Empire Files: US-Russia Relations in “Most Dangerous Moment”
Dr. Stephen Cohen tells host Abby Martin that the real alarming danger today is “a new, multi-front Cuban missile crisis.”
ABBY MARTIN: While many in power recklessly escalate tensions with Russia, there is very little discussion of the geo-political significance of this aggression and the dangerous consequences people could suffer as a result. The establishment’s anti-Russian sentiment goes beyond allegations of election hacking, with the leading US intelligence officials labelling Russia as the number one existential threat to the United States. One of the foremost experts on US-Russia relations is sounding the alarm that the potential for nuclear confrontation is greater than ever before, fueled with virtually no debate by the mass media. Dr. Stephen Cohen is one of the leading scholars on Russia. He’s Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton and New York University and is the author of many books on the subject, including: “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, from Stalinism to the new Cold War,” and the forthcoming book, “Why Cold War Again? How America lost Post-Soviet Russia.”
The Department of Defense has just declared Russia as the number one existential threat facing this country. Professor, it seems so interesting that we just came from a War on Terror to now a War on Russia, despite the rise of ISIS.
STEPHEN COHEN: Right, well they didn’t just do this. I mean, this business, that Russia is the number one existential treat has been unfolding this drama, this false drama at the expense of our national security, maybe for a decade. But it certainly intensified under the Obama Administration because you had the American commander of NATO, the Joint Chiefs of Staff here all saying, “Number one existential treat.” Meanwhile, Russia was of course, in the person of Putin, repeatedly almost begging the United States to join it in an alliance against terrorism, not only in Syria but a kind of global war. I don’t know if a global war against terrorism is possible. That’s a separate issue.
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: But Russia wanted to partner with the United States. Obama was inclined very briefly in September, 2016, I think. But that was killed by our Department of Defense when they attacked those Syrian troops. And so Russia’s been made the number one existential threat. I think that folly because certainly it’s not even on the list of the top five or ten, in my judgement of what really threatens us, has become linked inextricably with this wild demonization of Putin personally. Because it’s the demonization of Putin as a man who assassinates his enemies, who invades countries, who is a… I mean, now in 2017, we’re being told that his alleged hacking of the American election was only part of his plan to destroy democracies around the world, and now he’s going for Europe. I mean, it has really become right up there with the former Soviet threat, but now it’s personified in Putin. It’s this loathing for or demonizing or vilifying of Putin as a leader, as a person, which shades occasionally into Russia-phobia, transferring this … But not that often into vilification of Russia. I think that’s really behind this notion that this is our number one threat. And by the way, it’s not only to the United States, as I said, they’re now talking about the 2017 elections in Europe, and Putin will probably hack those too. I mean, it’s just… there’s no facts or logic to any of this. It’s taken on a life of its own. So, we’ve got Senate Hearings and Obama’s threatened some covert action against Russia, which is very dangerous, because the Kremlin regards this as a declaration of war.
ABBY MARTIN: Oh, absolutely.
STEPHEN COHEN: We don’t know is he going to attack banks or nuclear command and control. I mean, you just don’t do things like this when both sides have got bad nerves and nuclear weapons.
ABBY MARTIN: But the military intelligence community certainly understands. Why this deflection, why this misdirection? It’s a potentially dangerous tinder box.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ve been around long enough to observe and I’ve had enough former students go to work for intelligence communities, and I can remember what happened involving the intelligence communities regarding the Bay of Pigs, when Kennedy was so angry at the bad information they gave him. He said he’d like to break them up. I can remember the bogus information they gave Johnson about the so-called Tunt-Ken(?) Resolution, that dragged us deeper into Vietnam. I can remember Iran Gate scandals witch the CIA was behind under Reagan. We all mention the bad information intelligence gave about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. There’s a long history of wrong intelligence, so let’s deconstruct that. It’s politicized intelligence. So, there is no as far as I know no “the intelligence community”. There’s not even a “the CIA”. There are groups, different political impulses, different vested interests in these organizations and often they’ve been at war among themselves within say the CIA. We know this.
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s a fact. I think we’re seeing that now with the hacking allegations. And in all likelihood later we will discover this was a war within the CIA itself. I mean, the FBI tried not to get involved. It said, “We don’t know.” But it got dragged into it.
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh. Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: So, now your question, what do they really know? I know as close as I can say for a fact, and since we don’t seem to do facts in America anymore, when it comes to Russia we should be careful — that there are very different views about Washington’s policy towards Russia inside the intelligence community. I don’t want to be hyperbolic but to me, this may be the single-most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations. The Cuban Missile Crisis is always said to have been the turning point in our awareness of how dangerous the Cold War was, and that after we avoided nuclear Armageddon over Khrushchev having put missiles or at least the silos in Cuba and then backed down in light of Kennedy’s leadership, that both side became wise. And the Cold War continued but there was a code of conduct. Everybody understood where the danger lines were and that never again did we advertently at least, there were some near misses accidently when radars indicated a nuclear attack and there was none. It was a large seagull or something. We all live at the mercy of this technology. And that was true though for… until Gorbachev and Reagan thought they had ended the Cold War… thought they had ended the Cold war. There was a code of conduct between the Soviet Union and the United States. That doesn’t exist today.
ABBY MARTIN: There’s barely any communication on a diplomatic level.
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s even worse than that, that after the Cuban Missile Crisis ’62, the two sides began to develop interactive cooperation, student exchanges, scientific exchanges, hot lines, constant talks about nuclear weapons, nuclear reductions, trade agreements, cultural … and all this. That’s come to an end, along with communication and yet… And yet, that against this backdrop, I’ve been saying we were in a New Cold War or moving there with Russia for more than ten years. We are certainly there today. But here’s what’s also different, there are now three fronts in the New Cold War that are fraught with the possibility of actual war. There’s the Baltic Region in Poland, where NATO is unwisely building up its military presence. There is, of course, Ukraine, which could explode at any moment.
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: And of course, there’s Syria, where you’ve got Russian and American aircraft and others all flying. So, you’ve got a multi-front potential Cuban Missile Crisis and meanwhile, here in the United States, this hysterical reaction to alleged, because there’s no proof been produced, that somehow Putin put Trump in the White House. This combination of demented public discourse and grave danger abroad, I think makes us in a danger at least comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis. And yet nobody protests, nobody notices and people march on.
ABBY MARTIN: And you’ve compared it, you know, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, saying then we at least knew what was happening. Here this is all based on classified intelligence. We’ll never see an investigation. We’ll never see the evidence, Right?
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah.
ABBY MARTIN: And 52% of Democratic voters don’t just believe that Russia hacked the DMC and Podesta’s emails they think that Russia actually altered the vote.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah.
ABBY MARTIN: That’s a whole other level.
STEPHEN COHEN: Times have changed. When I entered public life such as it was, as a kind of commentator on public affairs, as a young professor at Princeton, there was a debate in the late ’70’s and even in the ’80’s after Gorbachev came to power — should we pursue more Cold War with Russia or should we have what’s called Détente? Détente then… nobody imagined you could actually end the Cold War at that time. But Détente meant introducing more elements of cooperation in the relationship, so we’d be safer. There was a lot of space, political space, media space for both sides in the ’70’s and ’80’s. It was a fair fight. Now it’s not. It’s one hand clapping. The Cold Warriors dominate the media. Now how that happened, the journalism schools who are supposed to say something about media malpractice seemed silent. They’re too busy deploring RT.
ABBY MARTIN: That’s why it’s so scary, because you look… people can mock RT and state media, but when you have a corporate media apparatus that essentially mimics what state media would do, where the New York Times and the Washington Post just paint the narrative for war time and again, whether it’s Libya, Syria or Russia. It seems like this acquiescence and unquestioning stenography. You’ve talked about how these false narratives that dominate the discourse today are more dangerous, of course, than the so-called fake news hysteria. One is that Putin is responsible for the build-up of the New Cold War and one senior military official recently admitted that there are US special operations forces in every single country surrounding Russia. The build-up of NATO forces, of course, at Russia’s border is a huge source of tension. Professor, tell us about the agreement between Gorbachev and Reagan. What NATO was initially supposed to be and how that promise has been broken today.
STEPHEN COHEN: So, you know, the history is well-known. The issue in 1990 was whether or not Germany would be reunited. But the issue became then once Germany is reunited, where does it sit geo-politically, or strategically? And it was proposed to Gorbachev that Germany be put in NATO. England and France, which feared Germany, thought this wasn’t a bad idea, because they could keep control of Germany’s any military aspirations … But for Gorbachev it was really a hard sell at home. After all, 27.5 best we know, Soviet citizens had died in the war against… For Gorbachev this was a hard sell at home and then the issue became NATO itself, which already was in Western Germany. Where would it go? And Baker was later quoted as having promised, he was Secretary of State, NATO would not move one inch east, one inch east. George Cannon(?) whom I knew well when I was at Princeton, and once was thought to be the wisest American about Russia. I’m not sure he was, but he was thought to be, an iconic figure, warned repeatedly when Clinton was considering NATO expansion, this would be the most grievous mistake and it would lead to a new Cold War. But it didn’t take a profound mind to understand this. NATO was a military alliance, had been created in the late ’40’s to deter or fight Soviet Russia. Russia was no longer Soviet, but was still Russia. When you begin to move it slowly, slowly, creep, like Pacman gobbling up all the way to Russia’s border, where it sits now, that worse than trouble is going to ensue. And the way it ramified of course is it was the driving force behind the Georgian War of 2008. We created a proxy army in Georgia. But people say it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian Crisis, but it had everything to do. People say, well… The European Union offered Ukraine a very benign economic relationship. That wasn’t a benign agreement, about 1,000 pages long, and I reported this in one of my first articles on the Crisis and everybody got very angry with me. There’s a section called Military Security Issues and it’s very clear that any country that signs this so-called Eastern Partnership Agreement with the EU is obliged to adhere to NATO security policies. By signing that you became a de facto member of NATO and this was just more of the attempt by Washington to get Ukraine into NATO if not openly, through the back door, and they’re still at it. So, what can we say? That the decision to expand NATO all the way, including Ukraine and Georgia, has created this situation in which none of us are safe. And they call that national security?
ABBY MARTIN: Professor, I wanted to talk briefly about Syria because of course, the US has been screaming about Russia’s intervention in Syria, not really speaking much about their long-standing intervention as well with the funding and arming of Islamic extremists on the ground. Objectively, what has Russia’s interference been? Like, why did they intervene? What was their purpose and what has the outcome been?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let’s start with the outcome, the fall of Aleppo.
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: There are two narratives. Well, there’s probably a third, but there are two competing around the world, that the Russian-Syrian-Iranian taking of Aleppo was an act of great liberation. The city was liberated from terrorists. And there’s plenty of footage, the footage can be faked, of people rejoicing when the Syrian Army entered on the ground and the Russians sent in the humanitarian trucks. The other is it was a war crime committed by Russia and Syria against people called rebels and their kids. I believe, though I know, that war… that’s why we call war hell, the innocent suffer above all — that the truth is closer to the liberation scenario, than to the war crimes scenario. ISIS retook Palmera, the city that the Russians had liberated and had that concert at some months before. Clearly imbedded by the United States, which is allowing as the United States seeks to “liberate Mosel” allows the jihadists to go from Iraq unfettered into Syria probably to help retake Palmira.
ABBY MARTIN: Yeah, right, they left that back door open.
STEPHEN COHEN: Right. I mean, they see them, they could bomb them if they wanted to, but they’re moderate jihadists, I guess. But why did Russia go in? That really is the best question and in some ways we could discuss today because it was left out of all the scenarios, demonizing Russia. You get the opinion because it’s left with you that Russia has no legitimate national interests abroad. Russia should be okay with a NATO military base right on its… several places, from Ukraine up to the Baltics, on its border which, you know, we’re good guys. Why? And you know you can do the usual analogy. What if it was a Chinese Russian base in Canada or Mexico? I mean, this is just preposterous. … But Syria seems remote but it isn’t. Russia has a very serious problem with domestic terrorism at home in the caucuses. It has had for a long time. Somebody did the numbers, I can’t vouch for them but the number of people lost to terrorism on 9/11 here, and other terrorist acts involving Americans, and those lost to terrorism inside Russia are about the same, somewhere approaching 4,000. But Russia’s continues to grow because it has this terrorism. Putin was very clear, from the beginning. But the number one reason for sending the Russian air force to fight in Syria was, and Putin put it like this, “It’s either Assad in Damascus or it’s the Islamist State in Damascus. And if the Islamic State is in Damascus our national security, Russia’s, is gravely threatened.” For Putin, and it’s not just Putin, for the Russian security elite, the fall of Damascus to the Islamic State would have been a national security disaster as they saw it. They counted on the American promise for two years that they were going to destroy the Islamic State.
ABBY MARTIN: Right.
STEPHEN COHEN: And they said, “Good, let the Americans do it. We don’t need this.” What happened during those two years?
ABBY MARTIN: The Islamic State grew.
STEPHEN COHEN: It took more and more territory in Syria, leave aside Iraq, correct?
ABBY MARTIN: Uh huh.
STEPHEN COHEN: Until we had something new, we never had before, we had a terrorist organization that actually had become a state. I mean, they were running in their own way, while they weren’t chopping off heads, municipal government, collecting taxes.
ABBY MARTIN: Currency.
STEPHEN COHEN: Currency, running schools and the rest — we never had this kind of phenomenon before. And the Russians were deeply worried and the Americans said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.” But they didn’t. They were too busy trying to get rid of Assad. So, when people say Putin’s a liar, we see this almost every day in the New York Times. They have to add that he didn’t go to Syria to fight terrorism, he went to bolster Assad. You have to connect the dots. In Putin’s mind, bolstering Assad, which meant what was left of the Syrian state and the Syrian army, was essential to sopping ISIS or the Islamic state in Syria. You couldn’t separate the two. Not only was Putin candid about this, but he came to the UN a couple years ago, whenever, and in his speech said, “This is what we’re confronting, join us.” Russia has never said Assad forever I Damascus. That’s the so-called political process. But the Obama White House which sent our Secretary of State, Kerry forth to negotiate with this with Lebraw(?) and seems to have constantly or repeatedly or at least once, reached an agreement for this alliance, was sabotaged in Washington. It was more important for the forces in Washington to be rid of Assad or to prevent Putin from any kind of “victory” than it was to fight the terrorism in Syria. But you could go on. Is there any major issue that we say we care about: climate change, energy reserves, trafficking in women, trafficking in drugs, anything where Russia is not either complicit enough to help out, or central enough to help out? There is nothing can be solved of this magnitude without Russia. So the gravest danger today is not ending this American fostered new Cold War, and turning Russia even more into an opponent of our mutual interests — that’s the gravest danger. The other grave danger, of course, is that no sensible person should trust the so-called nuclear safeguards. We’re on the razor’s edge of accidental nuclear war launch. Weapons on both sides are still on high alert. High alert means that the leader of the other country has somewhere between 13 and 25 minutes, 13 minutes and 25 minutes to know whether that’s a large seagull coming in or a nuclear weapon, and to retaliate. Because the whole system is based on you won’t attack me because I will…
ABBY MARTIN: Right.
STEPHEN COHEN: Russia could be an immense threat to us by continuing to treat it the way we are. But you could turn this around in important ways, very, very quickly. And of course, the main stream will resist. It will fight. But politics is about fighting, so the handful of us, or maybe there are more, who think we have to do this for our own security, will have to fight.