President Trump’s warm words for Vladimir Putin and his failure to endorse U.S. intelligence community claims about alleged Russian meddling have been called “treasonous” and the cause of a “national security crisis.” There is a crisis, says Prof. Stephen F. Cohen, but one of our own making
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
The White House is walking back another statement from President Trump about Russia and U.S. intelligence. It began in Helsinki on Monday, when at his press conference with Vladimir Putin, Trump did not endorse the claim that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. After an outcry that played out mostly on cable news, Trump appeared to retract that view one day later. But then on Wednesday, Trump was asked if he believes Russia is now targeting the U.S. ahead of the midterms.
DONALD TRUMP: [Thank] you all very much. Appreciate it. Thank you. Thank you.
REPORTER: Is Russia still targeting the U.S. [inaudible]. No, you don’t believe that to be the case?
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much, everyone. We’re doing very well. We are doing very well, and we’re doing very well, probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there’s been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia. All you have to do is look at the numbers, look at what we’ve done, look at sanctions, look at ambassadors. Not there. Look, unfortunately, at what happened in Syria recently. I think President Putin knows that better than anybody. Certainly a lot better than the media.
AARON MATE: The White House later claimed that when Trump said ‘no,’ he meant no to answering questions. But Trump’s contradiction of U.S. intelligence claims has brought the Russiagate story, one that has engulfed his presidency, to a fever pitch. Prominent U.S. figures have called Trump’s comments in Helsinki treasonous, and compared alleged Russian e-mail hacking and social media activity to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. Those who also question intelligence claims or warmongering with Russia have been dubbed traitors, or Kremlin agents.
Speaking to MSNBC, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul declared that with Trump’s comments, the U.S. is in the midst of a national security crisis.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Republicans need to step up. They need to speak out, not just the familiar voices, because this is a national security crisis, and the president of the United States flew all the way to Finland, met with Vladimir Putin, and basically capitulated. It felt like appeasement.
AARON MATE: Well, joining me to address this so-called national security crisis is Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University. His books include “Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Soviet Russia,” and “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.” Professor Cohen, welcome. I imagine that you might agree with the view that we are in the midst of a national security crisis when it comes to Russia, but for far different reasons than those expounded on by Ambassador McFaul.
STEPHEN COHEN: There is a national security crisis, and there is a Russian threat. And we, we ourselves here in the United States, have created both of them. This has been true for years, and now it’s reached crisis proportion. Notice what’s going on. A mainstream TV reporter shouts to President Trump, “Are the Russians still targeting our elections?” This is in the category “Are you still beating your wife?” There is no proof that the Russians have targeted or attacked our elections. But it’s become axiomatic. What kind of media is that, are the Russians still, still attacking our elections.
And what Michael McFaul, whom I’ve known for years, formerly Ambassador McFaul, purportedly a scholar and sometimes a scholar said, it is simply the kind of thing, to be as kind as I can, that I heard from the John Birch Society about President Eisenhower when he went to meet Khrushchev when I was a kid growing up in Kentucky. This is fringe discourse that never came anywhere near the mainstream before, at least after Joseph McCarthy, that the president went, committed treason, and betrayed the country. Trump may have not done the right thing at the summit, because agreements were reached. Nobody discusses the agreements. But to stage a kangaroo trial of the president of the United States in the mainstream media, and have plenty of once-dignified people come on and deliver the indictment, is without precedent in this country. And it has created a national crisis in our relations with Russia. So yes, there’s a national crisis.
AARON MATE: Let me play for you a clip from Trump’s news conference with Putin that also drew outrage back in the U.S. When he was asked about the state of U.S.-Russia relations, he said both sides had responsibility.
DONALD TRUMP: Yes, I do. I hold both countries responsible. I think that the United States has been foolish. I think we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago. A long time, frankly, before I got to office. And I think we’re all to blame. I think that the United States now has stepped forward, along with Russia, and we’re getting together, and we have a chance to do some great things. Whether it’s nuclear proliferation, in terms of stopping, because we have to do it. Ultimately that’s probably the most important thing that we can be working on.
AARON MATE: That’s President Trump in Helsinki. Professor Cohen, I imagine that this comment probably was part of the reason why there was so much outrage, not Just of what Trump said about the claims of Russian meddling in the election. Can you talk about the significance of what he said here, and how it contradicts the, the entire consensus of the bipartisan foreign policy establishment?
STEPHEN COHEN: I did not vote for President Trump. But for that I salute him, what he just said. So far as I can remember, no wiser words or more important words have been spoken by the American president about Russia and the Soviet Union since Ronald Reagan did his great detente with Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. What Trump just did, and I don’t- we never know, Aaron, how aware he is of the ramifications of what he says. But in this case, whether he fully understood it or not, he just broke with, and the first time any major political figure in the United States has broken with the orthodoxy, ever since at least 2000. And even going back to the ’90s. That all the conflicts we’ve had with post-Soviet Russia, after communism went away in Russia, all those conflicts, which I call a new and more dangerous Cold War, are solely, completely, the fault of Putin or Putin’s Russia. That nothing in American policy since Bill Clinton in the 1990s did anything to contribute seriously to the very dangerous conflict, confrontation we have with Russia today. It was all Russia’s fault.
What that has meant, and you know this, Aaron, because you live in this world as well, it has meant no media or public dialogue about the merits of American policy toward post-Soviet Russia from Clinton, certainly through Obama. It may be changing now under President Trump. Not sure. It means if we don’t have a debate, we’re not permitted to ask, did we do something wrong, or so unwise that it led to this even more dangerous Cold War? And if the debate leads to a conclusion that we did do something unwise, and that we’re still doing it, then arises the pressure and the imperative for any new policy toward Russia. None of that has been permitted, because the orthodoxy, the dogma, the axiom, is Putin alone has solely been responsible.
So you know, you know as well as I do what is excluded. It doesn’t matter that we moved NATO to Russia’s borders, that’s not significant. Or that we bombed Serbia, Russia’s traditional ally. Or that George Bush left the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, which was the bedrock of Russian nuclear security and, I would argue, our own. Or that we did regime change by military might in Iraq and Libya, and many other things. Or that we provoked the Ukrainian crisis in 2004, and supported the coup that overthrew a legitimate, elected, constitutional president there. None of that matters. Oh, it was kind of footnotes to the real narrative. And the narrative is, is that a Russian leader Vladimir Putin in power was a horrible aggressor. Killed everybody, somehow, with secret poisons or thieves in the night who opposed him. And began this new cold or even worse war with the United States.
No historian of any merit will ever write the story that way. It’s factually, analytically, simply untrue. Now Trump has said something radically different. We got here in these dire circumstances because both sides acted unwisely, and we should have had this discussion a long time ago. So for that, two cheers for President Trump. But whether he can inspire the discussion that he may wish to, considering the fact that he’s now being indicted as a criminal for having met Putin, is a big question.
AARON MATE: So a few questions. You mentioned that some agreements were made, but details on that have been vague. So do you have any sense of what concretely came out of this summit? There was talk about cooperation on nuclear weapons, possibly renewing the New START Treaty. We know that Putin offered that to Trump when he first came into office, but Trump rejected it. There was talk about cooperating in Syria. And, well, yeah, if I can put that question to you first, and then I have a follow-up about what might be motivating Trump here. But first, what do you think concretely came out of this?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, look, I know a lot, both as a historian, and I’ve actually participated in some about the history of American-Russian, previously Soviet, summits. Which, by the way, this is the 75th anniversary of the very first one, when Franklin Roosevelt traveled to Tehran to meet Stalin. And every president, and this is important to emphasize, every president since Roosevelt has met with the Kremlin leader. Some many times, or several times. So there’s a long tradition. And therefore there are customs. And one custom, this goes to your question, is that never, except maybe very rarely, but almost never do we learn the full extent and nature of what agreements were made. That usually comes in a week or two or three later, because there’s still the teams of both are hammering out the details.
So that’s exactly what happened at this summit. There was no conspiracy. No, you know, appeasement behind closed doors. The two leaders announced in general terms what they agreed upon. Now, the most important, and this is traditional, too, by meeting they intended to revive the diplomatic process between the United States and Russia which has been badly tattered by events including the exclusion of diplomats, and sanctions, and the rest. So to get active, vigorous diplomacy about many issues going. They may not achieve that goal, because the American media and the political mainstream is trying to stop that. Remember that anything approaching diplomatic negotiations with Russia still less detente, is now being criminalized in the United States. Criminalized. What was once an honorable tradition, the pursuit of detente, is now a capital crime, if we believe these charges against Trump.
So they tried to revive that process, and we’ll see if it’s going to be possible. I think at least behind the scenes it will be. Obviously what you mentioned, both sides now have new, more elusive, more lethal, faster, more precise nuclear weapons. We’ve been developing them for a long time in conjunction with missile defense. We’ve essentially been saying to Russia, you may have equality in nuclear weapons with us, but we have missile defense. Therefore, we could use missile defense to take out your retaliatory capacity. That is, we could stage the first strike on you and you would not be able to retaliate.
Now, everybody who’s lived through the nuclear era knows that’s an invitation to disaster. Because like it or not, we’ve lived with a doctrine called MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction, that one side dare not attack the other with a nuclear weapon because it would be destroyed as well. We were saying we now have this primacy. Putin, then, on March 1 of this year, announced that they have developed weapons that can elude missile defense. And it seems to be true. In the air and at sea, their dodgy, darty, quick thing- but they could avoid our missile defense. So where we are at now is on the cusp of a new nuclear arms race involving more dangerous nuclear weapons. And the current START, New START Treaty will expire, I think, in three or four years. But its expiration date is less important that the process of talking and negotiating and worrying officially about these new weapons had ended.
So essentially what Trump and Putin agreed is that process of concern about new and more dangerous nuclear weapons must now resume immediately. And if there’s anybody living in the United States who think that that is a bad idea they need to reconsider their life, because they may be looking into the darkness of death. So that was excellent. Briefly. What I hope they did- they didn’t announce it, but I’m pretty sure they did- that there had been very close calls between American and Russian combat forces and their proxies in Syria. We’re doing a proxy war, but there are plenty of native Russians and Americans in Syria in a relatively small combat cell. And there have been casualties. The Russians have said at the highest level the next time a Russian is killed in Syria by an American-based weapon, we will strike the American launcher. If Russia strikes our launching pads or areas, whether on land or sea, which means Americans will be there and are killed, call it war. Call it war.
So we need to agree in Syria to do more than, what do they call it, deconfliction, where we have all these warnings. It’s still too much space for mishap. And what I hope it think Trump and Putin did was to try to get a grip on this.
AARON MATE: Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at at Princeton University and New York University, thank you. And stay tuned for part two. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.