Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russia Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com.)
Cohen argues that the American political-media establishment has embraced two fraught narratives for which there is still no public evidence, only “intel” allegations. One, “Kremlingate,” as it is being called, is that Russian President Putin ordered a hacking of the Democratic National Committee and disseminated e-mails found there to help put Donald Trump in the White House. The other is that Syrian President Assad, Putin’s ally, ordered last week’s chemical-weapons attack on Syrian civilians, including young children. A third faith-based narrative, promoted by MSNBC in particular, is now emerging linking the other two: that Trump’s recent missile attack on a Syrian military air base was actually a Putin-Trump plot to free the new American president from the constraints of “Kremlingate” investigations and enable him to do Putin’s bidding in matters of US national security.
Cohen points out that in addition to the absence of any actual evidence for these allegations, there is no logic. The explanation that Putin “hated Hillary Clinton” for protests that took place in Moscow in 2011 is based on a misrepresentation of that event. And why would Assad resort to the use of chemical weapons, thereby risking all the military, political, and diplomatic gains he has achieved in the past year and half, and considering that he had Russian air power at his disposal as an alternative? And the emerging sub-narrative that Putin lied in 2013, when he and President Obama agreed that Assad would destroy all of his chemical weapons, is based on another factual misrepresentation. It was the United Nations and its special agency that verified the full destruction of those weapons, not Putin. (This allegation is clearly intended to discredit the one important act of US-Russian cooperation, a vital one, in recent years.)
The Russian adage “words are also deeds” is proving true, it seems. Trump’s missile attack on Russia’s ally Syria, despite its ramifying dangers, may have had a domestic political purpose—to debunk the narrative that is crippling his presidency, that he is somehow “Putin’s puppet.” If so, Cohen adds, the American mainstream media, which has promoted this narrative for months, is deeply complicit. Meanwhile, the Kremlin, which watches closely as these narratives unfold politically in Washington, has become deeply alarmed, resorting to its own fraught words. The No. 2 leader, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, declared that US-Russian relations have been “ruined,” a statement Cohen does not recall any previous Soviet or post-Soviet leader ever having made. Medvedev added that the two nuclear superpowers are at “the brink” of war. Considering that Medvedev is regarded as the leading pro-Western figure in Putin’s inner circle, imagine what the other side—state patriots, or nationalists, as they are called—is telling Putin. Still more, the Kremlin is saying that Trump’s missile attack on Syria crossed Russia’s “red lines,” with all the warfare implications that term has in Washington as well. And flatly declaring the mysterious use of chemical weapons in Syria a “provocation,” Putin himself warned that forces in Washington were planning more such “provocations” and military strikes. In short, while the Kremlin does not want and will not start a war with the United States, it is preparing for the possibility.