Cohen on the New Cold War

Discussion of the (re)emergence of a cold war between the United States and Russia has heated up over the last year. The initial warm relationship between Bush and Putin has soured. There are no more weekends at the Crawford Ranch or in Putin’s po Moskvy residence. Diverging visions of a post-Cold War world along with disagreements over each nation’s jurisdiction in Eurasia have helped cool an otherwise warm initial relationship. That coolness became a chill when Vice President Dick Cheney called Putin and Russia out as “seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade” in a speech at the Vilnius Conference in May. The upcoming G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg next month is expected to reveal just how deep the tension runs.

All of this hasn’t escaped New York University Professor Stephen Cohen in his article “The New American Cold War” in the July 10 issue of the Nation. An old lefty partisan, Cohen (and whose wife is Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuval) is probably one of the most important scholars of Russia in the last thirty years. His emphasis of a Bukharinist alternative to Stalin has been a principle intellectual moment in debunking the Lenin-Stalin historical continuum. His essay “Bolshevism and Stalinism” in Robert Tucker’s Stalinism : Essays in Historical Interpretation remains a classic interpretative piece. His political biography of Nikolai Bukharin, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938, remains the only serious treatment of the fallen Bolshevik to date. The book was an influence in Bukharin’s rehabilitation in 1988. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cohen has targeted his intellectual ire on how American policy toward Russia in the 1990s exacerbated its economic collapse, social dislocation, and political instability. His views on that turbulent decade are reflected in his Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia.

It is no surprise then that Cohen is also a partisan for Russia. And that partisanship comes out clearly in “The New American Cold War.” Essentially is argument is that a new cold war is emerging between the United States and Russia, but it is essentially being fought by one side, America’s. According to Cohen, despite rhetoric about Russia not being an enemy, it remains the “gravest” threat to American national security to many cold warriors in the Bush Administration and the American policy and journalism elite.

Despite collapse, Cohen maintains, Russia remains dominant in Eurasia both politically and economically. After a dismal decade of kowtowing to American policy suggestions, Russia is not asserting itself according to its own interests. And it is this independence, if not complete negligence of American geopolitical interests that has resulted in the criticism from the Bush camp. But as Cohen argues, that independence is partially a Russian response to 15 years of failed American policy and provocation on Russia’s traditional sphere of influence within and outside its borders.

To demonstrate this, Cohen lists five defining elements that have led to the current state of American-Russian relations:

The real US policy has been very different–a relentless, winner-take-all exploitation of Russia’s post-1991 weakness. Accompanied by broken American promises, condescending lectures and demands for unilateral concessions, it has been even more aggressive and uncompromising than was Washington’s approach to Soviet Communist Russia. Consider its defining elements as they have unfolded–with fulsome support in both American political parties, influential newspapers and policy think tanks–since the early 1990s:

§ A growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases, which are already ensconced or being planned in at least half the fourteen other former Soviet republics, from the Baltics and Ukraine to Georgia, Azerbaijan and the new states of Central Asia. The result is a US-built reverse iron curtain and the remilitarization of American-Russian relations.

§ A tacit (and closely related) US denial that Russia has any legitimate national interests outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former republics such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia. How else to explain, to take a bellwether example, the thinking of Richard Holbrooke, Democratic would-be Secretary of State? While roundly condemning the Kremlin for promoting a pro-Moscow government in neighboring Ukraine, where Russia has centuries of shared linguistic, marital, religious, economic and security ties, Holbrooke declares that far-away Slav nation part of “our core zone of security.”

§ Even more, a presumption that Russia does not have full sovereignty within its own borders, as expressed by constant US interventions in Moscow’s internal affairs since 1992. They have included an on-site crusade by swarms of American “advisers,” particularly during the 1990s, to direct Russia’s “transition” from Communism; endless missionary sermons from afar, often couched in threats, on how that nation should and should not organize its political and economic systems; and active support for Russian anti-Kremlin groups, some associated with hated Yeltsin-era oligarchs.

That interventionary impulse has now grown even into suggestions that Putin be overthrown by the kind of US-backed “color revolutions” carried out since 2003 in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and attempted this year in Belarus. Thus, while mainstream editorial pages increasingly call the Russian president “thug,” “fascist” and “Saddam Hussein,” one of the Carnegie Endowment’s several Washington crusaders assures us of “Putin’s weakness” and vulnerability to “regime change.” (Do proponents of “democratic regime change” in Russia care that it might mean destabilizing a nuclear state?)

§ Underpinning these components of the real US policy are familiar cold war double standards condemning Moscow for doing what Washington does–such as seeking allies and military bases in former Soviet republics, using its assets (oil and gas in Russia’s case) as aid to friendly governments and regulating foreign money in its political life.

More broadly, when NATO expands to Russia’s front and back doorsteps, gobbling up former Soviet-bloc members and republics, it is “fighting terrorism” and “protecting new states”; when Moscow protests, it is engaging in “cold war thinking.” When Washington meddles in the politics of Georgia and Ukraine, it is “promoting democracy”; when the Kremlin does so, it is “neoimperialism.” And not to forget the historical background: When in the 1990s the US-supported Yeltsin overthrew Russia’s elected Parliament and Constitutional Court by force, gave its national wealth and television networks to Kremlin insiders, imposed a constitution without real constraints on executive power and rigged elections, it was “democratic reform”; when Putin continues that process, it is “authoritarianism.”

§ Finally, the United States is attempting, by exploiting Russia’s weakness, to acquire the nuclear superiority it could not achieve during the Soviet era. That is the essential meaning of two major steps taken by the Bush Administration in 2002, both against Moscow’s strong wishes. One was the Administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, freeing it to try to create a system capable of destroying incoming missiles and thereby the capacity to launch a nuclear first strike without fear of retaliation. The other was pressuring the Kremlin to sign an ultimately empty nuclear weapons reduction agreement requiring no actual destruction of weapons and indeed allowing development of new ones; providing for no verification; and permitting unilateral withdrawal before the specified reductions are required.

The extraordinarily anti-Russian nature of these policies casts serious doubt on two American official and media axioms: that the recent “chill” in US-Russian relations has been caused by Putin’s behavior at home and abroad, and that the cold war ended fifteen years ago. The first axiom is false, the second only half true: The cold war ended in Moscow, but not in Washington, as is clear from a brief look back.

One could easily dismiss, (and many will), Cohen’s arguments as too biased since Putin carries no blame in the article for the current situation. But charges of bias are too often wielded as a rhetorical device for dismissing otherwise much needed discussion. However, this article should be placed in the context of American reporting on Russia that uncritically accepts the Cheney premise: that the cooling of tensions is solely the result of the Kremlin’s actions and not Washington’s. Unlike many of these diatribes, Cohen soberly puts the present situation into a historical context that allows for reflection on how we got to this point before it’s too late.