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Russophobia and the Specter of War


Could global warming pose the greatest threat to the future of life on the planet?  Quite possibly, if we believe the international (and scientific) consensus, despite a widening stratum of debunkers, deniers, and skeptics.  What about the prospects of thermonuclear war between the United States and Russia, two countries armed to the max and seemingly moving toward the brink of military conflict?  Where does that rate?   If the question is asked of most any Beltway denizen, the response might be something along lines of “sounds frightening, but right now we have other priorities, and we can’t lose sight of the Russian threat”.

As American political life continues to deteriorate, matters of war and peace rarely merit attention amidst the sound and fury of manufactured news, moral posturing, personal scandals, and tweeting exchanges.  Good for TV ratings and maybe partisan advantage, decidedly less so for addressing issues of political relevance.   Now we have two years of frenzied Russiagate and its attendant neo-McCarthyism.   That the intensifying hostility directed by one nuclear power toward another might bring the world closer to a war that could end all wars seems bizarrely remote to a political class obsessed with little beyond its own power and wealth, faintly camouflaged by identity politics; the “unthinkable” remains, well, unthinkable.

As anti-Russia hysteria spreads, speech taboos harden; any discourse at odds with tightening official political/media consensus brings immediate blowback, smear-mongering, and (where possible) silencing.   It is so obvious that Vladimir Putin is a ruthless, aggressive monster that any dissenting view must be the product of either insanity or Russian propaganda.    In this one-dimensional world the recent appearance of Stephen F. Cohen’s important book, War with Russia?, comes with special urgency, Cohen being one of the few public intellectuals to challenge the onslaught of Russophobic narratives churned out relentlessly by the political/media establishment.  And he remains virtually alone in going so far as to write about very real specter of nuclear catastrophe.

Longtime scholar of Soviet/Russian studies, Cohen has for years resisted the tide of mindless Russia bashing that gathered steam first, with the 2014 Ukraine events, and then with Trump’s unacceptable rise to the White House.   For his informed and dispassionate analysis of Russian history and politics, Cohen has been denounced as “Putin’s number one American apologist”, charged by some for having been “duped” by that great Russian mastermind.  Appearing recently on CNN with Anderson Cooper and the neocon warmonger Max Boot, Cohen’s stubborn refusal to see Putin as the worst of all tyrannical evils triggered Boot, who proceeded to attack Cohen for decades of apologetics, followed by a dire warning: “Russia is attacking us right now”.   Such is the state of American media discourse that Boot had no need to furnish evidence of any such “attack”, and Cooper was not about to demand it.

Cohen’s book – a lengthy collection of recent essays – convincingly demolishes every fictional narrative behind Russiagate, the same arguments ritually presented as earth-shattering news at CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere across the corporate mediaIn contrast to earlier cycles of anti-Soviet hysteria, including 1950s McCarthyism, the newer variant comes not from the extreme right but mainly from liberal Democrats and their allies in the “intel community”, warfare state, and media culture.  With an abundance of logic and facts, Cohen eviscerates the familiar myths and lies: Putin the maniacal dictator, Russia the imperial aggressor, Ukraine the model democracy, Trump’s love affair with Putin, and of course Putin’s notorious “attack on our democracy”.

In fact the new Cold War is entirely an American creation, starting in the early 1990s and continuing along multiple fronts: NATO expansion to Russian borders, economic sanctions designed to “cripple” the Russian economy, neo-fascist coup in Ukraine promoted in Washington, American withdrawal from the 1972 ABM nuclear treaty, groundless accusations that Moscow conspired to rig the 2016 U.S. presidential election, ongoing economic and military threats.  Nothing of the sort has been carried out by the Russian side.

Cohen shows how the new Cold War and Russiagate effectively constrain President Trump’s flexibility to defuse or at least manage U.S.-Russia conflict.  Any Trump move toward cooperation with Russia – vital to international nuclear sanity – will now surely bring accusations of “collusion”, even treason, reflected in the silly media outrage at Trump’s rather innocuous July summit meeting with Putin in Helsinki.  Room for maneuver has perilously narrowed, negating prospects for détente of the sort historically achieved by the likes of Nixon and Reagan (with the Soviets, no less).   The danger of such global hostilities hardly require elaboration.

The reigning assumption is that Putin – virtually alone among world leaders – cannot be a legitimate participant in normal international diplomacy; mere contact with Russian elites can nowadays be regarded as criminal.  U.S. partnership with Communist dictator Josef Stalin during World War II apparently met criteria for a working partnership, while the popularly-elected Putin is disqualified, forever discredited as “former KGB thug”.  The political/media establishment routinely castigates Putin as a tyrant, imperialist, racist, anti-Semite, and wanton murderer of political enemies though, as Cohen demonstrates, these charges fail to pass close scrutiny.  Since no clear ideological rationale exists for all the Russia bashing – the Communist regime disappeared nearly three decades ago – the new Cold Warriors are forced to rely strictly on personal demonization.

Cohen writes that “The other fallacious sub-axiom is that Putin has always been ‘anti-Western’, specifically ‘anti-American’, has always viewed the United States with ‘smoldering suspicion’ – so much so that he eventually set in motion a ‘Plot Against America’.”   A more careful reading of Putin’s years in power tells a different story.  A Westernized Russian, Putin came to the presidency in 2000 following the tradition of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, hoping for a “strategic friendship and partnership” with the U.S.  Amazingly, if one believes his speeches and interviews, Putin still embraces that vision even today.

Cohen takes up the problem of sanctions that Washington has clumsily and repeatedly imposed on Russia, with at best limited success – though a common view in Moscow is that sanctions amount to economic warfare.   That “warfare” actually has a protracted history, going back to the first stirrings of the Bolshevik regime.  It is worth asking what might have been gained from such punishment, aside from needlessly cementing hostile relations with a Eurasian nuclear power?  Nothing much constructive.  Cohen points out that, “Historically, sanctions were not problem-solving measures advancing American national security but more akin to temper tantrums or road rage, making things worse, than to real policy-making.”  One geopolitical outcome, in recent years, has been to push the Russians closer to China and Iran.  Beyond that, sanctions have worked to Putin’s favor as his efforts to persuade “oligarchs” (business elites) to repatriate tens of billions of dollars from offshore enterprises has finally borne fruit.

The very logic of U.S.-imposed sanctions, moreover, is fraudulent: the Ukraine crisis was, more than anything, provoked by regime change sponsored by American neocons. Punishing Russia for its “attack on American democracy” makes even less sense, as “In reality, there was no ‘attack’, no Pearl Harbor, no 9/11, no Russian parachuters descending on Washington [contrary to Boot’s twisted fantasy] – only the kind of ‘meddling’ and ‘interference’ in the other’s domestic politics that countries have practiced almost ritualistically for nearly a hundred years.”  Cohen adds: “Whatever ‘meddling’ Russian actors did in 2016 may well have been jaywalking compared to the Clinton administration’s highly intrusive political and financial intervention on behalf of Russian president Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in 1996.”   Not to mention brazen and repeated U.S. regime-change interventions, often with military force, since World War II.

One result of Russiagate and the new McCarthyism is that, in the virtuous land of freedom and democracy there are nowadays declining levels of both.  At present, in Cohen’s words, “there remained, for the first time in decades of Cold War history, no countervailing forces in Washington – no pro-détente wing of the Democratic or Republican parties, no influential anti-Cold War opposition anywhere, no real debate.”  Congress, the media, academia, think tanks – all seem engulfed, to varying degrees, in the same Russophobia.

From the outset Russiagate was an elite strategy having little to do with the “left” or “extreme left” of FOX News lore – although, sadly, plenty of leftish liberals and progressives have joined a cynical scheme promoted at the summits of power, where the imperial warfare state always requires a diabolical enemy.  Indeed vilification of Putin attracts relatively little public attention, much less fear.   After years of media-fueled tales of terrible Russian deeds, Cohen refers to a 2018 Gallup poll showing that 58 percent of Americans want to “improve relations with Russia”, compared to 36 percent who do not.

In an essay titled “Russiagate and the Risk of Nuclear War”, Cohen observes that Beltway elites remain strangely indifferent to the threat of nuclear catastrophe.  Could a Doomsday scenario end up as the ultimate collateral damage, the legacy of relentless anti-Russia fanaticism?   Cohen writes: “We might fault Trump for being insufficiently strong – politically or psychologically – to resist warfare demands that he prove his ‘innocence’, but the primary responsibility lies with Russiagate promoters who seek obsessively to impeach the president: politicians and journalists for whom a porn actress, Stormy Daniels, seems to be a higher priority than averting nuclear war with Russia.”  Could there be a more depressing commentary on the current state of American political culture?

It is finally worth asking: exactly who are the extremists, aggressors, and warmongers seemingly invested in the new Cold-War brinkmanship?   Does Putin have troops stationed on American borders?  Is he waging economic combat against the U.S.?   Has he staged a coup in Mexico?   Has he nullified any treaties?  Is he threatening to destroy Washington, D.C.?   Do we find incessant anti-American hysteria across the Russian public sphere?   For the moment, according to Cohen, “Putin still appears to be, in words and deeds, the moderate, calling Western leaders ‘our partners and colleagues’, asking for understanding and negotiations, being far less ‘aggressive’ than he might be.”

It turns out that Russophobia is riddled with its own contradictions – the most obvious being two incompatible views of the Russians: they are genetically corrupt, backward, and dysfunctional, unable to maintain a vital economy, yet are simultaneously global “puppet-masters” (John Brennan’s words) capable of rigging the outcome of a distant and high-tech American election.  Further, since both Putin and Trump are reputed to be rather thick-headed and out of control – Trump now relegated to special “idiot” status, deserving impeachment — it is truly shocking to be informed how they could so brilliantly and secretly collude, and with such marvelous results.

According to the eminent McCarthyite Brennan, himself a big supporter of the Ukraine coup (never described in the media as “former CIA thug”), Trump’s abominable behavior is nothing short of “treasonous”, unprecedented in the annals of the American presidency.   Cohen is on target to note that “Brennan’s views are those of Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover in their prime.”  The difference, of course, is that Brennan is rewarded with a lucrative job at MSNBC and celebrated as truth-teller, while McCarthy was eventually ostracized by Republican colleagues, censored by the Senate, denounced by President Eisenhower, and politically destroyed.

Cohen’s main arguments now seem more rather than less resonant – a bad sign for the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations and, more ominously, for hopes the new Cold War will never turn into something even hotter than climate change while media attention is fixated elsewhere.  We are not likely to see editorials in the New York Times warning about the perils of disintegrating U.S.-Russia relationsOr special features on CNN.  Or lectures about the threat of nuclear war from Rachel Maddow, Joe Scarborough, or Don Lemon.  Just more earth-shattering revelations from the Mueller probe and a litany of scandals heroically brought to light by legions of vigilant Russiagate sleuths.

Writing in The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg lays out in great detail the advancing likelihood that strategic nuclear systems – above all those of the U.S. and Russia – will, sooner or later, experience some kind of fatal calamity: not only through deliberate attack but from the very real possibility of false alarms, accidents, computer hacks, or even unauthorized launches.  In recent years fail-safe protections have been disastrously weakened or compromised, at a time of sharpening antagonism between the two biggest nuclear states.  The result of an “event”, Ellsberg writes, would likely be several hundred million dead, global fires raging for months, lethal worldwide radiation, and “nuclear winter that would starve to death nearly everyone living.”  That could be the terrible fate of humanity if Russophobia the new Cold War are allowed to follow their confrontational logic.

The undeserving target of personal smears, Stephen F. Cohen ought to be recipient of extraordinary tribute for his determined (and largely thankless) efforts to counter the barrage of endless myths, lies, and threats fueling anti-Russia hysteria that, if not soon subverted, could take the U.S. and rest of humanity along the road to unprecedented disaster.

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CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at ceboggs@nu.edu.

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