July 13, 2015
Russia and the New Cold War in Historical Context: Part II of Conversations With Russia Scholar Stephen Cohen
By Dan Kovalik
This past May, the world celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany by Allied Forces. Professor Cohen and I began our interview with a discussion about the increasing downplaying of Russia's critical role as an ally of the U.S. and Britain in this victory. As Cohen explains, popular films like Saving Private Ryan deceptively portray World II as being won by the U.S. with the invasion of Normandy in 1944, while ignoring the three years prior in which the USSR drove the Nazis from the heart of Russia back to Germany.
Cohen cites Winston Churchill for the proposition that it was the Red Army that "tore the guts out of the German Army." And, while Cohen is quick to acknowledge and condemn Stalin's many crimes and his exertion of control over Eastern Europe after World War II, he notes that it is a factual reality, which can't be denied, that the USSR played a historic role in liberating Europe from the Nazis. As Cohen relates:
"I always taught historically . . . and it was very clear to me . . . that the Soviet Union destroyed and defeated Nazi Germany. And the United States won the war in the Pacific against Japan. . . . I have a vivid memory of a man I knew who became one of the great Western scholars of the Soviet Union, telling me . . . of knowing a number of people of his generation who vividly told him, because it was a fateful moment of their lives, that when they weighed something like 70 pounds and were dying in the camps liberated by the Red Army, some strapping, tall, young Red Army solider lifting them up and carrying them off to the makeshift infirmary where they were saved, and all of them saying to him then, no matter what Stalin did after that or before that -- and I know it all -- the fact is, it was this young Red Army soldier that saved my life. . . ."
In my view, the downplaying of the good that Russia did during World II (and it did so at the sacrifice of approximately 27 million Soviet lives) is a necessary part of attempting to vilify and demonize that country now. After all, it is difficult to manipulate Americans into equating the current Russian leader with Hitler (as Hillary Clinton has attempted to do) if we are reminded that Russia did more than any other country to eliminate Hitler and that Russia celebrates this triumph as its most important secular holiday. I might also add that the attempts to compare Putin to Hitler appear to be transparent attempt to deflect attention from the fact that the U.S. has been training neo-Nazis in the Ukraine.
The other historical facts being wholly ignored are the promises the U.S. made to Mikhail Gorbachev during the waning years of the Soviet Union, and how the breaking of these promises have led us to the current international crisis. As Cohen explains, Gorbachev willingly allowed the Soviet Bloc countries to leave the Soviet orbit, and agreed to the reunification of Germany (over UK and French objections, he added) in return for certain assurances:
"Gorbachev was given these assurances . . . that if you agree to German reunification and a reunited Germany, one Germany, as a member of NATO, we promise you, to use Baker's words, "NATO will not move one inch to the east." . . . And the Russians do regard it as the first betrayal, predatel'stvo, in Russian . . . . The expansion of NATO from West Berlin all the way to the Baltics, hundreds of thousands of kilometers in the last 20 plus years, must be in history, in peacetime, the greatest expansion or inflation of a sphere of influence . . . . And of course, NATO is an American institution, so it's an expansion of the American sphere of influence. . . . So while we're expanding our sphere of influence, which by the way we tried to do in 2008 to Georgia along Russia's Caucasus border, as we are expanding our sphere of influence in an unprecedented way all the way to Russia's borders, we are sanctimoniously saying that Russia is in the wrong because it wants a sphere of influence."
As Cohen explains, we must attempt to see historic and current events as Russians see them in order to help us to turn back from our dangerous stand-off with Russia. And, the Russians see a world in which the U.S., while scolding Russia for its alleged violations of international law, seems to violate international law at nearly every turn:
"So, we say that the Russians violate this. I mean, we are the pace setters in the violation of international legality . . . . The Russians point out in answering about Crimea, we took Kosovo, we severed with bombers, airplanes in the air, killing a lot of people, we severed Kosovo from Serbia. And Putin repeatedly says nobody died during the [Crimean] referendum, while we never had a referendum in Kosovo or Serbia. Putin answers we had a peaceful democratic referendum and nobody died. It's sheer hypocrisy. . . .
"Well, there's no question that quantitatively in modern times we've become the most interventionist great power in the world. . . . We feel we have the right as the preeminent whatever to intervene anywhere in the world to the extent that we can to make things the way we think they should be. There's an explanation for that. I called it "Triumphalism," which took shape under Clinton after the Soviet Union ended . . . . You can imagine that we wake up tomorrow and we see that there's Chinese military bases . . . on our Canadian and Mexican borders. Washington would go crazy. Or that Mexico and Canada had signed some kind of exclusive trade arrangements with China, which is what the European Union asked Kiev to do in November 13. Putin had said there should be a tripartite relationship with Ukraine. Ukraine should trade with the European Union and with Russia because Russia is overwhelmingly its traditional and largest trading partner. But Europe said no, it's either with us or it's with Russia, you can't have both. Imagine if such an agreement had been offered to Mexico or Canada, what the reaction would have been. . . .
"American top officials . . . say to explain why we're resisting Russia in that part of the world is that Russia wants a sphere of influence, and they can't have one, not even on their own borders, and that that's a 19th century or 20th century concept that is no longer modern . . . . I don't think Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence in the old sense that they could control the policies of the countries in their sphere. What Russia is entitled to, just as we have always claimed [for ourselves], is a zone of national security on its borders. . . . And what it means is that no military bases of a foreign power will be located on their borders and that the countries on their borders will not be members of a hostile military alliance and NATO. That's what Russia has demanded. And I think it's a perfectly reasonable demand."