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The Deep State Campaign for War with Russia

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War with Russia? From Putin & Ukraine to Trump & Russiagate. By Stephen F. Cohen. Hot Books-Skyhorse Publishing, 2019. Xiii + 225 pages.

Stephen Cohen, a renowned authority on Russia, raises a question that applies more widely than the current confrontation between Russia and the United States, vital though it is that we understand that conflict. The question is this: what is the basis for our beliefs about world affairs? We have a picture of the world, but does this picture accurately depict reality, or is it, rather, the product of propaganda?

A widely prevalent opinion today is that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is a veritable dictator, intent on undermining American institutions.  To that end, he directed an extensive program of intervention in the American presidential election of 2016, with the aim of securing the victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, whom he saw as hostile to his aims. These aims were radically to extend Russian power and influence in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Putin is a Stalinist, who ruthlessly kills his opponents, both foreign and domestic.

As we shall soon see, Cohen takes a much more favorable view of Putin, but the question I now wish to address is this: Why do people accept the conventional opinion sketched above? Cohen points to the propaganda efforts launched by US intelligence agencies. Two people in particular arouse his suspicions: John Brennan and James Clapper, both generals who have directed American intelligence operations.

Concerning them, he says: “Brennan...was hardly an objective CIA director, having explained in his recent House testimony that any Americans who have contacts with Russians can embark ‘along a treasonous path’ and ‘do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late.’ Brennan’s contempt for the trustworthiness of Americans was matched by Clapper’s contempt for Russians. He told NBC’s Meet the Press...that ‘Russians...are typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate...’ and thus ‘genetically driven’ to attack American democracy. No mainstream media have explored these revelations about President Obama’s apparently paranoid CIA director and ethnically biased National Intelligence director.”(p.103) Clapper’s perjury in his testimony to Congress  in 2013 about collecting data on Americans should also be borne in mind.

Cohen must confront an obvious objection to his contention that intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign of hysteria against Russia and its leader. The objection is that the view of Putin in the conventional picture is true.

We cannot here investigate in detail all of the accusations against Putin. Suffice it to say that Cohen shows that many of them rest on misapprehensions. For example, Putin is often depicted in the mass media as a Stalinist, but “if Putin revers the memory of Stalin, why did his personal support finally make possible two memorials...to the tyrant’s millions of victims, both in central Moscow?” (p,4)

Cohen also takes a skeptical view of the charge of Russian “meddling” in the 2016 presidential election. “In reality there was no ‘attack [on American democracy] ---no Pearl Harbor, no 9/11, no Russian parachuters descending on Washington---only the kind of ‘meddling’ and ‘interference’ in the other’s domestic politics that both countries have practiced, almost ritualistically, for nearly a hundred years.” (p.200)

Cohen argues that Putin, far from being an aggressive expansionist intent on undermining America, was until recently pro-Western in his orientation Only after he became convinced that America intended to continue a policy of encirclement did he adopt a more militant course of action: “A westernized Russian, Putin came to the presidency in 2000 in the still prevailing tradition of Gorbachev and Yeltsin—in hope of a ‘strong friendship and partnership’ with the United States. . .until he finally concluded that Russia would never be treated as an equal and that NATO had encroached too close, Putin was a full partner in the US-European club of major world leaders.” (p.8)

Once convinced of American hostility, Putin rose to the challenge. Two developments lead Cohen to fear that a nuclear war between America and Russia is a real danger. First, Putin has responded to the abandonment of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty by building new nuclear weapons. “The ABM treaty, by prohibiting wide deployment of anti-missile defense installments...had long guaranteed equal security based on the underlying principles of MAD {Mutual Assured Destruction] and parity. Bush’s abolition of the treaty in effect nullified those principles and signified Washington’s quest for nuclear superiority over Russia...If even only a quarter of Putin’s claims for Russia’s new strategic weapons is true, it means that while Washington heedlessly raced for nuclear superiority and a first-strike capacity, Moscow quietly, determinedly raced to create counter systems, and—again, assuming Putin’s claims are substantially true---Russia won.” (p.165) Cohen holds that it is crucial for world peace that America seek accommodation with Russia rather than continue the policy of encirclement.

The situation in the Ukraine inclines Cohen to pessimism: the new Cold War is even more dangerous than Cold War that ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. “The political epicenter of the new Cold War is not in far-way Berlin, as it was from the late 1940s on, but directly on Russia’s borders, from the Baltic states and Ukraine to another former Soviet republic, Georgia. Each of these new Cold War fronts is fraught with the possibility of hot war.”(p.186)

Donald Trump in his campaign speeches showed a willingness to break from the anti-Russian consensus, and it was for this reason that Brennan, Clapper, and their media allies launched against him a campaign of contumely: “Who planned this obviously coordinated strike against Trump, and why? At least two conflicting interpretations are possible: Either Trump is about to become a potentially treasonous American president. Or powerful domestic forces are trying for other reasons to destroy his presidency before it begins. Even if the allegations are eventually regarded as untrue, they may permanently slur and thus cripple Trump as a foreign-policy president, especially in trying to cope with the exceedingly dangerous new Cold War with Russia.” (p.81)

Some may object to Cohen’s narrative that, despite his undoubted expert knowledge of Russia, he is an uncritical partisan of Putin. In fact, though, his sympathies lie elsewhere. He is a close friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, and he looks with great favor on the latter’s cosmopolitan outlook.

One indication that there is substance to Cohen’s charge that a misleading propaganda campaign has derailed America’s relations with Russia is his own marginalization. Cohen, for many years a professor at Princeton and later at New York University, was long regarded as one of the foremost American scholars in Russian studies. Though his opinions were always controversial, he remained a central presence on the public scene when Russian matters came up for discussion.  Now, the dominant media of opinion denounce or ignore him.

Cohen has rendered readers a great service in bringing to our attention the question of how public opinion on Russia is shaped by malevolent forces.  Even if he turns out to be mistaken in his evaluation of Putin---and to argue with him would require a comparable level of knowledge of the Russian scene---it would still be the case that an aggressive American policy of intervention toward Russia is ill-advised. A return to our traditional policy of non-intervention, along the lines so ably championed by Ron Paul, offers our best, and perhaps our only, hope for peace


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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