Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Recent reports suggest that a formal meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is being seriously discussed in Washington and Moscow. Such ritualized but often substantive “summits,” as they were termed, were frequently used during the 40-year US-Soviet Cold War to, among other things, reduce conflicts and increase cooperation between the two superpowers. They were most important when tensions were highest. Some were very successful, some less so, others were deemed failures. Given today’s extraordinarily toxic political circumstances, even leaving aside powerful opposition in Washington (including inside the Trump administration) to any cooperation with the Kremlin, we may wonder if anything positive would come from a Trump-Putin summit. But it is necessary, even imperative, that Washington and Moscow try.
The reason should be clear. As Cohen first began to argue in 2014, the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its predecessor, and steadily becoming even more so. It’s time to update, however briefly, the reasons, of which there are already at least ten:
1. The political epicenter of the new Cold War is not in far-away Berlin, as it was from the late 1940s on, but directly on Russia’s borders, from the Baltic states and Ukraine to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Each of these new Cold War fronts is, or has recently been, fraught with the possibly of hot war. US-Russian military relations are especially tense today in the Baltic region, where a large-scale NATO buildup is under way, and in Ukraine, where a US-Russian proxy war is intensifying. The “Soviet Bloc” that once served as a buffer between NATO and Russia no longer exists. And many imaginable incidents on the West’s new Eastern Front, intentional or unintentional, could easily trigger actual war between the United States and Russia. What brought about this unprecedented situation on Russia’s borders—at least since the Nazi German invasion in 1941—was, of course, the exceedingly unwise decision, in the late 1990s, to expand NATO eastward. Done in the name of “security,” it has made all the states involved only more insecure.
2. Proxy wars were a feature of the old Cold War, but usually small ones in what was called the “Third World”—in Africa, for example—and they rarely involved many, if any, Soviet or American personnel, mostly only money and weapons. Today’s US-Russian proxy wars are different, located in the center of geopolitics and accompanied by too many American and Russian trainers, minders, and possibly fighters. Two have already erupted: in Georgia in 2008, where Russian forces fought a Georgian army financed, trained, and minded by American funds and personnel; and in Syria, where in February scores of Russians were killed by US-backed anti-Assad forces. Moscow did not retaliate, but it has pledged to do so if there is “a next time,” as there very well may be. If so, this would in effect be war directly between Russia and America. Meanwhile, the risk of such a direct conflict continues to grow in Ukraine, where the country’s US-backed but politically failing President Petro Poroshenko seems increasingly tempted to launch another all-out military assault on rebel-controlled Donbass, backed by Moscow. If he does so, and the assault does not quickly fail as previous ones have, Russia will certainly intervene in eastern Ukraine with a truly tangible “invasion.” Washington will then have to make a fateful war-or-peace decision. Having already reneged on its commitments to the Minsk Accords, which are the best hope for ending the four-year Ukrainian crisis peacefully, Kiev seems to have an unrelenting impulse to be a tail wagging the dog of war. Certainly, its capacity for provocations and disinformation are second to none, as evidenced again last week by the faked “assassination and resurrection” of the journalist Arkady Babchenko.