War With Russia?

By Stephen F. Cohen

War With Russia?, like the biography of a living person, is a book without an end. The title is a warning—akin to what the late Gore Vidal termed “a journalistic alert-system”—not a prediction. Hence the question mark. I cannot foresee the future. The book’s overarching theme is informed by past and current facts, not by any political agenda, ideological commitment, or magical prescience.

To restate that theme: The new US-Russian Cold War is more dangerous than was its 40-year predecessor that the world survived. The chances are even greater that this one could result, inadvertently or intentionally, in actual war between the two nuclear superpowers. Herein lies another ominous indication. During the preceding Cold War, the possibility of nuclear catastrophe was in the forefront of American mainstream political and media discussion, and of policy-making. During the new one, it rarely seems to be even a concern.

In the latter months of 2018, the facts and the mounting crises they document grow worse, especially in the US political-media establishment, where, as I have argued, the new Cold War originated and has been repeatedly escalated. Consider a few examples, some of them not unlike political and media developments during the run-up to the US war in Iraq or, historians have told us, how the great powers “sleepwalked” into World War I:

§ Russiagate’s core allegations—US-Russian collusion, treason—all remain unproven. Yet they have become a central part of the new Cold War. If nothing else, they severely constrain President Donald Trump’s capacity to conduct crisis negotiations with Moscow while they further vilify Russian President Vladimir Putin for having, it is widely asserted, personally ordered “an attack on America” during the 2016 presidential campaign. Some Hollywood liberals had earlier omitted the question mark, declaring, “We are at war.” In October 2018, the would-be titular head of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, added her voice to this reckless allegation, flatly stating that the United States was “attacked by a foreign power” and equating it with “the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.”

Clinton may have been prompted by another outburst of malpractice by The New York Times and The Washington Post. On September 20 and 23, respectively, those exceptionally influential papers devoted thousands of words, illustrated with sinister prosecutorial graphics, to special retellings of the Russiagate narrative they had assiduously promoted for nearly two years, along with the narrative’s serial fallacies, selective and questionable history, and factual errors.

Again, for example, the now-infamous Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in 2016, was said to have been “pro-Kremlin” during his time as a lobbyist for Ukraine under then-President Viktor Yanukovych, when in fact he was pro–European Union. Again, Trump’s disgraced national-security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, was accused of “troubling” contacts when he did nothing wrong or unprecedented in having conversations with a Kremlin representative on behalf of President-elect Trump. Again, the two papers criminalized the idea, as the Times put it, that “the United States and Russia should look for areas of mutual interest,” once the premise of détente. And again, the Times, while assuring readers that its “Special Report” is “what we now know with certainty,” buried a related acknowledgment deep in its some 10,000 words: “No public evidence has emerged showing that [Trump’s] campaign conspired with Russia.” (The white-collar criminal indictments and guilty pleas cited were so unrelated that they added up to Russiagate without Russia.)

Astonishingly, neither paper gave any credence to an emphatic statement by the Post’s own Bob Woodward—normally considered the most authoritative chronicler of Washington’s political secrets—that, after two years of research, he had found no evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia.

Nor were the Times, the Post, and other print media alone in these practices, which continued to slur dissenting opinions. CNN’s leading purveyor of Russiagate allegations tweeted that an American third-party presidential candidate had been “repeating Russian talking points on its interference in the 2016 election and on US foreign policy.” Another prominent CNN figure was, so to speak, more geopolitical, warning, “Only a fool takes Vladimir Putin at his word in Syria,” thereby ruling out US-Russian cooperation in that war-torn country. Much the same continued almost nightly on MSNBC.

For most mainstream-media outlets, Russiagate had become, it seemed, a kind of cult journalism that no counterevidence or analysis could dent and thus itself increasingly a major contributing factor to the new Cold War. Still more, what began two years earlier as complaints about Russian “meddling” in the US presidential election became by October 2018, for The New Yorker and other publications, an accusation that the Kremlin had actually put Donald Trump in the White House. For this seditious charge, there was also no convincing evidence—nor any precedent in American history.

At a higher level, by fall 2018, current and former US officials were making nearly unprecedented threats against Moscow. The ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison, threatened to “take out” any Russian missiles she thought violated a 1987 treaty, a step that would certainly risk nuclear war. The secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, threatened a naval “blockade” of Russia. In yet another Russophobic outburst, the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, declared that “lying, cheating and rogue behavior” are a “norm of Russian culture.”

But how to explain, other than as unbridled extremism, the comments by Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Moscow, himself a longtime professor of Russian politics and favored mainstream commentator? According to McFaul, Russia had become a “rogue state,” its policies “criminal actions” and the “world’s greatest threat.” It had to be countered by “preemptive sanctions that would go into effect automatically”—“every