Rethinking Russia: A Conversation With Russia Scholar Stephen F. Cohen

Despite his impressive credentials and intimate knowledge of Russia and its history, you will rarely hear Cohen's voice in the mainstream press. And it is not for a lack of trying; his views, and those of others like him, are simply shut out of the media, which, along with almost every U.S. politician, has decided to vilify Russian and Putin.
07/07/2015 11:25 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2016

Last week I had the honor of interviewing Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies and Politics at NYU and Princeton University, where for many years he was director of its Russian Studies program. Professor Cohen, a long-time friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, is one of the most important Russia scholars in the world and a member of the founding board of directors of the American Committee for East-West Accord, a pro-detente organization that seeks rethinking and public discussion of U.S. policy toward Russia.

Despite his impressive credentials and intimate knowledge of Russia and its history, you will rarely hear Cohen's voice in the mainstream press. And it is not for a lack of trying; his views, and those of others like him, are simply shut out of the media, which, along with almost every U.S. politician, has decided to vilify Russian and Putin, irrationally equating Putin with such tyrants as Adolf Hitler. As Cohen explains:

Even Henry Kissinger -- I think it was in March 2014 in the Washington Post -- wrote this line: "The demonization of Putin is not a policy. It's an alibi for not having a policy." And then I wrote in reply to that: That's right, but it's much worse than that, because it's also that the demonization of Putin is an obstacle to thinking rationally, having a rational discourse or debate about American national security. And it's not just this catastrophe in Ukraine and the new Cold War; it's from there to Syria to Afghanistan, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to fighting global terrorism. The demonization of Putin excludes a partner in the Kremlin that the U.S. needs, no matter who sits there.

And Cohen reminds us that, quite contrary to the common, manufactured perception in this country, we have a very willing and capable potential partner in Moscow right now. As Cohen explains, "Bill Clinton said this not too long ago: To the extent that he knew and dealt with Putin directly, he never knew him to say anything that he, Putin, didn't mean, or ever to go back on his word or break a promise he made to Clinton."

What's more, as Cohen reminds us, when the 9/11 attacks happened, Putin was the very first international leader to offer help to President Bush:

Putin called George Bush after 9/11 and said, "George, we're with you, whatever we can do," and in fact did more to help the Americans fight a land war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban from Kabul. ... Russia still had a lot of assets in Afghanistan, including a fighting force called the Northern Alliance. It had probably better intelligence in and about Afghanistan than any country, and it had air-route transport for American forces to fight in Afghanistan. He gave all this -- Putin gave all this -- to the Bush administration. Putin's Kremlin, not a member of NATO, did more to help the American land war and save American lives, therefore, in Afghanistan, than any NATO country.

However, as Cohen explains, Bush strangely repaid Putin by (1) unilaterally withdrawing from the anti-ballistic (ABM) treaty, the "bedrock" of Russia's national security, and (2) launching the second wave of NATO expansion toward Russia.

And, as Cohen points out, this was not the only case in which the U.S. quite brazenly betrayed Russia in recent decades. Thus he notes that Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama have all violated the very clear agreement that, in return for Gorbachev's allowing the reunification of Germany, the U.S. would not move NATO one inch further east. In addition, the U.S. undermined then-President Medvedev (who we claim to prefer to Putin) by unseating Gaddafi in Libya -- with disastrous consequences -- despite our promise to Russia that we would do no such thing if Russia agreed to the Security Council resolution approving the no-fly zone over Libya.

All of this history must be considered when we view the current crisis in Ukraine, which, Cohen warns, is quickly leading to a hot war with Russia. As Cohen relates:

If you took even the short time frame of the Ukrainian crisis and you began it in November 2013, when the then-elected president of Ukraine, Yanukovych, didn't actually refuse to sign the European Union's offer of a partnership with Europe. He asked for time to think about it. That brought the protesters in the streets. That led to the illegal overthrow of Yanukovych, which, by the way, Poroshenko, the current president, strangely now admits was illegal. ...

Then comes Putin's annexation or reunification of Crimea, as Russians call it. Then already evolving now in Eastern Ukraine are protests against what's happening in Kiev, because Eastern Ukraine was the electoral base of Yanukovych. Yanukovych was its president in a fundamental way. Then comes the proxy war, with Russia helping the rebel fighters in Eastern Ukraine and the United States and NATO helping the military forces of Kiev. ...

And so it went, on and on. Now, if you back up and ask who began the aggression, it's my argument -- for which I'm called a "Putin apologist," which I am not -- ... but the reality is that Putin has been mostly reactive. Let me say that again: reactive. If we had the time, I could explain to you why the reportedly benign European Union offer to Kiev in 2013 was not benign at all. No Ukrainian who wanted to survive could have accepted that. And by the way, it had clauses buried below that would've obliged Kiev to adhere to NATO military security policy. ...

Ukraine had been on Washington's agenda for a very, very long time; it is a matter of public record. It was to that that Putin reacted. It was to the fear that the new government in Kiev, which overthrew the elected government, had NATO backing and its next move would be toward Crimea and the Russian naval base there. ... But he was reacting, and as Kiev began an all-out war against the East, calling it the "anti-terrorist operation," with Washington's blessing. ...

This was clearly meant to be a war of destruction. ... Meanwhile, NATO began escalating its military presence. In each of these stages, a very close examination will show, as I'm sure historians will when they look back, that Putin has been primarily reactive. Now maybe his reactions have been wrong-headed. Maybe they've been too aggressive. That's something that could be discussed. ...

But this notion that this is all Putin's aggression, or Russia's aggression, is, if not 100-percent false, let us say, for the sake of being balanced and ecumenical, it's 50-percent false. And if Washington would admit that its narrative is 50-percent false, which means Russia's narrative is 50-percent correct, that's where negotiations begin and succeed.

I can only hope that the policy makers in this country will hear the voices of people like Professor Cohen and enter into rational negotiations with Russia in order that we may be spared what is shaping up to be a disastrous war in Europe.