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.