Did Russiagate Just Escalate Ukraine’s War?
President Trump has agreed to arm the Ukrainian military in its fight with Russian-backed forces in the Donbass region. Leading Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen says it’s the latest Russiagate-driven escalation of the new Cold War
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. President Trump has approved a major weapons sale that could inflame the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Trump has reportedly agreed to supply the Ukrainian military with Javelin anti-tank missiles to fight Russian back forces in the eastern Donbass region.
President Obama had considered a similar move but ultimately ruled against it when he was in office because he didn’t want to fuel a proxy war. Now Russia says Trump’s decision makes the U.S. “an accomplice in igniting a war”.
Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and Princeton University. Professor Cohen, welcome. What does Trump’s decision mean for the conflict in Ukraine?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it’s going to make everything worse. I mean, it certainly could not have been done, possibly, for political reasons. The official reason insofar as you can get an official reason for anything being done in Washington these days, is that we’re sending defense aid weapons.
I have no idea what a defense aid weapon is. Is it artillery that only shoots in one direction? I mean, there really is no such thing as defense aid weapons unless it’s body armor. These are weapons. Exalted weapons. The official reason is it’s to keep Russia from committing a new military offensive against Ukraine. But there is no possibility of that whatsoever.
The only two alleged — and I think there are two sides to this story — military offenses reportedly, and this will outrage many of your viewers, but so be it, that Russia committed against Ukraine was the annexation of Crimea and support for what is an indigenous civil war in Donbass against the Kiev government. That happened in 2014. What is it? Going on nearly four years ago. The rebels, if we can call them that, in Donbass do not fight outside their own territory. They’re essentially defending the Donbass against the armies of Kiev.
There’s no evidence whatsoever that Russia’s going to launch a new offence against Ukraine, and, therefore, Ukraine, Kiev in particular, needs these weapons. I think it’s bad on all counts. It discourages Kiev from negotiating according to the Minsk agreements, which remain the only roadmap we have supported by Europe for peace in Ukraine. It utterly discourages them. It also makes no sense militarily because Russia can escalate much faster than the United States can, since Ukraine is on its borders. Obama, himself, who was pressured to give these weapons to Ukraine, again by Liberal Democrats and others, refused on that grounds. He said, “What the point? We have to ship all this stuff to Ukraine, and Russia will just truck it across the border into the Donbass and counter it.” It’s just escalation. In all likelihood, more deaths, more fighting.
But here’s what really worries me, Aaron. The government, the regime in Kiev, which we support, is a very sick, if not dying, regime. It has no popularity. The president, Poroshenko, I think his favorable ratings are something like 3, 4, 5 percent. For all the glad-handing about Ukraine’s reasonable recent economic success, there is almost none. It’s a dying economy. Its GDP is, I think, a full third less than what it was when the war began in 2014.
What democracy exists in the country is greatly endangered by armed neo-fascist battalions that hate Poroshenko as much as they hate Russia. To give such a government, that might be in its death agonies, weapons. Stop and think, historically, what striken governments do to try to save themselves. They go to war. To try to save themselves, to build popular support at home.
If these weapons, and I don’t know how many there are going to be or what kind they’re going to be. Trump clearly didn’t want to do it. He was compelled to do it. He may drag his feet on implementing it, but if these weapons are enough to make Kiev think it could stage one last successful offense against the rebels in Donbass, even though two previous ended disastrously for Kiev, then it risks broader, more murderous war with Russia because it’s a proxy war. I think it’s a reckless, dangerous, and pointless decision done for political — not military or strategic — reasons.
AARON MATÉ: And political reasons do you think those are?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we know what they are. I mean, come on. What have we watched. I mean, we may think that Trump is the worst president in American history. Be my guest. Maybe he is. I don’t know. Everybody says so on CNN and MSN. He’s the worst president we ever had. Okay. But he’s done one thing that’s absolutely essential. And I have to now give my broader perspective. We are in new cold war that is much more dangerous than the last cold war for various reasons.
One is that the new cold war today, as we talk, includes three fronts. U.S.-Russian fronts, they’re fought with hot war. That’s Syria. That’s the reckless NATO military build-up on Russia’s western boarders, which has resulted in a situation today that ordinarily artillery, not missiles, ordinary artillery, can hit Russia’s second city of Saint Petersburg. Just think about that and the instability. And the third front is Ukraine. Which has been, as people say, more or less frozen because Kiev couldn’t mount a new offense. If it does that, then the consequences that I spoke of will follow. Trump clearly, however bad of president he’s been, in these new cold war conditions, had an idea when he campaigned. He didn’t state it in a policy wonkish way. He just said, “Wouldn’t it be great to cooperate with Russia?” Yes. I think it would be more than great. I think it’s in our national security. It’s vital in these dangerous circumstances to cooperate with Russia. But you know what’s happened better than I do. You’ve been following this story.
Somebody cooked up this Russiagate bunk that any cooperation with Russia was clearly treasonous because Putin put Trump in office. Complete nonsense. Reckless nonsense. Every time Trump does something that we would have been grateful to previous presidents for doing — going back to Eisenhower in the first détente, and even Nixon in his détente, and Reagan with his détente with the Soviet Union that he thought had ended the Cold War. We all said, “Good. Good. At last we don’t live under the danger of nuclear war and all the rest.” Trump does any of that, and he tried to do quite a bit. He’s denounced in the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSN, NBC, and all the rest as a treasonous president.
He gives them something. He has his secretary of state, who clearly doesn’t believe it, Rex Tillerson, say highly accusatory things about Russia. Things that secretary of states don’t usually say because they’re supposed to do diplomacy. And Trump has been giving these hawks, who are feeding off Russiagate, bits of what they want. The last bit are these weapons to Ukraine. It’s the only reason for it. It makes no sense. It’s detrimental to our national interests in every other regard. This is why I have argued, and all your liberal progressive friends say I’m a traitor too, that it’s Russiagate and these false allegations, not Trump, that constitute the main danger to American national security. You can see it again with this shipment of arms to Ukraine.
AARON MATÉ: Professor Cohen, what do you think, if at all, the Russiagate story actually is? I mean, so much of it has been based on this Steele dossier, which was paid for by private sources. Trump’s opponents first in the Republican party and then by the Clinton campaign and the DNC. Do you think there’s any weight to the story at all that Putin and the Russian government might have had some sort of campaign to promote Trump’s election, even in a minor way?
STEPHEN COHEN: Ah, even in a minor way. Sure, because great powers — and Russia even when it’s on its knees is a great power by virtue of its size and nuclear weapons and talented citizens — great powers meddle in other country’s political affairs. We do it more than anybody else. Just look at the budget for our foreign broadcasting. It far exceeds what Russia spends for its RT Television network or its radio network, Sputnik. This is what great powers do to prove they’re great. They meddle in other people’s internal affairs.
If you’re asking me is it possible that some Russians, possibly even some with official connections — I have no idea what the expression “link to the Kremlin” means, but with some official connections — pumped their version of information into our media space during the 2016 election, I would say probably so. So what? If you regard this as somehow decisive, then you have utter contempt for American voters. You’re saying that we’re zombies just waiting for a signal from Putin to tell us how to vote. Or to develop our conflicts. I mean, the next thing that we’re going to hear is that Putin invented slavery in America which led to our racial problems. This is beyond preposterous.
The people, the dimwits, who cook up these narratives aren’t even smart. I can make up better stories than that. Which brings us to this dossier you mentioned. This thing allegedly compiled by a retired British intelligence agency. First of all, almost none of it’s been verified, other than the fact that Trump was once in Moscow in 2013 for a beauty pageant. But you could have read that in the newspapers. The dossier is a weird document.
Steele says he got all the information from Russian intelligence officers in high places, and he paid them maybe over a million dollars for this. Now, take it in context. We say Putin is the master KGB agent. By the way, if he was a master KGB agent, how come he never got promoted beyond the rank of colonel? Because I have a number of friends, and they were friends, they were fellow historians, who are KGB guys, FSB guys in the post-Soviet period, who were historians. I worked in the archives with them. They were Putin’s age, and they were generals. Putin couldn’t have been that master for a KGB agent. But let’s say it’s so. Really, would these people in and around the Kremlin really risk their families, their jobs, their status, maybe their lives, by sending illicit information to some guy in London who hadn’t been in Russia in 15 years? How did he pay them? How did they transmit the information? And why in the dossier are there so many factual errors? An informed person in or around the Kremlin wouldn’t have made those factual errors. People who make those kinds of factual errors are Western intelligence services.
So I’m not sure where Steele got his information. But we do know one thing, that that dossier led to getting an eavesdropping warrant on Carter Page, who if there was ever an innocent person who ever walked the face of the world, it’s Carter Page. He actually believes in the American dream, every bit of it, from the naval academy on. But this dossier has played a very nefarious role. It seems to have been what the intelligence community had in mind when it published in January of this year the report that A, Putin had ordered the hacking, had ordered it done through WikiLeaks, and had done it to help Trump.
The dossier is the so-called “highly classified” information they can’t show us, and most of it is … not only is not verifiable, it doesn’t make any sense. Russiagate, the dossier, all of this, coming in the context of this new and more dangerous cold war, Russiagate puts us at great risk. Because, as I wrote in the Nation recently, ever since the beginning of the atomic age, ever since the Soviet Union got the bomb in 1949, and we had it, we have counted on an American president to avoid the most existential catastrophic fate, and that is nuclear war with Russia. And we’ve supported, generally speaking, except maybe the John Birch Society and some of the other crazies. Generally speaking, bipartisan America has supported American presidents in this existential duty to avoid nuclear war.
Trump is being deprived of the ability to pursue that first obligation. Again, existential to us. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it in American history.
AARON MATÉ: We have to leave it there. Profession Stephen Cohen. Professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and Princeton University. Thank you.
STEPHEN COHEN: Thank you, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.