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). With fighting having escalated between the US-backed Kiev government and Russian-backed rebels in Donbass, this week’s discussion focuses again on Ukraine’s role in the new Cold War since 2013–2014.
Cohen begins with a generalization: As the possibility of a Trump-Putin détente grows, so do false narratives, even “fake news,” that the US political-media establishment has deployed, knowingly or not, to characterize the new Cold War and to shape Washington policy. Since Trump became president, for example, allegations that his would-be partner Putin has “killed” personal opponents and journalists (for which there are no actual facts) have redoubled, as have allegations that he hacked the DNC in order to put Trump in the White House (for which the “facts” are extremely tenuous and hotly disputed even by American experts), all the while, according to a New York Times editorial on February 7, “snuffing out Russia’s once-incipient democracy” (a process that actually began under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin). In this toxically mendacious context, Cohen makes the following “alternative” points regarding the more than three-year long Ukrainian civil and proxy war:
§ The orthodox US narrative that Putin alone is responsible for the new Cold War hangs largely on his alleged unprovoked “aggression” against Ukraine in 2014 and ever since. (The narrative is sustained in part by the near-total absence of any American mainstream reporting of what is actually happening in Kiev-controlled or rebel-controlled territories.) In fact, Putin’s actions both in Donbass, where an indigenous rebellion broke out against the overthrow of the legally elected president in Kiev three years ago, and in Crimea, which had been part of Russia for more than 200 years (about as long as the United States has existed), was a direct reaction to the longstanding campaign by Washington and Brussels to bring Ukraine into NATO’s “sphere of influence,” itself a form of political aggression. Cohen discusses the centuries of intimate relations between large segments of Ukrainian society and Russia, including family ties, concluding that it was reckless and immoral for Washington and Brussels to impose upon Kiev a choice between Russia and the West, thereby fostering, if not precipitating, civil war. And to flatly reject Putin’s counter-proposal for a three-way Ukrainian-Russian-Western relationship. In this regard, Washington and Brussels bear considerable responsibility for the 10,000 who have died in the ensuing civil and proxy war, but they have yet to assume any responsibility at all.
§ A similar false narrative quickly emerged to explain the recent escalation of fighting along the cease-fire zone in Ukraine. There are no facts to support the US political-media establishment’s contention that Putin initiated the escalation—all reported facts point to Kiev—or any logic whatsoever: Why would Putin, who has openly welcomed Trump’s détente initiative, seek to provoke or challenge the new American president at this critical moment? Whether or not Kiev was actively encouraged by anti-détente forces in Washington is unclear, but a real possibility. (Inflammatory remarks made by Senators McCain and Graham in Ukraine, in January, now circulating on a video, may be telling evidence. If so, the blood of the 40 or more who died in the January–February fighting is on their hands as well.)
§ What, Cohen asks, are the chances of Trump-Putin cooperation to end the Ukrainian crisis? If Ukraine is not to fragment into two, three, or more parts, a united Ukraine will have to be militarily non-aligned (that is, never a member of NATO) and free to have prosperous economic relations with both Russia and the West. The Minsk Accords, drafted by Germany and France and endorsed by Moscow and Kiev, would have moved Ukraine in this direction, but have been repeatedly thwarted, primarily by Kiev. Whether or not full backing for Minsk by both Trump and Putin, particularly the provision giving rebel territories some degree of home rule, would end the Ukrainian civil war is far from certain, especially as it might result in the overthrow of the current Kiev government by well-armed ultra-nationalist forces, but for now there is no peaceful alternative.
Cohen concludes that even if Trump and Putin adopt a wise joint policy toward Ukraine, neither leader has much political capital to spare at home. Trump is opposed by virtually across-the-political-spectrum opposition to any kind of détente with Russia, especially regarding Ukraine. And Putin can never be seen at home as “selling out” Russia’s “brethren” anywhere in southeast Ukraine. Whether both leaders have the understanding and determination to end Ukraine’s tragic and utterly pointless war, which has left the country in ruins, remains to be seen.