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.)
Cohen argues that a new détente—cooperation in place of conflict—with Russia is imperative due to the unprecedented dangers of the new Cold War, with conflicts from Ukraine and the Baltic region to Syria fraught with real dangers of direct military action between the two nuclear superpowers. President Trump’s summit meeting—as they were called in the 20th century—with Russian President Putin, in Hamburg on July 7, was therefore good news. In effect, the two leaders became détente partners, or at least aspiring ones. The bad news is the unprecedented attacks by a very large part of the US political-media establishment not only on the meeting but on any kind of détente.
The Trump-Putin détente partnership, and prospects for a new detente, must be viewed, Cohen suggests, in the context of their 20th-century predecessors. He and Batchelor discuss partnerships between Eisenhower and Khrushchev, Nixon and Brezhnev, and Reagan and Gorbachev. All were opposed by powerful forces in Washington (and in Moscow); one was likely sabotaged (by the U-2 episode that aborted the process set in motion by Eisenhower and Khrushchev); all had some successes but mostly failed, except the one enacted by Reagan and Gorbachev from 1985 to 1989. (Reagan thought, when he left the White House, “We have ended the Cold War,” and Gorbachev, still Soviet leader, agreed.)
No matter how imperative, and no matter how important to the US national interest, the new Trump-Putin détente partnership faces unprecedented obstacles in Washington. Above all, “Russiagate” allegations that Trump or his associates “colluded” with Putin’s “hijacking of American democracy” during the 2016 presidential campaign continue to grow despite the lack of any actual evidence for either accusation, indeed despite several allegations having been disproved. (For example, “17 US intelligence agencies” did not agree that Putin hacked and disseminated DNC emails on behalf of Trump; the FBI having admitted it never examined the DNC computers, there is not even any verified forensic evidence as to who hacked them or even that they were hacked; and allegations that Putin also hacked French and German elections, to further make this case against him, have been denied by security authorities in those countries.) For the first time in American history, a president risks being crippled, if not threatened with impeachment, as he initiates a necessary détente relationship with Russia. In this context, Trump demonstrated considerable determination in meeting privately with Putin in Hamburg. But whether he has enough determination, skill, or political support to be a reliable détente partner is a very open question. (This is why Cohen thinks Putin himself had to raise the “Russiagate” question in order to ascertain whether or not Trump could actually implement their agreements in the face of opposition, even sabotage, in Washington—a question that skeptics in Putin’s own inner circle are pressing on the Russian leader.)
Though we do not know all that was discussed and agreed upon in Hamburg—détente partners have always kept some “secrets” to protect the diplomatic process of cooperation—Cohen thinks the “summit’s” four main achievements were: formalizing and symbolizing the new détente partnership between the American and Russian presidents; agreement to cooperate in Syria against terrorist forces there, not only in the limited ways announced, but in more expansive ways, which meant agreeing with Moscow that Syrian President Assad must remain at least until ISIS is fully defeated; creating a bilateral US-Russian channel for negotiating a settlement of the Ukrainian civil and proxy war, thereby bypassing, or reducing, the role played thus far by Germany and France, which has largely failed; and agreeing to discuss ways to limit the dangers of cyber technology in international affairs. Though Trump was forced to talk back this agenda item, no doubt it remains on the US-Russian agenda, a subject of negotiation, as it should be, considering the ways in which cyber attacks could undermine nuclear security on both sides.
Cohen and Batchelor then discuss the prospects of each of these agreements. Cohen points out that Putin is under pressure at home to retaliate in kind, however belatedly, to Obama’s “sanctions” imposed in December 2016— in particular, the seizing of two real estate properties owned by Russia in the United States and the expulsion of 35 purported Russian intelligence agents posing as diplomats. To do so now would further jeopardize the new Trump-Putin détente process, so Putin is hoping Trump will at least return the properties to Russia.
Neither Cohen nor Batchelor is unduly optimistic about the prospects of the Trump-Putin détente. Major political problems exist on both sides, but particularly in Washington. Cohen points out that if, as some informed commentators think, “Russiagate” is mainly the product of some US intelligence agencies and their allies in the mainstream media and in Congress, outright attempts to undermine any détente are likely. Was it merely coincidence, he asks, that new “Russiagate” leaks to media appeared on the eve of the Trump-Putin meeting and immediately after it?