Stephen Cohen on the 25-year lead-up to the current crisis

Part 2 of Stephen Cohen 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

part one here

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.

part three here


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Apr 8, 2015 9:41 PM

Thank you so much for sharing this transcript here. It’s a shame so much of Stephen Cohen’s material on The Nation is only available as video or podcast, and this really helps.
One thought – would it be possible to add the links to the original video? And on part 3, to add links to the other parts as you have here? Sorry, I know that’s asking for spoon-feeding, but it does make life easier if we want to direct people here.

Apr 8, 2015 9:46 PM
Reply to  louise1854

Yes, I agree: that’s why we decided to run the transcript of his Fairfield University speech here. We posted the original video of that event in our Video section a couple of days ago. You can find it at:


Thanks for the other suggestion: I’ve just added a link to this one to our Part 3 of the transcript.

Apr 8, 2015 8:01 PM

“In other words, we were building a European security system at the expense of NATO.”

I suppose this should say, “at the expense of Russia.”

Apr 8, 2015 8:59 PM
Reply to  inertial

Yes — it was Cohen’s slip of the tongue which we decided to leave as is in the transcript itself, lest an editorial correction of that point raise any questions about the accuracy of the rest of the transcript. His meaning, which you rightly identified, is quite clear from the context.

Apr 7, 2015 10:49 PM

Reblogged this on susannapanevin.