The Nation‘s Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history, and politics at New York University and Princeton University, told Breitbart News that the “Russiagate fiction” may prevent President Donald Trump from negotiating peaceful resolutions to political conflicts with Russia. He offered his analysis in a Thursday interview on SiriusXM’s Breitbart News Tonight with hosts Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak.
Cohen said, “I find things to praise in Trump, and in particular, his — as he put it — wish to cooperate with Russia. That story you just reported from BuzzFeed, let me tell you how you can contextualize it. I spend quite a bit of time in Moscow. If the three of us were to go to Moscow and you asked me where we should stay, I could offer you most any international hotel you wanted; Marriott, Sheraton, Ritz-Carlton. The only person who tried to build a major hotel in Moscow and was unable to do so was Donald Trump. So much for collusion.”
Cohen recalled the Podesta Group’s — a lobbying firm run Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton and Obama administration alumnus John Podesta — lobbying activities for Uranium One, an arm of the Russian state.
“I don’t believe this Russiagate fiction that there was collusion between Trump and the Kremlin,” said Cohen. “There may have been some financial corruption between people associated with Trump and Russians, but this is bipartisan. Tony Podesta — who is the brother of Clinton’s advisor — was caught up in doing exactly the same thing in Ukraine that Manafort was, but he wasn’t prosecuted.”
Cohen noted, “Americans have been having corrupt relations with Russian oligarchs since the end of the Soviet Union. It’s really a yawn story.”
Cohen examined BuzzFeed’s recent allegations regarding Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen.
“This story that comes out about conversations that [Michael Cohen] may have had with Russians about Trump’s wish to build a hotel that continued after the campaign began are perfectly plausible,” assessed Cohen. “To build a hotel in Moscow requires so many permissions. It had been set in motion not only through Michael Cohen, but Trump’s business associates in Moscow, which you need. So that they were still talking — trying to get permissions — when Trump was already campaigning is not a surprise, and I don’t see anything criminal in it, either.”
Cohen added, “If Trump told Cohen to lie about it that’s Cohen’s say-so, but it raises in my mind what used to be the confidentiality of client-lawyer relations. Cohen’s being asked to violate every confidentiality obligation a lawyer has, so this is a nasty narrative.”
Cohen recommended pursuit of an “anti-terrorism alliance” between America and Russia.
“I don’t know what Obama’s policy was toward Russia, because he screwed it up repeatedly,” remarked Cohen. “I’ll give you one example. I think one of the most vital things — necessary today — is international cooperation between the United States and Russia in an anti-terrorism alliance.”
Cohen went on, “The Russians have terrific information. You remember that they told us about the Tsarnaev brothers, who blew up the Boston Marathon a few years ago, and we disregarded the information. Putin repeatedly offered Obama such an alliance in Syria, and Obama went halfway and pulled back.”
Cohen continued, “Now Trump came forward during the campaign, saying something fundamentally different — now, I didn’t vote for Trump, but I certainly supported what he said during the campaign and what he’s continued to say as president — that we have to cooperate with Russia. One example, and there are others, is against terrorism, and in particular in Syria.”
Cohen added, “So for this, [Donald Trump] is now being savaged as quote, ‘giving a gift to Putin.’ This is madness. Either we have a mutual enemy in international terrorism. When we say international terrorism, we don’t just mean the jihadists in Syria. We’re talking about the guys who’ve blown up sports stadiums and subway stations across Europe; Paris, Moscow, various cities, and it’s going to happen here. I don’t wish it to, but it’s will happen here.
Cohen stated, “The Russians are excellent at this. For one thing, their nation is located on the border of those nations where terrorism is flourishing, where it gets its funding and does its recruiting. An alliance with Russia, as Trump suggested, against terrorism was manifestly, by any rational standards, in America’s national interest, and yet he’s been prevented from doing that.
Cohen described the “liberal-progressive establishment” advancement of the “Russiagate” narrative as national security threat via its potential to hamstring Trump’s capacity to deal with Russia.
“I say this again, as somebody who’s lived in this sort of liberal-progressive camp for most of my life. The coverage of my little book — “War With Russia?” — is how we got to a place where the American establishment — particularly the liberal progressive establishment, the media, and the politicians — are saying no to Trump in regard to cooperating with Russia on terrorism.”
Cohen added, “There’s also nuclear proliferation. There are all sorts of things. This is against our national security, and that is why, to the great dismay of people I live among, I have argued in this book that Russiagate — these allegations against Trump — are the number one threat to American national security today, because they prevent Trump from doing what is necessary.”
Cohen said, “I’ll make one other point. You know all this hullabaloo about secret meetings and private talks between Trump and Putin? Let me remind people that every American president Since Dwight Eisenhower — we can go back to Franklin Roosevelt in World War II — has had summit and private meetings, sometimes with or without note-takers, with Kremlin leaders. Trump did nothing unusual.”
Cohen recalled, “One other point, in a way, Trump has been advocating what my generation called a 20th century detente. That is cooperation instead of conflict with Russia. Trump has been advocating that, and people say that seems criminal. Why is it criminal when Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan — all Republicans — pursued detente with Russia? In this regard … Donald Trump is suarely in the Republican tradition of American presidents.”
Cohen declared, “I don’t want the United States government to be friends with the Russian government. I want them to be partners with the Russian government where we have common concerns and interests. There’s a big difference. … Governments aren’t in the friendship business. They’re in the partnership business in order to abet their national interests.”
Cohen determined, “I don’t see anywhere in the world today where Russia threatens our national interest. To put this differently, I don’t see anything that Russia has done — that you and I would object to — that we did not provoke, beginning with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders.”
Cohen advised, “You’ve got to know a little history. You’ve got to understand what’s in America’s national interest, and you’ve got to regard Moscow — the Kremlin — as a legitimate government with its own national interest, and then you look for those national interests that coincide with our own.”
Cohen lamented, “Trump’s not very articulate in this policy wonky area, but his instincts about Russia have been right, I think. The tragedy is, because the situation is so dangerous — I would argue more dangerous than any time in our lifetime; danger of war with Russia — that he’s being prevented from doing what we would normally ask any American president to do; to negotiate, to have summits, to cooperate with whoever sits in the Kremlin. That’s the danger and tragedy today.”
Mansour asked Cohen about Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
“The Russians held a referendum just before they annexed Crimea, and some 84 percent — I forget the exact number — voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia,” replied Cohen. “People said that was a fake referendum, but Gallup, which is an esteemed American polling organization, has polled in Crimea four or five times since the annexation and has gotten the exact same number; about 82, 83 percent are now very happy being part of Russia.”
Cohen judged, “The problem was the way it happened, that it was done non-procedurally, to a sense. It looked as though Russia snatched it. So the question was raised, ‘What about great powers taking territory that doesn’t belong to them, even if it belonged to them historically? Is this something we want to encourage?’ People said Russia had done something unprecedented. That’s not true.”
Cohen reflected, “Clinton bombed Serbia in 1999. To the degree to which NATO annexed the Serbian province of Kosovo and since that time, Russia, which is a natural historical ally of Serbia, has used that as an example of unlawful annexation of another country’s provinces. When challenged about Crimea, they say, ‘Well, at least we gave the Crimeans a vote. They had referendum. You didn’t hold any vote in Serbia or Kosovo.'”
Cohen continued, “To this day, Kosovo remains a kind of protectorate — though it’s an independent state — of NATO. So there’s this question of changing boundaries by force or political contrivances. It’s not good. It sets precedents. But if we’re going to point the finger, we’ve got to begin with what the United States did in Kosovo.”
Cohen credited former President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in Eastern Europe with provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea.
Cohen said, “I’ve looked into this, Putin and his predecessor, Russian President Yeltsin, since the end of the Soviet Union showed no interest in Crimea. None. There was a political party in Russia that once ran a campaign, ‘Bring Crime Home.’ It was in part of Ukraine, because of something Kruschev did back in 1954 when it was part of the Soviet Union. They got no political traction in Russia. There was no appetite or demand in Russia that Putin take Crimea. What triggered all that was the American attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO; the crisis of 2014.”
Cohen went on, “We now know Putin was reluctant. He looked at what was happening in Kiev. He looked at the violence. He looked at the civil war unfolding in the eastern part of Ukraine and then he looked at Crimea which was predominantly Russian, ethnic and speaking. How much choice did he have but to make that step of annexation?”
Cohen continued, “You’ve got to put yourself in a leader’s position in any given moment. He was being told, ‘Take Crimea today or fight a war there tomorrow.’ Now, maybe that was bad intelligence, but Putin is a former intelligence officer and a super-rational guy. He must have thought the intelligence was compelling. Had we not moved on Ukraine in 2014, there never would’ve been a Crimean crisis, so nothing can be taken out of historical context.”
Cohen estimated, “American policy toward post-Soviet Russia, post-communist Russia, has been so unwise since Bill Clinton in a bipartisan way. I always said, and wrote this, and you’ll see some of this. … I was worried about this. This kind of American-NATO policy — moving to Russia’s borders, denying Russia equal security rights on its borders — would lead to a crisis. I think we’ve been lucky it hasn’t led to a war, and I don’t rule it out.”
Cohen remarked, “Sanctions are not a policy. They’re like road rage. Countries adopt sanctions when they can’t think of anything else. I am really, really angry with you. I don’t know what to do about it, but I’m going to sanction you. We have sanctioned Russia so often — and so many other countries over the years — it’s kind of a joke in other countries. It’s almost a matter of pride if you’ve been sanctioned by the United States, but it’s not a functional policy. There’s no evidence that sanctions ever changed the policy of a longstanding stable government. It inflicts pain on ordinary people, but it doesn’t do much else.”
Cohen offered a solution to the American-Russian row over Crimea.
“Let me give you a commonsense solution to resolve this question [of Crimea],” Cohen said. “It’s a lousy thing to have hanging around and wrecking our relations. So I proposed this to people, and people derided me, but I think it makes sense. I think there should be a new referendum in Crimea under the auspices of the United Nations, and it should be on this very issues. Crimeans will be given three choices. Do you want to be part of Russia, do you want to have autonomous status, or do you want to be part of the Ukranian government?”
Cohen continued, “The beauty of that would be if the referendum was recognized as fair and free, that that would be the end of the question. The problem is — and I’ve heard this from Putin’s aides — that Putin knows it makes sense but doesn’t want to do it because it makes it look like he did something wrong before, like it wasn’t legitimate what they did before.”
Cohen explained, “What about Crimea? I talk to the leader of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, and I proposed it to him. He said — I don’t know if I should report this — but he said, ‘You’ll get exactly the same results but Putin won’t go along,’ for the reason I just gave. That would be a reasonable way, and then I would relate to this that there is absolutely no reason why Ukraine should not have free access — economically, and in terms of relative visiting — to Crimea. There is no reason why all these barriers to free traffic to Crimea should be enacted. They’re purely political.”
Cohen again described partisan Democrat advancement of the “Russiagate” narrative as obstructing Trump’s capacity to act in the national interest vis-a-vis Russia.
“So we’re back to this classic question of political history,” assessed Cohen. “Where there’s a political will, there’s a way. But we’re in a situation in the moment where none of the political leaders have the will. If Trump were to ask me, I would say, ‘Take up this cause. Make it an issue. Advocate a new referendum in Crimea.’ But you know what would happen? He’d get killed in this country as giving a gift to Putin. He can’t do rational proposals without this Russiagate stuff coming down on him.”
Cohen concluded with a cautionary thought experiment.
“History tells us that we need leaders who are wise enough, and free enough, to act on these solutions, and Trump is absolutely shackled at the moment. Imagine another Cuban Missile Crisis. … What if we had a crisis like that today? The liberal establishment — Democratic establishment — would not empower Trump to negotiate out of that crisis. Where would that leave us? If you can’t negotiate, you get war.”
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