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Stephen Cohen: We’re living through a geopolitical transition


We bring you here a transcript of the major part of Stephen Cohen’s analysis of the Ukrainian Crisis on the John Batchelor Show of April 28, 2015.

Very loud and authoritative voices in Kiev, in Washington, in Brussels are saying almost daily that a larger war is coming, and coming soon.

Moscow is warning that all this war talk is preparation for US-Kiev assault on Donbass.

It’s fully possible that both sides are beefing up for a show down.

The West is accusing Russia under Putin of destroying the post-Soviet security order in Europe.

If we are going to say when did this [most recent destruction of the Westphalian order] begin …. if you are ascribing blame in terms of cause-and-effect, it begins with the American [1999] air invasion of Serbia.

But there’s one other point that’s exceedingly important, and people either don’t remember it or they don’t understand it, or they’re concealing it: to say that Putin is destroying the post-Soviet order created in Europe after the end of the Soviet Union neglects to mention that Russia was excluded purposefully from that order. It was never invited to join what became the NATO order in Europe, as NATO expanded from Berlin all the way to Russia’s borders.

So, Putin’s response to this could be, although he hasn’t said this, “You’re accusing me of destroying something that I protested all along because you left me out.”

We talk each week about micro events emanating from the Ukraine crisis, but we’re living through a geopolitical transition – and to what, we don’t know….. The world will not again be the way it looked 5 or 6 years ago, at least in Europe. These are really historic times and the epicenter is Ukraine. The essential confrontation is between the United States and Russia, but on a parallel line, Europe is splitting over this, China is re-orienting itself, so if it’s not global, it’s certainly semi-global.

There is absolutely no evidence that Russia is seeking to re-create the Soviet Union as geopolitical phenomenon. None whatsoever. It doesn’t have the resources, it doesn’t have the ideology, it doesn’t have the inclination, it doesn’t have popular support, and the leaders have another mission in mind: they are busy rebuilding at home the Russian state that collapsed in 1991.

I would not say that Russia wants a sphere of influence, unless we’re talking about trade influence, which every nation seeks. I would say that what Russia wants and is now demanding, and will go to war for, is a zone of security. I prefer that formulation. Which means no foreign military bases on its borders. Which means Ukraine at the moment and Georgia, because NATO is now moving again, as we talk, again against Georgia, trying to bring Georgia into NATO.

It is really that simple: that Russia wants to trade with the world, East and West. Why wouldn’t it? It sits between East and West. That’s what it’s proposed all along: that’s good for the Russian economy. Militarily, however, it wants security in the form of no military bases on its borders. Moreover, spheres of influence in military terms – which is kind of an 18th- and 19hth-century concept – are utterly, totally obsolete. Missiles can fly 6 minutes or less, 3 minutes, across an entire sphere of influence. There’s no defense against them in that sense. And that’s why, by the way, Russia is adamantly protesting the Unites States and NATO building a missile defense right on Russia’s border.

So, it wants to be free of military threat – personally, I think that’s entirely reasonable. And we take what’s a cliché, but it’s a meaningful one: what if Russian or Chinese military bases showed up in Mexico and/or Canada? We would object very, very adamantly – maybe go to war over it. We threatened to do so when the Soviet Union put missiles in Cuba.

So it seems to me a benign, healthy, modern-day position. And no great power wishes to have foreign military bases on its borders. Now, everybody says’s that’s true, in the West, except when it comes to Russia, because we’ve expanded NATO to Russia’s borders and now Russia’s pushing back.

Europe is splitting about what to do over this Ukrainian crisis, and a number of them, particularly Germany, France and Italy are now objecting to this non-accommodationist with Russia, very hard line.

NATO itself is now divided into three factions on what to do about Ukraine. The structure of Europe as built in recent years is coming unstuck, including NATO.

You got two colliding narratives now. Moscow presents one and we present one. The question is, which is correct? Or are both correct? And if both are correct, we can have some compromise.

This towering demonization of Putin is made it very hard to do the kind of analysis we did of Russian politics during the Cold War and to think analytically about foreign policy. Everything’s now “the demon of Putin” and “you can’t make any compromises”, “he’s probably like Hitler”, and the rest. It’s completely false. But, if I could have a wish, I would have a national television network show us with subtitles two brilliantly made – because Russians know how to make documentaries – films, about two hours each, that have been shown in Russia over the past two months. The first one was called “The Road to Crimea,” and it was about the history of the Russian decision to annex or, as Russia says, re-unify with Crimea. And the centerpiece of that film is about an hour-and-a-half interview with Putin. Then we have the film shown this Sunday night, the documentary devoted to Putin’s 15 years – it’s an anniversary as he became president in March 2000 so it’s now 15 years – and it’s about Putin more than anything else. And about Putin and Russia.

There are many interesting moments in it and I think if Americans were able to watch this film, see Putin responding, with a lot of brilliant footage — it’s quite exciting, people fighting and jumping out of planes, and all the rest – if people could watch that, it would do something to reduce this demonization. But the most striking thing that Putin said, to me, was – and this has harmed him in Russia, there’s been commentary on this – he said: “When I came to power, I was full of illusions about the West. I though they would embrace Russia because we were no longer ruled by the Communist Party. And I was wrong. They continue to behave, as they’ve always behaved. Because they were not animated by anti-communism, they were animated by geopolitical ambition. And they wanted a Russia that is a supplicant nation, a Russia that needed help, a Russia on its back, and the moment – he said – that Russia began to rise from its knees (and he meant, under his leadership, 14-15 years ago), the West began to turn against us.”

Now, think what it is, how often has a leader, especially one in Putin’s position while he’s in power, said “I was full of illusions.” Can you imagine an American president saying that? And in fact, he was widely criticized in Russia, in the newspapers, and there was a particular nuance here: how could a man who had spent his early career in the KGB as an intelligence officer, with the opportunity to read a lot of classified things, have any illusions at all? He must have been a lousy intelligence officer, it was commented on in the Russian press. But it was quite an admission, and I think the way he did it was to explain why he has evolved personally from a man who sought a full partnership with Washington and with Europe and even suggested that Russia itself might join NATO to the man who’s now drawn a line in the sand in Ukraine. So much so that Western policy, or depending on whom you think is responsible, they have brought us to the edge of a war. Because during 15 years as a national security leader Putin has changed profoundly. And he admitted it. He explained it. He said basically, “I had a weakness and it was called illusion about the West.”

And what are the Germans telling Kiev and Washington? We know now: a day or two ago, the man in charge of the European Union expansion, not NATO expansion, but EU, the economic aspect of this expansion, said that the European Union would take in no new members for at least 10 years. That just left Ukraine out in the cold. Remember that the whole Maidan uprising, the whole political conflict in Kiev over trade agreements was about bringing Kiev into the European Union. So we’ve had 14 months of war and death and destruction, and the disruption of the international order – probably irreparable – and the end result is “never mind. We can’t be taking you in.”

Now you know why they don’t want to take Kiev in. It was a basket case 14 months ago; now it’s an economic cemetery.

Look, about Russia: we don’t need specialists to tell us two important facts. Russia, for decades, has been Ukraine’s single largest – by far – trading partner. That’s point one. Point two: three to four million Ukrainians work in Russia on work permits in order to send their salaries back home to support their families in Ukraine. There’s no work in Ukraine. If Russia decides to send them home, it would be a terrible blow to Ukraine. And third: for all its bravado, Ukraine has lived on discounted Russian energy for decades. And on the transit fees it’s received from Russia – billions of dollars a year – for shipping Russian energy through Ukraine to Western Europe. All of that is now in the gravest of jeopardies. Russia is still Ukraine’s – after a year of war – largest trading partner. Those 3 or 4 million Ukrainian citizens still work in Russia. But Medvyedev, the Prime Minister, is saying “We may send them home if this doesn’t stop.” And, on the question of energy, as you know, Putin has now said that by the year 2019, I think, in 4 years, no Russian energy will flow through Ukraine. They are going to send it through this terminal they are hoping to build in Turkey and Greece. So, Ukraine is losing everything: it’s losing everything from this. And without Russia, Ukraine cannot survive economically. This is just a fact.

Blame whom you will, but why would anybody want to put Ukraine in such economic jeopardy by alienating Russia, and with American backing? This is a folly for which I think historians will really severely condemn the policy makers who are behind this.

The audio file of this interview can be accessed here.

The photograph that goes with this item is taken from the above-linked Nation page. Its caption reads: A member of the separatist armed forces stands guard at a Donetsk bus station destroyed by shelling. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

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