Book Review – War With Russia? – Stephen F. Cohen

By Deena Stryker, who writes about the big picture. Posted with permission. 

Pre-Eminent Russia Specialist Dots the I’s

In the country that invented meritocracy, a foreign policy expert has to be on the right side of policy to get a public hearing. The much touted definition of a free press is that both sides of an issue are heard, but it was implicitly nullified. when, in 1896, the New York Times declared that it would publish ‘all the news that’s fit to print’. In the post- McCarthy nineteen-seventies, the Times’ eminent editorialist, Flora Lewis justified that decision:

Regarding the role of information, there is a fundamental conflict between those who gather and distribute it, and the authorities, whose policies they must disseminate in ways that maximize public support for the sacrifices they will require.

In democracies, news and those who gather and disseminate it, constitute a brake on authority. They expose its excesses and its follies in order that the public has a basis for judging it”..In the West, responsible journalists do not claim to decide which news is appropriate for ‘the people’ and which would be harmful. And we do not agree that the government or other self-proclaimed authorities or a ‘code’ should decide in our place. Objectivity may be an impossible goal but it deserves to be pursued.

Lewis’ screed was in response to the Third World’s unsuccessful demand for governments to set guidelines for the press, so that coverage would be objective. Like other third world campaigns, it was roundly rejected by ‘the West’ (or ‘the North’). Not until several decades later, thanks to the internet, were ‘contrarians’ able to present the other side only to be branded as new ‘fellow travelers’, excluded from both print and television media, as illustrated by Cohen’s own fate. His articles are posted in the on-line edition of the venerable Nation magazine, of which his wife, Katrina van den Heuvel is both publisher and editor, testament to the media’s widespread fear of repercussions. (Last week, the BBC listed the names of citizens working for RT and Sputnik”.)

Russia has been in the US cross-hairs for more than a century, since the 1917 revolution replaced the Tsarist regime with Communism, meant to be a bottom-up form of governance. Western coverage of Russia and subsequent ‘fraternal’ regimes such as Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea, continued to ignore the sacrosanct ‘First Amendment’. As I pointed out in my book Une autre Europe, un autre Monde, published a few months before the fall of the Berlin War, which it foresaw, it’s not individual journalists who are protected by the right to free speech, but media owners, who hire only those journalists who share their views meaning those of its advertisers. It was this crucial fact that ultimately gave rise to on-line journalism supported by readers.

As Stephen F. Cohen, Professor Emeritus in Politics and Russian Studies at both Princeton and New York University, points out in the introduction to his latest book “War with Russia?“, the press has egregiously failed to report the statements and actions of the man to whom the US-backed Yeltsin entrusted the country in his waning days. Fittingly, before getting into the weeds, the first chapter is titled: “Putin: Who He is Not,” contradicting virtually all the bad press about him. It is followed by a blow by blow account of the events that began in November 2013, when an Assistant Secretary of State bragged to the Washington Press Club that she had spent five billion dollars preparing Ukraine to break its centuries-long ties to Russia.

In pursuance of this openly admitted goal, the US proceeded to back anti-Russian Ukrainians in a bloody uprising the following February. In reality, far from wanting to ‘bring democracy’ to Kiev, it was the first salvo in a 1992 blueprint for dividing Russia into ‘manageable’ fiefdoms, in order to ensure that it could never challenge American hegemony. That blueprint, codified as The US National Defense Strategy for the Nineties, was elaborated by George H W Bush’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz, and states that:

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.

This language was later softened in response to criticism, however the message remained: The Soviet Union is not only three times the size of the US, its unique mineral wealth could eventually enable it to challenge American hegemony. The Wolfowitz Doctrine was only slightly softened in Trump’s December 2017 Security Doctrine, insufficiently to placate Wolfowitz’s followers known as Neocons.

Without signaling this unequivocal policy, Cohen’s analyses, like those of less qualified political writers, cannot explain the over-arching Russophobia that infuses US policy toward the other major nuclear power. Hence the title of his collection of articles written between 2014, when the Ukraine crisis erupted, and November 2018 (a testament to the publishing skill of Skyhorse), is a question, War with Russia? rather than the warning that it could be, as he subsequently recognized in the December 31st print edition of The Nation.

Regarding the crucial issue of Crimea, Cohen points out that the Russian President was responding to a blatant Western provocation when he invited the mainly Russian-speaking inhabitants to organize a referendum. The much criticized presence in the streets of sailors from the Russian naval base at Sevastopol was not meant to intimidate the population, but to dissuade the local ‘parliament’ from sabotaging it.

Putin watched as initially peaceful protests on Kiev’s Maidan Square devolved by February, 2014 into Western-applauded armed street mobs that caused Yanukovich, still the constitutional president, to flee and put in power an ultranationalist, anti-Russia government. It seemed to threaten, not only vocally, ethnic Russians and other native Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine as well as the historical and still vital Russian naval base at Sevastopol, in Crimea, and that province’s own ethnic Russian majority. Given these circumstances, which were imposed on him, he seemed to have had little choice. Nor would have any imaginable Kremlin leader.

The process of setting up Russia as an enemy is based on the spurious claim that by ‘annexing Crimea’, Putin infringed on the US-created post war international order, by ‘moving boundaries’ that were intended to be definitive. In reality, he was restoring Crimea to its historical place. Although never mentioned in the Western media, from the time when Catherine the Great wrested the Black Sea peninsula from the Turks in 1783 (thus, since the beginning of the American Republic!), Crimea had been part of Russia, until in 1954, Khruschev ‘fraternally gifted’ it to Ukraine, perhaps to placate long-standing Ukrainian aspirations of independence from the Soviet Union.

That the Maidan ‘revolution’ was funded and backed by the US as a first step toward taking over Russia(after the failure of a similarly motivated attempt to take over Georgia in 2008), is testified in videos available on-line and it is confirmed by what came next, as described by Cohen:

A vital episode amid the February 2014 crisis has been forgotten or deleted. The foreign ministers of three EU countries (France, Germany and Poland) brokered a compromise agreement between the Ukrainian president and party leaders of the street protesters. [President] Yanukovich agreed to an early presidential election and to form with oppo-sition leaders an interim coalition government. That is, a democratic, peaceful resolution of the crisis. In a phone talk, President Obama told Putin he would support the agreement. Instead, it perished within hours when rejected by ultranationalist forces in Maidan’s streets and occupied buildings. Neither Obama nor the European ministers made any effort to save the agreement. Instead, they fully embraced the new government that had come to power through a violent street coup.

Cohen asks: “Who actually destabilized [Ukraine’s] flawed, even corrupt, but legal constitutional democracy in 2014? Putin or the Western leaders who imposed an untenable choice (alliance with Russia or the West) on Ukraine and then abandoned their own negotiated agreement?”

With peaceful neighbors, Americans have only the Civil War on their soil to remember. They cannot conceive of crowds carrying pictures of their fallen to memorialize victory over invaders. Also, it’s worth asking whether Russia’s size, rather than its behavior, might explain why it has invariably been seen as a threat by its neighbors. (However, Eastern Europe did not historically suffer Russian hegemony, as Cohen claims, perhaps in a token to the zeitgeist: it was under Ottoman rule for three centuries”) As for the third world nations on its southern marches that were conquered by Russia’s emperors, they appear to have benefited from subsequent Communist-mandated education and health care. On a recent flight from Sochi to Moscow, I was seated next to a casually dressed young man intent on photographing images in a magazine. It turned out that he was an architect who built ski loges in his native Kyrgystan. He spoke fluent English as well as Russian and had abandoned Islam for Scientology! This reality probably goes a long way to explaining why other ‘Stans’, as well as, most recently, Iran, are happy to join the Russian-headed Eurasian Economic Union that was open to Ukraine.

Given the ever closer alliance between Russia and China, founders of the BRICS, which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa (and probably soon to include Turkey if Erdogan is to be believed ( ), the shrill tone of American policy-makers and its media have reached fever pitch.

Stephen Cohen’s step by step recapitulation of the US’s ‘phony war’ with Russia is an indispensable read for anyone seeking to put the current scary situation in perspective, starting with NATO’s steady advance from East Germany to Russia’s Western borders, in defiance of documented promises to Gorbatchev and later, Yeltsin, that this would never happen (see the National Archives website).

I hope Cohen’s next project will be to trace the specific influence of the 1992 Security Doctrine, which remains the Neo-Conservative Bible, on an American foreign policy that stands in contrast to Pastor Winthrop’s hopes for the ‘shining city upon a hill’

It’s not because Russia is ‘a rogue state’ seeking to recreate a former empire that the US is preparing for war, but to prevent it from ever challenging us as world hegemon (commonly referred to as ‘the indispensable nation’). Hillary Clinton’s vociferous commitment to that policy justifies Russia’s (non-violent!) interference in the 2016 election: Any responsible leader would want to make sure that she never came to power, even if it meant giving Americans their worst president in history.

Stephen Cohen’s War with Russia? should be required reading for progressives, whose support for good causes could come to naught in the absence of decisive anti-war and especially, anti-nuclear campaigns. Washington’s armchair strategists claim that the US could survive a nuclear war. The fact is that it is Russia, with its eleven time zones and melting Arctic Ice, that would have a greater chance of ‘survival’, and the media reaches its nadir when it fails to point that out.

War With Russia is available from Skyhorse Publishing.

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