Professor Emeritus of Politics and Russian Studies (at Princeton and NYU) Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen’s subject is both contemporary and historical. The most central, ramifying, and dangerous allegation of Russiagate is that “Russian attacked American democracy” during the 2016 presidential election. After 18 months, there is still no credible evidence for this allegation. On the other hand, many Russians—in the policy elite, the educated middle class, and ordinary citizens—believe that “the United States has been at war with Russia” for 25 years, a perception regularly expressed in the Russian media. They believe this for understandable reasons.
American commentators attribute such views to “Kremlin propaganda.” It is true, Cohen points out, that Russians, like Americans, are strongly influenced by what appears in the media, especially on television, and that Russian television news reporting and commentary are no less politicized than their US counterparts. But elite and middle-class Russians are no less informed and critical-minded than American ones. Indeed, they have more access to daily American news and opinions—from cable and satellite TV, US-funded Russian-language broadcasts and Internet sites, and from Russian sites, such as inosmi.ru, that translate scores of American media articles into Russian daily—than most Americans have to Russian media. (The recent censoring steps taken by the Department of Justice against RT and Sputnik might be viewed in this context.) Generally, Cohen argues, many more Russians are much better informed about Washington politics than Americans are about Moscow politics.
Above all, Russians consider the history of US policy toward post-Soviet Russia since the early 1990s, enacted by both Democrats and Republicans, particularly major episodes that they perceive as warlike and as including acts of “betrayal and deceit” in the form of promises and assurances made to Moscow by Washington and subsequently violated. Cohen briefly itemizes the main examples:
§ Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush negotiated with the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, what they thought was the end of the Cold War on the shared and often expressed premise that it would end “with no losers, only winners.” (For this crucial mutual declaration, see two books by Jack F. Matlock Jr., both presidents’ ambassador to Moscow: Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended and Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray.) But in 1992, during his reelection campaign against Bill Clinton, Bush suddenly declared, “We won the Cold War,” paving the way to the triumphalism of the Clinton administration and the implication that post-Soviet Russia should be treated as a defeated adversary, as were Germany and Japan after World War II. For many knowledgeable Russians, certainly for Gorbachev himself, this was the first American betrayal.
§ For the next eight years, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration based its Russia policy on that triumphalist premise, with wanton disregard for how it was perceived in Russia or what it may portend. The catastrophic “shock therapy” economics imposed on Russia by President Boris Yeltsin was primarily his responsibility, but that draconian policy was emphatically insisted on and (meagerly) funded by Washington. The result was the near ruination of Russia—the worst economic depression in peacetime, the disintegration of the highly professionalized Soviet middle classes, mass poverty, plunging life expectancy, the fostering of an oligarchic financial elite, the plundering of Russia’s wealth, and more. There was also flagrant American “collusion” in Russian politics, particularly in Yeltsin’s 1996 reelection campaign. The Clinton administration bankrolled Yeltsin’s campaign with billions of dollars in loans through international agencies and sent a team of American experts to Moscow to advise and oversee Yeltsin’s initially failing reelection bid. That is, Washington “colluded” with Yeltsin against his presidential rivals. Later, Putin was, and continues to be, misquoted as saying that the end of the Soviet Union was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” What he actually said was that it was “one of the greatest catastrophes,” pointing to the fate of Russia in the 1990s. He was not wrong, as Cohen spelled out in articles in The Nation in the 1990s and in his book Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Russia (published in 2000 and in an expanded paperback edition in 2001). As American “advisers” encamped in Moscow and spread across the country in the 1990s, little wonder so many Russians felt they had been defeated, occupied, and plundered by a foreign power.
§ In 1999, Clinton made clear that the crusade was also a military one, beginning the still-ongoing eastward expansion of NATO, now directly on Russia’s borders in the three Baltic states, and today knocking on the doors of two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine. That so many Russians see NATO’s unrelenting creep from Berlin to within artillery range of St. Petersburg as “war on Russia” hardly needs any comment, especially given the living memory of the 27.5 million Soviet deaths in the war against the Nazi German invasion in 1941. But herein lies yet another “betrayal and deceit,” one that has never been forgotten. In 1990, in return for Gorbachev’s agreement that a reunited Germany would be a NATO member, all of the major powers involved, particularly the first Bush administration, promised that NATO “would not expand one inch to the east.” Many US participants later denied that such a promise had been made, or claimed that Gorbachev misunderstood. But documents recently published by the National Security Archive in Washington prove that the assurance was given on many occasions by many Western leaders, including the Americans. The only answer they can now give is that “Gorbachev should have gotten it in writing,” implying that American promises to Russia are nothing more than deceit in pursuit of domination. (In any event, Cohen thinks that Washington would have violated such a treaty agreement in pursuit of pushing NATO to Russia’s borders, just as it soon violated another crucial treaty.) Later in 1999, Clinton made clear that NATO expansion was not the non-military policy it was proposed to be. For three months, US-led NATO war planes bombed tiny Serbia, Russia’s traditional Slav ally, in effect annexing its province of Kosovo. Visiting Moscow at the time, Cohen heard widely expressed shock, dismay, anger, and perception of yet another betrayal, especially by young Russians, whose views of America were rapidly changing from benign well-wisher to warlike enemy. Meanwhile, also under Clinton, Washington began its still-ongoing campaign to diminish Moscow’s energy sales to Europe, thereby also belying US wishes for Russia’s economic recovery.
§ The George W. Bush administration continued Clinton’s winner-take-all approach to post-Soviet Russia. More than any NATO member, Putin’s Russia assisted the United States in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan after the events of 9/11. In return, Putin expected a genuine US-Russian partnership in place of the aggressive scorn shown to Yeltsin. Instead, by 2002, Bush had resumed intrusive “democracy promotion”—interference, or, in today’s Russiagate parlance, “meddling”—in Russian politics and NATO expansion eastward, and, more fatefully, unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the cornerstone of Russian nuclear security. That led to the ongoing process of ringing Russia with anti-missile installations, now formally a NATO project, on land and sea. In 2008, Bush tried to fast-track Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Though vetoed by Germany and France, the NATO summit that same year promised both former Soviet republics eventual membership. Hardly unrelated, in August Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a Washington protégé, launched a sudden military assault on the Russian protectorate of South Ossetia, inside Georgia, killing a number of Russian citizens. The Kremlin intervened, winning what was the first US-Russian proxy war on its borders and foreshadowing today’s proxy war in Eastern Ukraine.
§ President Obama came to office promising a “new era of American diplomacy,” but his approach to Russia was no different, and was arguably even more militarized and intrusive than his predecessors’. During the short-lived “reset” of relations with the Kremlin, then under President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama’s vice president, Joseph Biden, told a Moscow public audience, and then Putin himself, that Putin should not return to the presidency. (In effect, Obama and Biden were trying to “collude”—however ineptly—with their imagined partner Medvedev against Putin.) In addition to other US “meddling” under way, the administration, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stepped up “democracy promotion” by commenting critically on the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections that followed. By 2011, the administration felt free to betray its own chosen Russian partner, Medvedev, breaking its promise not to use a UN Security Council resolution in order to depose Libyan leader Gaddafi, who was tracked by US-NATO war planes and murdered in the streets. Meanwhile, Obama, like his predecessors, pushed NATO expansion ever closer to Russia, eventually to its borders.
§ Given this history, the fateful events in Kiev in 2014 seem almost inevitable. For the anti-Russian NATO expansionists in Washington, Ukraine had always been “the biggest prize” in the march from Berlin to Russia, as Carl Gershman, head of the official US regime-change institution, the National Endowment for Democracy, candidly stated, and indeed as was clear from American involvement in Ukraine’s earlier “Orange Revolution” in 2004–05. Though the European Union partnership agreement offered to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013 is unfailingly presented as a purely economic and “civilizational” choice, it determinedly excluded Russia as a mutual trading partner while including “military and security” provisions binding Kiev to NATO policy. Yanukovych’s overthrow by what was essentially a planned street coup in February 2014, accompanied by a demonstrative US presence on Maidan Square, led to the highly militarized new Cold War that now so endangers American and international security. Here too there was a broken US promise. Obama assured Putin that he supported the truce between Yanukovych and the street protesters brokered by three EU foreign ministers. Within hours, the protesters headed toward Yanukovych’s official residence, and he fled, yielding to the US-backed ferociously anti-Russian regime now in power and to the US-Russian proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. Certainly, Obama did not prefer real diplomacy with Russia. Repeatedly he refused, or stepped back from, Moscow’s offers of cooperation against ISIS in Syria, until finally Putin acted on his own in September 2015. Typically, Obama left office by imposing new sanctions, essentially economic warfare, on Russia—this time for the alleged but unproved allegations of Russiagate. The sanctions included an unprecedented and reckless threat of covert cyber attacks on Russia. (Assuming this is what Michael Flynn asked the Kremlin, on President-elect Trump’s instructions, not to react to, both deserve our gratitude, not persecution.)
§ It’s through this 25-year history that so many Russians perceive the meaning of Russiagate, which is reported obsessively in their media. For them, an American presidential candidate, and then president, Donald Trump, suddenly appeared proposing to end the US war against Russia for the sake of “cooperation with Russia.” The fictions of Russiagate—Russians have seen multitudes of American “contacts” with their officials, oligarchs, politicians, wheeler-dealers, and ordinary citizens ever since the Soviet Union ended—are designed to prevent Trump from ending the long “war against Russia.” When influential American media outlets denounce as “treasonous” Trump’s diplomacy with Putin regarding Syria and terrorism, for example, Russians see confirmation of their perceptions.
§ Cohen concludes by letting Americans themselves decide whether this Russian perception of US policy is correct or not. Put another way, whether Putin really is the “aggressor” presented almost unanimously by the American political-media establishment or a Kremlin leader reacting to a decades-long “American war against Russia.” Perceptions are at the core of politics, and even if Russians misperceive American intentions, has Washington given them cause to do so? In any case, when a nation-state perceives itself to be under attack, especially a nation with Russia’s history, relations with it become ever more dangerous. There is, Cohen adds, one anomaly: Putin, almost alone among high Russian officials, rarely—if ever—speaks of an “American war against Russia.” Dare we call this statesmanship? Especially in the context of bellicose statements issued almost daily by the US Congress and mainstream media?