Russia's Ticking Time Bomb

President Obama’s trip may have looked like a success, but Russia expert Stephen Cohen tells The Daily Beast that the situation is just as dangerous as ever.

Nicola Cohen

President Obama’s trip may have looked like a success, but Russia expert Stephen Cohen, author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, tells The Daily Beast that in order to avert disaster, the president must reverse the disastrous path pursued by Clinton and Bush.

Plus: Stephen Walt on How Obama’s Style Trumps Substance in Moscow

How did Obama’s trip to Moscow go?

Well, you would make a judgment based on the success—based on what you thought the situation was before Obama arrived in Moscow. If you take the view that I take in my new book, that we are essentially in the state of a new Cold War, then I would say that the success in Moscow was extremely modest.

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No harm was done. Obama got a certain success in that the Russians agreed to do the things that he wanted: namely, a new nuclear-arms inspection and reduction treaty. It was not a great success because we had had those treaties for 40 years until President George W. Bush decided he didn’t want them anymore. Still, it’s a confidence-building measure. It reduces suspicion. The Russians wanted that every bit as much as we wanted it.

The only other piece of big news—and this can be regarded as a success for Obama, but with conditions—is the Russians agreed to allow the United States to fly military cargo planes over Russia to Afghanistan. The problem has been that the supply routes to Afghanistan have chiefly been through Pakistan, and that’s become untenable. There’s too much fighting there; the passages are being closed. The Americans needed another way to supply the troops in Afghanistan, and Russia gave it to them. That’s the good news.

What’s the bad news?

I think that embedded in these agreements are three ticking time bombs that could blow them to smithereens.

The first is that what has really caused this new Cold War has been the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, beginning with the Clinton administration and continuing through the Bush administration.

The second ticking time bomb is missile defense. Now Obama gave the Russians a small concession here. If you look at what Obama said, he said something like the following: “We understand that the reduction of offensive weapons must be discussed in connection with defensive weapons.” Translated: We understand we’re not going to get a good arms-control-reduction agreement if we can’t come to an agreement about missile defense. The Russians wanted that linkage. They got it verbally, but not in substance.

The third ticking time bomb goes back to this concession the Russians made regarding flights over Russia to Afghanistan. Here you have to understand the attitudes that prevail in the Russian political class. The view of the Russian political class is that, for the last 15 to 20 years, Moscow has made all the concessions to Washington and Washington has never made a single concession to Moscow, repeatedly breaking its promises beginning with the promise it would not expand NATO.

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What did Putin and Medvedev get in return for the concession permitting us to fly over Russia to Afghanistan? If they didn’t get something in return, then I would say that the concession is not stable because there will be enormous opposition to it in Moscow. If they got something in return, we haven’t been told what it is yet.

What should Obama have done?

Let me tell you what I would not have done: First of all the trip, the idea of the trip is important. It sends a signal to Russia that “We respect you. We don’t regard you as a has-been power.” But I would not have made that statement that Putin has one foot in the past. First, it’s none of our business. Second, it betrays ignorance about the way Russia is governed today. Third, it alienates forces we want to win over.

The second mistake was to have [special assistant to the president for national security] Michael McFaul make a statement that nothing the Russians care about—NATO expansion and missile defense—is up for negotiation. It’s the nature of diplomacy to talk about everything that divides countries. If you are only going to talk about what you agree on, you don’t need diplomats. You just have a lawyer write up the terms.

The third small thing—and this would seem a little arcane, but in Russia it resonated—is that Obama gave this big speech on July 7, and they chose a place that’s a mistake. It’s called the New Economic School. This is the place where all the guys who did shock therapy on Russia in the ’90s now hang their hats. It has a terrible reputation among the Russian people.

What would you have advised Obama to do?

This is the impossible dream: I would end NATO expansion before it’s too late and gets us into a nuclear war. They look out their window and they see all this power coming at them and the only thing they have is their nuclear arsenal. If we made it clear that NATO expansion will go no further and that we’ll guarantee the political sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia but we won’t build bases there, it would be relatively easy to negotiate on missile defense.

What do you expect from Obama in the future with regard to Russia?

I make the argument in my book that the original sin was committed by the Clinton administration when it decided to treat Russia as a defeated power and broke promises made to Russia by Reagan and H.W. Bush, like NATO expansion and the bombing of Serbia. Those policies were made by members of the Clinton administration.

Obama has surrounded himself with these people, beginning with Mrs. Clinton herself. Biden was a Clintonite, Richard Holbrook, McFaul, Jim Jones was the head of NATO during Clinton administration, Robert Gates. Can these people look at what’s happened in the ’90s and say, “We pursued the wrong approach to Russia. We’re going to advise the president to change course”? Not likely. So that leaves us with President Obama. Can he transcend his own advisers?

There are two recent cases. The first is Gorbachev, who came to power in 1985, rising through the repressive, bureaucratic, dogmatic, Soviet communist apparatus and emerging on the scene talking about new thinking in world affairs. Across the ocean there was Reagan, the supreme Cold War president, the man who had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” but who harbored a secret dream. He hated nuclear weapons.

Somebody persuaded Reagan that Gorbachev was a new kind of leader and they should talk. Two extraordinary men who had changed their minds. I think of it like this: Gorbachev became a heretic and so did Reagan, in his own way, when he began to talk about ending nuclear weapons. Reagan wouldn’t let his advisers attend meetings when he thought they had become obstructions.

Can Obama become a heretic in his own house, surrounded by all the pope’s men, the Clintonites? If he decides he wants to change course, end NATO expansion, and guarantee Ukraine and Georgia’s sovereignty by political means—which can be done; we did it with Finland after World War II—he would rise to guarantee his presidency. Reagan left office and is remembered today not because of his economic policies or his social views, but because of his foreign policy.

Are Putin and Medvedev willing partners, like Gorbachev?

This is a judgment call. They would have to be tested. It’s my view that the Russian political class, including these guys, is enormously mistrustful. The mistrust derives primarily from having been rejected at the moment they thought the Cold War was over and they were going to become a legitimate partner with the United States.

If President Obama said to them, “Look, I agree we have lost a historic opportunity and I want to recapture it to end the new Cold War in favor of a cooperative relationship between our countries to address our nations’ problems,” their answer is going to be “Yes, but…” From there, you go forward.

It took Reagan and Gorbachev three years to get there, but remember this: They’re the only two men to have ever abolished an entire category of weapons, medium-range nuclear missiles. They were completely abolished, destroyed. You look at what Gorbachev and Reagan achieved, and you emulate what they did. I think that, because we are the ones who squandered this opportunity, the journey has to begin in Washington, but Obama has not given any indication he’s begun it.

What is the price of failure?

Other people say terrorism will grow; opium and heroin will flow out of Afghanistan through Russia; and there will be nuclear proliferation. These will happen.

But there’s something even more dangerous because we had a glimpse of it, an omen. Let me return to the Russian-Georgian war, scarcely a year ago. If you think about it, it was a proxy war between the Untied States and Russia. We created the Georgian army, our minders traveled with the Georgian fighters, we backed Saakashvili with American equipment paid for by the United States. Everyone over there saw it as a proxy war.

How dangerous was it? Nothing like it had happened during the Cold War. The closest was the Cuban missile crisis. This had the potential to be a Cuban missile crisis on Russia’s borders. The Russians, as mistrustful as they were, worried that this was the beginning of a NATO military offensive, that this was a diversion, that this was the beginning. What did they do? They moved their missile launchers into Ossetia [the breakaway province they fought over with Georgia]. No warheads, but they put the launchers there. That’s how serious that was.

We don’t ever want that to happen again, but so long as the situation exists that I’ve described, the potential is there. There’s double the potential in Ukraine, because Ukraine is much more important to Russia than Georgia. Half of Ukraine is Russian. The outcome in Ukraine, if you want a bleak picture, is this: Ukraine would split into two Ukraines. The Catholic, western half would go toward Poland and Lithuania. The Russian, Orthodox, and eastern part would go to Russia.

During the last war, the division was in Berlin. This would be a permanent crisis right on Russia’s border, a division between the new Cold War adversaries. It would be so destabilizing because Russia would keep its weapons on high alert, risking accidents. We would move our nukes closer to Ukraine, probably on battleships. It would be the worst imaginable situation. But if people were paying attention, they would see that this has been the drift since the Clinton administration. Obama needs to stop it. We’ve never had a national debate about this. It’s been like sex in Victorian England. No one wants to talk about Clinton’s Russia policy. It’s the last chance we have to get the attention of people who can change the course.

Xtra Insight: Stephen Walt on How Obama’s Style Trumps Substance in Moscow