Cohen vs. McFaul Is Russia or America to blame for the New Cold War?
Harriman Institute at Columbia University / YouTube
Living in New York City, retired from academia, and unencumbered by the Washington consensus on Russia, Professor Stephen Cohen does not keep a low profile. In recent years, he has been one of America’s most vocal “dissidents” when it comes to the nation’s Russia policies. On Wednesday, May 9, Cohen visited the Harriman Institute at Columbia University to debate Stanford Professor and former Ambassador Michael McFaul, who is currently promoting his new book “From Cold War to Hot Peace.” Gessen describes McFaul as “a Russophile” opposed to unilateralism who’s also “an avid internationalist and democracy promoter.” For almost two hours, Cohen and McFaul exchanged their very different views on America's Russia policy.
In the text below, Meduza paraphrases remarks by Cohen and McFaul. Verbatim comments appear “like this.”
Stephen Cohen’s opening remarks (23:51 – 53:13)
The cultural divide
This debate is happening on the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany — a day that America also used to consider a “sacred holiday.” “Therein lies part of what we might not express today — part of the differences that have evolved over the years between Russia and the United States.”
A lack of debate
Today’s conflict between Russia and the United States — the New Cold War — is more dangerous than America’s confrontation with the USSR, in part because today’s fight has evolved without the “sustained public debate” that colored politics in the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, U.S. policy on Russia has continued almost unchanged for the past quarter century. Today, the American establishment “almost unanimously” believes that Vladimir Putin is personally responsible for our miserable bilateral relationship.
A squandered “historic opportunity”
Washington could have built an “authentic Russian-American strategic partnership” if it kept its word on NATO expansion and refrained from treating Russia as a defeated power. The U.S., Britain, France, and Germany made promises — now “indisputably documented” by declassified records released last December by the National Security Archive — not to expand NATO eastward, but American triumphalism got in the way. In the 1990s, the U.S. also “meddled” in Russian democracy in “far bigger ways” than Moscow did in 2016, helping Boris Yeltsin cheat his way to victory in 1996 and then bullying him around on the international stage.
Washington missed another chance to engage Moscow when Vladimir Putin came to power looking for the “real strategic partnership” that had eluded his predecessor. And in exchange for being America’s best ally in Afghanistan, what did Putin get? “More democracy promotion” and another round of NATO expansion. When George W. Bush nixed the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the White House tore up “the bedrock of Russia’s nuclear security policy,” renewing the arms race.
When Putin tried to warn the West against treating Russia like a “vassal state,” Washington responded by supporting firebrand Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who attacked Russian troops and provoked a short but disastrous war in 2008. (“A European investigative commission found that Saakashvili started the war.”)
Barack Obama “permitted his aides to speak derisively about Putin and Russia,” culminating in the president’s own statement in a speech to the UN in 2014, when he identified “Russian aggression” alongside the Ebola virus and ISIS as “new dangers” facing the world.
“Obama meddled in the highest Russian politics.” His vice president flew to Moscow during The Reset and told a group of students that then Prime Minister Putin shouldn’t seek another presidency, and then he said the same thing to Putin’s face. Obama was also complicit in allowing the EU to “force an impossible choice” on Ukraine’s leadership between Russia and Europe.
For Russia, the greatest benefits of The Reset (WTO membership and a new arms control treaty) weren’t actually “American concessions,” whereas Moscow agreed to sanctions against Iran, “a crucial Russian neighbor.” The Reset ended with another “broken American promise” not to carry out regime change in Libya.
America’s strategic failure
“The record shows an aggressive America, not an aggressive Russia,” and Putin is merely a “reactive foreign policy leader.” American policy is “riddled with double standards,” and the biggest hypocrisy is that the U.S. now refuses to acknowledge that Russia has any “legitimate national interests on its own borders,” insisting that Moscow only seeks a “reactionary sphere of influence.” Meanwhile, the expansion of NATO is inherently about expanding America’s sphere of influence.
No matter who sits in the Kremlin, Russia should be America’s “essential security partner,” but Washington’s policies are “driving Russia from the West,” into alliances with countries like China and Iran. “Who is isolating whom here?”
The U.S. needs to adopt “the Parity Principle” and acknowledge Russia as an equal power with national interests and rights.
Michael McFaul’s opening remarks (53:33 – 1:26:24)
A few corrections
Biden never told a group of students in Moscow that Putin should stay away from the presidency. That meeting, which took place at Spaso House, was also supposed to be off the record. Biden never made such remarks to Putin, either. I was present at both meetings.
When it comes to the “dependent variable” in U.S.-Russian relations, I agree with Professor Cohen about the outcome, though I prefer to call it a Hot Peace, not a New Cold War, in order to make the comparison while drawing out the dissimilarities. For example, today’s arm’s race is qualitative, not quantitative. There is an ideological struggle today, but it’s no longer about communism or capitalism. In the late Cold War, there weren’t any annexations or sanctions aimed at senior Kremlin staff. These are “new confrontational phenomena.”
We tend to “overplay American agency,” taking too much credit for ending the Cold War. American advisors in Russia in the 1990s “weren’t meddling — we were invited.” This wasn’t regime change but “regime consolidation” and it happened “at the invitation of these people.”
The Reset was about breaking free from zero-sum diplomacy
Russia has indeed reacted to several “aggressive U.S. policies,” including the expansion of NATO, the 1999 bombing of Serbia, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and American support between 2003 and 2014 for a series of “color revolutions” in the former Soviet Union and throughout the Arab world. Russia also had to deal with “disappointment with market and democratic reforms” and exhaustion over “Western lecturing.” When Obama came to office, The Reset was designed as “a strategy to get back to where we were in the 1990s.”
And there was the August 1998 financial collapse, the two Chechen Wars, and the invasion of Georgia — “they were doing some things, too, that made things more confrontational. And building autocracy during those eight years of the Putin presidency.”
The Reset wasn’t about getting “concessions” from Russia, but about finding “win-win outcomes” where Moscow and Washington had shared interests, such as arms control and the Northern Distribution Network (which was essential during the operation to kill Osama bin Laden).
In February 2009, at a meeting in London, Obama convinced President Dmitry Medvedev to agree to continued U.S. military presence at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan by insisting that American troops were only stopping there to “shower and rest” before moving on to forward positions, where they would “kill terrorists,” after buying $1 billion in fuel from Russia.
To win Russia’s support for sanctions against Iran, Obama made “a much bolder argument,” saying, “I want you to think that our bilateral relationship with my country will be more valuable than your bilateral relationship with Iran. And that’s how we got the Security Council resolution that we did.”
This kind of cooperation also helped avoid a color revolution “tinged with ethnic civil war” in Kyrgyzstan.
Even after the NATO expansion, the Iraq War, and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the Russian public still had a largely positive view of the U.S., “so you can’t use these variables to explain our current conflict without having a theory for that cooperation I just described.” In all the phone calls and meetings I attended between Obama and Medvedev, NATO expansion never came up once. Why? “Because it wasn’t an issue during this period.”
Putin’s return and paranoia killed The Reset
The two events that were crucial to derailing U.S.-Russian relations were Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the presidency, and the mass protests against election fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
Washington’s relationship with President Medvedev had promise, but Putin and Medvedev, it turns out, have “pretty radically different views of the world.” Putin “sees the world in zero-sum terms,” he sees the U.S. “as a competitor, not a partner,” and he blames the U.S. for “fomenting regime change.”
In July 2009, Obama actually sat down with Prime Minister Putin and debated the history of American foreign policy for three and a half hours. Putin was able to recite examples of American-promoted regime change. “He was ready, baby. He came prepared.” After almost an hour, Obama looked at Putin and said, “You’re right. I agree with you,” reminding Putin about his early opposition to the Iraq War. Putin was taken aback.
Two years later, however, we got the popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and then Russia. “These are the events that led to the current confrontation.” Putin thought it was the CIA pulling all the strings. “I just want to state, for the record, on the facts: we were not giving money to the opposition. I was not handing out money to Navalny. That is not true.”
When I served as ambassador in Moscow, things got nasty. In February 2012, someone posted a video to YouTube, titled, “U.S. Ambassador McFaul is a Pedophile.” [When an audience member laughs, McFaul says, “It’s not funny. Please don’t laugh.”] “I have some friends at Google,” and we got this taken down, but it still spread on Yandex.
The U.S. didn’t change anything about The Reset; what changed was Putin’s return to the Kremlin and his perception that America was promoting regime change, culminating in the Maidan revolution, which was in fact launched by the journalist Mustafa Nayyem — not Joe Biden, Barack Obama, or Victoria Nuland. The United States didn’t intervene until things started getting violent. “We should have been involved earlier.”
I agree with Professor Cohen that Putin is a reactive politician, “but they’re some pretty horrible reactions,” and “tragically” the U.S. must now “push back.”
[When the opening remarks are done, Cohen apologizes to the audience and to McFaul for going over time. “And I do, too, by the way. My vse vinovaty! We’re both at fault!” McFaul chimes in. “Nyet, ty vinovat [No, you’re to blame],” Cohen mutters back. McFaul chuckles. Everyone is friends.]
Great work getting the Jackson-Vanik amendment repealed, but you replaced it with The Magnitsky Act, “which is worse.” “You had a chance to end sanctions, and look where we are now.”
The Obama administration didn’t show leadership on missile defense, leaving it “under the New START Treaty” like a “time bomb.” “The Russians thought they had a commitment from you that you would not deploy missile defense.” [McFaul interrupts to say, “That’s just not true.”] Russia won’t start cutting its nuclear arsenal until America stops encircling Russia with missile defense.
“What do you mean when you say The Reset was conceived as a way to return to the 1990s?”
The Magnitsky Act is fair because human rights offenders have no right to visit the U.S., and in fact it codified existing American practices. These people aren’t entitled to Disneyland trips.
As for arms control, America never promised limits on missile defense (the Senate would have rejected any treaty with such language), and negotiators emphasized that America’s missile defense would be powerless against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. The U.S. even even weakened its anti-missile systems to remove potential attack capabilities, and the Obama administration controversially moved radar installations from the Czech Republic closer to Iran.
As for the “1990s” remark, I misspoke earlier: I didn’t mean a return to the 90s, but “a return to a time when we were seeking win-win outcomes.”
What are the legitimate security interests of Ukraine and Georgia?
Cohen: “Well they certainly haven’t achieved any with their unwise policies.” “They’re certainly not very secure today.” For small countries, the security priorities should be (1) an absence of foreign military bases, (2) diplomatic peace with your neighbors, and (3) a refusal to take part in proxy wars. Georgia and Ukraine need a “stable, non-militarized environment to prosper.” “I don’t think Russia is a threat to them. I don’t think we are a threat to them.” Today’s conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine are proxy wars like the kind we used to see in Africa during the Cold War.
McFaul: “When you’re in Kiev, it feels like you’re at war with Russia.” Moscow has annexed Ukrainian territory and provided support to separatists on Ukrainian soil.
In light of the U.S. State Department’s decision in March 2018 to raise its travel advisory for Russia to Level Three, as well as other rising barriers to U.S. student engagement in Russia, what avenues remain for young people to improve or get involved in U.S.-Russian relations?
McFaul: “I emphatically agree that it was a giant mistake for the State Department to raise that level.” Putin, unfortunately, is also shutting down these opportunities, including things like the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program.
Do we have no better term than “Cold War” to describe today’s conflict between Russia and the U.S.?
McFaul: “Sure we do: it’s the Hot Peace, baby.”
Cohen: “An enormous ideological component [in the U.S.-Russian conflict] has emerged in the last year or two, or maybe a little longer. We just had to be patient.” What is this rivalry? It can be dumbed down to the following: the conservative, reactionary, and traditional Russia versus the liberal, enlightened West. Russia, meanwhile, is “plenty strong enough” to fight another Cold War or even a hot war in the regions on its periphery, where it has enormous advantages.
In Syria, Putin and not Obama correctly understood that the choice is between Assad and ISIS, and at least Assad will protect the Christians and the Jews. Looking at the geopolitics in Syria, “if that’s not a Cold War, then I don’t know what is.”
McFaul: Putin’s belief in Syria was always that “a strong hand” is needed in conservative societies “to push them forward.” He seems to be applying the lessons he thinks he learned in Chechnya. But let’s get one thing clear: Russian troops spent years avoiding ISIS (though they took on other terrorist groups), and it was U.S.-led forces “on the other side of the river” who defeated ISIS in Operation Inherent Resolve and left us with today’s “terrible stalemate.”
How do you balance between states’ sovereign right to enter freely into security agreements like NATO and Russia’s concerns about hostile encroachment?
Cohen: Russia and the U.S. are entitled to an absence of foreign military bases on their borders (though this concept might need revision in the age of long-range missiles). NATO expansion to “unqualified” states with existing conflicts was “entirely wrong, provocative, and undermines our own security.” “Now we can hit St. Petersburg with ordinary artillery.”
[McFaul nods, and then adds, “Russian artillery can hit those countries, too, Professor Cohen. They have tremendous military capability that goes the other way. It takes two to tango. If you want to disarm, that’s great. But Russia has to do it, too.” When Cohen asks how NATO weapons got to the Baltic states, McFaul says, “Because democratic societies chose whom they wanted to associate with,” eliciting both applause and boos.]
Do you believe Putin has kompromat on Trump?
McFaul: I’d rather not answer that, but I hope that Robert Mueller finds everything there is to find. That said, what do we know about how Putin operates? “Russia intervened in our presidential election to impact the outcome in a certain way.” Putin “rationally” wanted Trump over Clinton. “Wake up, America! I can’t believe how asleep at the wheel we are about this. [Putin] used incredible capacity, cyber-capacity [...] to go and steal data as they did, and then leak it to Wikileaks in a way that was designed to hurt one of the candidates. That to me is clear as day. The evidence is there.”
[At these remarks, a man in the audience yells back, “There’s no evidence of why!” beginning a few minutes of heckling, before the hosts put a stop to it.]
“Should Russian entities be allowed to buy [election] ads on Facebook? I’m not sure they should be allowed to do that. I’m a big America-first guy. I’m a sovereignty guy. I most certainly wouldn’t want us to do that in Russia.”
Cohen: Talk of Russian meddling is “hyperbolic until we get some evidence.” “I can’t remember a time when they didn’t meddle in one way or another in our elections and we didn’t do the same. And it’s not great, but so what. It’s jaywalking — please.” We don’t have the evidence to say if Russia did “more extreme things.”
Intelligence communities in the U.S. and Britain both pin the meddling allegations and the Sergey Skripal poisoning on Putin personally. If they actually had a mole in the Kremlin or could intercept Putin’s communications, they’d never actually reveal it. “So a great deal of this today is bullshit.”
If we come to a Cuban Missile Crisis moment now, Trump won’t be able to reach terms with Moscow because of the pressures created by today’s U.S. domestic politics (the meddling allegations and kompromat rumors). “I don’t care personally whom Trump peed on or didn’t pee on. What I care about is, if we come to a Cuban Missile Crisis, he is free to be a rational statesman.” Today, he’s got no room to maneuver.
Is withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal a major setback, and how will this affect future U.S.-Russian relations?
McFaul: Yes. “I hope [President Trump] has a Plan B that’s more than just regime change, but that’s, by the way, what his commentators close to the White House (I just talked to one two hours ago) are alluding to. That will be a disaster.”
Cohen: McFaul wants to emphasize the role of the people in the collapse of the USSR, but the record shows (and this isn’t a “Great Men of History” theory) that Gorbachev was essential. Grigory Yavlinsky once told me that Russians today run around claiming that they carried out a revolution and “reached out and seized their freedom,” but “we all know Gorbachev gave us our freedom; we may have screwed it up, but Gorbachev gave it to us.”
Cohen: “I’ve known Michael a long time, but never well. Geography. Politics. But I’ve always really liked him, as much as I’ve disagreed with him. He is a decent and affable civil man with no cynicism in him. He believes what he says, alas.”
McFaul: Yes, Gorbachev was an essential, heroic figure of history. He seized his moment. “It’s an accident of history that Vladimir Putin became president.” Boris Nemtsov was Yeltsin’s initial choice to succeed him. He was “the chosen one” and “the anointed one.” But then came the market collapse in August 1998 (an “exogenous shock”), and Nemtsov was swept out with the rest of the cabinet.
[Turning to Cohen] “You’re one of the people whom I feel that I need to read, so I can think about alternative arguments. I want people to come away from this [debate] and get out of their comfort zones and stop just thinking in your bubble.”
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