In Background, Feature Articles, Russia, Ukraine

Interview with Professor Stephen Cohen, on Democracy Now!, Feb. 3, 2015

Introduction by Democracy Now!–The United Nations has raised the death toll from fighting in eastern Ukraine to more than 5,300 people since last April following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych one year ago this month. Another 1.5 million people have been displaced. As fighting intensifies, the Obama administration is now considering directly arming Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed rebels.

Ukraine military, photo by Valentyn Ogirenko-Reuters

Ukraine military, photo by Valentyn Ogirenko-Reuters

Washington already supplies nonlethal military equipment to Ukraine, but top officials are reportedly leaning toward sending arms, from rifles to anti-tank weapons. The role of the U.S. and European allies in Ukraine has prompted former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to accuse the West of dragging Russia into a new Cold War. We are joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. Enclosed is the transcript of the interview. To view the interview, go to the weblink above.

AARON MATÉ (Democracy Now! co-host): The United Nations has raised the death toll from fighting in eastern Ukraine to over 5,300 people since last April, following the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych one year ago this month. Another 1.5 million people have been displaced. According to Russian-backed rebels in Donetsk, shelling in eastern Ukraine has killed at least eight people and wounded 22 others in the past day. Ukraine says five more of its soldiers have died.

This comes as the White House now considers arming Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. Washington already supplies nonlethal military equipment to Ukraine, but there is a growing push to send arms, from rifles to anti-tank weapons. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about U.S. policy.

MATTHEW LEE: There are a whole plethora of reports out this morning that the administration is reconsidering providing lethal assistance to the Ukrainian government. Would you care to address those?

JEN PSAKI: Well, Matt, we are constantly assessing our policies on Ukraine to ensure they’re responsive, appropriated and calibrated to achieve our objectives. We are particularly concerned about recent escalating separatist violence and separatist attempts to expand the territory they currently control further, beyond the ceasefire line agreed to in Minsk, as well as the increasing toll of civilian and military casualties.

MATTHEW LEE: OK, so it sounds like you’re not saying, no, that these reports are wrong. Is it accurate then to say that this kind of assistance is now part of the conversation?

JEN PSAKI: Well, we haven’t taken options on or off the table, Matt. It’s an ongoing discussion. Obviously we have take into account events on the ground. But I don’t have anything to lay out for you in terms of internal deliberations.

REPORTER: Why would the president want to get into a proxy war with Russia?

JEN PSAKI: Well, I don’t think anybody wants to get into a proxy war with Russia. And that is not the objective. Our objective here is to change the behavior of Russia. That’s the reason that we’ve put the sanctions in place. We certainly want to help Ukraine, a sovereign government, thrive and go through this transition period. No decisions have been made. I’m talking about the fact that we of course preserve the right to consider a range of options.

AARON MATÉ: That’s State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. On Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Kiev to meet with Ukrainian leaders.

AMY GOODMAN (Democracy Now! co-host): Last week, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accused the West of dragging Russia into a new Cold War. He said, quote, “If we call a spade a spade, America has pulled us into a new Cold War, trying to openly implement its general idea of triumphalism. Where will it take us all? The Cold War is already on. What’s next? Unfortunately, I cannot say firmly that the Cold War will not lead to the hot one. I’m afraid that they might take the risk,” he said.

On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the conflict cannot be solved militarily.

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: [translated] Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons. I am firmly convinced that this conflict cannot be solved militarily, and therefore we insist that, on the one hand, we will impose sanctions, if necessary—we have done that jointly in Europe—and, on the other hand, we will use all diplomatic means to resolve this conflict through talks, or at least alleviate it.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Ukraine, we’re joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is out in paperback. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Cohen.


AMY GOODMAN: What’s happening in Ukraine?

STEPHEN COHEN: What’s happening in Ukraine? Gorbachev had it right. We’re in a new Cold War with Russia. The epicenter of the new Cold War is not in Berlin, like the last one, but it’s right on Russia’s borders, so it’s much more dangerous. You and I have talked about this since February. What I foresaw in February has played out, I regret to say: A political dispute in Ukraine became a Ukrainian civil war. Russia backed one side; the United States and NATO, the other. So it’s not only a new Cold War, it’s a proxy war. We’re arming Kiev. Russians are arming the eastern fighters. And I think, though I don’t want to spoil anybody’s day—I said to you in February this had the potential to become a new Cuban missile-style confrontation with the risk of war. That’s where we are now. And I think Gorbachev was right.

AARON MATÉ: There was a ceasefire reached in September. What’s happened since then?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it was never honored in full. And the primary problem was—I mean, there were many provisions of the ceasefire, which was supposed to stop the fighting in the east and lead to direct negotiations between the rebel government, or fighters—we call them “separatists.” They weren’t separatists when all this began, but now they’re separatists: They don’t want to live with Kiev any longer. But it was supposed to lead to negotiations. The main thing that happened was, is it required both sides to pull back their artillery, primarily Kiev, because Kiev was bombarding the capital cities of eastern Ukraine—Luhansk and Donetsk. That artillery was never pulled back. It was supposed to be 30 kilometers. How far back they pulled them, I don’t know. But as you know, in the last week, those cities have been bombarded again. So the ceasefire was honored kind of marginally in the breach for a couple months, but about a week ago, 10 days ago, the fighting escalated.*

Now, there is a dispute, because it eliminated the possibility of negotiations again: Who began the escalation? The State Department, you heard Psaki say it was Russia and Russian agents. Russia and the rebels say it was Kiev. But we’re in a fog of war. That expression comes from World War One, I think, when there was so much misinformation—we didn’t have email then, and it traveled more slowly—that the perception of what was going on was distorted, corrupted by news. And it led to war. The fog of war today derives from this, and it’s worse because it moves so fast, on social media news, is that you’ve got all this misinformation coming out of Kiev, out of Moscow, out of Washington. And for the three of us to sit here and say who threw the first punch ten days ago is almost impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, three prominent U.S. think tanks—the Brookings Institution, the Atlantic Council and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs—issued a joint report urging the United States to provide Ukraine $3 billion in military assistance over the next three years. Former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott co-wrote the report. He’s now president of Brookings.

STROBE TALBOTT: In the context of what is happening in Ukraine today, the right way to characterize it is an act of war on the part of the Russian Federation. This means that there is going on in Ukraine today a literal invasion, not by—it’s not a proxy war. It’s a literal invasion by the Russian armed forces. It’s a literal occupation of large parts, well beyond Crimea, of eastern Ukraine. And it is a virtual annexation of a lot of territory other than just the Crimea. And in that respect, this is a major threat to the peace of Europe, to the peace of Eurasia, and therefore a threat to the interests of the United States and, I would say, a threat to the chances of a peaceful 21st century.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, now president of Brookings. Your response?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, he’s much more than that. People need to drop their masks and say what their personal stake in this is. Strobe Talbott, whom I’ve known for years, was the architect of the American policy that led to this crisis. He was “the Russia hand,” as he called his memoir, under President Clinton, when the expansion of NATO toward Russia began.

Understand what he said—and the rollout of this report has been coming. If you look at the signatures, these are the leaders of the American war party, the people who literally want a military showdown with Russia. Stop and think what that means. Stop and think what that means, as though Russia is going to back off. But the people who signed this report—and they’ve been bringing it out for days—are saying—he literally just said this—the future of the 21st century is at stake in Ukraine. Stop and think what that means. Then he went on to say things that are fundamentally untrue, that Russia has invaded and annexed eastern Ukraine. I mean, when the State Department was asked a few weeks ago, “Can you confirm the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine?” the State Department, which misleads about this story all the time, said, “No, we cannot.” So this is what I’m talking about, the fog of war, where we’re being told Russia has annexed eastern Ukraine, the future of the world is at stake here, and basically they’re calling for war with Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion in a minute. We’re talking with Professor Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, Stephen Cohen. His latest book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. Aaron?

AARON MATÉ: Yes, so, on this issue of Russian involvement in Ukraine, and NATO’s expansion, I presume you acknowledge that Putin is destabilizing Ukraine—he sent in weapons, he sent in tanks, he sent in some troops in some form. Is the point then that he’s acting not to revive the Soviet empire, but to stop NATO encroachment? Is that your point?

STEPHEN COHEN: That’s my short point. But let me ask you a question. Five million people, approximately, live in this area of eastern Ukraine. They’ve lived there for centuries. Their grandfathers, their parents are buried there. Their children go to school there. That is their home. Do they have no humanity or agency? We’ve taken—not I, but the main press in this country is referring to them as “Putin’s thugs.” Where is the humanity of these people who are dying, now nearly 6,000 of them? A million have been turned into refugees. These are people there.

Who’s doing the fighting? Primarily, the folks, the adults, of these people. Have they had Russian assistance? Absolutely. Has Kiev had Western assistance? Billions of dollars. General Hodges—I don’t know exactly what he does, but he’s an American NATO officer—publicly announces he’s in Ukraine to train the National Guard. Both sides are involved militarily. But make no mistake: If there was not an indigenous rebellion in eastern Ukraine, there would not be a Ukrainian civil war. Is Putin abetting the east? Yes. Are we abetting the west and Kiev? Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Hodges for a minute. Last month, U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry traveled to the Soviet state of Latvia for a military exercise, dubbed Atlantic Resolve, to train soldiers from Latvia, other Baltic countries and Poland. In addition, the U.S. brought more than 50 units of military equipment, including 17 armored vehicles—Strykers—that will stay in Europe. Ben Hodges, who you’re referring to, is the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe.

GEN. BEN HODGES: The decision was made last year to leave the equipment to stay in Europe. So, more than 200 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, the decision has not been made yet where they will stay. For sure, some will stay in Germany at an American base, but we are looking at options to put some of them in Latvia or Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe. So, bringing in former Soviet state Latvia and the others, what does this mean?

STEPHEN COHEN: What? His presence in Latvia? Well, he’s in Ukraine now. What it means is we’re on the move militarily—”we,” I mean NATO, but the United States runs NATO. You heard what Strobe Talbott said: We’ve got to do everything now to defend Ukraine. By the way, he doesn’t mention there are two Ukraines. What about the people in the east I just mentioned? Have they no humanity? But we are on the verge of war with Russia.

Now, you referred to me as emeritus. That means old. That means I remember things. And I remember that when we hit these kind of Cold War extremes back during the last Cold War, people spoke out in opposition in this country, not only folks like the three of us, ordinary folks, but I’m talking about senators, members of Congress—even the administration was divided—The New York Times, The Washington Post. We have the silence of the hawks now. The American war party is on the march. You can see how close we are to, literally, a military confrontation with Russia. And there is not one word of establishment, mainstream opposition in this country.

So, is this good or bad? Do we go to war? Did we have a debate before we invaded Iraq? We did. And those of us who opposed it lost the debate. But we had a debate. That “democracy now” is not today, not in the United States. There is no debate whatsoever. So, the danger is great. There is no opposition. All these people you’re showing—Strobe Talbott, General Hodges, anybody else you put on the screen, because only they speak to the American people—they’re on the march.

AARON MATÉ: What is driving this policy on the part of the U.S.? Many people who took part in the Cold War are no longer in power. Are they seeking to revive that era? Is it a matter of expanding NATO, or confronting Putin because they don’t like him? What is the driving force here?

STEPHEN COHEN: All of the above, I think. I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to tell you. Historians will look back—assuming there are historians to look back, because both sides are now mobilizing their nuclear weapons, as well. Russia has already said that if it is faced with overwhelming force on its borders, it will use tactical nuclear weapons. They’re nuclear small, but they’re nuclear weapons. When is the last time you heard a great power say that? We say—Obama, our president, says, “We’re modernizing our nuclear weapons.” What does that mean? We’re redeploying them, pointing them even more at Russia. Why is this happening in the United States? I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of factors mixed in, a kind of ideological hangover from the old Cold War. But the demonization of Putin has become so extreme in this country, I do not recall—and I entered this field back in the ’60s—the United States ever demonizing a Soviet communist leader the way our leaders do—Obama, Mrs. Clinton referring to him as a Hitler. Look, if Putin is Hitler, clearly we have to go to war. That’s the logic, is it not? Is it not? And where are the voices that say this is crazy? He may be a Russian nationalist. He may be threatening. But Hitler?

AMY GOODMAN: During an interview on CNN that aired Sunday, President Obama acknowledged the United States played a role in the ouster of Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, last February.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Putin made this decision around Crimea and Ukraine, not because of some grand strategy, but essentially because he was caught off balance by the protests in the Maidan, and Yanukovych then fleeing after we had brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama’s comments made headlines in Russia. This is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

SERGEY LAVROV: [translated] I have two comments which are important. There has been confirmation that the United States was directly involved, from the very beginning, in this anti-government coup d’état. And President Obama literally called it “the transition of power.” Secondly, I would like to note that Obama’s rhetoric shows Washington’s intention to continue doing everything possible to unconditionally support Ukraine’s authorities, who have apparently taken a course toward a military solution to the conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Russian foreign minister and, before that, President Obama.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, President Obama said something that undoubtably he was later told he shouldn’t have said, because he wasn’t clear what he was referring to. Many people have argued that the United States organized a coup in February to overthrow the president of Ukraine and bring to power of this new pro-American, pro-Western government. I do not know if that’s true. But what Obama said leads people to think that’s what he was acknowledging. He wasn’t.

Here’s what happened. And he’s right about Crimea. He just let the cat out of the bag here. An agreement was brokered in February. Everybody think back. It’s only one year ago. Foreign ministers of Europe, as violence raged in the streets of Kiev, rushed to Kiev and brokered a deal between the sitting president and the opposition leaders—Yanukovych—that he would form a coalition government and call new elections in December. And everybody thought, “Wow, violence averted. We’re back on a democratic track.” And what happened? The next day, mobs took to the streets, stormed the presidential palace; Yanukovych, the president, fled to Russia.

But we now know that when that deal was struck by the European ministers, Putin and Obama spoke on the phone, and Putin said to Obama, “Are you behind this?” And Obama says, “I am. Let’s get back on peaceful track.” And then he asks Putin, “Are you behind it?” And Putin said, “A hundred percent.” And the next day, this happened. So, something happened overnight. Obama lost control of the situation. He didn’t know what was going on. But when he says that they negotiated a peaceful transition to power, he’s not referring to the overthrow of Yanukovych; he’s referring to the deal he signed onto to keep the Ukrainian president in office for another eight or nine months until national elections.

So, he has now confirmed the Russia dark suspicions that the CIA or somebody carried out a coup. I’m sure he regrets having said that. But it is completely unclear to me—I voted for him twice—whether President Obama understands what’s going on in Ukraine, because he said a number of things that are so divergent from the historical record that either he’s getting bad advice or he’s not paying attention. I don’t know which.

AARON MATÉ: Can you sketch out for us the fighting that has taken place since April? The U.N. now says the death toll is over 5,300. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has praised Kiev’s response and said that they practiced “remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint” in their attacks on the separatists.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it makes me ashamed to be an American citizen. Let’s remember that when Ambassador Power was not Ambassador Power, she was the great architect and ideologue of the responsibility to protect civilians. Correct? Everybody is familiar with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain it briefly.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, you explain it.

AMY GOODMAN: You explain it.

STEPHEN COHEN: You’ve done it on your show. Well, it means the United States is obliged to do everything it can to prevent a humanitarian disaster resulting either from natural or warlike measures. And that’s been American official policy since Clinton. Now, whether it’s a wise policy or not, I don’t know. But the architect of it now says what’s going on in eastern Ukraine—and there are a lot more than 5,000 dead; even the U.N. has said we really don’t know, but let’s say 5,300. There’s also a million and a half refugees, most of them to Russia, but some to other parts of Ukraine. And the United States is saying—and the State Department and the White House and in the U.N., with Samantha Power—Kiev has been restrained.

All right, back up. What has Kiev called since April its military operation in the east? An anti-terrorist operation. Literally, those are the words. If I declare that you are a terrorist—not a rebel, not a political opponent, but you are a terrorist—I don’t talk to you, I kill you. And that is what Kiev has been doing, with American support. It’s been destroying the civilian centers of eastern Ukraine. Have the rebels fought back? Have they killed Ukrainian army members? Absolutely. But what in the world are we doing supporting a government that’s bombing civilians? And, by the way, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, many other organizations have now said these are war crimes. And yet, the American government sees no evil.

AMY GOODMAN: So we just played Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, earlier. She said Germany will not support Ukraine with weapons. She supports sanctions. She says there’s only a diplomatic answer. What is the solution? And what do you feel about sanctions, as the front page of The New York Times talks about the arming of—U.S. arming Ukraine?

STEPHEN COHEN: Amy, what are you doing to me? You’re trotting out every person who has behaved unwisely in a role of leadership and asked me what I think of them.


STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah. What I think of them, we need some leaders. Now, I thought, when I first visited you in February or January, that the solution was the chancellor of Germany, Merkel. Why? Because Germany is the powerhouse of Europe. Because Merkel speaks Russian and German, and Putin speaks Russian and German. They can talk, like you and I talk, and they understand nuances. Merkel has said, all along, this cannot be resolved by military means, there must be negotiations. And yet, politically, she supported every escalation of the crisis. Why has she done that? She was, and maybe she still could be, the key figure here.

AMY GOODMAN: And she’s coming to the White House Monday.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, but she’s been in Ukraine. She’s been everywhere. She moves. There’s distance between the White House and Berlin, no question. Merkel could end this, or she could go a long way. She could put her foot down: no more sanctions, no more NATO involvement. Stop and think who she is. The only solvent country in Europe. And look what’s going on in Greece. I mean, they may leave the EU. By the way, if the U.K. leaves the EU in May, when there’s the referendum, who will run Europe? Germany. And Germany’s attitudes toward Russia and China are fundamentally different than Washington’s attitude. So we may be observing here, below the radar, not only the split of Europe, but the drift of Germany, and the part of Europe that follows Germany, away from the United States. Everything is at stake in this civil war.

How to get out of it? It’s the same solution we talked about here on this broadcast months ago: a ceasefire; withdrawal of artillery so the cities of Donetsk, where the rebels are, are not being bombarded; Kiev’s willingness to sit down, at a table about this size, under the auspices of the great powers, and talk to the rebels. What home rule will they be given? Some kind of federalism, some kind of devolution of authority. The governors of the regions of Ukraine are appointed in Kiev. Our governors aren’t appointed in Washington; we elect them. There’s no federalism there. Everybody says federalism means a Russian takeover. But Germany has a federal system, Canada has a federal system, we have a federal system. They are hard, but it can be done.

But you know how you get this? You get it through leadership. Where’s the leadership? Where’s President Obama? Where’s Chancellor Merkel? And the leadership in Ukraine—I mean, Poroshenko, he’s the president of the country. He has no power. He has no power. He’s not the leader. The power is with the people in Ukraine who control the fighting battalions and what’s left of the army. So, we don’t even know what kind of regime or leadership is possible in Kiev now.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Stephen Cohen, we will continue to cover this. We thank you very much for being with us, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is out in paperback. And we’ll link to your recent writings on Ukraine at The Nation.

* We do not agree with this description by Professor Cohen of the rupture of the September 2014 ceasefire that was negotiated in Minsk, Belarus. He says the ceasefire broke down because “fighting escalated”, a phrase which implies that both sides were responsible. But elsewhere in the interview, he explains, quite accurately, that after September, the Ukraine armed force and militias never ceased their shellings of towns and cities in eastern Ukraine as well as other war crimes they were perpetrating. The definitive ending of the ceasefire took place in mid-January 2015 when, after months of preparation, Kyiv launched a new military offensive, including an effort to seize control of the airport at Donetsk city. That offensive is now facing defeat, including the encirclement of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers in and around the small city of Debaltseve in Donetsk region.–New Cold editors.


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