'Obama can't afford a fair trial for Snowden' - Stephen Cohen
Who’s Edward Snowden more of a problem for now, Russia or the US? Has he sent US-Russian relations into a tailspin or did he just reaffirm the sad state of affairs? Is the 'Russian Reset' dead?
Today we discuss the fallout from the Snowden case with Stephen Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Princeton University.
Sophie Shevardnadze: At this point, to whom is Snowden more of a problem – the US or Russia?
Steven Cohen: From my perspective, he is a problem for both. If we put this in historical context since the end of the Soviet Union 22 years ago, we’ve lost several opportunities to create a meaning for cooperative relationships between Washington and Moscow. It appeared a few weeks ago that we had another opportunity. The opportunity began with a tragedy - the bombings in Boston. It was later clear that there was a need for a lot of cooperation in counter-terrorism between Moscow and Washington. And then, the Syrian civil war, whatever it is, ran out of control – it’s certainly the worst crisis in the Middle East for many years. It also appeared that Washington and Moscow were ready to do something about it. And then came Snowden. Not only Snowden, but he is clearly a setback -I would say both for President Putin and President Obama.
Sophie Shevardnadze: But you say that Putin is handling the Snowden situation wisely…
Steven Cohen: What makes us really interested is that President Putin is the man that likes to control the environment in which he makes international - and I suppose domestic - decisions. He couldn’t control this. Snowden came literally out of the blue and he hadn’t decided what to do. So he was caught and he remains caught between two strong countervailing factors: On the one hand, Putin pursues in a world which I would call not an ANTI-American foreign policy, but an UN-American foreign policy or a NON-American foreign policy. That is, a foreign policy rather different from the US in many areas. Therefore, he could not turn in Snowden - a highly symbolic figure - over to the US. On the other hand, it’s absolutely clear that Putin wants some kind of cooperative relationship with the US. I think he has probably done as good as he can do. As in, the solution is to allow Snowden to remain in Russia in some status of temporary asylum, while he sorts out how he’s going to go to a third country - Venezuela or some other place. That’s a legal issue. He needs travel documents, and he probably has to go to the embassy of that country in Moscow. But although it’s legal, it’s profoundly political. In a way, Russian-American relationships hinge on that at the moment. And as I said the other day to an American who asked me, this tests the leadership ability not only of Putin, but of Obama, to solve this problem.
Sophie Shevardnadze: You’ve brought up an interesting point – saying that Putin likes to control the situation. Do you think he would have acted differently if he wasn’t confronted with the sheer fact of Snowden being in Russia?
Steven Cohen: I mean, all leaders - real leaders, state leaders - try to control the environment in which they make decisions. Very often, they can’t. Wars come, acts of terrorism come, and leaders change in other countries with which they were doing business. What we don’t know about Snowden affair is whether or not the Chinese, when they allowed Snowden to fly to Moscow from Hong Kong, cleared it with the Russian end. Whether the Russians said, “Okay, send him along.” If that happened - and we don’t know, but I would guess it did because the Chinese-Russian relationship is very important and very close at the moment - I would assume that whoever in Moscow made that decision - it might not have been President Putin; he can’t make every decision before it becomes a crisis – they may have assumed that in fact Snowden was going to do as Snowden was going to do – spend maybe ten hours in the transit section of Sheremetyevo airport and then get on a plane to Havana, and onwards, as he thought, to Ecuador. And then, a problem rose with Ecuador and he is still in Moscow. So in that sense, we don’t know if Putin said “Ok, travel through Moscow,” not knowing he was going to become a kind of resident in Moscow. We just don’t know that.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Another problem is that his passport was cancelled so he couldn’t really fly through Moscow even if he wanted to. But given the way things are right now, what does Russia risk if it grants Snowden official refugee status?
Steven Cohen: As you know, there is a very strong anti-Kremlin, anti-Putin, anti-Russian lobby in Washington. Its citadel is the US Congress. That’s why we get preposterous legislation like the Magnitsky act. Congress is prepared to do anything to strike at Russia. Yesterday, for example, one of the senators proposed that the US boycott the Winter Olympics in Russia in 2014 – that won’t happen – but the mere fact that the US senator, who is supposed to be a person of wisdom and dignity, would propose such a preposterous thing shows you what kind of Congress we are dealing with. I predict - and I think any idiot could predict - that when, and I assume it’s “when” Snowden gets his temporary asylum in Moscow, the members of Congress, members of the various anti-Russian lobbies like Freedom House in the US, and many others will denounce the Kremlin and demand that Obama does something very bad to Russia. And then Obama will be tested – we will see if he can withstand that or not. That’s why I say by the way, that I think it’s is a kind of test - not only of the wisdom and the leadership of Putin - but the wisdom and the leadership of Obama. Let me remind you, Obama didn’t ask for this Snowden crisis. Putin didn’t ask for it. They just got it.
Sophie Shevardnadze: The media right now is more focused on Snowden’s personal life - what he eats, what he wears, where he lives, where his girlfriend is – than his revelations and the leaks. Can we expect the attention to turn back to the NSA and PRISM, or is that issue now buried under the Snowden narrative?
Steven Cohen: You raised what for me is the fundamental question: What should we, the Americans, be doing now? Ever since Snowden made these revelations, there’s been a big open, public debate about whether or not we approve of these massive, intrusive surveillance programs by American intelligence agencies. And of course, Europe and Russia and other countries who had been survellied have to make that decision too. But first and foremost, this is the question for Americans: Is it compatible with our concept of democracy? Of civil liberties? Of privacy? Or, on the other hand, do we need these kinds of abuses of civil liberties to protect ourselves against terrorism? There are two sides of this issue. It’s a complicated issue. Snowden wanted to trigger a debate and he has failed, because as you say, the drama of the personal saga of Edward Snowden – what’s going to happen to him, where he is going to go, where his girlfriend is, he looked so young – all these personal dramas [have taken the spotlight]. And I would guess that Snowden, who seems to be a very serious and purposeful man, is himself disappointed – because his purpose, as he says, and I believe him, in making these revelations is making a conversation in the US about these surveillance practices, which, because of his own drama, hasn’t happened yet – and it may never happen. And Sophie, let me add a matter that is absolutely never discussed in the US, but it’s profound: Obama says, the US government says, the Senators say, the Media says, “Showden should come home and stand trial.” Well, in some ways, if he could get a fair trial, if he could be out on bail - the way Daniel Elsberg was 30 years ago when he took the Pentagon papes - while he is preparing his trial, and he could tell a story, and he could build a legal team, and he could have an open-court case with all the rights the defendants have, that means that he could have all sorts of officials involved with this case, right up to the vice president and the president of the US. I cannot imagine that the Obama administration or any US administration would permit that, therefore I doubt very seriously that Obama is sincere when he says that Showden should come home and stand trial. But I would guess that if Snowden was given these guarantees - of being out of prison and on bail and free to have an open trial - he might come home. But he is not going to get those guarantees, I would guess, because we live in a different era, here in America too.
Sophie Shevardnadze: I want to talk a little bit more about what has changed, whether the whole NSA leaks have changed the American society. Because if you talk about me and people around me, who have a post-Soviet hangover or had a Soviet childhood…these revelations weren’t life changing for us, because we suspected surveillance in some form or another. Many RT viewers are strongly against any form of surveillance, but still, I know a lot of Americans that are around and they are not saying “Hey, at this point – we’re done with the government.” For example, Larry King, he told me that he is actually siding with the government on surveillance. What do you see around you – are the people still shocked, or they are digesting and accepting it in the name of the War on Terror?
Steven Cohen: I understand what you are saying about your Russian colleagues - surveillance is a problem in Russia too and it has been a problem for decades. And there is a debate in the Russian media whether the FSB - the Russian intelligence agency - is doing too much or too little. And let’s be fair, people in Russia and in the US are afraid of terrorism. If you asked me, would I allow the US government to listen to my phone calls and read my email if they are going to prevent my children from being killed in a terrorist explosion in New York City where I live, I would undoubtedly say,“Yes.” I’ll just be a little more careful in what I say on the phone and what I write in the email. But this is a major question, and times have changed. I’m old enough to remember the Osborne case, when he took the Pentagon papers which documented the Pentagon and White House line about the war in Vietnam, and then the New York Times published them. Then they were published very quickly as a book, and Elsberg was on the radio, and on television as it existed then. He was out on bail and famous lawyers came to defend him. And in the end, he was exonerated in a way. He won in the courts. That America doesn’t exist anymore - partly because of what happened in 9/11, and partly because we fought so many wars. Many Americans are afraid and we have become more accustomed, decade by decade, to this kind of surveillance. So the question that Snowden raised is, “Should we become accustomed to it? Is this really a trade-off between our fears and our privacy that we want to make?” But I agree with you, the polls have shown – I don’t remember the last number that the polls revealed - but about half of Americans or even more were okay with what the government was doing. But Sophie, you know as well as I do that when you take a public opinion poll, you can give the answer you want by the way you ask the question. If you say in general to Americans – are you prepared to give up all your freedoms that Americans have fought for, for 200 years, and allow the government to do this kind of possibly illegal surveillance, a majority would say “No.” But if you ask people, “Are you prepared to permit this surveillance so that you and your children are safe?,” the majority is going to say “Yes.” It’s just in how you ask the question and you can’t ask the question until you’ve had a national discussion - which we haven’t had and which the government doesn’t want – but what Snowden wanted. But again, until Snowden’s personal drama ends, or at least calms down and moves off the front page, we’re not going to have that discussion in our country. And even then, we may not have it because the government doesn’t want it.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Welcome back to the show. We’re talking about Snowden and how his Moscow detour can affect the already shaken relationship between Russia and the US. Our guest is Steven Cohen, professor of Russian Studies and History. Good to have you back, Steven. So, in your latest opinion editorials, you keep saying that Russia and the US are at a hateful crossroads. Is Snowden’s case icing on the cake? Could things get really bad after this?
Steven Cohen: I have a historical perspective. Let me state it again, 22 years after the end of the Soviet Union. We do not have a good relationship with Russia. Nobody asks why. Rather, in the US, when people are asked “Why,” they will say it’s the fault of Russia. Now they say it’s the fault of Putin. But that is not correct and certainly not a complete answer. We had several opportunities to establish partnership with Russia in international affairs. The first came in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union, and Clinton with Yeltsin war-set opportunities. The second opportunity came after 9/11, when Putin called President George Bush and said “We are with you, what can we do to help the US which has been attacked by terrorism? We’re partners.” That opportunity was lost. Then came Obama’s so-called “Reset” with then President Medvedev, and that opportunity was lost. Now, the tragic bombings in Boston and the tragic civil war in Syria have shown Washington and Moscow that we need a cooperative relationship and that created yet another opportunity. It’s not clear whether we will seize the opportunity with Snowden... the Magnitsky act and other events…have become obstacles on both sides to seizing these opportunities. The larger reason in my opinion - which is a minority opinion in America - is that my generation knew as the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US either didn’t actually end with the Soviet Union, or it’s come alive again. Because everything we’ve seen between Russia and America since the end of the Soviet Union looks, smells, and behaves like a Cold War relationship. It’s just that in the US, our leaders don’t want to accept this failure - that they lost an opportunity in post-Cold War Russia to create a new relationship, a partnership with Russia. And that’s where we are today. So it’s a long way to answer, but I think that historians will tell you in the future - and as a historian today, I would tell you - that we can’t understand Snowden. We can’t understand Magnitsky. We can’t understand these recent conflicts without putting them into historical context of a relationship between America and post-Soviet Russia during the last 22 years. This is a narrative that hasn’t stopped.
Sophie Shevardnadze: You just demonstrated that obstacles or opportunities to get two countries closer or get them more apart arise all the time – and these talks of the Cold War have been around forever, or in the past 15 years. You seem to be pointing out that we are now at a hateful crossroads. How much worse are things are now than they were in the Bush Era? Because it seemed like they were at the lowest then.
Steven Cohen: The low point of the relationship since the end of the Soviet Union was of course the war with Georgia in 2008. And the reason that that was a low point is that the US and Russia came close to hot war, not just Cold War. Georgia began the war, no doubt about that. Russia reacted by moving into South Ossetia. It began the fight with the Georgian army which was, in effect, an American proxy army. We created that army. We armed it. We trained it. There were American military advisors somewhere in the Georgia, traveling with the Georgian troops. There was a discussion at the White House, led by Dick Cheney, that the US should bomb the Russian army in South Ossetia.
Sophie Shevardnadze: But no one stood up for the Georgian army there because no one really wants to wage a war with Russia. That’s another example of how America and Russia would never actually go to war…
Steven Cohen: I don’t know about that, Sophie. Where is that written, that we would never go to war? We were extremely close in the Cuban Missile crisis, we were extremely close in Berlin on a number of occasions. There were probably occasions that we haven’t been told about, and in my judgment we were close in Georgia in 2008. No fault of Russia – but how many times can we avoid these dangerous possibilities? My point is, it’s the duty of leadership – American leadership and Russian leadership - to create a relationship where these dangers don’t appear. And we haven’t done that yet. And I will say as an American patriot, the primary fault – not the entire fault – but the primary fault is in Washington. Until American policy toward Russia changes, things will not get better. And American policy toward Russia hasn’t changed on one fundamental issue: Washington believes in what it calls “selective cooperation,” which means Russia should make concessions but Washington does not have to make concessions in return. Until that policy changes, nothing else will change. I am absolutely sure about that.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Does that mean that they don’t want a better relationship with Russia? They simply don’t care enough to ameliorate their relationship with Russia? Things are good as they are?
Steven Cohen: The American political policy media establishment wants a good relationship with Russia once it’s on America’s own terms. And it’s very clear what that means, because it has meant the same thing since the Soviet Union – Russia should be a junior and subservient partner to American interests. Whatever is in the American interest, Russia should help promote. So, if America decides to expand NATO to Russia’s borders, Russia should accept this as a very good idea to its own security. If America decides to build missile installations in Europe or on ships that threaten Russia’s nuclear security, Russia should understand that that’s really against North Korea or Iran, and it doesn’t affect Russia. If the US believes that the overthrow of Assad in Syria will bring peace to the Middle East, Russia should agree. The problem is, Russia doesn’t agree. Russia is a different civilization, but the bad precedent was set – I don’t like to criticize your leaders because it’s your problems -by Yeltsin, who agreed almost on everything. And so Washington got into a habit of getting what it wanted. But even ambassador McFaul has said on a several occasions during the “reset” which he claims he invented, “We’re going to negotiate with Moscow, and see what they can do to promote our national interests.” Fine – but that’s one hand clapping. A real negotiation, real diplomacy, is not that. It is that we go to Moscow and say “Here are our interests, will you help us?” And then Moscow says, “We might. Here are our interests. Will you help us?” And then they do something for each other. Washington doesn’t do anything. I would defy anybody who thinks I’m being unpatriotic –just tell me one major concession that Moscow has received from Washington since the end of the Soviet Union? Just one? And when I ask this question, at all just, leading places of the American establishment, I do get one answer: “We gave them financial loans in the 1990s.” Yeah, they were onerous loans which only Putin, because of high oil prices, could finally pay back. Although Washington forgave Poland’s communist-era debt, it never forgave any of Moscow’s debts. We have never given Russia anything. By the way, Putin says that over and over and over again, and Washington says, “Why is he so anti-American? “ He is not anti-American, he just made a very simple point that any major leader would make – that a relationship is a two-way relationship: We give something to you, you give something to us, and we go forward and solve problems. We don’t have that relationship and we haven’t had it since the Soviet Union ended. We had it with the Soviet Union, but that’s another story.
Sophie Shevardnadze: The “Reset” idea – is it all forgotten and dead now?
Steven Cohen: In America, it’s something that Obama’s enemies use to show how unwise he is and say it failed. The reality is that Obama got what he wanted from the “Reset” – he got Russian help in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan. He got tougher sanctions against Iran. He got Moscow’s cancellation of the C-300 defense system, I think. The problem is, once again…what did Moscow get in return? Nothing. They wanted a compromise on missile defense. They wanted the end of NATO expansion and an end to American democracy promotion in Russia. But Washington refused. So the “Reset” failed, Washington got what it wanted, and now we are starting all over again…The new détente – we used to call it “détente” during the Cold War – is going to fail unless American policy changes. It’s a sad story, but it’s a true story.