Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) The Kremlin is charging that a spate of news allegations about financial dealings of Russian President Putin—not only the Panama Papers investigation of offshore investments but also regarding apartments purchased for his daughters and Putin’s “suspected” involvement of the death in Washington of a former top Russian official—are an organized attempt to disrupt US–Russian relations at a critical moment. Cohen is unsure whether these reports—including another alleging Putin’s romance with Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife—are related or organized, but he recalls that similar anti-Soviet “news” regularly appeared during the preceding 40-year Cold War when relations seemed headed toward détente. Certainly, he emphasizes, this is such a moment in the new Cold War when negotiations between Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov suddenly seem promising, especially in regard to the Syrian cease-fire and possibly even the Ukrainian crisis.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Syrian-Russian victory over the Islamic State at Palmyra and elsewhere, “moderate oppositionists” backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey seem to be violating the cease-fire agreement by attacking Syrian forces. Meanwhile, news reports about Putin’s alleged personal “corruption” are clearly intended to present him as an unfit American ally in Syria and anywhere else.
But the Panama Papers did far more political damage to Petro Poroshenko, president of the Washington-backed government in Kiev, revealing that had personally established offshore accounts and, still worse, while his Ukrainian army was suffering a humiliating military defeat at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine, in August 2014. (Unlike Putin, Poroshenko and his offshore accounts were named in the investigation.) With the Kiev government already in deep political and economic crisis, this is a further, and possibly fatal, blow to Poroshenko’s standing with the Ukrainian elite and people. Calls for his impeachment are already being made. Cohen asks how the Obama administration will deal with this latest crisis of its “Ukrainian project,” as it is sometimes derisively termed. Will it, can it, replace Poroshenko—or even any longer control the politics of Kiev?
Batchelor and Cohen conclude by asking what current US presidential candidates have said about the deepening crises in Syria and Ukraine, or in Europe. Cohen argues that only Donald Trump has said anything meaningful and critical of US bipartisan foreign policy. In effect, Trump has asked five fundamental (and dissenting) questions. Should the United States always be the world’s leader and policeman? What is NATO’s proper mission today, 25 years after the end of the Soviet Union and when international terrorism is the main threat to the West? Why does Washington repeatedly pursue a policy of regime change, in Iraq, Libya, possibly in Ukraine, and now in Damascus, even though it always ends in “disaster”? Why is the United States treating Putin’s Russia as an enemy and not as a security partner? And should US nuclear-weapons doctrine include a no–first use pledge, which it does not include? Cohen argues that Trump’s questions are fundamental and urgent, but that instead of engaging them, his opponents (including President Obama) and the media dismiss the issues he raises about foreign policy as ignorant and dangerous. Some even charge that his statements are like “Christmas in the Kremlin” and that he is “the Kremlin’s Candidate”—thereby, Cohen laments, further shutting off the debate we so urgently need.