Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Now in their fourth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Cohen begins by reiterating his historical generalization that 20th-century episodes of détente—under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan—encountered ferocious opposition, even sabotage, on the part of enemies of more cooperative US-Russian relations in Washington, Moscow, and elsewhere, and today’s proposed new détente will be even more fiercely opposed. Regarding recent developments, Cohen makes the following points:
§ The nearly hour-long Trump-Putin phone conversation, on January 28, indicated in various ways that a serious effort to diminish the new Cold War through the traditional process of détente is under way in both capitals. Despite being slurred in the US political-media establishment as a “Kremlin puppet,” Trump demonstrated his determination to pursue a more cooperative relationship with Moscow. Official summaries characterized the conversation as “warm” and as between equal leaders, without the customary hectoring practiced by the Obama administration. (This reintroduces the parity principle so important in 20th-century détente policies.) The phone conversation also sent a signal to recalcitrant bureaucrats in national-security institutions of both systems that the “boss” wants a new policy. (This may be related, Cohen adds, to Trump’s acceptance of several formal resignations by ranking State Department officials.) And though US sanctions on Russia may not have been discussed directly, this is of little importance since they are primarily symbolic. (Official summaries did mention, however, “restoring economic relations” between the two countries.) The economic sanctions that really matter to Russia are those enacted by the European Union, at the insistence of the Obama administration, and the Trump administration sent a signal to Europe it would not oppose their termination. Following the phone conversation, sources in Washington and Moscow suggested that a Trump-Putin summit meeting, another détente tradition, is being discussed.
§ High-level and other influential American enemies of détente quickly struck back, mostly by vilifying both Trump and Putin as unworthy national-security partners. Senator John McCain and a New York Times editorial (January 29) issued characterizations of Putin’s leadership over the years so distorted they seemed more like Saturday Night Live’s ongoing parodies. Times columnist Paul Krugman (January 30) chipped in with his now well-practiced neo-McCarthyite baiting of “the Trump-Putin regime” in Washington. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow did the same (January 27), predicting ominously that Trump might end NATO’s highly provocative buildup on Russia’s Western border, which is risking actual, not merely cold, war. Meanwhile, small Eastern European governments continued their “crying wolf” claims of an imminent Russian “invasion,” while the US-back Kiev government seems to have escalated its war against the Donbass rebels in the hope of an incident that would regain its fading support in Washington by stopping any kind of détente.
§ Putin, Cohen points out, has his own pro-détente political limits in Moscow. As head of a vast multiethnic, multi-confessional state, with some 20 million Muslim citizens, he cannot be associated with any anti-Muslim aspects of Trump’s immigration policies. Nor will he accept as a “bargaining chip” Russia’s very important close relations with China or Iran, against which Trump seems intent on pursuing hostile policies. (The “China card” played by Nixon’s adviser Henry Kissinger, who is said to be advising Trump, is no longer applicable.) As for Trump’s suggestion that détente begin with fighting terrorism in Syria and with nuclear-weapons reductions, the first is attainable but not the second. For Moscow, the issue of nuclear weapons is inextricably linked to missile-defense systems being installed around Russia. Trump would need first to revise this Obama policy as well.
§ Finally, Cohen argues that Reagan’s approach to détente, which should interest Trump, also has its limits. Neither Reagan nor the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were vilified so personally by the other’s political establishment. Putin’s demonization in Washington will make it much harder for Trump to build political support for détente in the United States. At the same time, the American’s establishment’s denigration of its own president is causing Moscow policy-makers to ask whether Donald Trump can be an effective détente partner for Russia. Cohen ends by reiterating his long-standing perspective: Détente today is imperative for American national security; Putin is a ready and willing partner, but the fight for détente this time will be more difficult than ever before.