Monday, June 17, 2019

Stephen Cohen: The Most Dangerous Moment in U.S.-Russian Relations

For those of you not really familiar with Stephen F. Cohen, he was a big name back in the Cold War days. He was part of the dueling Russia narratives then current, and still current in changed form. Cohen, a professor (now emeritus) of Russian studies at Princeton and New York University, was considered on the right to be an outright apologist for the then Soviet Union. His opposite Neocon number was the late Richard Pipes, a professor of history at Harvard for nearly four decades and an influential adviser to President Reagan.

Cohen's wife is revered by Progressives and notorious (reviled?) among conservatives--Katrina vanden Heuvel, New York heiress and editor, publisher, and part-owner of the progressive magazine The Nation. Cohen himself has long written regularly for The Nation. But times change and roles have changed to some degree. Cohen has taken up the cudgels against the Russia Hoax and appears regularly with the likes of Tucker Carlson--to the sputtering dismay of the Left in much the same way Alan Dershowitz has been denounced. Cohen's particular angle is the danger that the reckless--and false--Leftist collusion narrative raises for US-Russian relations. He has come out with a book which expresses his fears: War with Russia: From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate. Here's the blurb from Amazon, to give you a flavor for Cohen's angle:

America is in a new Cold War with Russia even more dangerous than the one the world barely survived in the twentieth century. The Soviet Union is gone, but the two nuclear superpowers are again locked in political and military confrontations, now from Ukraine to Syria. All of this is exacerbated by Washington’s war-like demonizing of the Kremlin leadership and by Russiagate’s unprecedented allegations. US mainstream media accounts are highly selective and seriously misleading. American “disinformation,” not only Russian, is a growing peril. 
In War With Russia?, Stephen F. Cohen—the widely acclaimed historian of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia—gives readers a very different, dissenting narrative of this more dangerous new Cold War from its origins in the 1990s, the actual role of Vladimir Putin, and the 2014 Ukrainian crisis to Donald Trump’s election and today’s unprecedented Russiagate allegations. 
Cohen’s views have made him, it is said, “America’s most controversial Russia expert.” Some say this to denounce him, others to laud him as a bold, highly informed critic of US policies and the dangers they have helped to create.

With that introduction, back in April, 2017, Cohen gave an interview to Democracy Now--an interview which, in my view, has stood the test of time, or at least of the succeeding two years, quite well. Note that to Cohen's credit he came out against the Russia Hoax in the very early days of the Trump administration, before Team Mueller came into being, and his views have remained consistent. He's saying the same things to Democracy Now that he says to Tucker Carlson. The whole interview can be found here, Stephen Cohen: This is Most Dangerous Moment in U.S.-Russian Relations Since Cuban Missile Crisis, but I've excerpted a large portion of Cohen's comments, which appear to be particularly relevant in light of the recent provocative NYT article and my own recent comments with regard to Trump's national security team (to include Pompeo). So, ...

Stephen Cohen, let’s begin with you. Explain what you understand took place in Moscow yesterday in this meeting between the foreign minister, Lavrov, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, joined by the president, Putin.

STEPHEN COHEN: The Russian leadership knows Mr. Tillerson very, very well. For six or seven years, they dealt directly with him, including Putin, on one of the largest energy deals Russia had ever made with a Western energy giant, in this case, ExxonMobil. They would not have made that deal, for many billions of dollars, if they did not think—excuse me—that Mr. Tillerson was a deeply serious, competent and honorable man. Now, we can have our own views about the power of global oil companies in world affairs, but this is a bilateral relationship that was very important. Therefore, when Tillerson came to Moscow yesterday in his new capacity, they knew they were talking with a man of immense experience, because ExxonMobil has its own State Department, its own intelligence services, and a man that they could trust to be candid with them.

And they had questions for Mr. Tillerson. We only heard echoes of that in the public statements. One question was—and, by the way, Lavrov, the foreign minister, met first with Tillerson, then Putin joined them. But altogether, it was about five hours. The first was: What’s going on in Washington? What is this all—all this talk that Putin is our puppet? Are you people operating on that assumption?

[I think Cohen must have misspoken here? "Putin is our puppet." Or didn't he mean "Trump is Putin's puppet?"]

Secondly, and this was very important: Who’s making policy toward us in Washington? Remember that when President Obama had reached an agreement last year with President Putin for joint military cooperation in Syria, our Department of Defense sabotaged that policy by bombing a Syrian troop camp. And Putin publicly said, “Who’s making policy in Washington?” So I think those were the two fundamental questions they were going to ask.

And the third question was that “We had agreed,” said Putin to Tillerson, I assume, “that you now accepted our position, which we have held to for years, but which President Obama rejected, that the choice is between President Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus. You said you accepted that position. But after this chemical gas attack, you seem to have drifted from that position. We need to know now your position, because we’re going to base our military calculations in Syria on what you tell us today.”

I end by saying that Tillerson and President Trump said something extremely important yesterday—it’s been lost in all this madcap Kremlingate in Washington—that American-Russian relations, said President Trump, may be at an all-time low. That’s a very important statement. It gets our attention back on what’s essential. And Tillerson said—and this was important—there is no trust between us. And that’s not acceptable when we’re talking about the two nuclear superpowers. So, for all the media blitz and riff on this, because the mainstream media hears what it wants to hear and has its own narratives, I thought that was very important. The news is very bad, but that was a piece of good news.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But when you say that Russia wanted to know who’s making policy in Washington, what do they suspect, if it’s not Trump and Tillerson? Who might be making policy in Washington?


STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we—I mean, I’m not a conspiracy buff, but we have a certain reality. I did not vote for President Trump, but I certainly supported his campaign promise that cooperation with Russia would be, as he put it, great. And if I have a minute, let me tell you why I think it’s great. I think—and I’ve been doing this for 40 years, studying American-Russian relations, as a professor, but I’ve also been inside occasionally. I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. And arguably, it’s more dangerous, because it’s more complex. Therefore, we—and then, meanwhile, we have in Washington these—and, in my judgment, factless accusations that Trump has somehow been compromised by the Kremlin. So, at this worst moment in American-Russian relations, we have an American president who’s being politically crippled by the worst imaginable—it’s unprecedented. Let’s stop and think. No American president has ever been accused, essentially, of treason. This is what we’re talking about here, or that his associates have committed treason.

Imagine, for example, John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. And for the viewers who are not of a certain age, the Kennedy administration was presented—and the evidence, by the way, was presented to us; they showed us the surveillance photos. There was no doubt what the Soviets had done, putting missile silos in Cuba. No evidence has been presented today of anything. Imagine if Kennedy had been accused of being a secret Soviet Kremlin agent. He would have been crippled. And the only way he could have proved he wasn’t was to have launched a war against the Soviet Union. And at that time, the option was nuclear war.

So the question arises, naturally: Why did Trump launch 50 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian Air Force base, when, God help us, he did kill some people, but was of no military value whatsoever? Was this meant to show “I’m not a Kremlin agent”? Because, normally, a president would have done the following. You would go to the United Nations—though Putin says you should go to The Hague, but they both have investigative units—and ask for an investigation about what happened with those chemical weapons. And then you would decide what to do. But while having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the leader of China, who was deeply humiliated, because he’s an ally of Russia, they rushed off these Tomahawk missiles. So—


STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, I’m not in the mode of bashing Trump if he gets something right. We have to cling to what we have. But—so we asked this question: Why did they do that? And why did Trump do it? And was he fed bad intelligence information or dubious information? We have a long history of that in America. And that’s why the Russians wanted to ask Tillerson, “Who’s making policy? Because we tell you that your narratives aren’t true. But we are”—and, by the way, let me add one thing, because this is—and then I’ll stop. This is very important.

The number two man in the Kremlin leadership, the prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, now, remember who he is. He’s considered to be the most pro-Western member of the leadership. And he was the man on whom President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton based their entire so-called reset. And if we could only—he was sitting in the presidency at the moment—only keep him in power. So everybody liked Prime Minister Medvedev—said, in the aftermath of this, “We are on the brink of war, and American-Russian relations are utterly ruined.” So if the pro-Western faction in the Kremlin is saying that, need I tell you what the so-called state patriots are telling Putin about what’s going on? That’s why what Tillerson said was so important.


  1. Here's Cohen recently in The Nation, an article I found quite reasonable--and I'm not certain I could've said that about The Nation before now.

    1. Yeah, it was good. I linked that somewhere in a comment not too long ago, but the search engine for the site doesn't search comments.

    2. Yeah, for all I know, the article was brought to my attention by your link!

    3. The inability to search comments is a regular source of irritation for me.

  2. Here's a surprise (to me). Bolton was interviewed by the WSJ about a week ago at WSJ's annual CFO Conference. They ran an audience-participation poll - "Compared to previous years, I believe the U.S. is now:
    A- More secure internationally
    B- Less secure
    C- No change"
    The audience voted 63% for A.

    1. I suspect people overall like Trump's firmer persona.