A Hot War With Russia Is Conceivable: Top Scholar Stephen Cohen on Russia-Ukraine Crisis
As negotiations over the crisis in Ukraine begin in Geneva, tension is rising in eastern Ukraine after security forces killed three pro-Russian separatists, wounded 13 and took 63 captive in the city of Mariupol. Ukrainian officials said the pro-Russians had attempted to storm a military base. The fighting comes just after the collapse of a Ukrainian operation to retake government buildings in several eastern towns. On Wednesday, pro-Russian separatists took control of some of their armored vehicles, and crowds surrounded another column, forcing the troops to hand over the pins from their rifles and retreat. Earlier on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an "abyss."
PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] People in eastern Ukraine have started to arm themselves. And instead of realizing that something bad is going on in the Ukrainian state and making any attempts to start a dialogue, the authorities have started to threaten with force even more and unleash tanks and aviation on civilian populations. This is another grave crime of the current Kiev authorities. I hope it will be possible to realize which hole and which abyss the current authorities are moving towards and dragging the whole country with them. And in this regard, I think the start of today’s talks in Geneva is very important. I think it is very important today to think about how to get out of this situation, to offer people a real—not ostentatious, but real—dialogue.
AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking on Russian television earlier today. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced a series of steps to reinforce its forces in eastern Europe because of the Ukraine crisis.
SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: We will have more planes in the air, more ships on the water and more readiness on the land. For example, air policing aircraft will fly more sorties over the Baltic region. Allied ships will deploy to the Baltic Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, and elsewhere as required.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Ukraine, Stephen Cohen is with us, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University; his most recent book,Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, out now in paperback. He recently wrote a piece for The Nation headlined "Cold War Again: Who is Responsible?"
Are we seeing the beginning of a new Cold War, Professor Cohen? And what exactly is happening right now in Ukraine?
STEPHEN COHEN: Those are big questions. We are not at the beginning of the Cold War, a new one; we are well into it—which alerts us to the fact, just watching what you showed up there, that hot war is imaginable now, for the first time in my lifetime, my adult lifetime, since the Cuban missile crisis, hot war with Russia. It’s unlikely, but it’s conceivable. And if it’s conceivable, something has to be done about it.
You did two things on your introduction which were very important. Almost alone among American media, you actually allowed Putin to speak for himself. He’s being filtered through the interpretation of the mass media here, allegedly, what he said, and it’s not representative. The second thing is, let us look just what’s happening at this moment, or at least yesterday. The political head of NATO just announced a major escalation of NATO forces in Europe. He did a Churchillian riff: "We will increase our power in the air, in the sea, on the land." Meanwhile, as negotiations today begin in Geneva, we’re demanding that Russians de-escalate. And yet, we, NATO, are escalating as these negotiations begin.
So, if you were to say what is going on in Ukraine today—and, unfortunately, the focus is entirely on eastern Ukraine. We don’t have any Western media—in eastern Ukraine. We don’t have any Western—any Western media in western Ukraine, the other half of the country. We’re not clear what’s going on there. But clearly, things are getting worse and worse. Each side has a story that totally conflicts with the other side’s story. There seems to be no middle ground. And if there’s no middle ground in the public discourse, in the Russian media or the American media, it’s not clear what middle ground they can find in these negotiations, though personally, I think—and people will say, "Oh, Cohen’s a Putin apologist"—but it seemed to me that the proposals the Russians made a month ago for resolving the conflict are at least a good starting point. But it’s not clear the United States is going to accept them.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Well, Stephen Cohen, it was just a few weeks ago when we had you on, as the crisis was beginning to unfold in Ukraine, and a lot of what you said then turned out to be true, which was that you feared that there would be a split in Ukraine itself between the east and west. And obviously Crimea was just developing then. But it seems that all of the emphasis in the coverage here is as if the crisis started with Russian aggression, not with the earlier period of what was NATOand Europe’s involvement in Ukraine before the deposing of the elected president.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I think you’ve emphasized the absolute flaw in at least the American—because I don’t follow the European press that closely—the American media and political narrative. As a historian, I would say that this conflict began 300 years ago, but we can’t do that. As a contemporary observer, it certainly began in November 2013 when the European Union issued an ultimatum, really, to the then-president, elected president, of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, that "Sign an agreement with us, but you can’t have one with Russia, too." In my mind, that precipitated this crisis, because why give a country that has been profoundly divided for centuries, and certainly in recent decades, an ultimatum—an elected president: "Choose, and divide your country further"? So when we say today Putin initiated this chaos, this danger of war, this confrontation, the answer is, no, that narrative is wrong from the beginning. It was triggered by the European Union’s unwise ultimatum.
Now flash forward to just one month ago, about the time I was with you before. Remember that the European foreign ministers—three of them, I think—went to Kiev and negotiated with Yanukovych, who was still the president, an agreement. Now, the Russians were present at the negotiation, but they didn’t sign it. But they signed off on it. They said, "OK." What did that agreement call for? Yanukovych would remain president until December—not May, when elections are now scheduled, but December of this year. Then there would be a presidential election. He could run in them, or not. Meanwhile, there would be a kind of government of national accord trying to pull the government together. And, importantly, Russia would chip in, in trying to save the Ukrainian economy. But there would also be parliamentary elections. That made a lot of sense. And it lasted six hours.
The next day, the street, which was now a mob—let’s—it was no longer peaceful protesters as it had been in November. It now becomes something else, controlled by very ultra-nationalist forces; overthrew Yanukovych, who fled to Russia; burned up the agreement. So who initiated the next stage of the crisis? It wasn’t Russia. They wanted that agreement of February, a month ago, to hold. And they’re still saying, "Why don’t we go back to it?" You can’t go back to it, though there is a report this morning that Yanukovych, who is in exile in Russia, may fly to eastern Ukraine today or tomorrow, which will be a whole new dimension.
But the point of it is, is that Putin didn’t want—and this is reality, this is not pro-Putin or pro-Washington, this is just a fact—Putin did not want this crisis. He didn’t initiate it. But with Putin, once you get something like that, you get Mr. Pushback. And that’s what you’re now seeing. And the reality is, as even the Americans admit, he holds all the good options. We have none. That’s not good policymaking, is it?
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to President Obama. Thursday, he was interviewed by CBS News by Major Garrett.
MAJOR GARRETT: Is Vladimir Putin provoking a civil war there? And will you and Western leaders let him to get away with that?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that what is absolutely clear is not only have Russians gone into Crimea and annexed it, in illegal fashion, violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but what they’ve also done is supported, at minimum, nonstate militias in southern and eastern Ukraine. And we’ve seen some of the activity that’s been taking place there.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: You left out one thing that he said which I consider to be unwise and possibly reckless. He went on to say that Russia wouldn’t go to war with us because our conventional weapons are superior. That is an exceedingly provocative thing to say. And he seems to be unaware, President Obama, that Russian military doctrine says that when confronted by overwhelming conventional forces, we can use nuclear weapons. They mean tactical nuclear weapons. I don’t think any informed president, his handlers, would have permitted him to make such a statement. In fact, depending on how far you want to take this conversation about the Obama administration, I don’t recall in my lifetime, in confrontations with Russia, an administration—I speak now of the president and his secretary of state—who seem in their public statements to be so misinformed, even uninformed, both about Ukraine and Russia. For example, when Kerry testified last week to Congress that all the unrest in Ukraine was due to Putin’s meddling and his provocations, he denied the underlying problem which has divided Ukraine. I mean, everybody knows that history, God, whoever’s responsible for our destiny, created a Ukraine that may have had one state, but wasn’t one country. It may be two, it may be three countries. But for John Kerry to say that all this conflict in Ukraine is due to Putin simply makes a resolution of the problem by denying the problem. Or let me ask you a question: What in the world was the director of the American CIA doing last Sunday—
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: I was going to ask you about that.
STEPHEN COHEN: —in Kiev? It is mind-boggling that it was called a secret mission, when my grandson knows that the Ukrainian intelligence services are full of pro-Russian officers. And yet they send the head of the CIA, at this crucial, inflamed moment, thereby—to Kiev, thereby reinforcing the Russian narrative that everything that’s happening in Ukraine is an American provocation. What are they thinking?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, aside from having a very educated grandson, I just want to turn to NATO for a moment.
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I told him that [inaudible]. But he got it. He got it.
AMY GOODMAN: NATO announced a series of steps to reinforce its forces—this is NATO in eastern Europe—because of the Ukraine crisis. NATO’s top military commander, Philip Breedlove, described the moves as defensive measures.
GEN. PHILIP BREEDLOVE: All the actions that we have proposed and have been accepted today are clearly defensive in nature. And I think it’s going to be very straightforward to see them as defensive in nature. They are designed to assure our allies. And so, I think that, in any case, it’s always a chance that you run that something might be misinterpreted. But we specifically designed these measures to assure our allies only and to be clearly seen as defensive in nature.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Professor Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ve never known what "purely defensive weapons" have meant—I mean, presuming they are guns that shoot in only one direction. I mean, it’s going to have no effect. I mean, they’re talking about giving the Ukrainians maybe some small arms, some night vision stuff, some superior intelligence. They can’t give them intelligence information, because the Ukrainian intelligence services, as we know from the tapes we’ve had, the leaked tapes, and from the CIAsecret mission which was exposed to Ukraine, revealed.
The real debate going on in NATO—the real debate, because this is a distraction—is what Rasmussen said in your earlier clip—he’s the political head of NATO—that we’re building up, as we talk, our forces in eastern Europe. Now, understand what’s going on here. When we took in—"we" meaning the United States and NATO—all these countries in eastern Europe into NATO, we did not—we agreed with the Russians we would not put forward military installations there. We built some infrastructure—air strips, there’s some barracks, stuff like that. But we didn’t station troops that could march toward Russia there. Now what NATO is saying, it is time to do that. Now, Russia already felt encircled by NATO member states on its borders. The Baltics are on its borders. If we move the forces, NATO forces, including American troops, to—toward Russia’s borders, where will we be then? I mean, it’s obviously going to militarize the situation, and therefore raise the danger of war.
And I think it’s important to emphasize, though I regret saying this, Russia will not back off. This is existential. Too much has happened. Putin—and it’s not just Putin. We seem to think Putin runs the whole of the universe. He has a political class. That political class has opinions. Public support is running overwhelmingly in favor of Russian policy. Putin will compromise at these negotiations, but he will not back off if confronted militarily. He will not.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the situation in Russia, especially the growing—some reports are that Putin’s popularity has now surged to about 80 percent of the population, at a time when there was actually a dissident movement that was beginning to gather strength within Russia against the more authoritarian aspects of Russian society.
STEPHEN COHEN: Since this is Democracy Now!, let me assert my age and my credential. Beginning in the 1970s, I lived in Russia among the then-Soviet dissidents. They were brave people. They were pro-democracy. They struggled. They paid the price. With the coming of Gorbachev, who embraced many of their democratizing ideas, they were marginalized, or they moved into the establishment as official democratizers. This struggle has continued, even under Putin. But the result of this confrontation, East-West confrontation—and I can’t emphasize how fundamental and important it is—is going to set back whatever prospects remained in Russia for further democratization or re-democratization, possibly a whole generation. It is simply going to take all the traction these people have gotten out from under them. And still worse, the most authoritarian forces in Russia and Russia’s authoritarian traditions will now be reinvigorated politically in kind of a—
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: And it’s all ultra-nationalist, as well, right?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s ultra-nationalists, but it’s certainly nationalist.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Right.
STEPHEN COHEN: And, I mean, by the way, we’re a nationalist country.
JUAN GONZÃLEZ: Right.
STEPHEN COHEN: We use a different word: We call it "patriotism." Do you remember an American president who ever ran and said, "I’m not an American patriot"? I say I’m an American patriot. We don’t call ourselves "nationalists." Also, we don’t have a state in the United States; we have a government. The Europeans have states. We have a government. But you take away the language—this is not unusual, but there—when it surges like this, as it does in run-ups to war—and we’re in the run-up at least to a possible war—this is what you get. That’s why I think the policy, the American policy, has been unwise from the beginning.
AMY GOODMAN: The front page of The New York Times: "Russia Economy Worsens Even Before Sanctions Hit." And they’re attributing it partly to Russia’s action in Crimea.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah. Well, I mean, the asymmetry of all of this, right? We say Putin’s got 40,000 troops on Ukraine’s border. And there may or may not be; nobody’s exactly clear how long they’ve been there and what they’re doing, but obviously they’re not helping the situation. But what we have are sanctions that we may put in place against Putin’s cronies. This is—this is the threat. This is what the White House says: "We are going to sanction his oligarchical cronies." And presumably, on this theory, they will go to him and say, "Look, Volodya, you’ve got to stop this, because my bank accounts ..." This is utter nonsense. First of all, he’ll just appoint new oligarchs. Secondly, there’s a law in the Russian Duma, the Parliament, being debated that the state will compensate anybody whose assets are frozen in the West. Now, I don’t know if they’ll pass the law, but you could see that this doesn’t bother the Kremlin leadership.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have one minute. The significance of the meeting in Geneva with Ukraine, Russia, United States, European Union, and what’s going to happen in eastern Ukraine?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but things are getting worse and worse. People are being killed. So, obviously, that’s bad, and we’re moving closer toward a military confrontation. The Russians are asking at negotiations the following. They want NATO expansion ended to its all former Soviet republics. That means Ukraine and Georgia, period. I think we should give them that. This has been a reckless, endangering policy. It’s time for it to end. They want a federal Ukrainian state. That’s a debate. But Ukraine is several countries; you can only hold it together with a federal constitution. And they want, in the end, a stable Ukraine, and they will contribute financially to making that possible. I don’t see any reason there, other than the White House saving political face, why that’s not a good negotiating position to begin with.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Stephen Cohen, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of Russian studies at New York University, before that, Princeton University, author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, just out in paperback. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Stay with us.