By Stephen F. Cohen
War With Russia?, like the biography of a living person, is a book without an end. The title is a warningâ€”akin to what the late Gore Vidal termed â€œa journalistic alert-systemâ€â€”not a prediction. Hence the question mark. I cannot foresee the future. The bookâ€™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 â€œsleepwalkedâ€ into World War I:
Â§â€ˆRussiagateâ€™s core allegationsâ€”US-Russian collusion, treasonâ€”all remain unproven. Yet they have become a central part of the new Cold War. If nothing else, they severely constrain President Donald Trumpâ€™s capacity to conduct crisis negotiations with Moscow while they further vilify Russian President Vladimir Putin for having, it is widely asserted, personally ordered â€œan attack on Americaâ€ during the 2016 presidential campaign. Some Hollywood liberals had earlier omitted the question mark, declaring, â€œWe are at war.â€ 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 â€œattacked by a foreign powerâ€ and equating it with â€œthe September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.â€
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 narrativeâ€™s serial fallacies, selective and questionable history, and factual errors.
Again, for example, the now-infamous Paul Manafort, who was Trumpâ€™s campaign chairman for several months in 2016, was said to have been â€œpro-Kremlinâ€ during his time as a lobbyist for Ukraine under then-President Viktor Yanukovych, when in fact he was proâ€“European Union. Again, Trumpâ€™s disgraced national-security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, was accused of â€œtroublingâ€ 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 â€œthe United States and Russia should look for areas of mutual interest,â€ once the premise of dÃ©tente. And again, the Times, while assuring readers that its â€œSpecial Reportâ€ is â€œwhat we now know with certainty,â€ buried a related acknowledgment deep in its some 10,000 words: â€œNo public evidence has emerged showing that [Trumpâ€™s] campaign conspired with Russia.â€ (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 Postâ€™s own Bob Woodwardâ€”normally considered the most authoritative chronicler of Washingtonâ€™s political secretsâ€”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. CNNâ€™s leading purveyor of Russiagate allegations tweeted that an American third-party presidential candidate had been â€œrepeating Russian talking points on its interference in the 2016 election and on US foreign policy.â€ Another prominent CNN figure was, so to speak, more geopolitical, warning, â€œOnly a fool takes Vladimir Putin at his word in Syria,â€ 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 â€œmeddlingâ€ 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 evidenceâ€”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 â€œtake outâ€ 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 â€œblockadeâ€ of Russia. In yet another Russophobic outburst, the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, declared that â€œlying, cheating and rogue behaviorâ€ are a â€œnorm of Russian culture.â€
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 â€œrogue state,â€ its policies â€œcriminal actionsâ€ and the â€œworldâ€™s greatest threat.â€ It had to be countered by â€œpreemptive sanctions that would go into effect automaticallyâ€â€”â€œevery day,â€ if deemed necessary. Considering the possibility of â€œcrushingâ€ sanctions proposed recently by a bipartisan group of US senators, this would be nothing less than a declaration of permanent war against Russia: economic war, but war nonetheless.
Meanwhile, other new Cold War fronts were becoming more fraught with hot war, none more so than Syria. On September 17, Syrian missiles accidentally shot down an allied Russian surveillance aircraft, killing all 15 crew members. The cause was combat subterfuge by Israeli warplanes in the area. The reaction in Moscow was indicativeâ€”and potentially ominous.
At first, Putin, who had developed good relations with Israelâ€™s political leadership, said the incident was an accident caused by the fog of war. His own Defense Ministry, however, loudly protested that Israel was responsible. Putin quickly retreated to a more hard-line position, and in the end vowed to send to Syria Russiaâ€™s highly effective S-300 surface-to-air defense system, a prize long sought by both Syria and Iran.
Clearly, Putin was not the ever-â€œaggressive Kremlin autocratâ€ unrelentingly portrayed by US mainstream media. A moderate in the Russian context, he again made a major decision by balancing conflicting groups and interests. In this instance, he accommodated long-standing hard-liners in his own security establishment.
The result is yet another Cold War trip wire. With the S-300s installed in Syria, Putin could in effect impose a â€œno-fly zoneâ€ over large areas of the country, which has been ravaged by war due, in no small part, to the presence of several foreign powers. (Russia and Iran are there legally; the United States and Israel are not.) If so, this means a new â€œred lineâ€ that Washington and its ally Israel will have to decide whether or not to cross. Considering the mania in Washington and in the mainstream media, it is hard to be confident that restraint will prevail. In keeping with his Russia policy, President Trump may reasonably be inclined to join Moscowâ€™s peace process, though it is unlikely the mostly Democrat-inspired Russiagate party would permit him to do so.
Now another Cold War front has also become more fraught, the US-Russian proxy war in Ukraine having acquired a new dimension. In addition to the civil war in Donbass, Moscow and Kiev have been challenging each otherâ€™s ships in the Sea of Azov, near the newly built bridge connecting Russia with Crimea. On November 25, this erupted into a small but potentially explosive military conflict at sea. Trump is being pressured to help Kiev escalate the maritime warâ€”yet another potential trip wire. Here, too, the president should instead put his administrationâ€™s weight behind the long-stalled Minsk peace accords. But that approach also seems to be ruled out by Russiagate, which by October 6 included yet another Times columnist, Frank Bruni, branding all such initiatives by Trump as â€œpimping for Putin.â€
After five years of extremism, as demonstrated by these recent examples of risking war with Russia, there remained, for the first time in decades of Cold War history, no countervailing forces in Washingtonâ€”no pro-dÃ©tente wing of the Democratic or Republican Party, no influential antiâ€“Cold War opposition anywhere, no real public debate. There was only Trump, with all the loathing he inspired, and even he had not reminded the nation or his own party that the presidents who initiated major episodes of dÃ©tente in the 20th century were also Republicansâ€”Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan. This too seemed to be an inadmissible â€œalternative fact.â€
And so the eternal question, not only for Russians: What is to be done? There is a ray of light, though scarcely more. In August 2018, Gallup asked Americans what kind of policy toward Russia they favored. Even amid the torrent of vilifying Russiagate allegations and Russophobia, 58 percent wanted â€œto improve relations with Russia,â€ as opposed to 36 percent who preferred â€œstrong diplomatic and economic steps against Russia.â€
This reminds us that the new Cold War, from â€¨NATOâ€™s eastward expansion and the 2014 Ukrainian crisis to Russiagate, has been an elite project. Why US elites, after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, ultimately chose Cold War rather than partnership with Russia is a question beyond my purpose here. As for the special role of US intelligence elitesâ€”what I have termed â€œIntelgateâ€â€”efforts are still underway to disclose it fully, and are still being thwarted.
A full explanation of the post-Soviet Cold War choice would include the US political-media establishmentâ€™s needsâ€”ideological, foreign-policy, and budgetary, among othersâ€”for an â€œenemy.â€ Or, with the Cold War having prevailed for more than half of US-Russian relations during the century since 1917, maybe it was habitual. Substantial â€œmeddlingâ€ in the 2016 US election by Ukraine and Israel, to illustrate the point, did not become a political scandal. In any event, once this approach to post-Soviet Russia began, promoting it was not hard. The legendary humorist Will Rogers quipped in the 1930s, â€œRussia is a country that no matter what you say about it, itâ€™s true.â€ Back then, before the 40-year Cold War and nuclear weapons, the quip was funny, but no longer.
Whatever the full explanation, many of the consequences I have analyzed in War With Russia? continue to unfold, not a few unintended and unfavorable to Americaâ€™s real national interests. Russiaâ€™s turn away from the West, its â€œpivot to China,â€ is now widely acknowledged and embraced by leading Moscow policy thinkers. Even European allies occasionally stand with Moscow against Washington. The US-backed Kiev government still covers up who was really behind the 2014 Maidan â€œsnipersâ€™ massacreâ€ that brought it to power. Mindless US sanctions have helped Putin to repatriate oligarchic assets abroad, at least $90 billion already in 2018. The mainstream media persist in distorting Putinâ€™s foreign policies into something â€œthat even the Soviet Union never dared to try.â€ And when an anonymous White House insider exposed in the Times the â€œamoralityâ€ of President Trump, the only actual policy he or she singled out was on Russia.
I have focused enough on the demonizing of Putinâ€”the Post even managed to characterize popular support for his substantial contribution to improving life in Moscow as â€œa deal with the devilâ€â€”but it is important to note that this derangement is far from worldwide. Even a Post correspondent conceded that â€œthe Putin brand has captivated anti-establishment and anti-American politicians all over the world.â€ A British journalist confirmed that, as a result, â€œmany countries in the world now look for a reinsurance policy with Russia.â€ And an American journalist living in Moscow reported that the â€œceaseless demonization of Putin personally has in fact sanctified him, turned him into the Patron Saint of Russia.â€
Again, in light of all this, what can be done? Sentimentally, and with some historical precedents, we of democratic beliefs traditionally look to â€œthe people,â€ to voters, to bring about change. But foreign policy has long been the special prerogative of elites. In order to change Cold War policy fundamentally, leaders are needed. When the times beckon, they may emerge out of established, even deeply conservative, elites, as did unexpectedly the now-pro-dÃ©tente Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. But given the looming danger of war with Russia, is there time? Is any leader visible on the American political landscape who will say to his or her elites and party, as Gorbachev did, â€œIf not now, when? If not us, who?â€
We also know that such leaders, though embedded in and insulated by their elites, hear and read other, nonconformist voices, other thinking. The once-venerated American journalist Walter Lippmann observed, â€œWhere all think alike, no one thinks very much.â€ This book is my modest attempt to inspire more thinking.Î¦
Stephen F. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and Princeton University. A Nation contributing editor, his recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is available in paperback from Columbia University Press. This article appeared on December 3 in The Nation.