Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and radio-show host John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US–Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, can be found here.)
Cohen recalls that in 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis erupted, he warned that the new Cold War might be more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor for several reasons. The political epicenter of this Cold War was on Russia’s borders, first in Ukraine, then in the Baltic region, whereas previously it had been in far-away Berlin. Rules of mutual conduct, which had developed after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, were now missing. And the virulent demonization of Russian President Vladimir Putin was a toxic element unlike any personal anathematizing of Soviet leaders, certainly after Stalin.
Cohen did not then foresee, however, the development of an exceedingly dangerous factor largely absent during the preceding Cold War: orthodox US narratives, promoted uncritically by the mainstream media, whose “facts” remain questionable but which are directly influencing Washington policy-making in ways that risk war with Russia. Cohen and Batchelor discuss four of these, which are mostly allegations, not actual evidence:
—That Putin intervened in the 2016 American presidential election in ways that helped put President Trump in the White House, and that Trump’s “associates,” perhaps the president himself, “colluded” with the Kremlin in this “hijacking of American democracy.” Cohen points out there is as yet no forensic evidence that the Kremlin stole and disseminated Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, no reason to assume that American voters were zombie-like citizens animated by Russian “propaganda,” and no grounds to conclude that Trump associates who had business dealings with Russians—as did thousands of Americans—colluded with them in any subversive ways. Nonetheless, this narrative, which declares “Putin’s intervention” to have been an “act of war,” has generated a McCarthyite warfare atmosphere in Washington that makes any conflict-resolution diplomacy exceedingly difficult, not to mention the US-Russian détente promised by Trump during the presidential campaign.
—Still worse, the narrative of Putin having hijacked the American election is now being extended to upcoming elections in allied European countries, for which there is also no compelling evidence. (German intelligence undertook a special investigation of such allegations in that country and found nothing out of the ordinary.) A long and superficially detailed front-page New York Times story [April 18], for example, claimed that Russia, attempting to repeat its subversive success in the United States, is busy promoting its favored candidate in the French presidential election and undermining her opponents. Only buried at the end of story, however, can readers find a statement by a French specialist that this narrative is based on “wild conjecture.” Nonetheless, US media accounts of “Putin’s threat to Europe” seem even more alarming than was the Soviet threat during the preceding Cold War.
—But the current political focus is, Cohen points outs, now on Syria. Here we have a double-standard narrative. When Russian and Syrian forces won the battle of Aleppo a few months ago, the US media presented it as “war crimes” against apparently benign “rebels” and as an indiscriminate campaign that “slaughtered” innocent inhabitants of the city, including children. On the other hand, the ongoing US-led military campaign to take the Iraqi city of Mosul is being presented as a war of “liberation” from Islamic “terrorists.” In fact, the two acts of brutal urban warfare are similar and the number of civilian casualties in Mosul may soon exceed those in Aleppo, if it has not done so already. Nonetheless, American enemies of détente, abetted by the mainstream media, continue to portray Putin as a “war criminal” and thus as an unworthy diplomatic partner.
—Finally, and most recent, Putin’s ally, Syrian President Assad, has been accused of using chemical weapons against his own citizens. In response, on April 6, Trump ordered a missile attack on a Syrian air base, risking war with Russia itself. Here too the mainstream American media has accepted uncritically the White House’s purported evidence for this allegation, even praising Trump’s reaction. But several independent American investigators have cast serious doubt on the White House report, most forcefully MIT professor Theodore Postol, an eminent and highly qualified expert on such matters. Thus far, the mainstream media has steadfastly ignored the findings by Postol and other skeptics. But if the critics are correct in suggesting that someone other than Assad staged the chemical attack, the question raised by Putin himself becomes ominously relevant: Was this a “provocation” intended to instigate direct military conflict between the United States and Russia? And if so, Putin added, should we expect more such provocations?
As a result, most observers, both in Washington and Moscow, now assume that any prospects of a Trump-Putin détente are dead. Cohen is not so sure, pointing to two pieces of evidence. Despite all the harsh words between the two countries, Trump and Putin have still refrained from personally vilifying the other, which suggests each still sees the other as a potential diplomatic partner. Second, the recent meeting between Putin and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Moscow, suggests both sides are still looking ahead and, indeed, that quiet cooperation is under way in regard to Syria.
More fundamental, Cohen concludes, are two questions that Washington must decide, and in ways it has not previously done. The first is which is the No. 1 threat to American and international security today: Russia or international terrorism? Against all evidence, reason, and real American interests, the dominant, bipartisan US Cold War narrative continues to insist it is Russia. Thus, a leading spokesman of this myopic consensus, Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, recently suggested [April 12] that Trump should abandon the idea of an alliance with Putin in Syria and instead ally the United States with the Islamic State (ISIS). The second fundamental question is directly related. Putin is regularly accused of supporting Assad instead of fighting terrorism in Syria. Putin has long replied: If Assad is removed, as has been US policy, the highly personalized Syrian state will implode, as happened in Iraq and in Libya, and with it the Syrian army. Who then, Putin asks, will provide “boots on the ground” against the Islamic State? No one in Washington has plausibly refuted his logic, which comes down to a choice—at least for now: either it will be Assad in Damascus or it will be the Islamic State. For Russia, this is an existential choice, considering the very considerable threat the Syrian war represents to its national security. And, Cohen adds, not only for Russia.