, today’s Russia was being portrayed—at renewed Senate hearings in Washington—as an existential threat to America, as having committed an “act of war against American democracy” by “hijacking” the 2016 presidential election on behalf of President Trump, with whom the Kremlin is said to have “colluded.” By end of day on May 9, Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey was said to be a cover-up of that collusion. About these events in Washington, Cohen made (or reiterated) the following points, which he and Batchelor discussed:
§ After nearly a year, no actual facts have yet been presented to support the charges of Kremlin “meddling” in the 2016 election or of “collusion” by Trump or his “associates,” only allegations and vague intelligence “assessments.” On the other hand, strong evidence has appeared that for more than a year elements of the US Intelligence Community—almost certainly the FBI and CIA—have been engaged in shadowy operations designed to link Trump to Putin’s Kremlin. Cohen terms this “Intelgate,” and he thinks it is what must be investigated first and foremost. Certainly, Intel leaks and “reports,” in evident “collusion” with the failed Clinton campaign, have driven the “Kremlingate” narrative from the outset, eagerly amplified almost daily by the mainstream media, but which show no interest at all in Intelgate.
§ During his campaign, Trump promised to strive for more “cooperation with Russia,” above all against international terrorism and beginning in Syria. This policy may have antagonized the US Intelligence Community more than any other aspect of Trump’s presidential bid. In any event, elements in those agencies have since done much to sabotage it.
§ Russia has suffered more from jihadist terrorism than has any other Western country. For many Russians, it is becoming an existential threat similar to German fascism in the 1930s. Therefore, they naturally want another wartime alliance with the United States, as Putin has repeatedly proposed. Despite the political price he has paid for allegations of “collusion” with the Kremlin, Trump too still seems to want it, and has continued to pursue cooperation in Syria with Putin, publicly and privately, since becoming president. Indeed, on May 10, Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was scheduled to meet with Trump in Washington, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Putin in Moscow not long ago. But then, also on May 9, Trump fired Comey. Accusations that he did so to prevent Comey’s investigation of some Trump conspiracy with the Kremlin may again thwart steps toward the necessary détente with Moscow, even though Comey’s transgressions are diverse and his public statements about Putin and Russia particularly inept and uninformed. (Unrealistically, we may hope that Comey’s removal will prompt questions that have yet to be asked about what Cohen hopes will become known as Intelgate.)
§ The consequences seem not to matter to the leadership of the Democratic Party or to the bipartisan Cold War coalition in Washington. They clearly prefer pursuing still-baseless allegations against Trump to diminishing today’s actual dangers of war with Russia. On May 8-9, they should instead have gone to Moscow to commemorate the historic victory over Nazi Germany. But they were only following precedent: President Obama boycotted the 70th anniversary commemoration in Moscow in 2015, another step in the new Cold War that has emanated primarily from Washington.