Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton, continue their weekly discussion of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen begins by expressing to the Russian people and government profound sympathy and sorrow for the death of scores of Russians, most of them young children, who perished in the fire at a Kemerovo shopping and entertainment complex. He does so on his own behalf but also, he hopes, on behalf of most Americans.
Cohen then discusses several subjects related to his long, often-stated belief that the new US-Russian Cold War is more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor, including the possibility of nuclear war. Having previously discussed other factors (see his postings at TheNation.com), he turns to current developments:
1. “Russiagate” and the attempted killing of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK have two aspects in common. Both blame Putin personally. And no actual facts have yet been made public.
§ Having discussed the fallacies of “Russiagate” often and at length, Cohen focuses on the Skripal affair. Putin had no conceivable motive, especially considering the upcoming World Cup Games in Russia, which both the government and the people consider to be very prestigious and thus important for the nation. No forensic or other evidence has yet been presented as to the nature of the purported nerve agent used or whether Russia still possesses it; or, even if so, whether Russia really is the only state whose agents did so; or when, where, and how it was inflicted on Skripal and his daughter; or why they and many others said to have been affected by this “lethal” agent are still alive. Nonetheless, even before the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has issued its obligatory tests, and while refusing to give the Russian government a required sample to test, the British leaders declared that it was “highly likely” Putin’s Kremlin had ordered the attack.
§ Nonetheless, on this flimsy basis, Western governments, led by the UK and reluctantly by the Trump administration, rushed to expel 100 or more Russian diplomats—the greatest number ever in this long history of such episodes.
§ It should be noted, however, that not all European governments did so, and a few others in only a token way, thereby again revealing European divisions over Russia policy.
2. This episode increases the risk of nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
§ Ever since the onset of the Atomic Age, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction has kept the nuclear peace. This may have changed in 2002. when the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from, thereby abrogating, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Since then, the United States and NATO have developed 30 or more anti-missile defense installments on land and sea, several very close to Russia. For Moscow, this was an American attempt to obtain a first-strike capability without mutual destruction. The Kremlin made this concern known to Moscow many times since 2002, proposing instead a mutual US-Russian developed anti-missile system, but was repeatedly rebuffed.
§ On March 1, Putin announced that Russia had developed nuclear weapons capable of eluding any anti-missile system, described it as a restoration of strategic parity, and called for new nuclear-weapons negotiations.
§ American mainstream political and media elites derided Putin’s announcement. Following the evaluation of several American nuclear experts, four Democratic senators appealed to (now former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to (in effect) respond positively to Putin’s appeal. Nothing came of it. Shortly after the Russian presidential election on March 18, President Trump himself, in a congratulatory call to Putin, proposed that they meet soon to discuss the “new nuclear arms race.” Trump was widely traduced as having revealed further evidence that he was “colluding” with Putin, perhaps even somehow controlled by the Kremlin.
§ The result has been, reflected in the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats, even more fraught US-Russian relations and with them, of course, the increased risk of nuclear war.
3. Many Americans, including political and media elites who shape public opinion, have been deluded into thinking, especially since the pseudo–“American-Russian friendship” of the Clinton 1990s, that nuclear war now really is “unthinkable.” That the mass expulsion of diplomats was merely “symbolic” and of no real lasting consequence. In reality, it has become more thinkable.
§ Diplomacy kept the nuclear peace during the preceding Cold War, but the mass expulsions—even pending the Kremlin’s response—seriously undermines the diplomatic process. They even criminalize it, as illustrated by denunciations of Trump’s phone conversation with Putin and by widespread political-media demands after he expelled a large number of Russia’s diplomats that he do “more”—such demands ranging from more sanctions on Russia to more military responses in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere—to prove he is not under Putin’s control. (Identifying all expelled diplomats as “intelligence officers” is also misleading. Posting intelligence officers as diplomats has long been a mutual de facto arrangement tacitly, if not explicitly, agreed upon and known by both sides. Moreover, the designation might apply to embassy officials who study the other country’s economic, social, cultural, or political life. They gather and report “information.”)
§ In this connection, historians remind us of how the great powers gradually “slipped” into World War I. The lesson is the crucial role of diplomacy, now being undermined. Consider, for example, Syria. Recently, US-backed proxies apparently killed a number of Russian citizens also operating there. The Kremlin, through its Ministry of Defense, issued an ominous warning: If this happens again, Moscow will strike militarily not only at the proxies but also at US forces in the region who provided the weapons and launched the missiles. The same razor’s edge could easily occur where the United States and Russia are also eyeball-to-eyeball, as in Ukraine or the Baltic region. (Again, as Trump is being crippled to the extent that he probably could not negotiate a crisis the way President Kennedy did the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.)
4. The causes of the new risks of nuclear war are not “symbolic” but real and primarily political.
§ As diplomacy is diminished, the militarization of US-Russian relations increases.
§ Every weapon developed as extensively as have been nuclear weapons have eventually been used. Washington dropped two atomic bombs, genetic predecessors of their nuclear offspring, on Japan in 1945. (Before 1914, some people thought gas, the new weapon of mass destruction, would never be widely used in warfare.)
§ On both sides today, but especially in Washington, there is talk of developing “more precise nuclear warheads” that could be usable. Use of even a “small, precise” nuclear weapon would cross the Rubicon of apocalypse.
§ Meanwhile, the extreme demonization of Putin and growing Russophobia in the United States are elevating today’s small, less formidable Russia into a threat even graver than was the Soviet Union, against which US nuclear weapons were developed and intended. And this, again, in the context of diminished diplomacy and Trump’s diminished capacity to negotiate.
5. Thus, Cohen’s conclusion that the individuals and larger forces that promote the unproven allegations emanating from “Russiagate” and the Skripal incident are, in effect, nuclear-war mongers.
§ People who learn of Cohen’s views from the John Batchelor Show or elsewhere often ask him, “What can we do?”
§ There are no profound answers, only suggestions, such as that people can demand that their representatives in Congress protest these developments. (Overwhelmingly, members of Congress promote them or remain silent.) In the past, anti–Cold War, anti-nuke grassroots movements needed to be effective, and they had, leadership figures in Washington, particularly in Congress. Those in Congress and elsewhere silent today should echo the philosopher Hillel the Elder, as did Mikhail Gorbachev when he was nearly isolated in high Soviet circles: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
§ People could also demand that mainstream print, broadcast, and cable media, which are licensed to serve the public interest, stop boycotting dozens of authoritative experts (not political partisans) who can counter the arguments of the near monopoly of pro–Cold War, anti-Trump Russia-policy voices. Media could start by replacing on-air, in-print former US intelligence chiefs, such as former CIA director John Brennan, who have their own agendas and some complicity in creating today’s dire relations with Russia, with alternative, even opposing opinions.
And people who are believers can pray.