Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
For several years, Cohen has argued that the new Cold War is more dangerous than its 45-year predecessor, which, it is often said, “we barely survived.” Here he updates and aggregates evidence for that argument. Meanwhile, many American participants and commentators continue to deny—for personal and political reasons—that there is a new Cold War. Anyone doubting its existence needs only read leading US newspapers or watch television “news” broadcasts; or consult the growing number of declarations of Cold War against Russia, as, for example, a particularly extremist one produced recently by a professed bipartisan organization and co-authored by a former Obama Defense Department official, Evelyn Farkas.
Cohen identifies six specific factors that make the new Cold War more perilous than the preceding one:
1. Its confrontational epicenter is not in faraway Berlin or what was then called the “Third World” but directly on Russia’s borders, from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe to Ukraine and the Black Sea, where NATO’s military buildup is ever-growing in the form of more troops, weapons, war planes, ships, and, not to be overlooked, missile-defense installations. NATO now characterizes this vast Eastern front as its “territory.” No such foreign military power has appeared so close to Russia—and to its second city, St. Petersburg—since the Nazi German invasion in 1941. The perception in Moscow is understandable and predictable. Increasingly it is said—in the mass media and privately by high officials—that this constitutes “American aggression against Russia,” and even that “America is at war against Russia.” Compare this alarm, Cohen suggests, with the “Russiagate” allegation that the Kremlin “attacked America” during the 2016 presidential election, for which there is as of yet no empirical evidence, with the tangible evidence Russian officials plainly see for Washington’s current “aggression.” And imagine the potential for hot war—accidental or intentional—in this widespread and growing Russian perception. The ongoing push in Washington to send more weapons to Kiev, which has vowed to use them against the Russian-backed rebels in Donbass, can only escalate those Russian concerns and the danger they represent. (Meanwhile, Kiev is shredding the Minsk peace accords by adopting incompatible legislation.)
2. The possibility of a ramifying US-Russian military conflict may be even more acute in Syria, where Russian-backed Syrian forces are close to decisively defeating anti-Assad fighters, several of them affiliated with terrorist organizations. Russia’s Ministry of Defense has made clear that it believes US forces in Syria are actively aiding and abetting anti-Assad fighters, while putting Russian troops there at grave risk, and has openly declared its willingness to strike against those American units in Syria. What, Cohen asks, will be the reaction in Washington if Russia kills any Americans in Syria?
3. Meanwhile, unlike during the preceding Cold War, when cooperative US-Soviet relations grew steadily after the Cuban-missile crisis of 1962, those ameliorating relations built up over decades are being shredded. Even more are now gravely endangered. Congress and the Trump Administration seem determined to shut down two Russian news agencies in the United States, RT and Sputnik. If so, the Kremlin may well adopt reciprocal measures in Russia, reducing public communication relations, however “propagandistic” on both sides. A veteran CNN correspondent reports from Moscow that “arms control is hanging by a thread.” And the unprecedented seizure and search of the Russian consultant in San Francisco last month has convinced some Russian officials, not unreasonably, that influential forces in Washington want a complete rupture of diplomatic relations with Moscow.
4. During the preceding Cold War, no Soviet leader was demonized by the US political-media establishment as Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, has been for nearly a decade. Russia and relations with Moscow have been so Putinized that Russia no longer seems to have any legitimate national interests at home or abroad, whose acknowledgment is the first premise of negotiations. For a fresh example of this unprecedented factor, Cohen cites the relevant passages in Hillary Clinton’s recent memoir, What Happened.
5. “Russiagate” is also unprecedented. The ways it exacerbates the new Cold War are various and growing. Its multiple “investigations” increasingly imply that once customary relations with Russia may be “collusion with the Kremlin,” including financial ones. Similarly, anti–Cold War opinions are casually labeled “weaponized Russian disinformation” and pro-Kremlin “propaganda.” Not surprisingly, very few such opinions appear in mainstream American newspapers or on network broadcasts. (More dissenting views on official foreign policy appear in mainstream Russian media than can be found in their American counterparts.) Above all, perhaps, “Russiagate” has effectively paralyzed President Trump in any crisis negotiations he may have to conduct with Putin, no matter how existential. Imagine, for example, President John F. Kennedy so assailed as a “Kremlin puppet” during the Cuban-missile crisis. He would have been unable politically to make the compromises both he and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev did in order to end the crisis without nuclear war. However much US politicians and media loathe Trump, Cohen adds, they should fear the possibility of war with Russia more.
6. And, also in sharp contrast to policymaking in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, there are virtually no anti–Cold War media, politicians, or politics in mainstream America today. Without effective opposition, including robust public debate, bad policy outcomes are more likely, even in democracies.
To these largely unprecedented Cold War factors, Cohen adds three other new circumstances:
One is the myth that post-Soviet Russia is too weak to wage a prolonged Cold War and will eventually capitulate to Washington and Brussels. This is, of course, the logic behind the tsunami of sanctions leveled against Moscow since 2014. Leave aside that several international financial monitoring institutions have recorded Russia’s significant economic recovery in the last two years or so. It is, for example, posed to become the world’s largest exporter of wheat. Leave aside Russia’s vast natural, human, and territorial resources. Recall instead that there is no such instance of capitulation in modern Russian history, no matter how devastating and costly the circumstances. Contrary to marginally representative Russian voices promoted to say otherwise, neither the nation’s elites nor its people will fundamentally change the country’s leadership or policies under Western pressure. Indeed, many mainstream Russian policy intellectuals and other commentators have already accepted that the new Cold War, for which they hold the West responsible, may be as long as the preceding one.
Second is the lingering view in the US establishment, fostered by an aspiration of former President Obama, that Russia is “isolated” in world affairs. The number of foreign meetings and agreements conducted by Putin in recent years refutes this notion, but there is something else novel and important. The “Soviet Bloc” in Eastern Europe during the preceding Cold War was an alliance of the unwilling, crisis-ridden, and economically burdensome. Russia’s emerging allies and partners today are voluntary and profitable, from the smaller BRICS states to China. Indeed, it is the US “sphere of influence” that seems to be splintering today, as evidenced by Brexit and Catalonia (whose referendum additionally may put the 2014 Russian-backed succession referendum in Crimea in a somewhat different light). And how else can we interpret the growing rapprochement between NATO member Turkey and Russia or the historic recent visit by the Saudi king to Moscow, which resulted in agreements involving billions of dollars of purchases and investment in weapons and energy? Whose trajectory, historians may ask, was toward isolation in world affairs?
Third, of course, is the role of China, a great rising power. During the preceding Cold War, it was a rival of the Soviet Union and thus a “card” to be played against Moscow. Today, it is Russia’s political, economic, and potentially military partner—a joint Russian-Chinese naval exercise is scheduled to begin next week—a new circumstance that is likely to have a profound effect elsewhere, including in India, Pakistan, Japan, and even Afghanistan.
Most of these new and substantially unprecedented Cold War factors go undiscussed in Washington, not only because of “Russiagate” hysteria. American triumphalism since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 plays an important role, as does a lingering American provincialism sometimes termed “exceptionalism.” Meanwhile, the three gravest threats to American national security—international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and cyber attacks that could inadvertently trigger nuclear war—go largely unattended. As does the essential truth that none of these can be diminished without a partnership with Russia. Even those kinds of realities were recognized during the 45-year Cold War and sometimes acted upon.