Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor resume—after a two-week recess—their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen begins by reiterating his argument that international terrorism—a modern-day phenomenon that controls territory, has aspects of statehood, commands sizable fighting forces, has agents in many countries outside the Middle East, and is in search of radioactive materials that would make their bombings incalculably more lethal—is the No. 1 threat to the world today, including the United States, Europe, and Russia. Coping with this danger requires an international alliance of governments, first and foremost between the United States and Russia, which is especially qualified to be an American security partner in this regard.
As he promised during the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump has sought, publicly and privately, such an anti-terrorism coalition with Russian President Vladimir Putin. At each stage of the negotiations, the media’s “Russiagate” narrative—allegations that Trump himself or his “associates” have been treasonously compromised by the Kremlin, and for which no actual evidence has yet been produced—has intervened in ways that jeopardize, if not sabotage, the diplomatic process. The two most recent examples are allegations that Trump betrayed intelligence secrets to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during an Oval Office meeting and discussed with him Trump’s recent firing of FBI Director James Comey. And that the president’s son-in-law, and now aide, Jared Kushner, participated in an effort to establish a secret, unofficial “back channel” of communication with Moscow prior to Trump’s inauguration.
Cohen presents a different historical narrative and analysis, including the following general points, which he and Batchelor discuss:
§ Putin, whose country has suffered many devastating terrorist attacks, has sought such a US-Russian anti-terrorism alliance for nearly 17 years, at least since the 9/11 attacks on America, and repeatedly thereafter. Each time the prospect seemed real, at least to Moscow, particularly in the early 2000s under President George W. Bush and briefly under President Barack Obama in 2016, it was thwarted by policymakers or other forces in Washington.
§ Therefore, despite misgivings by some of his senior advisers, Putin saw in Trump’s election another chance for the alliance he has long thought to be in Russia’s essential national interests. It would begin in Syria, as Trump had also proposed. Despite setbacks in Washington and in Syria, Putin and Trump began the diplomatic process—primarily through Lavrov and his counterpart Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, though not only—and sustained it. Putin met personally with Tillerson in Moscow, and he asked Trump to meet with Lavrov in Washington.
§ Putin needed from Trump, via Lavrov, answers to two questions, especially considering serious doubts among his advisers. Were the two sides agreed about the exchange of high-level intelligence required for such an alliance? Trump responded by sharing a piece of classified information about a terrorist threat to American and Russian passenger airliners. In doing so, Trump did nothing unprecedented, improper, or probably even revelatory. (The source involved Israel, whose intelligence agencies work closely with their Russian counterparts, certainly on matters involving terrorism.) Second, Putin needed to know whether Trump, reeling under accusations of being a “Kremlin puppet” and facing a myriad of investigations at home, could be the reliable leadership partner against terrorism that Moscow hoped for. Trump responded by saying he had fired Comey, whom Trump thought, not unreasonably, had been inspiring some of the allegations against him. However inelegantly expressed by Trump, Cohen thinks these were necessary discussions with Lavrov if the US-Russian alliance against terrorism was to proceed.
§ Nor was the Trump team’s search for a secret back channel of communications with Moscow, whether through Russian officials or private American citizens, as Kushner then was, unprecedented or surprising—or improper for a president-elect. (The former diplomat Jack Matlock has said he did it for President-elect Jimmy Carter, as did then–private citizen Michael McFaul for President-elect Obama—while in Moscow, no less. Cohen thinks it possible that Henry Kissinger, whom Putin knows and trusts, was also involved on behalf of President-elect Trump. It’s also worth recalling that President John F. Kennedy used both a private American citizen and the Soviet ambassador in Washington as a back channel during the Cuban missile crisis.) Trump, however, had a special problem. All private communications with the Kremlin eventually end up, of course, in both official Russian and American channels, no matter where they begin, but believing that US intelligence agencies had been behind the allegations against him since the summer of 2016, and particularly the steady stream of leaks to the media, Trump reasonably worried about initiating his back channel through any US institution or agency. Hence attempts by Kushner, and possibly others, to begin with the Russian ambassador to Washington. Not unreasonably, not improperly, but perhaps naively. Recent leaks to the media indicated that even then Kushner was being surveilled, directly or indirectly, by US intelligence.
Cohen concludes by advising listeners that they must decide which is more compelling: the need for an American anti-terrorism alliance with Russia or the still-undocumented allegations called “Russiagate”? For him, Manchester and the recent bombing of a St. Petersburg metro station were more evidence, if any is still needed, that American subways and arenas are not immune.