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 thinks three moments of truth about the current state of American-Russian relations were recently revealed, but so little covered in the mainstream media that he was reminded of an old routine by the comedian George Carlin. A local radio newscaster begins his report: “Nuclear war in Europe. Details after the sports.” Cohen and Batchelor discuss each of the developments at some length:
First, Cohen has long warned that the new Cold War is fraught with the possibility of a Cuban missile crisis–like situation on any one of its several fronts: in the Baltic and Black seas regions, where NATO is undertaking a major military buildup on Russia’s borders; in Ukraine, where a civil and proxy war, also on Russia’s borders, is now in its fourth year; and in Syria, where American and Russian warplanes are conducting mounting operations in increasingly approximate air space with, it turns out, less “deconfliction” than thought, at least by American commanders. On June 18, a US plane shot down a Syrian military aircraft. Allied with Syria and fighting there at its government’s official invitation, unlike American forces, which are there in violation of international law, Moscow regarded this as a provocative act of war. After a nearly 24-hour pause, during which the Putin leadership debated its response, the Russian military announced that henceforth any US aircraft flying where Russia and Syrian were conducting operations would be “targeted”—that is, warned to leave immediately or be shot down. A red line had been crossed by the United States, as the Soviet Union had done in Cuba in 1962, and this time Washington had to decide whether to cross yet another in the direction of war between the nuclear superpowers. Washington wisely retreated, the Department of Defense announcing it would “reposition” its war planes away from Russian-Syrian operations, adding that it “was ready to cooperate with Russia in Syria.” Whether such a crisis has actually been averted in Syria depends on who made the decision to shoot down the Syrian plane. If made by a Washington faction determined to sabotage President Trump’s professed hope to cooperate militarily with Moscow against terrorism in Syria—as happened in September 2016, when President Obama had reached a similar agreement with Russian President Putin—the struggle inside the Trump administration and its warfare agencies, along with the crisis of June 18-19, may not be over.
In any event, Cohen argues, such potentially fateful US-Russian confrontations are inherent in the new Cold War, not only in Syria. Hence the imperative to end, or at least seriously diminish, it.