In Multipolarity, Russia

Interview with Professor Stephen Cohen on the John Batchelor Show (radio), March 15, 2016. Here is the text of the introduction to the interview and link to the interview as published on The Nation, March 15, 2016

Contributing Editor Stephen F. Cohen of The Nation and radio host John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new U.S.-Russian Cold War.

Cohen offers two explanations for why purported U.S. experts have been repeatedly surprised by what President Vladimir Putin does and does not do. First, they do not read or listen to Putin. In this case, when Putin began the air campaign in Syria in the fall of 2015, he said it had two purposes—to bolster the crumbling Syrian Army so it could fight terrorist groups on the ground and prevent the Islamic State from taking Damascus; and bring about peace negotiations among anti-terrorist forces, which he hoped to achieve in a few months. In short, mission, in Putin’s words, “generally accomplished,” though you would not know it from American media reports.

Second, U.S. policy makers and pundits seem to believe their own anti-Putin propaganda, which has so demonized the Russian president that they cannot imagine he seeks anything other than military conquest and empire building, and they cannot concede any legitimate Russian national security interests in Syria.

Also as a result, they do not understand what Putin hopes to achieve—a demilitarization of the new Cold War. In particular, if the end of Russia’s Syria bombing campaign abets peace negotiations under way in Geneva, the diplomatic process could spread to Ukraine, another militarized conflict between Washington and Moscow, and in particular to the Minsk agreements, which the U.S.-backed Kiev government has refused to implement.

Cohen points out that Putin’s decision to withdraw militarily from Syria, even though only partially, exposes him to political risks at home, where he is considerably less than an absolute dictator. Hard-liners in the Russian political-security establishment—de facto allies of Washington’s war party—are already asking why he stalled the achieved Russian-Syrian military advantage instead of taking Aleppo, pressing on toward the Syrian-Turkish border, and inflicting more damage on ISIS.

Why would President Putin again seek compromise with the Obama administration which has repeatedly “betrayed” him, most recently in Libya and in Ukraine? And why, if Washington perceives the Syrian withdrawal as “weakness” on Putin’s part, will it not escalate its “aggression” in Ukraine.

All this comes as Russia’s economic hardships have enabled his political opponents at home, the Communist Party in particular, to mount a new challenge to his leadership.

But, Cohen adds, the gravest threat to Putin’s clear preference for diplomacy over war may be less his domestic critics than the Obama administration, which seems not to have decided which it prefers.

Website here of ‘The John Batchelor Show’

Note by New Cold editor:
New Cold does not share the view expressed by Professor Cohen in the above interview that the March 2014 vote by the people of Crimea to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian Federation constitutes an “annexation” by Russia.


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