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Historically and even today, Russia has much in common with Ukraine—the United States, almost nothing.
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For centuries and still today, Russia and large parts of Ukraine have had much in common—a long territorial border; a shared history; ethnic, linguistic, and other cultural affinities; intimate personal relations; substantial economic trade; and more. Even after the years of escalating conflict between Kiev and Moscow since 2014, many Russians and Ukrainians still think of themselves in familial ways. The United States has almost none of these commonalities with Ukraine.

Which is also to say that Ukraine is not “a vital US national interest,” as most leaders of both parties, Republican and Democrat alike, and much of the US media now declare. On the other hand, Ukraine is a vital Russian interest by any geopolitical or simply human reckoning.

Why, then, is Washington so deeply involved in Ukraine? (The proposed nearly $400 million in US military aid to Kiev would mean, of course, even more intrusive involvement.) And why is Ukraine so deeply involved in Washington, in a different way, that it has become a pretext for attempts to impeach President Donald Trump?

The short but essential answer is Washington’s decision, taken by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, to expand NATO eastward from Germany and eventually to Ukraine itself. Ever since, both Democrats and Republicans have insisted that Ukraine is a “vital US national interest.” Those of us who opposed that folly warned it would lead to dangerous conflicts with Moscow, conceivably even war. Imagine Washington’s reaction, we pointed out, if Russian military bases began to appear on Canada’s or Mexico’s borders with America. We were not wrong: An estimated 13,000 souls have already died in the Ukrainian-Russian war in the Donbass and some 2 million people have been displaced.

Things are likely to get worse. Democrats are sharply criticizing Trump for withholding large-scale military aid to Kiev (even though President Obama, despite strong pressure, wisely did so). Ukraine’s recently elected President Volodymyr Zelensky, having been drawn into the Washington scandal, is no longer as free to negotiate peace with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as he hoped and promised during his campaign. And candidates for the 2020 US Democratic presidential nomination, with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, are likely to compete for the role of Kiev’s biggest military booster. Here, as generally in US-Russian relations, Democrats are becoming a war party.

Meanwhile, as I have reported before, Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues to be accused by hard-liners in Moscow of passivity in the face of “American aggression in Ukraine.” Is it irony or tragedy that the often-maligned Trump and Putin may stand between us and something much worse—between a fragile Cold War peace and the war parties in their respective countries?

 

 
Alarming things we have learned under Trump, but not always about him.
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Donald Trump hears questions from reporters following the release of a memo on the FBI’s role in the Russia inquiry in February 2018. (AP / Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump hears questions from reporters following the release of a memo on the FBI’s role in the Russia inquiry in February 2018. (AP / Evan Vucci)

Almost daily for three years, Democrats and their media have told us very bad things about Donald Trump’s life, character, and presidency. Some of them are true. But in the process, we have also learned some lamentable, even alarming, things about the Democratic Party establishment, including self-professed liberals. Consider the following:

  • The Democratic establishment is deeply and widely imbued with rancid Russophobic attitudes. Most telling was (and remains) a core “Russiagate” allegation that “Russia attacked American democracy during the 2016 presidential election” on Trump’s behalf—an “attack” so nefarious it has often been equated with Pearl Harbor. But there was no “attack” in 2016, only, as I have previously explained, ritualistic “meddling” of the kind that both Russia and America have undertaken in the other’s elections for decades. Little can be more phobic than the allegation or belief that one has been “attacked by a hostile” entity. And yet this myth and its false narrative persist in the Democratic Party’s discourse, campaigning, and fund-raising.
  • We have also learned that the heads of America’s intelligence agencies under President Obama, especially John Brennan of the CIA and James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, felt themselves entitled to try to undermine an American presidential candidacy and subsequent presidency, that of Donald Trump. Early on, I termed this operation “Intelgate,” and it has since been well documented by other writers, including Lee Smith in his new book. Intel officials did so in tacit alliance with certain leading, and equally Russophobic, members of the Democratic Party, which had once opposed such transgressions. This may be the most alarming revelation of the Trump years: Trump will leave power, but these self-aggrandizing intelligence agencies will remain.
  • We also learned that, contrary to Democratic dogma, the mainstream “free press” cannot be fully trusted to readily expose such abuses of power. Indeed, what the mainstream media—leading national newspapers and two cable news networks, in particular—chose to cover and report, and chose not to cover and report, made the abuses and consequences of Russiagate allegations possible. Even now, exceedingly influential publications such as The New York Times seem eager to delegitimize the investigation by Attorney General William Barr and his appointed special investigator John Durham into the origins of Russiagate. Barr’s critics accuse him of fabricating a “conspiracy theory” on behalf of Trump. But the real, or grandest, conspiracy theory was the Russiagate allegation of “collusion” between Trump and the Kremlin, an accusation that was—or should have been—discredited by the Robert Mueller report.
  • And we have learned, or should have learned, that for all the talk by Democrats about Trump as a danger to US national security, it is their Russiagate allegations that truly endanger it. Consider two examples. Russia’s new “hyper-sonic” missiles, which can elude US missile-defense systems, make new nuclear arms negotiations with Moscow imperative and urgent. If only for the sake of his legacy, Trump is likely to want to do so.But even if he is able to, will Trump be entrusted enough to conduct negotiations as successfully as did his predecessors in the White House, given the “Putin puppet” and “Kremlin stooge” accusations still being directed at him? Similarly, as I have asked repeatedly, if confronted with a US-Russian Cuban missile–like crisis—anywhere Washington and Moscow are currently eyeball-to-eyeball militarily, from the Baltic region and Ukraine to Syria—will Trump be as free politically as was President John F. Kennedy to resolve it without war? Here too there is an inconvenient truth: To the extent that Democrats any longer seriously discuss national security in the context of US-Russian relations, it mostly involves vilifying both Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. (Recall also that previous presidents were free to negotiate with Russia’s Soviet communist leaders, even encouraged to do so, whereas the demonized Putin is an anti-communist, post-Soviet leader.)

The current state of US-Russian relations is unprecedentedly dangerous, not only due to reasons cited here—a new Cold War fraught with the possibility of hot war. Whether President Trump serves one or two terms, he must be fully empowered to cope with the multiple possibilities of a US-Russian military confrontation. That requires ridding him and our nation of Russiagate allegations—and that in turn requires learning how such allegations originated.

Opponents of Barr’s investigation into the origins of Russiagate say it is impermissible or unprecedented to “investigate the investigators.” But the bipartisan Church Committee, based in the US Senate, did so in the mid-1970s. It exposed many abuses by US intelligence agencies, particularly by the CIA, and adopted remedies that it believed would be permanent. Clearly, they have not been.

However well-intentioned Barr may be, he is Trump’s attorney general and therefore not fully credible. As I have also argued repeatedly, a new Church Committee is urgently needed. It’s time for honorable members of the Senate of both parties to do their duty.

 
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Cohen observes in his latest conversation with John Batchelor that the so-called Impeachment inquiry, whether formal or informal, will make the new Cold War even worse and more dangerous than it already is, noting that an inflection point has been reached, because at the core of these allegations—most of which are undocumented and a substantial number of which are untrue— revolving around Russiagate and now Ukrainegate is an underlying demonization of Russia. Relations between America and Russia will continue to deteriorate either due to the fact that the entire political spectrum is engaging in a frenzy of Russophobia or that President Trump, who ran and won on a platform of improving relations with Russia, is now completely shackled, thus it is inevitable that the new Cold War will continue to become more dangerous.

Regarding Attorney General Barr’s investigation into the origins of Russiagate, as Cohen noted previously, Barr has made it clear that he’s investigating not the FBI but the intelligence agencies, and Cohen is uncertain that even the Attorney General of the United States can be successful in that line of inquiry. For example, the young and politically inconsequential George Papadopolous, a young aid to the Trump campaign, got four or five visitors, every one of them tied to foreign intelligence, American or European, which makes it self-evident that the Intelligence Agencies were running an operation against the Trump campaign. Cohen says that even if Barr is a resolute man and says he wants to get to the bottom of this, Cohen is not confident that he will be able to do so.

Cohen notes that the Russian press, which follows American politics closely, has resulted in a consensus that all of this—Russiagate, Ukrainegate—was created to stop Trump from having better relations with Russia. Thus, it is important that Putin had been told the reason Trump cannot engage in détente is because of Trump being shackled.

Discussing the recent American mission against Abu Baker al-Baghdadi in Syria, Cohen stated Nancy Pelosi utterly disgraced herself when she complained Trump informed the Russians about the success of the mission and its initiation, considering the fact that this wing of Congress is so against Trump he had no guarantee that one of them would not have leaked the mission before it began. Russian intelligence in that part of the world is probably better than other nation’s, so Cohen assumes Russia knew about the mission and that they helped by providing information to America.

In addition, Cohen has noted Putin discussed a partnership with America against domestic terrorism starting with his approach to Obama and noted that even considering the September 11 terror attack, Russia has suffered more victims of domestic terrorism than America has. Obama thought about the proposal, hesitated, and it never happened. These recent events are a reminder that the United States and Russia are uniquely positioned to partner against international terrorism, but this may be slightly beyond the grasp of President Trump at the present time.

Cohen noted that expert opinion in Russia—which informs the Kremlin leadership, including Putin—has soured on the United States; the older generation of Russian America specialists who like America, who visit regularly and appreciate American culture, have become utterly disillusioned and cannot promote a Russian-American partnership given what has happened to Trump.

Regarding Ukraine, Cohen notes it shares a very large border with Russia, tens of millions of intermarriages, language, culture and history, and although the United States shares none of this with Ukraine, the United States has declared Ukraine is a strategic ally, and this would be equivalent to Russia stating that Mexico is its strategic ally, which is preposterous; the term “strategic” clearly has military implications.

Expanding on the topic of Ukraine, despite its size and natural resources, it is the poorest country in Europe. The new president, a comedian who starred in a TV show portraying the Ukranian president and thus life imitates art, ran as a peace candidate; that and his promise to fight corruption resulted in his victory. Part of his pledge was to meet with Putin to try to solve the conflicts; but he promised to end the hot war with Russia. American politics got in the way and people are still dying: at last count, there were approximately thirteen thousand dead, including women and children. And the peace candidate has been dragged into American politics and the commentary on Ukraine has a colonial tone. America speaking of Ukraine as a “strategic ally” is foolishness and warfare thinking. What should be the American policy is to encourage Zelensky to pursue these peace policies with Russia so the war doesn’t spread and the killing stops and that Ukraine, which is a potentially rich country, can recover. While Obama egged on the war policy, Trump seemed to have no policy, other than to encourage Zelensky in his peace initiative. What isn’t known in the conversation Trump had with Zelensky was whether he encouraged him in his peace initiative; the transcript is a fragment, redacted and edited so that it doesn’t mention the war but certainly it was discussed. The issue is whether the United States should give Ukraine’s government $400 million dollars in military equipment. Obama, who Cohen observes was not a good foreign policy president refused to do so but Cohen concludes that was a wise decision. All that providing weapons to Ukraine would accomplish is to incite the pro-war forces in Kiev against the anti-war forces led by Zelensky; the military advantage in any event lies with Russia.

Despite the fact Zelensky is an actor, he did run on a program of peace and Cohen believes that he is sincere; Cohen notes the problem is not Russia, but the armed Nationalists who are opposed to peace—approximately 30,000—who have publicly threatened Zelensky. Cohen notes Putin wants to end the war with Ukraine and he has made efforts to help Zelensky, such as the recent prisoner release, although he included people Russians consider terrorists. Thus, Zelensky doesn’t have a lot of political power. While there are bad nationalist actors—the Azov battalion, which threatened Zelensky with either removal or death—nevertheless Cohen has asked where the regular army stands: will it back him, will it be loyal? That answer now is unknown.

Cohen concluded to most Ukrainians Zelensky represented hope, hope in the war against corruption and hope against the war. The Kremlin wants to end the war; Zelensky has a chance, he’s supported by Germany and France, Putin is helping, but the United States is not a party of the Minsk Agreement peace acccord. Trump has intruded in his own unusual way but can be a factor for good. If Cohen were advising President Trump, he’d tell him if he favored the negotiations for Russian and Ukrainian peace, this would favor his historical reputation.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, Russia, Russiagate, Ukraine 
Is US national security being trumped by loathing for Trump?
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The transcript of President Trump’s July 25 telephone conversation with Ukraine’s recently elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has ignited the usual anti-Trump bashing in American political-media circles, even more calls for impeachment, with little, if any, regard for the national security issues involved. Leave aside that Trump should not have been compelled to make the transcript public and ask: Which, if any, foreign leaders will now feel free to conduct personal telephone diplomacy with an American president directly or indirectly, of the kind that helped end the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, knowing that his or her comments might become known to domestic political opponents? Consider instead only the following undiscussed issues:

§ Even if former vice president Joseph Biden, who figured prominently in the Trump-Zelensky conversation, is not the Democratic nominee, Ukraine is now likely to be a contested, and poisonous, issue in the 2020 US presidential election. How did the United States become so involved in Ukraine’s torturous and famously corrupt politics? The short answer is NATO expansion, as some of us who opposed that folly back in the 1990s warned would be the case, and not only in Ukraine. The Washington-led attempt to fast-track Ukraine into NATO in 2013–14 resulted in the Maidan crisis, the overthrow of the country’s constitutionally elected president Viktor Yanukovych, and to the still ongoing proxy civil war in Donbass. All those fateful events infused the Trump-Zelensky talk, if only between the lines.

§ Russia shares centuries of substantial civilizational values, language, culture, geography, and intimate family relations with Ukraine. America does not. Why, then, is it routinely asserted in the US political-media establishment that Ukraine is a “vital US national interest” and not a vital zone of Russian national security, as by all geopolitical reckoning it would seem to be? The standard American establishment answer is: because of “Russian aggression against Ukraine.” But the “aggression” cited is Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for anti-Kiev fighters in the Donbass civil war, both of which came after, not before, the Maidan crisis, and indeed were a direct result of it. That is, in Moscow’s eyes, it was reacting, not unreasonably, to US-led “aggression.” In any event, as opponents of eastward expansion also warned in the 1990s, NATO has increased no one’s security, only diminished security throughout the region bordering Russia.

§ Which brings us back to the Trump-Zelensky telephone conversation. President Zelensky ran and won overwhelmingly as a peace-with-Moscow candidate, which is why the roughly $400 million in US military aid to Ukraine, authorized by Congress, figured anomalously in the conversation. Trump is being sharply criticized for withholding that aid or threatening to do so, including by Obama partisans. Forgotten, it seems, is that President Obama, despite considerable bipartisan pressure, steadfastly refused to authorize such military assistance to Kiev, presumably because it might escalate the Russian-Ukrainian conflict (and Russia, with its long border with Ukraine, had every escalatory advantage). Instead of baiting Trump on this issue, we should hope he encourages the new peace talks that Zelensky has undertaken in recent days with Moscow, which could end the killing in Donbass. (For this, Zelensky is being threatened by well-armed extreme Ukrainian nationalists, even quasi-fascists. Strong American support for his negotiations with Moscow may not deter them, but it might.)

§ Finally, but not surprisingly, the shadow of Russiagate is now morphing into Ukrainegate. Trump is also being sharply criticized for asking Zelensky to cooperate with Attorney General William Barr’s investigation into the origins of Russiagate, even though the role of Ukrainian-Americans and Ukraine itself in Russiagate allegations against Trump on behalf of Hillary Clinton in 2016 is now well-documented.

We need to know fully the origins of Russiagate, arguably the worst presidential scandal in American history, and if Ukrainian authorities can contribute to that understanding, they should be encouraged to do so. As I’ve argued repeatedly, fervent anti-Trumpers must decide whether they loathe him more than they care about American and international security. Imaging, for example, a Cuban missile–like crisis somewhere in the world today where Washington and Moscow are militarily eyeball-to-eyeball, directly or through proxies, from the Baltic and the Black Seas to Syria and Ukraine. Will Trump’s presidential legitimacy be sufficient for him to resolve such an existential crisis peacefully, as President John F. Kennedy did in 1962?

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. A Nation contributing editor, his most recent book War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate is available in paperback and in an ebook edition. His weekly conversations with the host of The John Batchelor Show, now in their sixth year, are available at www.thenation.com.

 
American opponents of readmitting Moscow to the former G8 fail to understand the consequences
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Two years ago, I asked, “Will Russia Leave the West?” The world’s largest territorial country—sprawling from its major European city St. Petersburg to its vast Far Eastern territories and long border with China—Russia cannot, of course, depart the West geographically. But it can do so politically, economically, and strategically. Indeed, where Russia belongs, where it should seek its identity, security, and future—in the East or in the West—has divided the nation’s policy-makers and intellectual elites for centuries.

In our times, as I also pointed out two years ago, a Russia departed, or driven, from the West would likely mean “a Russia—with its vast territories, immense natural resources, world-class sciences, formidable military and nuclear power, and UN Security Council veto—allied solidly with all the other emerging powers that are not part the US-NATO Western ‘world order’ and even opposed to it. And, of course, it would drive Russia increasingly afar from the West’s liberalizing influences, back toward its more authoritarian traditions.”

That’s why the controversy provoked by President Trump (and French President Emmanuel Macron) in seeking that Russia be readmitted to the G7/8, from which it was in effect expelled in 2014 for its annexation of Crimea, is so important—and so uninformed. Purportedly, the (now) G7 is the elite club of prosperous functioning democracies. In reality, Russia under President Boris Yeltsin was neither when it was admitted in 1997. The decision was political—to assure Moscow that Russia was welcome in the West and indeed part of it, potentially including its security arrangements.

Expelling Russia sent the opposite message, as did moving the metaphorical “Iron Curtain” from Berlin to Russia’s border through a myriad of other exclusions and sanctions. And as did, above all, expanding NATO to Russia’s borders, the exceedingly unwise policy begun by President Bill Clinton and continued under President Obama. The result has already been two wars, in Georgia in 2008 and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and a Russian-Chinese relationship so close and expansive that its current leaders refer to each other as “best friends.” (Having come to power in 2000 as a pro-Western modernizer, Putin’s own evolution in response to these developments should be clear to any fair-minded observer.)

Underpinning these Washington follies was the notion, also promoted by President Obama and apparently still widespread in the sanction-happy US Congress, that Russia could and should be “isolated” in world affairs. Suffice it to point out that today it is said that the United States is being isolated in international relations. Meanwhile, Russia’s seemingly tireless foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, may be busier diplomatically than any of his counterparts around the world, certainly among the major powers.

Little if any of this seems to be understood by the US political-media establishment. Astonishingly, though perhaps not, US-Russian relations, still Washington’s single most important bilateral relationship, not only because of their nuclear arsenals, was not an issue in the recent Democratic presidential debates. We can therefore only guess whether or not any of the featured candidates would as president seek to reverse Russia’s drift away from the West—the one candidate who says she would do so, Tulsi Gabbard, having been excluded from the debates.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. A Nation contributing editor, his most recent book War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate is available in paperback and in an ebook edition. His weekly conversations with the host of The John Batchelor Show, now in their sixth year, are available at www.thenation.com.

 
Vital questions about perhaps the worst alleged presidential scandal in US history remain unanswered
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I’m very pleased to announce that we have now begun republishing the weekly Nation columns of Prof. Stephen Cohen of Princeton and New York University. Aside from being one of America’s most eminent Russia scholars, Prof. Cohen is also the husband of Katrina vanden Heuvel, longtime publisher of The Nation, perhaps America’s most influential left-liberal opinion publication.

It must again be emphasized: It is hard, if not impossible, to think of a more toxic allegation in American presidential history than the one leveled against candidate, and then president, Donald Trump that he “colluded” with the Kremlin in order to win the 2016 presidential election—and, still more, that Vladimir Putin’s regime, “America’s No. 1 threat,” had compromising material on Trump that made him its “puppet.” Or a more fraudulent accusation.

Even leaving aside the misperception that Russia is the primary threat to America in world affairs, no aspect of this allegation has turned out to be true, as should have been evident from the outset. Major aspects of the now infamous Steele Dossier, on which much of the allegation was based, were themselves not merely “unverified” but plainly implausible.

Was it plausible, for example, that Trump, a longtime owner and operator of international hotels, would commit an indiscreet act in a Moscow hotel that he did not own or control? Or that, as Steele also claimed, high-level Kremlin sources had fed him damning anti-Trump information even though their vigilant boss, Putin, wanted Trump to win the election? Nonetheless, the American mainstream media and other important elements of the US political establishment relied on Steele’s allegations for nearly three years, even heroizing him—and some still do, explicitly or implicitly.

Not surprisingly, former special counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. No credible evidence has been produced that Russia’s “interference” affected the result of the 2016 presidential election in any significant way. Nor was Russian “meddling” in the election anything akin to a “digital Pearl Harbor,” as widely asserted, and it was certainly far less and less intrusive than President Bill Clinton’s political and financial “interference” undertaken to assure the reelection of Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996.

Nonetheless, Russiagate’s core allegation persists, like a legend, in American political life—in media commentary, in financial solicitations by some Democratic candidates for Congress, and, as is clear from my own discussions, in the minds of otherwise well-informed people. The only way to dispel, to excoriate, such a legend is to learn and expose how it began—by whom, when, and why.

Officially, at least in the FBI’s version, its operation “Crossfire Hurricane,” the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign that began in mid-2016 was due to suspicious remarks made to visitors by a young and lowly Trump aide, George Papadopoulos. This too is not believable, as I pointed out previously. Most of those visitors themselves had ties to Western intelligence agencies. That is, the young Trump aide was being enticed, possibly entrapped, as part of a larger intelligence operation against Trump. (Papadopoulos wasn’t the only Trump associate targeted, Carter Page being another.)

But the question remains: Why did Western intelligence agencies, prompted, it seems clear, by US ones, seek to undermine Trump’s presidential campaign? A reflexive answer might be because candidate Trump promised to “cooperate with Russia,” to pursue a pro-détente foreign policy, but this was hardly a startling, still less subversive, advocacy by a would-be Republican president. All of the major pro-détente episodes in the 20th century had been initiated by Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan.

So, again, what was it about Trump that so spooked the spooks so far off their rightful reservation and so intrusively into American presidential politics? Investigations being overseen by Attorney General William Barr may provide answers—or not. Barr has already leveled procedural charges against James Comey, head of the FBI under President Obama and briefly under President Trump, but the repeatedly hapless Comey seems incapable of having initiated such an audacious operation against a presidential candidate, still less a president-elect. As I have long suggested, John Brennan and James Clapper, head of the CIA and Office of National Intelligence under Obama respectively, are the more likely culprits. The FBI is no longer the fearsome organization it once was and thus not hard to investigate, as Barr has already shown. The others, particularly the CIA, are a different matter, and Barr has suggested they are resisting. To investigate them, particularly the CIA, it seems, he has brought in a veteran prosecutor-investigator, John Durham.

Which raises other questions. Are Barr and Durham, whose own careers include associations with US intelligence agencies, determined to uncover the truth about the origins of Russiagate? And can they really do so fully, given the resistance already apparent? Even if so, will Barr make public their findings, however damning of the intelligence agencies they may be, or will he classify them? And if the latter, will President Trump use his authority to declassify the findings as the 2020 presidential election approaches in order to discredit the role of Obama’s presidency and its would-be heirs?

Equally important perhaps, how will mainstream media treat the Barr-Durham investigation and its findings? Having driven the Russiagate narrative for so long and so misleadingly—and with liberals perhaps finding themselves in the incongruous position of defending rogue intelligence agencies—will they credit or seek to discredit the findings?

It is true, of course, that Barr and Durham, as Trump appointees, are not the ideal investigators of Intel misdeeds in the Russiagate saga. Much better would be a truly bipartisan, independent investigation based in the Senate, as was the Church Committee of the mid-1970s, which exposed and reformed (it thought at the time) serious abuses by US intelligence agencies. That would require, however, a sizable core of nonpartisan, honorable, and courageous senators of both parties, who thus far seem to be lacking.

There are also, however, the ongoing and upcoming Democratic presidential debates. First and foremost, Russiagate is about the present and future of the American political system, not about Russia. (Indeed, as I have repeatedly argued, there is very little, if any, Russia in Russiagate.) At every “debate” or comparable forum, all of the Democratic candidates should be asked about this grave threat to American democracy—what they think about what happened and would do about it if elected president. Consider it health care for our democracy.

 
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Professor Stephen F. Cohen, a Nation contributing editor and professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton, discusses with the host of The John Batchelor Show the recent nuclear accident on a submarine in Northern Russia and the unrelated political protests in Moscow.

Cohen puts both in the historical and political context usually missing from media accounts. The first should be understood in the context of the new US-Russian nuclear arms race triggered by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002—and as further confirmation that the new Cold War is more dangerous than was its predecessor.

Cohen noted to John Batchelor, “Once [America] left [the ABM treaty] and we began deploying missile systems around Russia, that was the turning point; that was in the modern age the original sin…It was in developing these new hypersonic missiles [to defend Russia and continue Mutual Assured Destruction] that this accident occurred. The testing has taken place in [that historical context], the Russian reaction to [Washington’s] decision to abrogate the missile defense [ABM] treaty.”

Professor Cohen references Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety and states that it is inherent, “rightly or wrongly, to have accidents and high degrees of state secrets about those accidents.”

Regarding the political protests, on the other hand, provoked by the authorities’ refusal to register some opposition figures as candidates in upcoming Moscow city elections, the protests are best viewed in the context of the struggle for the democratization of Russia. This historic struggle began with the pro-democracy reforms of the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in the late 1980s, and has continued, not surprisingly, with “many zigs and zags,” as Gorbachev himself has often remarked.

This commentary is based on Stephen F. Cohen’s most recent weekly discussion with the host of The John Batchelor Show. Now in their sixth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com. A new expanded [not revised] edition of War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate 2nd Edition will be published next year.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Nuclear Weapons, Russia 
The friends and foes of a Kiev-Moscow settlement
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Ukraine, as I have often emphasized, is the epicenter of the new US-Russian Cold War, and its location directly on Russia’s border makes it much more dangerous than was Berlin during the preceding 40-year confrontation. Some 13,000 people have reportedly already died in Donbass in fighting between forces backed by Washington and Moscow. For many on both sides of the border, the war is a personal tragedy due also to the at least tens of millions of intermarried Ukrainian-Russian families. (The names of some of them will be familiar to readers, such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev.)

The election of Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who won decisively throughout most of the country, represents the possibility of peace with Russia, if it—and he—are given a chance. His electorally repudiated predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, backed by supporters in Washington, thwarted almost every preceding opportunity for negotiations both with the Donbass rebels and with Moscow, notably provisions associated with the European-sponsored Minsk Accords. Zelensky, on the other hand, has made peace (along with corruption) his top priority and indeed spoke directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on July 11. The nearly six-year war having become a political, diplomatic, and financial drain on his leadership, Putin welcomed the overture.

But the struggle for peace has just begun, with powerful forces arrayed against it in Ukraine, Moscow, and Washington. In Ukraine, well-armed ultra-nationalist—some would say quasi-fascist—detachments are terrorizing supporters of Zelensky’s initiative, including a Kiev television station that proposed broadcasting a dialogue between Russian and Ukrainian citizens. (Washington has previously had some shameful episodes of collusion with these Ukrainian neo-Nazis.) As for Putin, who does not fully control the Donbass rebels or its leaders, he “can never be seen at home,” as I pointed out more than two years ago, “as ‘selling out’ Russia’s ‘brethren’ anywhere in southeast Ukraine.” Indeed, his own implacable nationalists have made this a litmus test of his leadership.

Which brings us to Washington and in particular to President Donald Trump and his would-be opponent in 2020, former vice president Joseph Biden. Kiev’s government, thus now Zelensky, is heavily dependent on billions of dollars of aid from the International Monetary Fund, which Washington largely controls. Former president Barack Obama and Biden, his “point man” for Ukraine, used this financial leverage to exercise semi-colonial influence over Poroshenko, generally making things worse, including the incipient Ukrainian civil war. Their hope was, of course, to sever Ukraine’s centuries-long ties to Russia and even bring it eventually into the US-led NATO sphere of influence.

Our hope should be that Trump breaks with that long-standing bipartisan policy, as he did with policy toward North Korea, and puts America squarely on the side of peace in Ukraine. (For now, Zelensky has set aside Moscow’s professed irreversible “reunification” with Crimea, as should Washington.) A new US policy must include recognition, previously lacking, that the citizens of war-ravaged Donbass are not primarily “Putin’s stooges” but people with their own legitimate interests and preferences, even if they favor Russia. Here too Zelensky is embarking on a new course. Poroshenko waged an “anti-terrorist” war against Donbass: the new president is reaching out to its citizens even though most of them were unable to vote in the election.

Biden, however, has a special problem—and obligation. As an implementer, and presumably architect, of Obama’s disastrous policy in Ukraine, and currently the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden should be asked about his past and present thinking regarding Ukraine. The much-ballyhooed ongoing “debates” are an opportunity to ask the question—and of other candidates as well. Presidential debates are supposed to elicit and clarify the views of candidates on domestic and foreign policy. And among the latter, few, if any, are more important than Ukraine, which remains the epicenter of this new and more dangerous Cold War.

Stephen F. Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. A Nation contributing editor, his most recent book War With Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate is available in paperback and in an ebook edition. His weekly conversations with the host of The John Batchelor Show, now in their sixth year, are available at www.thenation.com.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Ukraine 
Liberals and other Democrats seem to want to cover up the CIA’s role in Russiagate
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William Barr, a two-time attorney general who served at the CIA in the 1970s, would seem to be an ultimate Washington insider. According to his Wikipedia biography, he has—or he had—“a sterling reputation” both among Republicans and Democrats. That changed when Barr announced his ongoing investigation into the origins of Russiagate, a vital subject I, too, have explored.

As Barr explained, “What we’re looking at is: What was the predicate for conducting a counterintelligence investigation on the Trump campaign.… How did the bogus narrative begin that Trump was essentially in cahoots with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election?” Still more, Barr, who is empowered to declassify highly sensitive documents, made clear that his primary focus was not the hapless FBI under James Comey but the CIA under John Brennan. Evidently this was too much for leading Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, who assailed Barr for having “just destroyed…the scintilla of credibility that he had left.” Not known for a sense of irony, Schumer accused Barr of using “the words of conspiracy theorists,” as though Russiagate itself is not among the most malign and consequential conspiracy theories in American political history.

More indicative is the reaction of the generally liberal pro-Democratic New York Times and Washington Post, the country’s two most important political newspapers, to Barr’s investigation. Leaning heavily on the “expert” opinion of former intelligence officials and McCarthy-echoing members of Congress such as Adam Schiff, both papers went into outrage mode. The Times bemoaned Barr’s “drastic escalation of [Trump’s] yearslong assault on the intelligence community” while rejecting “the president’s unfounded claims that his campaign had been spied on,” even though some forms of FBI and CIA infiltration and surveillance of the 2016 Trump campaign are now well documented. (See, for example, Lee Smith’s reporting.)

Unconcerned by the activities of either agency, the papers warned ominously that Barr’s probe “effectively strips [the CIA] of its most critical power: choosing which secrets it shares and which remain hidden.” It “could be tremendously damaging to the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies.” Not surprisingly, given the Times’ three-year role in promulgating Russiagate allegations, it preempted Barr’s investigation by declaring that US intelligence agencies’ covert actions were part of “a lawful investigation aimed at understanding a foreign power’s efforts to manipulate an American election.” Considering what is now known, this generalization seems a whitewash both of the Times’ coverage and the agencies’ conduct. (In the Post, see coverage by Toluse Olorunnipa and Shane Harris.)

Hillary Clinton, also not surprisingly, agreed. As paraphrased by Matt Stevens in the Times on May 3, she accused Barr of diverting attention “from what the real story is. The real story is the Russian interference in our election.” According to the defeated Democratic candidate, “the Russians were successful in sowing ‘discord and divisiveness’ in the country, and helping Mr. Trump.” But who has actually sowed more “discord and divisiveness” in America—the Russians or Mrs. Clinton and her supporters, by still refusing to accept the legitimacy of her electoral loss and Trump’s victory?

 
• Category: Foreign Policy, Ideology • Tags: CIA, Donald Trump, Russia, Russiagate 
The Trump-Putin meeting in Japan is crucial for both leaders—and for the world
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Despite determined attempts in Washington to sabotage such a “summit,” as I reported previously, President Trump and Russian President Putin are still scheduled to meet at the G-20 gathering in Japan this week. Iran will be at the top of their agenda. The Trump administration seems determined to wage cold, possibly even hot, war against the Islamic Republic, while for Moscow, as emphasized by the Kremlin’s national security adviser, Nikolai Patrushev, on June 25, “Iran has been and will be an ally and partner of ours.”

Indeed, the importance of Iran (along with China) to Russia can hardly be overstated. Among other reasons, as the West’s military alliance encroaches ever more along Russia’s western borders, Iran is a large, vital non-NATO neighbor. Still more, Teheran has done nothing to incite Russia’s own millions of Muslim citizens against Moscow. Well before Trump, powerful forces in Washington have long sought to project Iran as America’s primary enemy in the Middle East, but for Moscow it is a necessary “ally and partner.”

In normal political circumstances, Trump and Putin could probably diminish any potential US-Russian conflict over Iran—and the one still brewing in Syria as well. But both leaders come to the summit with related political problems at home. For Trump, they are the unproven but persistent allegations of “Russiagate.” For Putin, they are economic.

As I have also previously explained, while there was fairly traditional “meddling,” there was no “Russian attack” on the 2016 American presidential election. But for many mainstream American commentators, including the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, it is an “obvious truth” and likely to happen again in 2020, adding ominously that Trump is still “cozying up to the chief perpetrator, Russian President Vladimir Putin.” A New York Times columnist goes further, insisting that Russia “helped to throw the election” to Trump. Again, there is no evidence whatsoever for these allegations. Also consider the ongoing assault on Attorney General William Barr, whose current investigation into the origins of “Russiagate” threatens to conclude that the scandal originated not with Russia but with US intelligence agencies under President Obama, in particular with the CIA under John Brennan.

We should therefore not be surprised, despite possible positive national security results of the Trump-Putin summit in Japan, if the US president is again widely accused of “treason,” as he so shamefully was following his meeting with Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, and as I protested at that time. Even the Times’ once-dignified columnist pages thundered, “Trump, Treasonous Traitor” and “Putin’s Lackey,” while senior US senators, Democrat and Republican alike, did much the same.

Putin’s domestic problem, on the other hand, is economic and social. Russia’s annual growth rate is barely 2 percent, real wages are declining, popular protests against officialdom’s historically endemic corruption are on the rise, and Putin’s approval rating, while still high, is declining. A public dispute between two of Putin’s advisers has broken out over what to do. On the one side is Alexei Kudrin, the leading monetarist who has long warned against using billions of dollars in Russia’s “rainy day” funds to spur investment and economic growth. On the other is Sergei Glaziev, a kind of Keynesian, FDR New Dealer who has no less persistently urged investing these funds in new domestic infrastructure that would, he argues, result in rapid economic growth.

During his nearly 20 years as Kremlin leader, Putin has generally sided with the “rainy day” monetarists. But on June 20, during his annual television call-in event, he suddenly, and elliptically, remarked that even Kudrin “has been drifting towards” Glaziev. Not surprisingly, many Russian commentators think this means that Putin himself is now “leaning toward Glaziev.” If so, it is another reason why Putin has no interest in waging cold war with the United States—why he wants instead, indeed even needs, a historic, long-term détente.

It seems unlikely that President Trump or any of the advisers currently around him understand this important struggle—and it is a struggle—unfolding in the Russian policy elite. But if Trump wants a major détente (or “cooperation,” as he has termed it) with Russia, anyone who cares about international security and about the well-being of the Russian people should support him in this pursuit. Especially at this moment, when we are told by the director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research that “the risks of the use of nuclear weapons…are higher now than at any time since World War Two.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Russia