Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions—after a two-week “sabbatical”—about the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Cohen laments that during the past two weeks the Obama administration appears to have been undermining cooperation with Moscow on three Cold War fronts.
Refusing to accept President Putin’s compelling argument that the Syrian army and its allies are the only “boots on the ground” fighting the Islamic State effectively, currently around the pivotal city of Aleppo, Washington and its compliant media are condemning the Syrian-Russian military campaign against “moderate” anti-Assad fighters in the area, many of them also jihadists. At risk are the Geneva peace negotiations brokered by Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Regarding the confrontation over Ukraine, where Kiev’s political and economic crisis grows ever worse, the best hope for ending that civil and proxy war, the Minsk Accords, was virtually sabotaged at the UN, where US Ambassador Samantha Power claimed the accords require Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine. (In fact, Crimea is not mentioned in the Minsk agreement.) And in Europe, where opinion mounts favoring an end to the economic sanctions against Russia—as evidenced by the Dutch referendum against admitting Ukraine to the European Union and the French Parliament’s vote in favor of ending the sanctions—the Obama administration (not only Ambassador Power but President Obama himself) is lobbying hard against such a step when the issue comes up for a vote this summer.
Meanwhile, US-led NATO continues to increase its land, sea, and air military build-up on or near Russia’s borders. Not surprisingly, Cohen argues, Moscow responds by sending its planes to inspect a US warship sailing not far from Russia’s military-naval base at Kaliningrad. Preposterously, having for two decades steadily moved its military presence from Berlin to Russia’s borders, and now escalating it, Washington and Brussels accuse Moscow of “provocations against NATO.” Who, Cohen asks, is “provoking” (“aggressing” against) whom? Such NATO moves, he adds, can only stir in Russian minds memories of the German invasion in 1941, the last time such hostile military forces mobilized on the country’s frontier.
Finally, Cohen reports, an influential faction in Kremlin politics has long insisted, behind closed doors, that the US-led West is preparing an actual hot war against Russia, and that Putin has not prepared the country adequately at home or abroad. During the past two weeks, this struggle over policy has erupted in public with three prominent members of the Russian elite charging, sometimes implicitly but also explicitly, that Putin has supported his “fifth column” government headed by Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev. They are not seeking to remove Putin; there is no alternative to him and his public approval ratings, exceeding 80 percent, are too high. But they do want his government replaced and their own policies adopted. Those policies include a Soviet-style mobilization of the economy for war, and more proactive military policies abroad, especially in Ukraine. Cohen wonders whether US and NATO policymakers are sleepwalking toward war with Russia or whether they actively seek it.