U.S.  Hoped Putin Would be a ‘Sober Yeltsin’  -  RAI with Stephen Cohen 3/5

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced December 23, 2019, with the late Stephen Cohen. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a dysfunctional and pro-American Russian President Yeltsin presided over the chaos of the 1990s; when Putin came to power, the West was very disappointed at the independent and nationalist character of the Putin led state and the demonization began.


PAUL JAY Welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And we’re continuing our discussions with Stephen Cohen about Russia and the United States, Trump and Putin. Thanks for joining us again.

STEPHEN COHEN Thank you. For Steven’s bio, just look under the video player. Watch the earlier segments. But I’ll plug your book. People should read this book. It’s important. It’s called War with Russia? From Putin and Ukraine to Trump and Russiagate. And let me say, while in the last segment I am arguing with you about how to characterize Trump–and I don’t know, maybe we’ll argue again–I think your contribution on this issue is extremely important. I know you’ve been under incredible pressure and getting isolated on this point. And I think it’s brave of you to take the stance you do.

OK, let’s just move on. In the early years of Putin’s presidency the West quite liked him. I guess they thought he would be a continuation of Yeltsin. I think they had expectations that he would help facilitate an American–I don’t know what the word–‘takeover’ is too strong–but allowing American mining companies and energy companies and finance to come in. And instead what emerged was a state with real laws. And an oligarchy emerged, which I think at some point the Russian people will have to deal with, because I don’t think it’s good for them, but it’s up to them. That being said, America didn’t get a free-for-all.

But as this relationship with the West became more and more tense–and I think to a large extent for these reasons. The Americans didn’t get everything they wanted out of Russia. I don’t understand why Putin didn’t take more of the Chinese stance, which is avoid direct confrontation as much as you can and build up your strength. And I don’t get Crimea. Crimea was–and you suggest in your book–wasn’t there an alternative to the annexation? There wasn’t, like, an immediate threat. I know there was a right-wing takeover, a far-right takeover of Ukraine. The Americans certainly facilitated and helped engineer it. It is a kind of strategic threat. I mean, I think that’s clear, and you’ve made the case very eloquently. But still, why poke Europe and the United States in the eye and kind of make the case of the anti-detente forces? Oh, look, you know, Russia’s on the move. It starts with Crimea, and Georgia will be next, and then it will be the whole of Ukraine.

STEPHEN COHEN Of course they didn’t with Crimea, and that’s just the argument that people who don’t wish to understand the Russian point of view make. It didn’t start with Crimea. It began with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders.

PAUL JAY No doubt.

STEPHEN COHEN Well, not only no doubt, but for Putin and for the Russian political class that was the context and the prism through which they viewed Western–and particularly American–policy toward Russia. So when the Ukrainian crisis began in 2013, let’s remember what happened, because it does lead to the annexation of Crimea.

In 2013 the European Union told the then-president of Ukraine, Yanukovych–and he may have been a rotter, but he was constitutionally and legally elected. It would have been a clean election. He was the president–that he needed to sign a economic partnership with the European Union. It meant, in effect, losing his preferred trade status with Russia, which constituted about 40 percent of Ukrainian trade. Not to mention about 3 to 4 million Ukrainians who worked in Russia to support their families were allowed to do so, and allowed to send their salaries back to Ukraine to support their families.

So Ukraine was heavily dependent on Russia economically, and along comes the European Union that wants to exclude Russia from this new arrangement. So Putin says, Putin and his Foreign Minister Lavrov say, look, guys, why not a tripartite arrangement? It would be good for everybody. We’ll have an economic preferred agreement with Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union. And Washington and Brussels said no. Russia can’t participate. Yanukovych for that reason declined to sign the agreement, and that led to the Maidan uprising. And Yanukovych flees from office to Russia.

So Putin now is sitting in Moscow, and Crimea comes to the fore, because you’ve got a very right-wing, and I would say crazy, government in power, saying outlandish things. Including, you know, Crimea is ours, and we’re going to expel the Russian naval base there, which was there by treaty. They had a lease, I think, 25 years on the base. There were 22,000, by law, Russian soldiers on the Crimean base. They were already there. All right.

So Putin’s sitting here. He sees some kind of threat–maybe it’s rhetorical. But bad things are happening. This was a very violent uprising. You remember the burning buildings in Kiev and Maidan. If you watched this on TV, this was violence. It was very serious. Snipers killed, I think, 85 to 100 people in Maidan just before Yanukovych fled. They said that the snipers were sent by Yanukovych, but we now know they weren’t. They were sent by neofascists, Ukrainian neofascists, on Maidan. But remember, Putin is operating in a context that’s moving very fast, very dangerous. Intelligence is sparse, not clear. But there is clearly a new government in Kiev that’s laying claim not only to Crimea forever, but to expelling the Russian naval base there. So Putin has to decide.

The back history is Putin never showed any interest in Crimea until that moment. However, it had been an issue in Russian politics when Putin ran for president in 2000. There was a party headed by two very influential men, the former mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov, and the former foreign minister Primakov, who had advocated reuniting Crimea with Russia, because Crimea had traditionally been a Russian province, I think somewhere like–don’t speak of ethnicity, speak of language. Something like 85 percent of the population speaks Russian as a native language. I mean, enormous number. It’s a Russian province. And it was only an act of accident under Khrushchev that had been assigned administratively when the Soviet Union existed to Ukraine, because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

So what was Putin supposed to do? To the extent that we know how he made the decision, he was told by his intelligence people–all leaders in crisis depend on intelligence people–take Crimea today through a referendum, and peacefully. And by the way, they were polling like crazy. They knew they’d get 85-plus. They knew this. If they had it–and the referendum was completely open. All this crap about ‘at gunpoint’ is nonsense. I mean, it was a fair referendum. And Gallup has been going back to Crimea and polling. They get the same number; 85 percent want to be with Russia.

Putin is told do it by the ballot, the box, today, or fight a war there tomorrow. That’s what he was told. What would you have done in his place? See, it’s easy for you, Paul, and me, Steve, to sit here and debate what leaders–Trump, any leader–Kennedy, Putin, should do in a crisis situation without knowing the circumstances, or what we would do in that situation. I mean, they have to act and they have to act fast. And they’re dependent on this intelligence.

PAUL JAY OK, but in the book you suggest there might have been an alternative.

STEPHEN COHEN Well, I can just simply tell you what Putin was told as an alternative. One group said “You have to take Crimea now. The polls show Crimeans will vote to join Russia. There is an international law that referendums are binding and legal. We’ll have a referendum, we’ll get the result, and they’ll vote to join Russia and we’ll take them in. Do that.”.

The other view was “Hold the referendum, but don’t welcome them into Russia. Use it as a bargaining card with the West and Kiev when we see how the Maidan so-called revolution–it wasn’t a revolution, but the Maidan coup, it was a coup against Yanukovych–let’s see what comes next. But that’ll be a diplomatic card we could play. Go ahead and have the referendum. They will vote to join Russia, but that doesn’t mean because they’ve requested to join Russia we have to say OK. Just take that and say to the West, look, the Crimean people want to join Russia. We understand that that may be, you know, difficult for you. Can we find a way to solve this problem short of annexation?” In other words, can we get guarantees for Crimea?

So Putin was told that was an option, and he didn’t choose it. And I try to put myself in his shoes and see what would I have done? And the problem is I don’t know the intelligence. For example, there is a report, I don’t believe or disbelieve it, that NATO commandos were found on Crimea, on the peninsula. I don’t know if that’s true. Maybe it was scuttlebutt. Did Putin know it to be true? I don’t know. But we have yet to be told the whole story of what happened between the coup in Kiev–because it was a coup. It overthrew the president–and the decision, Russians don’t say ‘annex,’ they say ‘rejoined with,’ or ‘welcomed Crimea home,’ to make that decision. One day we’ll know more, and then we’ll be able to decide if Putin really had a choice.

PAUL JAY Do you–and I don’t, one, have any–I don’t have any detailed knowledge about the situation.

STEPHEN COHEN I don’t have enough.

PAUL JAY Never mind not knowing the intelligence.

STEPHEN COHEN You understand that’s a question mark by what I say. We don’t know for sure.

PAUL JAY Yeah. But was–Do you think there might have been an option to have a referendum that took a little–there was more time, maybe get the United Nations involved? Something that gives a little more recognition to it?

STEPHEN COHEN Without naming names-

PAUL JAY And I’m not talking the morality, here. I’m talking tactically.

STEPHEN COHEN Practical politics. The point is that Putin was told–now, mind you, this is–I mean, it’s a good thing that he’s a former KGB officer, by the way. Henry Kissinger, when he first met Putin, and he learned–this was when Putin was working as deputy mayor in St. Petersburg, and Kissinger met him. And Putin said to Kissinger, “You know, I began in intelligence.” And Kissinger said, “That’s the best way to start a political career.” Kissinger had started in intelligence during the war, right. Because these guys think, and maybe they’re right, that if you’re trained in intelligence, or you’re able to evaluate intelligence–that is, you aren’t going to be fooled by your own intelligence people–that you can sort out false intelligence from legitimate intelligence. Putin was in a position, I think, to evaluate the intelligence. So the question that you raise is true. Why didn’t they wait? And he was told we can’t wait; events are moving too fast.

PAUL JAY In the earlier–last segment–you talked about the pressure on him that he’s not proactive enough. Is this partly responding to that kind of pressure?

STEPHEN COHEN Yes. And that’s why I want to return to this issue that only once before had Crimea been an issue in Russian politics, when a political party ran against Putin on a platform that we should somehow get Crimea back. They got, I think, two percent of the vote. There was no popular support for this. Putin was disdainful of the idea. In other words, this was something–this was not aggression. This is ridiculous. This was a decision imposed upon him by circumstances that he did not create, but to which he now had to react. And I don’t know whether he knew it or not, but that was probably his most historic decision. And I mean–it’s not his most historic, but it is part of what will forever define his role for Russians in Russian history forever.

PAUL JAY So let’s get to the big underlying question here-

STEPHEN COHEN You can go to Moscow and buy a poster in a shop. At the top is a map of Crimea, a very distinctive peninsula, right? On one side is Krushchev, who signed Crimea over to Ukraine, right, when–in 1954-’55, when the Soviet Union existed. On the other side is a picture of Putin. And it simply says “He gave away. He took back.” You can see these in the shops. These were–Khrushchev frivolously, on some anniversary, said OK, Crimea is part of Ukraine. And Putin [got it back].

PAUL JAY In your book [crosstalk] Kissinger saying he might have been drunk that night when he did it.


PAUL JAY I think in your book you say that, don’t you?

STEPHEN COHEN That’s not me.

PAUL JAY Somebody said that Khrushchev might have been drunk the night that he gave Crimea [crosstalk].

STEPHEN COHEN No, I didn’t say that. I don’t know. But-

PAUL JAY Somebody quotes Kissinger.

STEPHEN COHEN Possibly. But you know, these are–if you’re a student of history, and particularly of political leadership, as I like to think I am, this is a … Graham Allison practically made a career of writing about the Cuban missile crisis and how the Kennedy team–right? He’s famous for studying that. It’s a case study in crisis leadership. And Kennedy comes out looking pretty good. By the way, I would say Khrushchev comes out looking pretty good, too, because the Russian reaction could have been different. But now we have Putin in Crimea. He had to make a decision that was imposed upon him. Now, we don’t have all the information. But we should be fascinated to study and understand this rather than demonize Putin for doing it.

PAUL JAY OK. Let me–this sort of big, underlying question. Because I mean, Kissinger said that what Putin did in Crimea was an anomaly; that you can’t extend anything from that. That does not prove that Russia is on the march and they’re going to start threatening other Baltic states, and all this. The Crimea is a very particular situation. Clearly that was not the predominant attitude of the West towards Crimea. So why–it began under Yeltsin, but with Putin–and Putin seemed ready for it. Why didn’t the West assimilate Russia into Western capitalism?

STEPHEN COHEN So we’re turning the clock back now to the end of the Soviet Union.

PAUL JAY We’re going back into the early years of Putin. Why not let Russia join the EU? Why not encourage this–a kind of real mixing?

STEPHEN COHEN We’ve got to get the history straight, or at least the history you’re talking about. If you’re talking about the decade, the 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union-

PAUL JAY When Putin comes to power.

STEPHEN COHEN Well, he comes to power in 2000.


STEPHEN COHEN But I thought you–but why didn’t the West assimilate Russia after the end of the Soviet Union? Or when Putin came to power?

PAUL JAY Well, you got the free-for-all of the ’90s. But that free-for-all had an American hand supporting Yeltsin through much of that period.

STEPHEN COHEN Yeah. Clinton unwisely–not only Clinton. Bill Clinton, not Hillary. And Bill Clinton was president then in the ’90s–believed that he was assimilating Russia with his policy toward Yeltsin. That’s what he thought. And he was so advised by people such as Strobe Talbott, all of whom should have known better. In fact, Russia descended in the 1990s into the worst and most corrosive economic depression ever in peacetime. Men were dying at 57. I think the collapse of industrial production was greater than it was during our own Great Depression. People were not receiving their wages or their social benefits. The middle class was being vaporized. Gangs were controlling large parts of the economy. Some people even think it was what people call state capture, that private oligarchs had captured the state. Russia was on the verge, if not of actually breaking up, of collapsing.

Now, flash back to that moment, 1999. Russia, the largest territorial country in the world, even after the end of the Soviet Union, laden, laden, stockpiled with every conceivable weapon of mass destruction, from germ, bacterial, chemical, nuclear. What if Russia had broken up? What if? We’re talking Apocalypse Now. I would think that people would give Putin a little credit for holding Russia together, reestablishing control over the regions that had these weapons. But he’s never given any any, any credit. Russians themselves do. But in the West–Imagine what would have happened. It wasn’t just Putin alone. He put together a team, a komanda, as it’s called in Russia. No one man can do this. But he chose advisers who understood the situation.

At the time–at the time–this was semi-welcomed in Washington. You remember that Putin came to see the second President Bush, and they went to the ranch. And Bush said “I looked into his eyes and I saw a good soul.” And other things like that. And I think you, Paul, are right when you say that they, meaning the people who control our foreign policy, thought that this would be the continuation of the 1990s, except that Putin would be a healthy and sober Yeltsin; that Yeltsin had become dysfunctional, unable to govern the country that the West wanted to assimilate. And when it turned out that Putin wasn’t Yeltsin, even though Yeltsin put him in power–indeed, historically speaking Putin could not have been Yeltsin, though he’s never given his anti-Yeltsin speech the way Khrushchev gave his anti-Stalin speech. This is interesting. He’s been urged to give this speech, by the way; the de-Yeltsinization speech, analogous to Khruschev’s de-Stalinization speech. He’s never done that. People say he’s too loyal, to a fault. Too loyal. Putin. Some trait he’s got. They criticize him for it.

But nonetheless, very soon American disillusion in Putin set in. And we can date it. There is there was, and even remains today a New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof. Nicholas Kristof. Who wrote–I think it was 2003. Maybe I’m off a year, year and a half–that he was greatly disillusioned, he, Kristof, that Putin had not turned out to be a sober Yeltsin. Imagine this. In other words, they, to the extent that columnists speak for these great powers, wanted Yeltsin, a person who by then had positive ratings in Russia of about 3 percent, who was hated in Russia for what had happened to the country. But the only grievance in Washington was he wasn’t sober and healthy enough to continue the policy. And Putin, they thought at the beginning was a sober healthy Yeltsin. Look at him. And Yeltsin–on what Yeltsin is. They say he’s from Yeltsin. He’s got to be. But it was clear. If you’d been paying attention it would have been clear it was impossible.

And when it dawned on them they were bitter. And I’m not sure that they started hating on Putin because they personally had been so wrong, their analysis had been wrong, or because they couldn’t stand the thought of a non-Yeltsin to this day. Because even today you could read in the New York Times and other analyses, so-called, how great it was under Yeltsin. It wasn’t great. It was a country in agony. And it was dangerous to us, with all those weapons.

So you know, we’ve discarded history. We’ve discarded real historical and political analysis for a kind of Russophobia that I actually never experienced in my lifetime before. It’s much worse now. And remember one thing, as we all go forward and think about Russiagate, which I think is going to be with us in one way or another for decades. But the Putin-phobia, the hating on Putin, began long before Trump was a presidential candidate. Long before. The two got fused together in Russiagate. The loathing for Putin and the loathing for Trump was fused into this thing called Russiagate. Now, who did the initial fusing? In my book I argued it was our intelligence services, and particularly the CIA. We will see. I think we’re going to have some investigations now. I may be wrong. I don’t think it was the FBI, as people think. I think was Brennan and Obama’s CIA that got all this started.

But these–this didn’t come out of nowhere. This had been developing, this demonizing of Putin had been going on for years before Trump appeared on the scene. And then bingo, it came together. And we’re stuck with it. And it ain’t going to go away. And I think it’s the worst threat to our national security. I’ve said Russiagate is the great number one threat to our national security. In the book I do the five greatest threats for our national security. The book is all short pieces. And Russia–Russia and China don’t make the top five. Russiagate’s number one. Unfortunately you’re younger than I am so we can’t share these moments together. But there was the Cuban missile crisis, correct?

PAUL JAY Well, I–you know, I was alive. I was very aware of it.

STEPHEN COHEN All right. But it is said that in the history books, in the textbooks, that it’s the closest we ever came to nuclear war with Russia, Soviet Russia. Correct?

PAUL JAY If you listen Ellsberg we were seconds from it.

STEPHEN COHEN OK. And yet because of the leadership of Kennedy, and I would add Khrushchev, because it takes two to tango, as Reagan said, these two guys averted Armageddon. Correct? And that’s the lesson we’ve taught our kids and we teach in our textbooks. OK. Imagine today–and it doesn’t take a lot of imagining–that we have a Cuban missile crisis-like confrontation. Could be in Venezuela. Could be in Syria. Could be in former Soviet Georgia. Could be in Ukraine. Lots of places. It happens, suddenly. The two nuclear superpowers are eyeball to eyeball like the Cuban missile crisis. Everybody credits Kennedy and Khrushchev for averting the crisis.

This happens tomorrow, do you think the American political class and its media are going to invest Trump with the authority to negotiate a way out of nuclear war? The guy they called the Kremlin puppet? And are they going to credit Putin, the guy they’ve so demonized, as a partner to avert nuclear war? They will not. And what happens then? The answer is nuclear war. That’s why I say we’re walking on a razor’s edge with this Russiagate demonizing Putin nonsense. We need these two guys, whether we like them or not, to avoid nuclear war. And we are–we have too many situations fraught with war with Russia which could become nuclear war, more than we’ve ever had before. And the people who’ve contributed to these situations refuse to acknowledge what they’ve done. Above all, the mainstream media. What you and I are discussing today should be discussed in the major newspapers and television talk shows in this country nightly. And I guarantee you decades ago it would have been. We’ve lost our way. And the new way is exceedingly dangerous.

PAUL JAY I agree with all of that. But I’ve got a ‘but.’ It’s not just the MSNBCs and the Democratic Party that are making this so fraught with danger. But it’s also the agenda of the Trump administration and the people around it. For example, in Venezuela, where Pompeo, the Koch brothers guy–the Koch brothers have a deep interest in Venezuelan heavy crude. Canadian mining companies have a big deep interest in Venezuelan gold. Pence is a Koch brothers guy. The agenda is a very aggressive agenda. So it’s it’s complicated by the fact that it’s not like Trump–I have zero faith in Trump as someone who might play such a constructive role.

STEPHEN COHEN You don’t have a choice.

PAUL JAY We don’t have a choice.

STEPHEN COHEN You don’t know–you do not have a choice.

PAUL JAY Because he’s the president.

STEPHEN COHEN No. If if such a situation, a Cuban missile crisis-like situation, would occur, you will either trust and empower Trump to avert it or prepare yourself for nuclear war. And there, for me, there is no choice.

PAUL JAY I agree with that, and-

STEPHEN COHEN About Venezuela and the rest you have to talk to somebody else. I don’t know that story.

PAUL JAY But the pushback–Like, I think we need to do both. We need to, you know, what you’re doing, which is attack and denounce this demonization of Putin, and tying the hands of Trump to have some kind of normalization with Russia, for whatever reasons needs to be denounced. And I really value what you’re doing on this. I just–as I said in the earlier segment, we need to talk about the aggressive militarist agenda of Trump as well.

STEPHEN COHEN But that happens every day. I mean, my truth is maybe–there are not many people that speak what I think is this truth that I’ve spoken to you. And the bashing of Trump is ample, and maybe not sufficient. Maybe there needs to be more. But we’re at an interesting moment now. We are now approaching a new presidential season in this country.

PAUL JAY Can I–Can I just intervene for just a sec? The problem here is both on Venezuela and Iran the Democratic Party foreign policy establishment is on the same page as Trump. Netanyahu is on the same page as Trump. The Saudis are on the same page as Trump. When Trump throws this missile, missiles into Syria after the supposed gas attack, Chuck Schumer says finally Trump’s acting president–is a president. The problem is is that as much as these guys vilify and are dangerous–these guys meaning the Democrats and that whole establishment are dangerous on Russia-

STEPHEN COHEN I don’t disagree.

PAUL JAY They’ll converge with Trump on some very dangerous stuff in Iran.

STEPHEN COHEN I don’t disagree. But that brings me to my final point, I guess, because we are at the time we are in. We now have, I think, at last count 19 or 20 Democratic would be contenders for the presidential nomination; 19 or 20. We need to ask ourselves which, if any, of these people see these dangers clearly, and ask them. But I have a feeling that the mainstream media will not ask them, because these are uncomfortable issues for them. I also think that the one candidate who has embraced a position similar to my own, Tulsi Gabbard, was immediately attacked by NBC, as you know. Scurrilously.

That it’s a question of what kind of discussion–because according to our democracy these existential issues that you and I have discussed are discussed during presidential campaigns. This is when we clarify and make our choices. It seems to me this is unlikely to happen, partly because the mainstream media doesn’t permit voices like mine any longer. Though they used to welcome me. I used to work for them. It would be interesting to see how they treat Tulsi Gabbard, who’s the closest to this kind of anxiety about the new Cold War with Russia, has taken positions on this. There may be others, but I haven’t–I haven’t noted that. We’ll see how they’re–if there’s an attempt to suppress her view, or to give her a fair time. Now, she’ll have to do well in a primary somewhere to get that. But it’s a little discouraging that of 19 or 20 Democrats, only one thus far has spoken with some clarity about this, what I consider to be the number one existential issue; the danger of war with Russia.

PAUL JAY Well, you’re certainly welcome on The Real News Network.

STEPHEN COHEN Well, maybe you should have Tulsi Gabbard on, too.

PAUL JAY Oh, we have, and we will again.

STEPHEN COHEN Oh you have, good.

PAUL JAY Yeah. We’ve interviewed a couple of times, and we’re we’re actually just arranging another one now.

STEPHEN COHEN Oh, that’s good. All right. Well, thank you so much.

PAUL JAY Well, I hope this is just the beginning of a conversation.

STEPHEN COHEN Today or tomorrow?

PAUL JAY Another day.

STEPHEN COHEN Appreciate it. Thanks very much. Thank you.

PAUL JAY And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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