Part 1 of Stephen Cohen’s Lecture, “The Ukrainian Crisis: A New Cold War?” on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies Program, Fairfield University, February 5, 2015
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?”.