Many in the United States believe Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential elections and that its president, Vladimir Putin, is a cold-blooded killer. Stephen Cohen – arguably the country’s greatest expert on Russia – is not convinced. In a recent interview with The Jewish Press, Cohen said he has seen no evidence to support these claims. He also argues that responsibility for the frigid relations between Russia and the United States today lies largely with Washington, not Moscow.
Cohen is a professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, a contributing editor to The Nation, a former adviser to President George H. W. Bush, and the author of several books, including, most recently, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (Columbia University Press).
The Jewish Press: Why do you disagree with the mainstream view on Putin?
Cohen: I’m a scholar. My authority lives and dies on scholarly research, so let me begin by saying that for most of the accusations against Putin, there simply are no facts. No evidence.
Take the most recent example. Putin is reported to have personally ordered the assassination of a former Soviet intelligence agent in the UK. They have no way of knowing such a fact – because it isn’t a fact, and it makes no sense.
But this is hardly the first time Putin has been alleged to have ordered someone assassinated.
There are only three or four [real] cases, and I know them very well. I even know the families of the victims in two cases, and neither the families nor anybody else serious thinks Putin was behind the deaths. What they do argue is that Putin may have created an atmosphere in Russia where the killer or contracter – since these were contract killings – may have thought he could get away with it because police investigations perhaps are not what they should be. That’s a valid point.
People often say it makes sense that Putin would order a hit on someone since he used to work for the KGB.
That’s like saying that since there were lynchings of black people in the Deep South 50 years ago, if a black man dies today in suspicious circumstances in the United States, segregationists must have done it. This is simply not an argument historians take seriously.
This mantra that Putin was a KGB agent… first of all, the formulation is wrong. He was a KGB intelligence officer. An agent is somebody you recruit or hire for special purposes. Putin’s career was in foreign intelligence, which was quite apart from the KGB’s goon division which roughed up people and did assassinations. It’s the same thing with the CIA. They had wet boys who killed people and they had people who sat at Langley and studied.
You claim Putin didn’t meddle in our elections. Countless political pundits, however, disagree.
What does the word meddle mean? Does meddle mean tamper with elections results? Or does it mean intervening in a way that helps a particular candidate? The cardinal charge is that Russian intelligence agencies – again, on the personal orders of Putin – hacked the Democratic National Committee, stole Mrs. Clinton’s and then John Podesta’s e-mails, and gave them to WikiLeaks for distribution in order to harm her campaign.
But there is not one iota of factual evidence to prove this allegation. In fact, there are counter-theories that it was an inside job. There’s an organization called VIPS, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, which ran its own tests and concluded it could only have been inside job – that is, like a Snowden. Somebody put a thumb drive in the computer and walked out.
I don’t know. But we do know that the FBI never did a forensic exam on the DNC computers and that there is no proof of [cooperation] between Russian intelligence and WikiLeaks. Julian Assange has always denied it and there’s [good] reason to think there wasn’t any.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller recently discovered a troll house in Russia that apparently sowed disinformation on the Internet prior to the elections. Isn’t that evidence of at least some meddling on behalf of Trump?
This story was all over the Russian press for a couple of years. It wasn’t a secret. And people who have studied this stuff say the online activity helped Clinton as much as it did Trump. Secondly, half of the activity came after the election. And thirdly, nobody has said it had any impact on the election whatsoever.
But there’s a larger point: America and Russia have been meddling in each other’s affairs for generations. During the Cold War, Russia regularly distributed propaganda, and we have been meddling in Russian elections since 1992; we even sent a team to run Yeltsin’s reelection campaign in Moscow in 1996. One scholar cited in a recent New York Times article said the United States intervened directly in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000 while Moscow intervened in 36. It’s a deplorable practice, but that’s what great powers do.
One other point: This troll house seems to have started out as a commercial undertaking. The guy who ran it had restaurants in Moscow that were doing very poorly, and somebody told him if he got people on the Internet to say his restaurants were wonderful, his business would tick up. And it worked. So he expanded – first selling his disinformation services to other businesses and then to Russian politicians to use against their opponents. And then he decided to expand abroad, eventually ending up in the United States.
A decade ago, Russia and the United States enjoyed relatively friendly relations. Today Russia is regarded by many Americans as an enemy. How did we get to this point?
Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev believed they had ended the Cold War and the arms race forever. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, both sides said it ended without any winners or losers. But then during his reelection campaign against Clinton in 1992, Bush was in trouble, so he began saying he won the Cold War.
Now, Bush didn’t act on it so much, but it was picked up in Washington and the American media, and that led, under Clinton, to a triumphalist attitude toward Russia – that we won and, therefore, post-Soviet Russia was sort of like Germany and Japan after WWII: a defeated nation and supplicant to the United States. It could reenter international politics, but only as a junior partner of the United States.
Putin’s harshest critics in America say, “Too bad he’s not Yeltsin.” For them, the right relationship is Russia on its knees, dependent on Western loans, more or less following the American lead, and not complaining very much when NATO expands eastward or when Serbia – which was Russia’s traditional ally – is bombed. But that is not a sustainable foreign policy for a country that had been a great power for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Is it your opinion that we should be Putin’s friend?
I never use the word “friend.” My argument has always been – going back to the 1970s – that we need Moscow as a partner in national security, not as a friend. My father, who was a businessman, had partners who were not his personal friends. He didn’t even like some of them, but they were reliable business partners. What we need is a reliable partner in the Kremlin based on mutual national security – to fight international terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, etc.
You have said in the past that the United States, much more than Russia, is responsible for the current chilly relations between the two countries. Please explain.
Putin initially pursued a pro-western policy. Remember, he was the first to call George Bush on 9/11 and ask, “What can I do to help?” And he helped a lot. He gave intelligence, he gave a fighting force in Afghanistan, and he gave us the right to supply over Russian territory. And what did he get in return? More expansion of NATO that now sits on Russian borders.
You keep on mentioning the expansion of NATO. Please elaborate. Why should that bother Russia?
NATO was created to counter the Soviet threat in Europe. It’s outer eastern outpost was West Berlin. When Gorbachev agreed to German reunification in 1990, he was given assurances that NATO would never move eastward. The people involved have said they never gave those guarantees, but the National Security Archive in Washington recently published all the guarantees Gorbachev was given – not only by Bush, but by the chancellor of Germany, the president of France, and the prime minister of England.
NATO is the world’s most powerful military alliance. We can claim it isn’t that – that it’s just a force for democracy – but Russians don’t live in a world of fairy tales. And now NATO sits literally on Russia’s border in the Baltic countries. I’m told NATO artillery can now strike St. Petersburg. Imagine if Washington were under artillery range from a Russian or Chinese buildup on the Mexican or Canadian border. This country would go ballistic.
If NATO was formed to counter the Soviet threat, why didn’t it disband when the USSR fell?
Let’s be realistic. By 1991, NATO was an enormous and highly profitable bureaucratic organization. Every country that joined had to have weapons that conformed to American weapons, and that meant buying from American weapons manufacturers. NATO employed hundreds of thousands – certainly tens of thousands – of people in Brussels. People made careers in NATO. It was not going to abolish itself.
As to why it expanded geographically to Russia: Many explanations have been given. But whether it was done for political reasons, financial reasons, or ideological reasons, it was unwise. When [famed diplomat] George Kennan heard about [the idea to expand NATO] in 1997, said, “This is the worst move of the post-Soviet era. It will lead to a new Cold War.” He was right. It did.
You have been called a Russian apologist for your views. How do you respond?
I would say, first of all, it’s a slur on my integrity. I never call other people names. I say they’re wrong and try explain why they’re wrong, but I don’t call them warmongers or agents of American imperialism or fascists or anything like that. So when people say I’m an apologist for the Kremlin, I think it’s a slur because they can’t answer my arguments.
I am, though, an apologist for American national security because I’m a patriotic American citizen with children and grandchildren and I see grave dangers ahead – graver than we’ve ever faced before. And I think the people who are pursuing a kind of Russophobic policy just for the sake of it are disregarding our security.
We prevented nuclear war ever since the beginning of the atomic age because we trusted the American president to negotiate with the Soviet leader to put constraints on nuclear weapons. But we’ve so demonized Putin that it would be hard for any American president to negotiate with him. We are in an unprecedented situation where we can’t count on the leaders of the two countries to do what they have done ever since the beginning of the atomic age – keep us safe from nuclear war. That’s why demonizing Putin is so dangerous.
The Left’s attitude toward Russia today is extraordinarily hawkish. How do you explain such an attitude from a party that is generally dovish on foreign policy? You’ve said that mainstream media outlets won’t even invite you or feature your work anymore.
It’s not just me. Tell me the last time the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, etc. had on a substantive, authoritative opponent of their editorial position on Russia or Russiagate. Alan Dershowitz kind of snuck in, but he’s been semi-banned now by CNN; he’s gone to FOX even though he in some ways personifies the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. I can give you a dozen people who are not welcome. Something has happened with our media.
The demonization and loathing of Putin began before Trump, but [the rise of] Trump – whom all these media and political organizations loathe more than they loathe the idea of nuclear war – [exacerbated matters].
You didn’t vote for Trump, correct?
Correct. I would guess that I am opposed to probably 85 percent of Trump’s policies. But I am 100 percent in favor of the policy he has clung to since the campaign that “it would be great to cooperate with Russia.” And I have to say he’s been trying and he’s been thwarted.
In a recent interview with NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Putin referred to “Jews with Russian citizenship” – as opposed to simply “Russians” – which many regarded as anti-Semitic. How do you interpret his words? Were they anti-Semitic?
No. Not in the least. It is my opinion, both as a student of Russia and as a Jew – and this is also the opinion of a great many Jews I know in Russia and in Israel – that Russian Jews have never had it as well as they have had under Putin.
This can be documented by the support Putin gave for the [Holocaust] museum in Moscow, his personal relationships with the Jewish community, and official relation between Israel and Russia.
So why did Putin [make that remark] to Megan Kelly? Because she kept on saying, “The Russian did this, the Russians did that,” so finally Putin said, “How do you know it was a Russian? Maybe it was Ukrainian, a Tartar, or a Jew.” He meant in terms of ethnicity. Russia is a multi-ethnic state. There are Russians, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Georgians – and there are Jews. Traditionally, being Jewish has been a considered in Russia to be an ethnicity first and secondly a religion.
So when Kelly kept on saying, “Russians did it,” Putin heard “ethnic Russians.” There are two words: Russkiy means ethnic Russian. Russiyane means citizen of the Russian Federation. If you ask somebody in Russia, “Are you a Russian?” he may well say, “No, I’m a Ukrainian,” “I’m a Georgian,” or “I’m a Jew.” So there was no anti-Semitism there.