Villainizing the Kremlin—without much evidence—for crises from Washington and Europe to Syria, Ukraine, and Afghanistan is increasing the possibility of a US-Russian war.
By Stephen F. Cohen
Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen and John Batchelor continue their weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (Previous installments, now in their fourth year, are at TheNation.com). This installment expands upon last week’s, which focused on several highly questionable Washington narratives that imply the necessity of war with Russia. When later asked which of these allegations was the most dangerous, Cohen responds, in this installment, that their number is increasing and with them the risk of war. He itemizes the Cold War narratives, or allegations, now propounded by the US political-media establishment:
— That Moscow’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis three years ago justifies NATO’s highly provocative buildup on Russia’s borders today in order to prevent the Kremlin’s intended aggression against small East European states.
That Russian President Putin’s “hijacking” of the 2016 US presidential election to put Donald Trump in the White House was “an act of war against American democracy” that requires a requisite response.
— That Syrian President Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons necessitated Trump’s missile attack against Syria, whose leader is closely allied with Russia.
— That the Kremlin is now directing a massive campaign of cyber-attacks and propaganda at elections across Europe in order to bring to power its favored candidates, such as Marine Le Pen in France, in countries allied with the United States, thereby undermining the trans-Atlantic alliance and even NATO itself.
— And most recently, that the Kremlin is colluding with the Taliban to defeat the United States in Afghanistan.
Cohen makes three general points about these Washington narratives:
— Individually and collectively, they further militarize the new Cold War and generate Russophobic analyses in the American political-media establishment that incite the possibility of actual war.
— As of now, there is still no actual evidence for several of these allegations. For example, that Putin directed a cyber-hacking operation that abetted Trump’s presidential campaign or that he is doing the same on behalf of favored European candidates today. Or that Assad was behind the recent chemical-weapons episode in Syria. Or that Moscow has aggressive military intentions in Eastern Europe. Moreover, to the extent the Kremlin uses propaganda, or “soft power,” on behalf of American and European candidates, this is scarcely different from decades of US meddling in elections around the world, including in Russia. In any event, the effect of “Russian propaganda” is wildly exaggerated, assuming as it does that democratic citizens are easily swayed by such “weaponized information,” as though they are highly susceptible zombies. (The allegation itself reveals a kind of contempt for the political intelligence of citizens of American and other Western democracies.)
— And third, in the past, critical, fact-checking US mainstream media acted as a filter between these kinds of politically inspired allegations and their warfare impact on policy-making. For the most part, they no longer do so but instead amplify and promote such narratives. Cohen cites several alternative media outlets that do offer trans-partisan contrarian facts and analyses, among them The Nation, The National Interest, The American Conservative, Consortiumnews, the Intercept, and Tucker Carlson’s evening hour on Fox News. (Many of these alternative reports are posted at eastwestaccord.com, the website of the American Committee for East-West Accord, of which Cohen is a board member.) But they scarcely offset the almost monopolistic impact of major establishment newspapers and broadcasts “inside the beltway.”
Cohen concludes with two recent developments that are emerging as additional orthodox narratives in Washington. One involves the longstanding, and largely false, narrative that Moscow alone has prevented implementation of the Minsk Accords for resolving the Ukrainian civil and proxy war. In fact, the US-backed government in Kiev has mainly thwarted the agreement by refusing to implement its obligations. Now, despite the harm done to its own already crippled economy, Kiev is expanding its blockade of Russian-backed rebel territories to include vital energy supplies. Some observers think it is doing so to placate ultra-right forces on which it is politically dependent. Another possibility, Cohen thinks, is to provoke Putin’s Kremlin into some drastic political or military action that would revive waning support for Kiev in Washington and in Europe. If so, this too could lead to a US-Russian military conflict.
The other new allegation is that Moscow is colluding with the Taliban against the very long US war effort in Afghanistan. No doubt, Moscow, like Washington, carries on behind-the-scenes discussions with factions of the Taliban in search of a way to extricate itself from the war or to limit its broader impact. But anyone at all familiar with the Russian national-security elite knows it desperately fears an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would leave Moscow alone to withstand the flow of radical jihadists and heroin into Russia through Central Asia. Indeed, the flood of cheap heroin into Russia, which Washington promised to diminish but has not, has already caused a growing epidemic of addiction and AIDS that is well beyond the government’s capacity to cope with it.
Here too, as with other bipartisan anti-Russian narratives in Washington, there are neither facts nor logic. Historically, such narratives have played a major role in the onset of war between great powers. This may now be unfolding in US-Russian relations. Very few members of Congress, the Trump administration, or the mainstream media have spoken against these warfare narratives, which continue to mount.