Russia scholar Stephen Cohen has an article up at The Nation in which he throws cold water on the entire story about Russia’s involvement in the US elections. For a view summarizing the substantial evidence of collusion and other Russian transgressions, see this article by Joshua Holland, also at The Nation. Instead of getting into the details of the argument, I want to focus on Cohen’s larger concern about the deteriorating state of US-Russian relations, but also the precarious way he is making that argument.
Cohen has been concerned for some time about the implications of Russiagate–he would put it in quotes–for US-Russian relations, which have been deteriorating for the past several years and have hit rock bottom. This is particularly dangerous at a time when there are major flashpoints between Russia and NATO in the Ukraine and directly between the US and Russia in Syria. There are also tensions in nuclear relations as both sides are embarking on major modernization programs. And, as if that weren’t enough, tensions between the US and North Korea could plunge the world into a major crisis with the possibility of nuclear weapons use higher than any time perhaps since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Were such a crisis to occur, Russia could be helpful in getting both sides to back away from the precipice.
Cohen is correct, then, to argue that the US must strive to maintain a working relationship with Russia on a number of international issues. But can the US work with Putin? For many in the US media, Congress, and the foreign policy establishment, the answer is no. We are faced with an aggressive, expansionary adversary that is working to re-capture what the Soviet Union lost, using any means necessary. But what is almost always forgotten in the mainstream US press and in Congress is that Russia has reason to view the US and NATO with suspicion.
After promising the Russians that the US would not expand NATO to the East, US presidents starting with George H. W. Bush did just that. This severely weakened Russia’s strategic posture as did the overthrows of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi in the past decade and a half. Given this recent history and long-standing Russian worries about invasion from the west, Russian interventions in Crimea and Ukraine are fully comprehensible as mostly defensive in nature. It is also relevant–and forgotten–that the US intervened quite openly in Russia’s early post-Soviet elections, helping Boris Yeltsin in his fight against the reconstituted communists. Such grievances do not make Russia’s recent actions legitimate, but the history of the past three decades of US-Russian relations must be taken into account in understanding Russia’s motivations and evaluating its violations of international norms along with ours. The conflict between the US and Russia is two-sided and longstanding.
But this is where Cohen has gone astray. In arguing for a more deliberate and interest-based policy towards Russia, he apparently believes that he must fully refute the Russiagate allegations. So he claims that “no actual evidence for the allegations” has been produced, when there is indeed much evidence and much suspicious behavior on the part of Trump’s campaign team. He also finds himself stating about the secretary of state that “Tillerson was an admirable appointee by Trump—widely experienced in world affairs, a tested negotiator, a mature and practical-minded man” and that the destruction Tillerson is visiting on State is merely a normal attempt to clean out the Hillary Clinton hangers on. These assertions stretch one’s credulity.
It seems that in order to make the broader point that workable US-Russian relations are possible and necessary, Cohen believes he has to deny any Russian involvement in the US elections. This is most unfortunate, because his general claims about Russia bashing and the importance of having a good working relationship stand on their own. But, in tying them directly to a refutation of the entire Russiagate affair, he has made them and his overall credibility vulnerable to further revelations. It’s a risky bet that he doesn’t need to make.
Instead, let us try to have two different thoughts in our head at the same time, which was exactly what happened during the 4 decades of the Cold War. There is strong evidence of Russian involvement in the US elections (going far beyond the emails, by the way) that must be fully investigated. Putin and the Russian leadership seem to believe there are benefits to creating a certain amount of chaos in European and American public opinion, including undermining faith in electoral systems, in order to weaken NATO, which is intervening against Russian interests in the Ukraine and the Middle East. At the same time, just as in the Cold War when the US and Soviet Union fought multiple proxy wars while negotiating disarmament treaties, the two powers have to be able to work together on major international issues such as nuclear security and avoiding war. We need a nuanced policy and to have it, we must have a nuanced understanding of the US-Russian relationship in all of its dimensions. There is no need either to demonize Russia or to explain away intolerable behavior as if nothing was amiss.