Stephen Cohen: That’s not the way democracies operate

Part 5 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    part two here     part three here    part four here

Now let’s go back to Moynihan. Maybe I haven’t told you the truth. And probably there are some people who think I got it wrong. My facts are correct. I make mistakes, but I correct them. I’m a scholar: if I get my facts wrong, I’m cabbage. Now, my analysis and interpretation – or what Moynihan would call my opinions – they may be incorrect. My brain may not be able to handle these facts to process them. And that’s possible, and I’m open to being corrected about my interpretation. But let us say to conclude this evening, or this part of it, that I’m half right on it. Give me half.

What would this mean if I’m half right? It means that Putin’s behavior has been substantially reactive. He’s been reacting to American western policy. Now maybe he reacted unwisely. I think he did in some cases. But to call this aggression?

So it means, arguably, that the worst international crisis in decades cannot be blamed solely on Putin. That we bear some responsibility for it. And should own up and think about it and see if we can negotiate.

Second, it means we may be racing to war with Russia on the basis of a false narrative. Even official falsehoods.

Third, it means that America, the self-proclaimed greatest democracy in the world – sometimes I think we are, sometimes I’m not so sure – is going to war without any public debate whatsoever in the mainstream political media establishment. That’s not the way democracies operate. We’re supposed to sit down and think this thing through, even regarding the run up to Iraq. Those of us who oppose the war lost the debate but we were given a debate. We were featured on op-ed pages and on T.V. We had a debate.

We should worry about this. And that’s not all. Here’s where I don’t know the answers. Things have happened along the way that have brought us to this moment that we have not been told the full truth about. Though I don’t know what the full truth is, at each stage a mysterious event occurred that protracted and deepened the Ukrainian crisis. And the new Cold War. And each remains tonight a question without a clear answer.

[1] In November 2013, why did Washington and Brussels impose an either-or-choice on the democratically elected president of a divided Ukraine? What was wrong with Putin’s tripartite, three way, let’s-all-chip-in agreement? What was wrong with that? We need an explanation.

[2] In February 2014, who organized the sniper attacks at Maidan that killed 100 people, led to more street riots, and eventually Yanukovych’s fleeing? Who was behind those snipers? At that time in February, I ask again, why didn’t the European foreign ministers and President Obama defend the negotiated settlement that they had brokered and say to the protesters, “No. Wait and vote against Yanukovych in December.” “You can wait 8 or 9 months and meanwhile your people are going to be in his government.” Why didn’t we do that? We don’t know. But do we deserve an answer?

[3] In early May, a horrible event by anybody’s standard occurred in Odessa. 48 people were [almost?] burned alive in a sealed building. Pro-Russians. Who did that and why? Why was it never investigated? Why did Kerry say, “Gee that was a terrible thing” and move on and never ask for an investigation? Why did we not demand that our client government in Kiev conduct a real investigation? Why has that massacre, which evoked the horrors of Nazi extermination squads in Ukraine in World War II, why was that just passed over? And who did it? It was clearly organized.

[4] And who shot down in July, Malaysian jetliner 17? All 298 people on board. Who shot that down and why? Was it an accident? Was it a provocation? Was it a Ukrainian military fighter plane? And who was standing there with the artillery on the ground?

[5] And since the Minsk accords,* which called for a ceasefire negotiation, were signed in September, who has repeatedly violated the ceasefire, since then making sure that no negotiations occurred? Is that the question Merkel wants to ask Poroshenko the president of Ukraine, Putin, and then Obama? Cause she’s been calling for negotiations, but every time she does somebody violates the ceasefire. Maybe she’s now interested in who’s doing that.

Here’s the point. Washington, NATO and Kiev all have an answer to each of these questions. And all the answers point toward Moscow, all blame Moscow. No American newspaper has shown any investigative interest in these cases. The New York Times has money to send a crew for months to Moscow to investigate the Russian textbook industry to discover that Putin’s cronies are profiting there. They could have rung me up on Upper West Side of New York and I could have told them the exact story they printed because a lot of my colleagues in Russia are complaining about it. But they don’t have any money to go and investigate the shoot down of that airplane, or the snipers, or go to the front lines and see who’s investigating, who’s violating the ceasefire.

Meanwhile around the world there are independent investigations that are claiming that the official American answer is untrue in each of these cases. Are these other investigations true? I do not know. I don’t have the brainpower or the knowledge, the resources to investigate, but I think somebody should. So it means that in this respect we may now be racing to war in a very thick fog of war on the basis of lies or uncertainties.

So I need to end by asking, “What now?” You know the old Russian question. “Chto delat”. And probably the answer is “Nichego yeyo slishkom pozdno”. “Nothing, it’s too late. “ I don’t know. When I ask “what now,” I only know some of the facts, to return to Moynihan. So my opinion is not perhaps what it should be. Here’s what I think is the case. The pro-war parties are now ascended in most of the capitals directly involved. Washington: if you wonder who the leader is, of course it’s Senator McCain; Kerry’s lent his weight; certainly Vice President Biden. Kiev, Brussels, NATO headquarters – and possibly, I’m not sure in Moscow, [as] there’s a struggle going on in Moscow. Putin did not initiate this crisis. Contrary to the orthodox version, it is very bad for him personally and very bad for Russia’s national interests. He wants it ended. He isn’t going to capitulate, but he wants it ended.

It can be ended by a negotiated settlement based on some variations of the following, which were agreed to in Geneva in April 2014 by Kerry, by Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, by the representatives of Kiev, by Germany, and by France. Some variations of the following: a complete ceasefire, withdrawal of all heavy equipment, military equipment from the front lines by both sides, some kind of federated Ukrainian state or decentralized Ukrainian state that gives all the regions, not just the eastern regions but the western regions the right, to a degree, to follow their own traditions. By the way, governors are not elected in Ukraine, they’re appointed in Kiev. We don’t do that. That doesn’t mean our way is the right way, but there are alternative ways to the way Kiev does it. And there are language and other issues.

A militarily non-aligned Ukraine: that means, let me be clear, Ukraine will never ever, ever, ever, EVER, for eternity be a member of NATO.** Now what we’re offering is “Oh, NATO membership is not on the agenda today.” Well neither is going to Mars, but we’re trying. The Russians want a flat written commitment even though they know we’ll probably break it. They want a piece of paper. Which they neglected to get for promises made in the past. And Ukraine, vitally important for the well being of the people of Ukraine, free to trade with Russia and with the west. Free to trade with both. Understand that even after a year of war, Russia remains Ukraine’s essential, financial, trading, economic partner by far. Ukraine cannot survive without Russia and Russia needs Ukraine economically. It’s good for both of them. And Ukraine should be allowed to do the same with the west as has Russia been for the last 20 years.

Ukraine shouldn’t be told, “either you trade with us or you trade with Russia but not both”. Not both. And a guarantee of Ukraine’s current territorial sovereignty, but without Crimea. That train left the station. But the rest of Ukraine stays intact and that is guaranteed by the great powers and possibly by United Nations resolution.

Is there still time for such a reasonable settlement? I have no idea. It was attainable in April, May, maybe June. It may be that too much blood has now been shed.

The people in eastern Ukraine were not for the most part separatists, though we always called them that when this began. They called themselves ‘Federalists’. They wanted home rule to some degree. Now what you hear if you watch the social media videos, “we can’t live with these people anymore, they killed my grandmother, my grandfather, and my daughter. I’m not living with these Kiev anymore.” Maybe that can be overcome. The Confederacy said the same thing about the Union after the Civil War but we paid a price. Decades a price to finally hold a nation together. I don’t know. I don’t know.

There are only two possibilities for this kind of solution and that requires leadership. One is Merkel, because of her special position. Germany’s the strongest country in Europe. Her policy, her position, has been to say there can be no military solution and then cave into America’s anti-Russian, pro-sanction policies. Maybe her flight yesterday and tonight is a change of mind. I don’t know.

But the only person who can end this in terms of negotiation is Obama. Obama controls NATO, or Washington does, controls the International Monetary Fund, which will have to help pick up the bill. He seems to be drifted toward the war party. I voted for him twice. I’d like to think that this is because he hasn’t heard any opposition to the war party. He hasn’t felt the heat because we haven’t made ourselves heard. I don’t mean you, I mean the people I talk to. And the truth is — I say to the young people in this room, because suddenly, somehow I became a grandfather — that my generation and your parents’ generation have let you down. We haven’t given you a choice. We haven’t put it out there so you can think about what’s right and wrong and what to do. We’ve failed you; we haven’t given you this democratic debate. So you, the young people in the room, now can do what you think right. Maybe nothing. Maybe something.

As for me, and I end on this note, my hopes and despair rise and fall with the day’s news. I’m slightly happy that Merkel’s on an airplane. She’s worried. Good. But usually I remember what Russians say about being a pessimist and an optimist. They define a pessimist and an optimist differently than we do. Conditioned by their own Russian traumatic history they say, “A pessimist thinks things cannot possibly get worse. And an optimist knows they can”. So I leave you tonight an optimist and I thank you for having me on this really great anniversary occasion.

* Editor’s note: the so-called Minsk 1 agreement. On February 11, 2015, six days after Stephen Cohen made this speech, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany met in Minsk yet again in talks overseen by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and organised in response to the collapse of the Minsk Protocol ceasefire in January–February 2015.

** Editor’s note: Two months after Prof. Cohen outlined the basic elements of a negotiated solution that would work for all parties involved, on April 8, 2015, the news came out of Kiev that Yatsenyuk’s Cabinet of Ministers was about to sign a special agreement with NATO. See our item on this, here.


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Apr 12, 2015 12:22 AM

“What was wrong with Putin’s tripartheid, three way, let’s-all-chip-in agreement?” — Tripartite, surely, rather than “tripartheid”? :p (Also, the link to part 4 leads nowhere accessible.)

Thanks for transcribing this; I hate watching speeches on video because I can never hear a word over my music…

Apr 12, 2015 1:38 AM
Reply to  Louisa

All fixed. Thank you.

Apr 10, 2015 5:57 PM

Bravo, Vaska. Stephen Cohen is the lone voice of decency and reason in an increasingly mad world, and this lecture is essential reading for anyone on EITHER side of the conflict who really wants to understand the issues. Thank you very much for making it available.