Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions about the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Cohen begins by reminding listeners that the preceding 40-year Cold War was accompanied by factional, often behind-the-scenes politics for and against US-Soviet Cold War relations, and which often spilled over into the media. It is happening again, perhaps more dangerously and disgracefully.
Last week’s still somewhat mysterious episode in Crimea was an important example. Russian President Putin announced that Kiev had sent agents with terrorist intent to (now) Russia’s Crimean peninsula. They were captured and one or more Russian security agents were killed. Putin said the episode showed that Kiev had no real interest in the Minsk peace talks and that he would no longer participate in them, the other participants being the leaders of Germany, France, and Ukraine. Kiev said the episode was a Russian provocation signaling Putin’s intent to launch a large-scale “invasion” of Ukraine. Cohen asks, as is always asked when a crime is committed, who had a motive? So far as he can judge, Putin had none. Kiev, on the other hand, is in a deepening economic-social political crisis and losing its Western support, especially in Europe. Cohen thinks it fully possible that Kiev staged the episode to rally that flagging support by (yet again) pointing to Putin’s impending “aggression.” Washington seemed to support Kiev’s version—leading Cohen to wonder whether a faction in the administration was also involved—while Europe, certainly Germany, openly doubted Kiev’s version. If Putin is serious about quitting the Minsk negotiations, Cohen adds, it means war is now the only way to end the Ukrainian civil and proxy war, a way certainly favored by some factions in Washington and Kiev.
Factional politics were even clearer regarding Syria, where Obama had proposed military cooperation with Russia against the Islamic State—in effect, finally accepting Putin’s longstanding proposal—along with important agreements that would reduce the danger of nuclear war. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post had reported strong factional opposition to both of Obama’s initiatives—in effect, a kind of détente with Russia—and both have been halted, though whether temporarily or permanently is unclear. Cohen thinks we will soon know, because Putin needs a decision by Obama now as the crucial battle for Aleppo intensifies. Under his own pressure at home, Putin seems resolved to end the Islamic State’s occupation of Syria, Aleppo being a strategic site, without or with US cooperation, which he would prefer to have.
Cohen and Batchelor end with the Times article about Paul Manafort, in effect Donald Trump’s campaign manager, which alleges Manafort’s pro-Russian and corrupt dealings on behalf of Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. For Cohen, the article is further evidence of the Times’s discarding its own longstanding journalistic standards in the service of US policy in the new Cold War and now on behalf of the Clinton presidential campaign, which is trying to run against “Trump-Putin.” In the latter connection, the Times had already published what can only be viewed as a number of neo-McCarthyite articles against Trump and his associates, labeling them Putin’s “agents.” The Manafort article is another and even more telling example.
The article fails several fundamental standards. Its source for the allegation that Manafort was financially corrupt in Ukraine came from Kiev’s “Anti-Corruption Committee,” which even the IMF regards as an oxymoron and a reason the IMF has not released billions of dollars pledged to Kiev. The Times must have known this when it received the “documents.” Second, when working to rebrand Yanukovych after the latter’s earlier electoral defeat, Manafort was hardly “pro-Putin.” Putin and Yanukovich profoundly distrusted each other at that time and Manafort urged Yanukovych to strike an economic arrangement with the European Union, not with Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union, which Yanukovych tried to do. Third, Manafort did no more politically in Ukraine, indeed considerably less, than had other American electoral advisers in other countries, who were also paid very well. Cohen recalls the famous case of Clinton political operatives setting up in Moscow to steer Russian President Yeltsin to a (purported) reelection victory in 1996. Indeed, the role of the Americans was so large that Time magazine featured their effort on its cover and HBO made a feature film about them. For Cohen, the real question is not wrongdoing by Manafort but whether any American PR/election advisers should be so intimately, and financially, involved in any foreign elections. Fourth, the charge that Manafort had financial dealings with Russian “oligarchs” is ludicrous. Which of the dozens, or scores, of American corporations doing business in Russia and neighboring countries, from Exxon Mobil to McDonald’s and Ford, have not, given Russia’s oligarchic economic system?
The degradation of The New York Times (announced on its front page last week in a declaration that it would suspend its own standards in covering Trump and his presidential campaign) is, according to Cohen, especially lamentable. Once the Times set high journalistic standards for young journalists elsewhere in the media. Judging by the growing number of young ”journalists” who assail critics of US policy toward Russia as Kremlin “apologists,” “stooges,” and “useful idiots,” rather than actually study the issues and debate the critics, the Times is no longer an exemplar. Unprofessional, unbalanced journalism is another reason Cohen thinks this Cold War is more dangerous than was the preceding one—as well as a mainstream media disgrace.