Prof. Stephen Frand Cohen is an American scholar of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University. His academic work concentrates on modern Russian history since the Bolshevik Revolution and the country’s relationship with the United States.
Hysteria over Russia’s alleged hacking of the 2016 presidential election may make this US-Russian crisis more dangerous than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Nation Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments are at TheNation.com.) Worrying that the current confrontations between Washington and Moscow—now extending from the Baltic region, Ukraine, and Syria to the American political system itself—is becoming more dangerous than was the nuclear confrontation over Cuba in 1962—Cohen raises the following issues:
§ Unlike in 1962, when the Kennedy administration made public clear evidence of Soviet missile silos under construction in Cuba, the Obama administration has presented no actual evidence that the Kremlin, directed by Russian President Putin, hacked the Democratic National Committee and arranged for damaging materials to be disseminated in order to put Donald Trump in the White House. Indeed, as an increasing number of independent cyber experts doubt the plausibility of White House intelligence reports, powerful American political interests inflate the story in ways implying that a US warlike act of retaliation is required. A Washington Post editorial (Dec. 31), for example, declared that America had suffered "a real cyber-Pearl Harbor” at Putin’s hands. The motives of these political interests vary, from exonerating Hillary Clinton of her defeat and thus maintaining the Clinton wing’s grip on the Democratic Party, to crippling Trump before he even enters the White House, to blocking his proposed policy of détente with Russia. In resolving the Cuban missile crisis wisely, President Kennedy did not have to cope with these kinds of debilitating public divisions and toxic allegations.
§ Today’s hysteria, suffused with not a little neo-McCarthyism and a witch hunt–like search for "Putin’s friends” in the US political establishment (first and foremost Trump himself and his nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson), are making any rational, fact-based discourse nearly impossible. Public discussion is urgently needed on NATO’s buildup on Russia’s western borders and on the civil/proxy wars in Ukraine and Syria, and more generally whether or not a new, less confrontational US policy toward Russia is needed. With The New York Times and The Washington Post, and their echo chambers on cable-TV networks, labeling anyone who rethinks US-Russia policy a "Trump apologist” and "Putin apologist,” civil discourse so vital to democratic resolutions, and to US national security, has become nearly impossible.
§ Trump and Putin have tried to diminish the hysteria. Putin’s effort, declining to adopt the traditional Cold War tic-for-tac approach of immediately expelling 35 American "intelligence operatives” from Russia, implicitly raises a question about the Obama administration. Did whoever advised the president to expel 35 Russians and their families within 72 hours understand the order would violate the hallowed tradition of Russian New Year’s Eve, the most sentimental of holidays, which families spend together at home, not in clubs or otherwise dispersed? If so, it was a malicious decision that enabled Putin to be magnanimous toward their American counterparts in Russia. On the other hand, if Obama’s advisers did not know this simple fact, it may explain his disastrous Russia policies since taking office.
§ Meanwhile, Putin has his own political problems in Moscow. His generals, tasked with taking the Syrian city of Aleppo, had already protested his repeated "humanitarian cease-fires” as thwarting their mission. Now hard-liners in or near the Kremlin are asking why Putin gave such a "soft” response to Obama’s sanctions and expulsions as retaliation for Russia’s alleged role in the US presidential election. This too Obama should have been made to understand by his advisers. Was he? Or was he too determined to prevent Trump from changing Obama’s approach to Russia?
§ Batchelor concludes by asking if Obama might undertake an even more radical step during his remaining days in order to block Trump’s détente policy. Cohen replies that two factors might prevent this if Obama is so inclined. A vigorous public discussion of the merits of détente, which seems unlikely, if not impossible. And, given that the intelligence community, including the CIA, is deeply divided over Russia’s actual role in the presidential election, a major leak that would undermine the current demonizing narrative. Either way, fateful struggles over the new Cold War are under way both in Washington and Moscow.