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Stephen Cohen On the Ukrainian Crisis: Why a New Cold War?

https://youtu.be/yqGgGenH5dk Normally my talk tonight would probably be about that: why — kind of boring, but heartfelt and important — why we need to be studying Russia in this country just as part of the way we educate our young people and ourselves. Or I might have told you the story of my own educational journey from Kentucky, where I grew up, through Indiana, by chance to Birmingham, England, by chance to Russia, where I began what’s been my life with Russia. I have probably spent a quarter of my life living in Russia and some ninety percent, between marriages and children and grandchildren, thinking about Russia. But these aren’t normal times; these are dire times. Our lives and our future I think are at stake. I’m now a grandfather, so I can say so are the futures of our children and our grandchildren. These are very fateful times. How fateful? Today we learned, Professor McFadden referred to it, that, desperate about what’s happened, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany got on a plane and flew to Kiev. It’s eight hours earlier, so yesterday – and now they’re on their way to Moscow and I gather Merkel’s coming to Washington tomorrow or the next day. The Europeans are in full panic and want this ended. But they think the train may have left the station. So, our times: the Ukrainian crisis has grown, I think it should be clear to anyone by now, to the most dangerous and possibly fateful international crisis at least since the Cuban Missile Crisis. [….] The origins of the Ukrainian Crisis are to be found back in the 1990s at least. If someone was going to write a history of how we got where we are today, you’d start with the end of the Soviet Union; you might start 400 years ago if you are going to do Ukraine. But the immediate history begins in the ’90s. But it’s current history and even the youngest person in this room will remember. It’s been in the newspapers, on the telly, or as Ed Snowden — Edward Snowden — told my wife and I when we interviewed him in Moscow a few months ago, […] “I see it on the computer.” You all know this current crisis began in November 2013. And its history is clear and I think the facts of it are not disputable, so we need to remind ourselves of what happened. In November 2013, a political dispute in Kiev over a proposed European trade agreement led to street protests that formed on a famous square called the Maidan. And [this] led then, depending on how you look at it – this is the dispute – to the overthrow or the downfall of Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. He was corrupt, he wasn’t courageous, but he was elected, and everybody agreed the election had been fair in Ukraine. He was made to go away. And that event in Kiev, whether you look at it as a coup as the Russians do, or as a glorious democratic revolution, as some in the west and in Ukraine do — it’s a matter of interpretation — that then led to protests in eastern Ukraine because Yanukovych represented them. His electoral base was largely in eastern Ukraine. And that then led, directly or indirectly, to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And that led to the onset of the ongoing Ukrainian civil war between the not entirely but largely pro-Russian, eastern provinces that border Russia and its western provinces. That civil war grew into a new Cold War between the United States and NATO on the one hand, and Russia on the other. And now, as we talk, it has become a proxy American-Russian war. Russia indisputably is abetting militarily the rebel fighters, or the separatists or whatever you want to call them, in eastern Ukraine. And the United States somewhat less openly is funding an army, Kiev’s armies.* And as you know there is now a debate in Washington and a proposal that we fund them much more grandly. I believe 3 billion dollars worth in the next 3 years with much more substantial weapons. Still worse, this new Cold War — and there is no doubt about it, call it by whatever name; newspapers can’t bring themselves to say [it], they call it “the worst crisis since the Cold War”, they can’t bring themselves to say it’s a new Cold War; fine, they’re hung up about this for various journalistic reasons – but this new Cold War maybe more dangerous than the last one, which we barely survived. Why? Well, first of all, think about it. The epicenter of the last Cold War was in Berlin, a long way from Moscow. The epicenter of this Cold War is in Ukraine, right plunk on Russia’s borders. And moreover, right in the center of Russia’s Slavic civilization, which it shares with a large part of Ukraine. Not all of it, but certainly with many Ukrainians. Through inter-marriage, through history, through culture, through language, through religion. So that’s why, one reason why, you can imagine all the potential for misunderstanding, mishap, provocation, accident. A thousand-fold more dangerous than when the center was in Berlin. Secondly, because this Cold War is unfolding in what was called in the run-up to World War I “a fog of war”. That expression refers to misinformation. Before World War I there was no email, there was no digital communication. So it took a while. [Information]’s flying today. It’s information from Moscow, yes. It’s information from Kiev – excuse me, misinformation from Kiev – it’s misinformation from Washington, it’s misinformation out of Brussels. Even those of us who are following this, who have the language skills to read it in the original, who know the history, often cannot figure out who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. It is hard. It is hard to know the actual facts, but it comes down to the fact that the facts are all bad and dangerous and getting worse. Third, it could be more dangerous, this Cold War, because it lacks the mutual rules and practices of constraint that were developed over the decades of the last Cold War. [Then,] Moscow and Washington worked out certain agreements: the famous red phone, the hot line. The certain “let’s check this before we act”. The certain agreement that “we won’t do this and you won’t do that”. That we had red lines and boundaries that we knew had not better not be crossed. None of that now exists, none of it. Still worse, decades of cooperative relations with Russia, developed over decades, are now being shredded. Shredded. From education to space exploration. [Professor] David [McFadden] probably knows other. The cultural museums can’t get the exhibits. I mean everything is being shredded. Who’s to blame? Both: everybody’s reacting. You shred this, I’m shredding that. There is even talk, which I hadn’t heard ever, I think, on both sides of using tactical nuclear weapons, as though tactical nuclear weapons – because you can only fire them 300 or a thousand miles – aren’t nuclear weapons. They’re radioactive. All those restraints that these were no-nos after the Cuban Missile Crisis seem to be gone. Fourth, and this is important: negotiations. Attempts to restore cooperation between Moscow and Washington are nearly completely blocked by something new. I call it the demonization of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, the personal vilification where he is called regularly in The New York Times, on the Op-Ed page, by columnists who are supposed to represent our highest form of informed enlightened commentary, where he is called “a thug”. “Putin the thug”, “Putin the bandit”, “Putin the murderer”. I entered the field during the Khrushchev era. I do not recall in all my years in Soviet Studies, the American media, the American political establishment, personally vilifying a Soviet communist Russian leader the way they are Putin. And this is becoming an institution in the United States. When Hilary Clinton, who wants to be President of the United States, says “Putin is Hitler,” and if she becomes president, he’s going to be eager to see her and talk about cooperation. [The problem is] because if somebody is Hitler, you kill him, you don’t negotiate with him; we know that. And the way Obama with personal contempt talks about Putin does not abet a solution. So this demonization of Putin has become another reason why this might be even more dangerous. And finally, this Cold War may be more perilous because there is no effective American opposition to it. I was on the, I wouldn’t say the front lines; I was involved in what used to be called the pro-détente movement during the last Cold War. [It was made of] those of us who wanted to taper down, tamp down the Cold War and seek cooperation. And it was a vigorous movement. We were in the minority, but we had allies in the White House, aides of the President, in the State Department, maybe a dozen Senators, maybe a score or two of people in Congress. We had ready, easy access to The New York Times, The Washington Post, to television and radio. There is none of that today. The handful of us today who oppose or are critical of the American contribution to this situation can find no allies in the State Department, Congress, and we can’t get on the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Post. The Nation magazine, for which I write — and, as my wife likes to say, full disclosure, whatever that means; I’m not giving you the full disclosure, but partial disclosure — edited by my wife Katrina vanden Heuvel, is a very important and has become on this issue, I think, the most important alternative medium in the United States. But it doesn’t penetrate for some reason the walls of Congress or the White House. All the progressives self-identify [and] seem to have voted for these congressional bills and resolutions last month, basically declaring war on Russia. Without debate. This is astonishing. This is a failure of our democracy. So the question becomes “How did this happen?”.

How did this happen?

After all, 25 years ago when the Soviet Union ended, nearly 25 years ago, when the kids in the room, the young people in this room – excuse me for calling you kids, my daughter doesn’t like that either – might not know this, but we were told by the Clinton administration for a decade nearly that there would now be an era of American-Russian strategic partnership and friendship. The Cold War was over forever. And that from now on we were allies with Russia. So how did this happen a quarter of a century later that we’re now in the worst conflict with Russia since the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Now the explanation that you know – because you hear it everywhere in the mainstream daily, it’s grown into an orthodox, a consensual explanation – is this. Back in the 1990s under President Clinton and President Yeltsin of Russia everything was good. Things were fine. And then came Putin in the year 2000 – President of Russia – and he spoiled it all. In short, whatever bad has happened has nothing to do with American policy, it has all to do with Russia. Russia, or Putin personally, is to blame.

Now I’m gonna talk about this, but before I do, because it was my wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, who reminded me of it, [let me add] that the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said something once that people forgot but it’s crucial for all of us. He wasn’t a politically correct man so he put it only in the male gender. But he said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That’s good. That’s essential.

There look to be maybe 200 or more of you here. Your opinions, you are entitled to. Your facts, you are not. As at a good magazine, as at a good news agency, as in any news medium, you fact- check your facts and, if they are wrong, they don’t get to count. They’re out. So let’s proceed with Moynihan’s adage.

The orthodox, consensual view of how we got where we are with Russia, including the Ukrainian crisis, is based largely on historical fallacies and political myths. On Russophobia, a hang over from the old Cold War, and retrospective demonization of Putin.

Consider these primary examples. Take the oldest historical myth that is the basis for this narrative. It goes like this. Since then end of the Soviet Union, Washington treated Moscow as a desired friend and partner. And in the end, Moscow was unable or unwilling to accept the American embrace and rejected it slowly, but then emphatically, under Putin.

What’s the historical reality? The Clinton administration […] got in its head that the United States won the Cold War when the Soviet Union ended. It didn’t bother them that Reagan, Gorbachev, and the first President Bush had all announced the Cold War was over two years before the Soviet Union ended. In 1989. The Soviet Union ended in December 1991.

But this was a good story. The Soviet Union ended, we won the Cold War, [and we]teach our children this story. And we have taught our children this story, this false story for nearly 25 years. And our politicians have acted on it. Which meant, beginning with Clinton, his administration, that since we defeated the Soviet Union, post- Soviet Russia was kind of like Japan and Germany after World War II. Russia no longer had full sovereign rights or interests at home or abroad. We could dictate to Russia. We would help them, but in return they were to be mindful of our preferences as to their domestic and foreign policy. And act on them.

The result was, I call it a winner-take-all American policy in regard to Russia. You know, I don’t have to tell you: it was spearheaded by the expansion of NATO, which is not a sorority, not a fraternity, not a charity, but a military organization. In fact, the largest military alliance in the world. Most powerful. Its expansion, beginning under Clinton, [has gone] all the way to Russia’s borders. Now we can argue whether that was a good or bad thing. I think it was a terrible thing, but there’s an argument to made it was a good thing. I’m open to hear the argument. But can we say it didn’t happen? And [can we say], Russia should have said “oh never mind. It’s okay”? As though if a Russian military – or a Chinese, let’s say – military alliance showed up in Mexico tomorrow on the Rio Grande, we’d say “Oh great, we’d love to have more neighbors.” We’d all be at the White House demanding Obama do something. Nuke ’em. I mean can we not walk in the other fella’s shoes for one minute and see what this looked like over 20 years as it was coming at Russia?

And there was more: there was diplomacy, but it was an American diplomacy marked by broken promises and concessions made by the Russians that were not reciprocated. Let me give the young people in the room an example they probably don’t know about. After the United States was attacked on 9/11, the first world leader to call President Bush was Putin. He said, “George, it’s horrible. We’re with you. Tell us what we can do. We have major military assets in Afghanistan; they’re yours. We have a fighting force. We have terrific intelligence. We have transit bases; it’s all yours.” And since Bush was going to send a land force to dislodge the Taliban, Bush took this. And it cost Putin a lot at home. His security people didn’t like this, but he did it anyway. And Putin saved a lot of American lives in that war. Mark that down. What did he get in return? Trivia question. Within two years I think, Bush had expanded NATO right to Russia’s borders. And, equally fateful, Bush took the United States unilaterally out of what was called the anti-ballistic missile treaty, which had been the most stabilizing nuclear treaty in the history of the world because it prohibited the kinds of missiles that can eliminate the other side’s retaliatory response.

And that led to missile defense, and that now led to the new controversy about building missile defense installations on Russia’s borders. So that’s what Putin got for saving American lives. So when you hear Putin say that “nobody listens to Putin”, you might try reading his speeches, they’re all at Kremlin.ru in English: “I tried to make a partnership with the United States and I was rebuffed”. Remember what happened, and remember what it cost Putin politically at home. They still remind him of his trusting nature toward the Americans. That was a major turning point.

Somewhere along the way, probably in the late ’90s, certainly by the early part of the twentieth century, in this American winner-take-all approach, Ukraine became the brass ring. Well, we’ve expanded NATO to the Baltics. And Brzezinski has told us that without Ukraine Russia will never be a great power again. We believe that. So we need to get Ukraine into NATO, or at least into the EU with maybe a back channel to NATO. But first, Georgia, because that’s the entry to Russia’s soft underbelly in the Caucasus. So we had the 2008 war in Georgia, also a proxy war. Did that alert anybody this was a bad idea, that Russia had red lines? No. We pushed on. We pushed on to Ukraine. Maybe it’s a good policy, but you can’t deny the facts.

So, along the way, here’s another bit of current punditry that we hear, “Oh, in Ukraine Russia’s destroying the European security system by annexing Crimea and supporting the fighters in East Ukraine.” Maybe that’s true, but Russia was systematically excluded from the European security system after the end of the Soviet Union because it wasn’t brought into NATO; the cooperation with NATO was fictitious and we were expanding NATO to its borders. In other words, we were building a European security system at the expense of NATO. So when we say to Putin, “Oh, you’re destroying the security system,” he [says] “Yes, it’s your security system, it’s not mine.”

Gorbachev and Reagan agreed on something very important. This is where Reagan became a great man. If you try to build your security in a way that the other guy thinks you’re endangering his or her security, it is no security at all. All you’ll get is mutual buildups. You have to do it in a way that each side, both sides, feel reassured and secure. Expanding NATO to Russia’s borders was obviously the reverse of that. That’s, by the way, why some young conservatives, and some not so young, who adore Reagan, see all this as a repudiation of Reagan’s legacy. And they’re right. If we just talked about Reagan in terms of what he did with Gorbachev, they’re absolutely right. Certainly that’s how the Russians have seen it.

So now come to the current crisis. And the myths. The American orthodox assertion is that this is all due to Putin’s aggression. That’s the phrase, “Putin’s aggression”. And here too we find myths beginning with this fundamental one. And I apologize to Ukrainians or people of Ukrainian descent in the room, but I think if they think about it they’ll agree with me. All this talk of the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people striving to be free of Russian influence and join the West is, to put it politely, fragmentary. For centuries Ukraine has been a divided country. It’s not my fault, it’s not Putin’s fault; it’s God’s fault. Centuries of being formed from fragments of different empires left Ukraine divided. Religiously, ethnically, economically, politically, geographically. Mainly between the pro-Russian eastern provinces and the western provinces that look to Europe, but not only, you find both sides in central Ukraine. Even in Kiev.

When this crisis began, Ukraine had one state. But it wasn’t, in the sense that the rhetoric has it, one country. It should have remained one country; it was struggling to do that after the end of the Soviet Union. But anybody who was going to tamper with this delicate balance in Ukraine either had an evil deed on his or her mind or didn’t know history. Or didn’t know Ukraine. So the civil war that we now see in Ukraine is not Putin’s fault. It was latent, at very least latent, in Ukrainian society in history all along.

That brings us to a related myth. In November 2013 the European union, backed by Washington, offered – this is the myth – President Yanukovych of Ukraine a benign, generous association agreement with the European Union, but Putin bullied and bribed poor Yanukovych into refusing it and then Yanukovych fell to the protests in the streets.

What’s the reality? The European Union proposal was a reckless provocation. It told Yanukovych – even though Putin had said, let’s do a three-way plan to save Ukraine from meltdown, Moscow, Kiev, Brussels – it told Yanukovych, the European Union did, “Choose between Russia and us, the West.”  That was an ultimatum.  Why would anybody do this?

Nor was it so benign; the financial terms that the European union was offering [were] virtually no money up front and austerity measures of the kind that Greece has just rejected in a vote and that savaged European society, 25 percent unemployment, for a decade. What would this have done to Ukraine, which was already on financial ropes, with an elderly population dependent on pensions? What would this have done?

Moreover, nobody seems to read anything anymore. But buried in the thousand-page protocol was the section called Military Security Issues, which if signed, Yanukovych and Ukraine would have been obliged to abide by Europe’s military and security policies.  NATO wasn’t mentioned, but what are Europe’s military and security policies? They are those of NATO. This was clearly an attempt – all right, let me take that back – this seems to have been an attempt in fine print to hook Ukraine to NATO, I’m mixing my metaphors, through the back door. So it wasn’t all that benign, and Russia has lawyers and they read everything, and they knew what was going on. Or thought they did. And they weren’t happy about it.

So it wasn’t Putin’s aggression that initiated the crisis but a kind of velvet aggression by Washington and Brussels to bring all of Ukraine into the West and at least into the embrace of NATO.

And here arises another myth:  “The Ukrainian Civil War was triggered by Putin’s aggressive response to peaceful demonstrations at the Maidan.” The reality was different, and you will remember it, because you saw it on TV.  You saw the people in the streets throwing flaming Molotov cocktails.  You saw that they were increasingly armed. You saw that people were being shot. You saw the burning barricades. You saw the assaults on government buildings.  The reality is, is that by February of last year,  what had begun as peaceful protests had become violent.  And the violence was inspired in part, in large part, by ultra-nationalist Ukrainian forces.  Some of whom indisputably, any reasonable person would call neo-fascist.

What does that mean? They want to rid Ukraine of Jews, Gypsies, Russians, homosexuals, anybody who’s not a pure ethnic Ukrainian. Whatever that is, after centuries of mixed marriages. That’s their written ideology. Leave aside that they carry around pictures of Hitler.  Maybe it’s just ornamentation.  (Read your programs.) So these people – a small, small minority – got traction in the streets.  And influenced events.

What happened?

What happened?  The violence grew.  Three European foreign ministers flew to Kiev and they brokered an agreement between the president and the street demonstrators’ leaders. They said “Look, Yanukovych will form a coalition government, [will] bring in the opposition leaders, [and] he will stay as president until December” – February to December, whatever, that is 10 months – “and then there’ll be new elections.” They brokered a democratic agreement. I don’t know who initiated the phone call, but within minutes Putin and Obama were on the phone with each other. Apparently Obama said to Putin, “Do you support this?” Putin said, “I do.” Putin said to Obama, “Do you support this?” Obama said, “I do.” Within hours it was overthrown as street protestors marched on the Presidential palace. Yanukovych fled to Russia. A new government was formed and was immediately endorsed by the United States and Europe. The new government. Nobody ever mentioned in the West again the agreement they had negotiated themselves. The Western diplomats. And out of that came all the rest.

Out of that came all the rest.  All the rest meaning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, the civil war, the new American Cold War, and Merkel’s flight, desperate flight to Kiev, Moscow, and Washington in these last two or three days, to ward off actual war.

Finally there is today’s perilous fallacy, which Merkel seemed to publicly support, but apparently has rethought – though Obama has not. That all this will end only if Putin stops his aggression. That’s it. We heard this from Kerry today. We heard it from McCain. We hear it from Psaki, the spokes[wo]man at the State Department. Putin has to stop aggressing and everything will be okay. They call it “we are going to give him a diplomatic off ramp,” whatever that is. It’s a cliché. They don’t say what the diplomacy is. In other words, if he capitulates, we’re good with that. Everything: we’ll call off the sanctions, and he can have Russia, or at least part of it. And that’s it. All over.

But the reality is two-fold. First I ask you, and I ask anybody from Ukraine, who knows Ukraine in this room: there are 4 to 5 million people still living in Donbass. Donbass is the industrial heartland of Eastern Ukraine. I don’t know the numbers because so many have fled – we had a fact checking problem, not I, but my wife did at The Nation. [There’s] a very good piece about this on The Nation blog by Lev Golinkin, who was born in Eastern Ukraine. He’s an American citizen writing about these people. Do these 5 million people have no humanity? No agency? The Americans, The New York Times, refer to them as “Putin’s thugs”. Babies, grandmothers, grandfathers, mechanics, schoolteachers, nurses, miners, taxi cab drivers, merchants: they’re all Putin’s thugs. But what about their rights? They have been bombed by Kiev. And mortared and shelled. For a year.

We don’t know the exact casualty rate. The U.N. says 5,300. That can’t be. Dead: there are thousands dead and wounded, gravely wounded. The refugee count – people who’ve had to flee the area – is somewhere between one and two million. We don’t know what it is. The U.N.’s not sure, Russia’s not sure. So many people and they flee as we talk. Why do they flee tonight? Because they’re still being bombed. At first it was the women folk taking the children. Now the young men are fleeing too. And some are coming from Kiev because they’re being conscripted and they don’t want to fight. Russia claimed 500 young men are coming out and Russia lies too, [so] who knows? 500 a day are arriving in Russia fleeing conscription. I mean this is a humanitarian disaster of the first magnitude.

And yet the United States has said since the Clinton administration “R2P”: the “Right To Protect” is our doctrine. We protect people who are put in a humanitarian disaster situation by natural or warfare means. But the United States government has nothing to say about the fate of these people. Even though the American Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, was the great ideologue of this whole doctrine. And when asked, what did she say? “I think Kiev has shown remarkable restraint.” I am ashamed as an American citizen that a representative of my government could not bring herself to say “We feel badly for these people, we’re gonna do something to help them.”

Now, belatedly, apparently there’s some talk of sending a few million dollars. But meanwhile they’ve tried to stop those Russian white trucks. Remember all those white trucks we were shown that were supposed to be carrying military equipment and every one that’s been opened has had baby food, penicillin, and water, stuff like that? I mean maybe they’ve stashed some weapons in there, so what? These people are starving. The infrastructure is destroyed, you can’t get fresh water, the hospitals are being destroyed. Do they have no agency in this controversy, in this discussion?

What about Kiev’s aggression – backed by the United States? This terrible destruction is done by Kiev under what it calls, and I quote, an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. That’s the name of Kiev’s military operation. It’s been that since April [2014]; they call it that till today, and the United States is endorsing it. I ask you: what kind of government declares 5 million of its own citizens terrorists? And if you say people are terrorists, is it your notion to negotiate with them or to kill ‘em?

What’s the American policy? We don’t negotiate with terrorists. We do, but officially we don’t; we kill them. There’s something wrong here. And what’s wrong in Kiev is endorsed in Washington. And that bothers me as an American citizen but it is also the reason that the solution cannot be only the end of Putin’s aggression.

So, this is the actual history.


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