Book review: Stephen F. Cohen, “War with Russia?”

As one of America’s most authoritative historians of Russia and the Soviet Union, Professor Stephen Cohen has authored seven books in a number of genres from traditionally academic to journalistic-scholarly. His latest work, War with Russia? represents a new direction that holds great value as well as accessibility both for a target audience of university undergraduates and for the general public, indeed for all those who would like to believe in a tomorrow for themselves and their children and grandchildren.

 

The chapters in War with Russia? are mostly lightly edited transcriptions of the hour on air that Cohen has each week on the John Batchelor Show, broadcast by WABC AM New York and listened to by an audience estimated to number in the millions. These weekly contributions have been systematically reposted as podcasts in the online edition of the magazine of commentary The Nation together with a summary print text.

 

The book begins with a brief overview of the onset of what is now generally recognized to be a New Cold War between Russia and the US-led West in 2014-15. This is followed by three extensive year by year selections of the weekly entries for the period of malignant flowering of the New Cold War between 2016 and 2018.  Intermixed with the broadcast transcripts there are several of Cohen’s speeches and personal reminiscences of very significant events or meetings in which he participated; because of their special importance, and because they help convey the real life, as opposed to purely scholarly sources of Cohen’s expertise I will call them out below.

 

Style

 

It must be said that collections of essays are a hard sell for any author to trade publishers, who normally deal in monographs.  However, War with Russia? is an important book precisely because of the regularity of the weekly reporting, which allows the reader to follow every significant development in the Russia story over the several year period framed and with the changing perspective of the author as each corner is turned. Yes, this organization of the material results in a certain amount of repetition, but that is a small price to pay to appreciate causality, the interconnectedness and, often, the unpredictability of events.

 

This book is an easy read for a couple of reasons, both related to the format.  First, the source is oral rather than written.  The style is conversational.  Syntax is simple:  what would otherwise in a scholarly work be complex sentences with several dependent clauses here are presented as short sentences, many in fact without verbs. Secondly, the “chapters” are mostly between two and three pages long, that is, bite sized.

 

Importance:

At the start of his essay dated June 21, 2016 Cohen cites the late comedian George Carlin whose on-stage routine still has great relevance.

“A local radio newscaster begins his report: ‘Nuclear war in Europe. Details after the sports.’”

The citation is typical of Cohen’s light touch in this book and also sums up his mission: to provide the details which are a direct answer to all those well-meaning Americans who are confident no war is possible because they hold no animus against Russia and do not see in their daily news any reason to think the US is being provocative, baiting Russia or that Russia is ready to respond militarily.

Cohen identifies as the main driver of relations with Russia since the 1990s and the single most important cause of the present New Cold Warthe triumphalism of American elites in their thinking about Russia as the defeated adversary which lost the Cold War. Hence, the insistence that Russia has no inherent rights of any kind, not to non-intervention in its internal affairs, not to any sphere of interest at its borders, not to a say as an equally entitled participant in managing global affairs. Hence, too, the Russian sense of grievance if not bitterness towards the United States as it realigns its economy and its foreign policy to protect and further its national interests by ways that bring it into direct confrontation with Washington in a number of regions and industrial sectors.

Another recurrent observation throughout the book is the unprecedented halt to all public debate of US policy towards Russia as we head ever deeper into conflict with Russia. All of those who would raise a hand and say “yes, but” are denounced as stooges of Putin or subjected to other ad hominem attacks which evade responding to factual and/or logical objections.

And the final recurrent theme binding the book together is the calamitous decline in journalistic standards at our leading national dailies, The New York Times and The Washington Post, together with the major U.S. television channels.  In the press, opinion and news reporting are mixed up inseparably and the media have become partisan advocates in a fierce political war against the incumbent president. To put it neatly, the motto of The New York Times, “All the news that is fit to print” has degenerated into “All the news that fits.”

Meanwhile, each of the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 has its own clear theme in War with Russia?

 

2016

What stands out in 2016 is hopes dashed. With each passing entry, we see Cohen’s hopes for US-Russian cooperation in Syria to combat ISIS are raised with each announcement of a prospective US and Russian arranged cease-fire.  To Cohen, such prospects of détente- like cooperation could lead to some understandings easing the confrontation of the two nuclear superpowers in Ukraine and in the Baltic States, to name two other potential flash points in the New Cold War.  However, each time the deals brokered by the State Department and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs are overturned by an intervention of what Cohen identifies as the “American war party” based in the Department of Defense, in segments of the intelligence agencies, the Congress and mainstream media

 

2017

Cohen’s regular reports for 2017 begin with the hysteria and neo-McCarthyism that set in even before the Trump inauguration and which had as their objective to discredit him and to undermine his legitimacy.  Cohen chronicles here the impact of the “Russiagate” allegations and investigations with all of the accompanying mangling of truth and of our pluralism.

 

2018

Here the leitmotif may be said to be the development of what Cohen and others call “Intelgate,” meaning the unlawful activities of segments of the intelligence community, in particular, the CIA and FBI directors, in the wiretapping of Trump campaign officials and advisers during the 2016 race based on uproven dirt about Trump which people close to Hillary had paid for, namely the so-called Steele dossier. These criminal activities were compounded by the leaking of that dossier to the press. And they culminated in the Director of National Intelligence’s misrepresentation of the findings of the 17 intelligence agencies on alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which gave a patent of credibility to the supposed collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. All of this encouraged media frenzy.

 

Good and superb

The weekly reports show the progressive deterioration of US-Russian relations mostly due to political power struggles within Washington and the abandonment of hopes for reason to prevail and détente to be restored.

That being said, there are among the essays some which stand out above the rest. One in particular to which I direct the reader’s attention is the entry dated August 24, 2017 and entitled “The Lost Alternatives of Mikhail Gorbachev.” It is worthy of special mention because here Cohen is commenting on his own personal experiences, in this instance, a dinner meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at his home in the suburbs of Moscow.

Cohen reminds us of his close, almost family relationship with Gorbachev dating from their first meeting in Washington in 1987. From this installment we can appreciate that the knowledge informing this book comes not only from Cohen’s formal scholarly research, but also from his life experience in Russia meeting with a range of people from the President down to dissidents, to the offspring of victims of Stalin’s Terror and to other Russian intelligentsia on their home ground.

A similarly important and autobiographical essay is dated  November 8, 2017 and entitled “The Unheralded Putin – Official Anti-Stalinist No. 1.”  This recounts Cohen’s visit a week earlier to Moscow for the opening of  the Wall of Sorrow dedicated to all victims of Soviet repression and focused on the Stalin years from 1929 to 1953.

Yet another memorable chapter is devoted to Vladimir Putin’s address to the joint houses of the Russian parliament on March 1, 2018 in which he unveiled the new, state of the art weapons systems which Russia is bringing into serial production to reestablish its full strategic parity with the United States.  And the final raisins I will pull from the cake are his analytical pieces on the results of the presidential election of  March 18, 2018 and of the Trump-Putin summit meeting in Helsinki in July 2018.  These alone justify buying the book and having a read.

 

Politically brave

In this book, Professor Cohen shows his mettle. I particularly recommend the bold essay dated September 2017 entitled “The Silence of the Doves.” Here Cohen calls out those who otherwise have been political allies, the Progressives, for their descent into celebration of the US intelligence services, of the Mueller investigations with the very harsh and intimidating techniques applied to extract confessions and plea bargaining for the sake of implicating Donald Trump and his advisers.

 

Conclusion

 

In his wrap-up essay, Professor Cohen reminds us that he has placed an interrogation point in his book title: “War with Russia?”   No one can say whether this New Cold War will end badly. But, as he describes it, the New Cold War is substantially more dangerous than the 40 year long original confrontation by that name which we barely survived through a number of mishaps on the way.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

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