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For the first time since the Cuban crisis, nuclear war threat is real – Stephen Cohen

The US has announced its withdrawal from the historic nuclear arms treaty with Russia. How serious of a setback is this for the two countries’ relations – and global security? We talked to Stephen Cohen, contributing editor of The Nation magazine, professor emeritus at Princeton University, and author of the book ‘War with Russia?’

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Stephen Cohen, contributing editor of the Nation magazine, professor emeritus at Princeton University, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us as usual. It’s been a while. But things changed. We’ve got a lot to talk about. Last time Trump and Putin met in Helsinki there were such big hopes that something would come out of it, that relations would improve. But not much really came out of the summit - and Donald Trump got a lot of flak at home for meeting the Russian leader. It’s hard to expect a major breakthrough this time around in Paris, what do you think? 

Stephen Cohen: Well, there’s a big struggle, everybody knows about it, going on in Washington over Trump’s policy towards Russia. It would seem, and this has been the case you and I talked back then when he was a candidate, he said he wanted to co-operate with Russia. We used to call that detente. And that’s been pretty much his policy, overall policy since he became President. But he’s also done contradictory things. And the question is: are these contradictory things result of his own inability to be a consistent leader, or are people in Washington preventing him from doing what he wants to do with Russia? That’s the big question at the moment.

SS:But what do you think - is it him? Is it his like a mask of portraying himself as someone who appreciates Putin, but then behind the doors he does whatever he does? Or is he really that helpless and he does what the administration tells him to do?   

SC:I guess I’ve been following first Soviet- and then Russian-American relations for nearly 40 years. I don’t put a lot of weight or importance on whether the two leaders like each other or not. The real question is do they see in each other a partner, a partner for their own politics, a partner for their own national security. So for whatever reason Trump thinks it’s extremely important to have a detente like relationship with Putin, remember one thing that’s forgotten here. The three major episodes of detente in the 20th century were all done by Republican presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan. Trump is a Republican president, maybe a strange Republican, but a Republican. So he’s in the Republican tradition. On the other hand, you have in Washington today more than I’ve ever seen in my long adult lifetime following this such demonisation of Russia and Putin, in particular, - such anti-Russian feelings and lobby with almost no pro-Russian lobby that Trump looks to be almost alone. Look, what happened when he withdrew from the INF treaty. This was a big step, this was a historic decision. 

SS:We are going to talk about the INF treaty and U.S. withdrawal in detail. But before we got to that - you’ve just hit it on the nose, because Putin has been invited to visit Washington in early 2019. What is the White House hoping to get out of this visit, seeing how Mr. Putin is so demonised by the American elite, like you’ve said, and the press? 

SC:I agree with you completely if I understand what you’re suggesting to me. I think, it’s a bad idea. Not that having the leader of Russia in Washington in general is not a good idea. We remember past visits, even Putin was here early in his leadership. And we remember the welcome that Gorbachev got. It could be very positive. But, Sophie, I tell you, you must know, sitting in Moscow you must sense it that we’re in an unprecedented situation. The bad feeling, the hatred, the loathing of Russia or at least the Kremlin or Putin in the United States is so strong. It’s hard to imagine what’s going to happen when President Putin comes here. I don’t think it’s the greatest idea. They would probably be better off continuing to meet in foreign capitals, third capitals.   

SS:You mentioned the treaty - the Trump administration wants to pull out of the US-Russia treaty banning mid-range nuclear missiles. But judging by the latest examples like the NAFTA deal, attempts to deal with North Korea and the tariff war with China, Trump’s personal “Art of the Deal” can be described as “break it first, create a problem, then find a solution on his terms”. In case of the INF treaty - are we seeing the same game played out here? 

SC:Maybe. I think you’re right, it’s possible. We don’t know. Trump announced this decision, then his security adviser John Bolton announced it again in Moscow. Now it appears that the United States is going to submit the documents, I think you have to give six months prior warning according to the treaty when you’re withdrawing. I think you’re right: it maybe part of the “strategy” or “art of the deal” to renegotiate the treaty in a way that Washington thinks makes more sense. But let’s focus on the moment, Sophie, because you know this because your grandfather Eduard Shevardnadze was involved in this in 1987. 31 years ago President Reagan and the Soviet leader Gorbachev did something historic that has never been done since - they abolished an entire category of nuclear weapons. You and I may think that nuclear abolitionism, getting rid of all nuclear weapons - however wonderful the idea - is never going to happen. But imagine, remember, the precedent set thirty years ago when the two leaders of the two nuclear superpowers abolished for the first time then and ever an entire category of nuclear weapons. So that was the first act of nuclear abolitionism. What Trump has done now is abolish that precedent of nuclear abolitionism. So symbolically, politically, strategically, historically this is a turning point if they are serious about this. And we ought to hope that they are not, that they want a new treaty in its place that might include China, that might include weapons that Russia’s developing. I don’t know. But don’t miss the historic moment, Sophie. 

SS:Let’s go through that in detail. But first I just want to point out that some of the Russian military people and politicians here believe that the treaties related to nuclear disarmament were unfair and were signed on bad conditions during hard times of Russia’s history. But now, surprisingly, we see that the American establishment also sees the INF treaty as unfair, or so they say, because it damages their national security. Has this treaty really run its course, has it lost its value today? Like you say, maybe a new treaty is needed actually instead? 

SC:I will not give up my point. What was done in 1987, signed and then implemented, abolishing these weapons was absolutely historic - a precedent that gave us hope for the future. Now, I agree with one thing that Bolton said, because it’s true. When Gorbachev and Reagan and your grandfather participated in that decision in 1987, we were in a bilateral nuclear world. And today we’re in a multilateral nuclear world. Back then only two nuclear superpowers had this kind of weapons. Now a lot of countries - maybe as many as six, seven or eight - have these so-called intermediate range weapons. So the treaty only affected two countries. But if something needs repair but it’s good, you try to fix it. I mean, if you have an illness you go to a doctor, you don’t commit suicide, you say to the doctor “let’s fix it”. Or if you have a car that still runs well, but it needs a new carburetor, you replace the carburetor, you don’t junk the car. So the question is - yes, there are complications with the treaty, but if it’s so important, why not bring in China, or try to? Or why not agree with Moscow if it’s in violation…?  

SS:Well, that is my point. You hear it in the American debate, and Sergey Lavrov said that the real reason for the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty is the Chinese mid-range missiles which the U.S. sees as a threat to its position in the Asia-Pacific. Is Trump, by withdrawing from this treaty, hoping to put some missile pressure on China, really, not Russia? 

SC:Maybe you’re right, and whoever you’ve quoted is right. China  - because it is still operating as a regional power, not as a global power, it’s emerging as a global power, but it’s still operating strategically as a regional power - likes these missiles. Let’s remind your audience what these missiles are. They are called intermediate range. What does it mean - intermediate? They are these battleground tactical nuclear weapons, they are like artillery shells, short-range. Then there are these monstrous we all know about from the movies that can fly from Russia to the United States and from the United States to Russia - those are intercontinental. And intermediate range are like, I forget the kilometers, but in miles like from 500 miles to 5000 miles. So basically they are targeting Europe. That’s where they were based. And Europe was the bull’s eye, and the politics of getting rid of them was centered in Europe, as it will now be again. But China now comes to this story newly. So any agreement would have to include China. Would that be hard? It would be very hard. But given the close relationship between Russia and China today, it’s possible - why not try? And the answer is: because of the politics, not the security thinking, but the politics in Washington today in one word  - I’m publishing a new book this month called “War with Russia?”, and the theme of the book and I put in personal terms, is that the first time in my long life, at least since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, I think there’s a real chance of war between the United States and Russia. And we can’t assume that if that happens it won’t end in a nuclear war. That’s why this moment you and I are discussing, Sophie, is so important.     

SS:Talking about China - why hasn’t this deal, the INF, been proposed to China so far? I mean, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton says Russia and U.S. need to hold strategic talks about China’s missiles which pose a potential threat to Russia as well, that’s how he put it. Do you think, Washington is seeking to pit Moscow and Beijing against each other? 

SC:You will remember (I don’t make you older than you’re - you won’t remember, but you read about it) that during the Nixon years the idea was to play the so-called China card against the Soviet Union to woo China toward Washington and away from Moscow and the rest. There’s no China card any longer. The old Kissinger idea that you can play off China against Russia is gone. Russia and China are becoming perhaps historic allies economically, politically, militarily, strategically. This has happened due to a lot of factors. However you’re right, China now has to be included in any new nuclear arms arrangement that involves these regional or intermediate range missiles. My own feeling is that the struggle over China policy in Washington is almost as intense as over Russia policy. Though it’s less so because of our dependence on trade with China. The real question in my mind is what the Russian leadership wants to do now. If they really want to save this treaty, it’s the Kremlin, I mean the Putin leadership, that could negotiate first with China about whether China would join. But here’s the problem, Sophie. All international politics is reaction to a perceived threat. If China perceives itself as being threatened by American strategic power in its region, it’s never going to give up these regional warheads and missiles. So Russia in my mind becomes the key actor here. We will see. Let’s be honest, you have in Moscow people are very happy about what Trump did, they want to build these weapons anew. And we have the same kind of people in Washington, who are happy and who want to build these weapons anew. I don’t know the political situation in China, but to a certain extent there’s a lot of political and financial power behind any decision that leads to building more weapons. We’re already in a new nuclear arms race. It’s not where we want to be, but we’re.     

SS:And then the Europeans - and they really aren’t happy about the U.S. decision, fearing that they will once again become the target in the missile standoff between Russia and America. Can Europeans flat out refuse to place American weapons on their territory? For once in their life - can they do something on their own? 

SC:Well, back in the 1980s it was the Europeans, where these American missiles were based, and which were targeted by the Russian intermediate range missiles - the ones that the treaty got rid off but are now coming back. It was European politics that was partially driving the detente, the disarmament forces. Now, what do you see? First of all, we have to ask question: Washington calls European NATO countries “our allies” - did Trump consult with European leaders before he left this treaty? It doesn’t seem so. Secondly, you’re right, the Europeans are upset, they don’t like it, they are protesting. Why? Because they know they will be targeted again. So you raise the central question - will European politics now play a role and what will happen? And I will mention only one thing to you. What will we see if we sit back and look at the bigger picture - is Europe slowly drifting away from Washington in regard to Russia? Everybody says “oh, it’s Trump, it’s because he’s such a bad president”... This began long before Trump. It began partly over Syria where Russia turned out to be correct. So the question is - will this new step by Trump to leave the treaty that protected Europe (it did protect Europe!) in the absence of these missiles, will this now further push Europe away from Washington and continue its drift politically, I mean, toward Moscow? This is very important as well.   

SS:The Trump administration has done much more than just announcing withdrawal from the INF treaty to annoy Europeans. The Iran deal collapse made the Europeans suffer as well; now the INF collapse makes them less safe, like you said; there’s talk of a trade war, which will hit the EU harder than it will hit America; has the current administration gotten into a habit of scoring points at the European expense? 

SC:The United States under many presidents has a long and growing habit of breaking each treaty and other promises. Now the United States says it’s going to leave a treaty. Again. After all the United States left the even more important Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Bush withdrew in 2002. That was the bedrock of Russian and American national security. That was folly. That’s what led to the deployment of missile defense on Russia’s borders. That’s what led to Russia developing the kind of missiles that Washington is now complaining about. It goes back to two events that are historical but also contemporary: the decision by Clinton to move NATO eastward towards Russia, and Bush’s decision to leave the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. Everything has a history, but what Gorbachev and Reagan did with the help of your grandfather when he was foreign minister was to establish a new kind of trust thirty years ago. It’s gone, and we’re in a more dangerous world now. That’s bad news, Sophie. 

SS:I know it’s bad news. The New START treaty - the treaty about strategic nuclear missiles - expires in 2021. Back in 2017 Trump, I remember, Trump said that the deal was “one sided’ and “bad”. So, after the INF treaty is almost dead, can the START treaty be dumped as well? 

SC:You’re getting me very upset because you’re right. You’re pointing out where all this may lead. You know, the struggle over this leaving the INF may not be over. As you said, maybe it’s a bargaining ploy, “art of the Deal” by Trump. But let’s assume it’s over. It’s obviously going to raise questions about whether the United States on the one hand will want to re-negotiate the START treaty that has to start soon? But to the point that I’ve just made, Sophie, in Moscow among serious people, not crazy people who don’t want any agreements with the West, they are going to ask again: “Can we trust the United States to adhere to any treaty it signs including the New START treaty?” So, a kind of cloud of mistrust, and suspicion and uncertainty has come over the one element of our lives that’s existential - that’s nuclear weapons. So, you’re right, we don’t know.   

SS:I’m just trying to figure out the thinking behind all this. In the context - the INF, the START treaty, all these treaties were born out of mutual necessity, out of mutually assured destruction threat philosophy. And it’s not going to be there anymore, with these deals now in question, do you think America is not concerned about the Russian nuclear threat anymore? Is this also what it’s all about? 

SC:You know, when I was writing this book, one thing that came to my mind that I’ve noticed, as I thought about it, it hit me loud and clear, that a generation ago we worried about nuclear weapons and nuclear war all the time. Just look at the movies that were made back then, in Russia and in the United States. The fear of the apocalypse, the fear that somehow intentionally or unintentionally a nuclear war would end civilisation… I mean, our kids grew up with that. It was part of our lives. We don’t hear much about it. I don’t know in Russia, but in the United States we haven’t heard much about it for the last 15 or 20 years. This begins with Clinton when he tells us because the Soviet Union is gone everything is great. Well, everything wasn’t great, and everything got worse. But there is not in the United States and hasn’t been I would say for 15 or 20 years this concern about nuclear weapons, Russian and American, that something could go horribly wrong now. Here, if we’re looking for a bring spot, and it’s desperation on my part, maybe what Trump has done withdrawing from this really important treaty that protected all of us, will arouse in the United States a remembrance and a rethinking about the dangers of nuclear war. For example, we used to have in American politics a very strong so-called anti-nuke movement, at the grassroots people, rank-and-file citizens, who participated in politics against nuclear weapons. That movement disappeared. Might what Trump has done re-awake or bring that movement back in American politics. Maybe, we don’t see it yet. 

SS:Well, “maybe” is a key word here. And also in the first half of the interview you said that the arms race is already going on. You actually mentioned this in your latest book “War with Russia?” as well. Last time it took several decades of nuclear arms race and a couple of scary incidents before U.S. and Soviet leaders came to realise that nukes must be limited and controlled. Are we in for a rough ride for the next few decades again, are we going to repeat history, before U.S. and Russia will come to their senses and reach another agreement? 

SC:Well, once again you’re way ahead of me with the right questions. And those are the right questions. Do we have time to go through a generation of consciousness raising before we now deal with these nuclear threats? My answer would be no, we do not have time. I explain  why in this new book I have, because this new Cold War is very different and more dangerous that was the preceding Cold War. Personally I think (and this gets me attacked in the United States) that Putin is such a leader that he’s ready and willing for a grand detente with the United States. But he’s so mistrusted in the United States, it’s not clear if there’s any American leader who would embrace Putin as a partner, though it seems that Trump wants to do so. That’s why we can’t turn our backs on Trump. There’s no alternative. 

SS:I hope you’re right. Steve, that’s all the time we have, unfortunately, for today. Thank you once again for this wonderful interview. It’s a pleasure as usual, we’re expecting you here sometime soon in Moscow. 

SC:Thank you, Sophie. 

SS:We were talking to Steven Cohen, contributing editor of the Nation magazine, professor emeritus at Princeton University, and author of the book “War with Russia?”, discussing what the U.S. pullout from the INF treaty would mean for the global stability.

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