History is not determined by fate. There is always an alternative. – Mikhail Gorbachev
With relations between the United States and the Russian Federation near their lowest in decades, one voice is seriously missed in the academic and policy conversations surrounding US-Russia relations and American national security–the late scholar and professor Stephen F. Cohen.
Although I unfortunately did not know Professor Cohen personally, his published works and public appearances helped inspire me to begin my own study of the field, while always ensuring I retain an open mind and remain critical of the beltway chatter regarding post-Soviet Russia.
Professor Cohen had been one of the most consistent voices regarding US-Russia policy in the past 30 years. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin’s rise to the head of the new Russian Federation, the Clinton administration took a sanctimonious approach to reshaping the former communist state in its own image. Regarding the unprecedented dangers that existed following the dissolution of a nuclear superpower for the first time in history, Professor Cohen wrote at the start of this century that:
“The Clinton administration worsened the dangers incalculably by taking step after step that pushes a Russia coming apart at the nuclear seams to rely more and more on its nuclear stockpiles and infrastructure–by making financial aid conditional on economic “reforms” that impoverished and destabilized the state; by expanding NATO’s military might virtually to Russia’s borders; by provocatively demonstrating during the bombing of Yugoslavia the overwhelming superiority of U.S. conventional weapons; and by threatening to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to build a missile defense system, a threat that the new American president all but promised to carry out.” (pg. 215 failed crusade)
Soon after Professor Cohen’s injunction, the US carried through a unilateral withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, it expanded NATO right up to Russia’s borders in 2004, and continues to this day an economic assault on the Russian economy through the seemingly limitless use of sanctions which have questionable effects. These three actions are continuously cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin as aggressive and hostile steps the US has taken against his country, and which warrant a response. Clearly, Professor Cohen was prescient of the thinking and calculations of Russia’s military and political élites, and how they would inevitably respond once their country had regained its footing.
As Americans, we must question whether these actions on the part of our government were both necessary and helped enhance security and stability across Europe, or if they have in fact been aggressive moves that provoked a Russian response. Professor Cohen had long warned about the risks to American national security involved in needlessly antagonizing Russia when it was in a state of disarray throughout the 1990s. The danger he feared was that such provocative actions by the US would lead to the start of a new Cold War, something he began proclaiming publicly as early as the mid-2000’s. These threats are only more obvious today; from the ongoing Ukrainian crisis to the lingering Syrian proxy-civil war, and the intensifying coordination between Russia and China on the international stage. It’s clear that US policy towards Russia has failed.
There may be some hopeful signs that governmental élites in Washington have begun to recognize that the policy pursued over the last three decades has not contributed to an increase of national security for the United States, Europe, or elsewhere. Unfortunately, however, the demonization of “Putin’s Russia” has become the standard in the western press and amongst policy makers alike that any astute analysis and policy prescriptions regarding US-Russia relations are often brushed aside as “good for Putin.”
This Manichaean approach to our relations with a country as consequential as Russia is foolish and betrays John Quincy Adams’ belief that the US, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” A common refrain of Professor Cohen was that “American national security runs through Moscow.” Now this is not to suggest that Washington needs a friend in Moscow, but what we do need is a partner. Indeed, in a world with shifting power balances, nuclear proliferation, the threat of a changing climate, and a global pandemic–a pragmatic relationship with Russia is crucial to securing global peace and prosperity. This is no time to criminalize diplomacy.
Although Professor Cohen increasingly became most unjustly maligned in the hyperbolic press during the last few years of his life, he retained his intellectual honesty and commitment to informing the public about the realities of Russia and the dangers faced by the policies pursued in Washington. On this one-year anniversary of Stephen F. Cohen’s passing, I hope that his analyses and policy prescriptions will resonate throughout the decision-making corridors of Washington. We undoubtedly need alternative ways of thinking as the world moves ever more in the direction of uncompromising power-blocs, not unlike those shaped in the decades before World War I.
Artin DerSimonian is a graduate student and intern focusing on Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the Quincy Institute.