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. (Previous installments, now in their fifth year, are at TheNation.com.)
The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Cohen points out, is widely regarded as a landmark event in the preceding Cold War. It was the closest the United States and (then-Soviet) Russia ever came to intentional war, very possibly nuclear war. And its lessons have been taught ever since: No such confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers should ever be permitted to happen again; and if it does, only diplomacy of the kind practiced by President John F. Kennedy during the crisis, including secret negotiations, can save both countries, and the world, from catastrophe. Indeed, in the decades following that sobering event, Washington and Moscow enacted forms of cooperation to limit their conflicts and prevent a recapitulation of the Cuban episode—mutual codes of Cold War conduct; a myriad of public and secret communications; nuclear-arms agreements; periodic summit meetings; and other regularized processes that kept the nuclear peace.
But the new US-Russian Cold War has vaporized most of those restraining conventions, especially since the conflict over Ukraine in 2014, and even more since the “Russiagate” allegations against candidate and then President Donald Trump began in 2016. (The now ritualistic charge that Russian “meddling” in the 2016 American presidential election—“meddling” being something that both sides have done in one form or another for decades—constituted “an attack on America” is not only preposterous but dangerous warmongering.) During the first two weeks of August, thus arose in Syria the real possibility of a new Cuban-like crisis and of war with Russia. (Other possibilities simmer in Ukraine and in the Baltic region.)
The danger unfolded less in the context of Syrian developments than that of “Russiagate.” For more than a year, President Trump had been hectored almost daily—mainly by Democrats and much of the media—to “get tougher” with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin in order to demonstrate that his election had not been abetted by “collusion with the Kremlin.” To his credit, Trump remained publicly committed to his campaign promise to “cooperate with Russia” for the sake of US national security, while also “getting tougher” by sending weapons to Ukraine, imposing mounting economic sanctions on Moscow, and expelling large numbers of Russian diplomats, even shutting a Russian consulate in the United States, as President Obama had unwisely done. But “Russiagate” advocates continuously moved the goal posts of “tougher” until the end zone, war, loomed on the horizon.
As it did during the days from reports on April 7 that Syrian President Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people in Douma to the launching of US missiles against Syria on the night of April 13-14. This might well have resulted in war with Russia because of two little-noticed red lines Putin’s Kremlin had laid down in Syria. In a speech on March 1, Putin stated that Russia’s new elusive missiles were available to protect Moscow’s “allies,” which clearly included Damascus. And shortly later, when perhaps scores of Russian troops were killed in Syria by US-backed anti-Assad fighters, Russia’s military and civilian leadership vowed “retaliation” if this happened again, specifically against American forces in Syria and any US launchers of the weapons used. (Russian troops are embedded with many Syrian units and thus potential collateral damage.)
And yet, an evidently reluctant Trump launched more than a hundred missiles at Syria on August 13-14. Just how reluctant he was to risk a Cuban-like crisis in Syria, still more any chance of war with Russia, is clear from what actually happened. Rejecting more expansive and devastating options, Trump chose one that gave Russia (and thus Syria) advance warning; that killed no Russians (or perhaps anyone else); and struck no essential political or military targets in Damascus, only purported chemical-weapons facilities. The Kremlin’s red lines were carefully and widely skirted.
Nonetheless, those events of April are ominous and may well forebode worse to come, for several reasons:
§ The very limited, carefully crafted attack on Syria was clearly not undertaken primarily for objective military reasons but for political ones related to “Russiagate” allegations against Trump. (Just how political is suggested by the circumstances: No evidence had yet been produced that Assad was responsible for the alleged chemical attack, and the missiles were launched as OPCW investigators were in route to Douma. And, it might be added, as a similar official allegation against the Kremlin in the UK, involving the Skripal affair, appeared to be falling apart.) We might well fault Trump for being insufficiently strong—politically or psychologically—to resist warfare demands to prove his “innocence,” but the primary responsibility lies with “Russiagate” promoters who seek only to impeach the president, politicians and journalists for whom Stormy Daniels seems to be a higher priority than averting nuclear war with Russia. They are are mostly Democrats and pro-Democratic media, but also Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, who declared, “If…we back off because Putin threatens to retaliate, that is a disaster for us throughout the world.” No, senator, that is a Cuban missile crisis that was not resolved peacefully and a disaster for the entire world.
§ More generally, for the first time since the onset of the nuclear age, there is not in the White House an American president fully empowered—“legitimate” enough, Russiagaters allege—to negotiate with a Kremlin leader in such dire circumstances, as Trump has discovered every time he has tried. Or, in an existential crisis, to avert nuclear war the way President Kennedy did in 1962. Given the escalating dynamic evidenced in recent months, this generalization may be tested sooner rather than later. (It doesn’t help, of course, that Trump has surrounded himself with appointees and aides who apparently do not share his opinion that it is imperative “to cooperate with Russia,” but instead people who seem to personify the worst aspects of Cold War zealotry and Russophobia while lacking elementary knowledge of US-Russian relations over the years.)
§ Meanwhile, there is the Moscow policy elite who believe that “America has been at war against Russia”—political, economic, and military—for more than a decade, and whose views are often mirror images of those of Lindsey Graham and other establishment zealots. (History has witnessed this perilous axis of American-Russian “hard-liners” before.) In this essential context, Putin appears to be, in words and deeds, the moderate, still calling Western leaders “our partners and colleagues,” still asking for understanding and negotiations, still being far less “aggressive” than he could be. Our legions of Putin demonizers will say this is a false analysis, but it too should not be tested.