BTL: Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger a New Cold War

Published: Thu 30 Dec 2004 11:04 AM
Between the Lines Q
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Dec. 27, 2004
U.S. Involvement in Ukraine Election Crisis Could Trigger a New Cold War with Russia
This week's Q is a transcript of Scott Harris' full-length interview with Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian History and Studies at New York University, conducted by Scott Harris on Dec. 13, 2004
Listen to excerpted interview in RealAudio:
Listen to the full interview in RealAudio:
For weeks, the U.S. media has featured extensive coverage of the massive protests in Kiev, dubbed the "Orange Revolution," which resulted in Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidating the Nov. 21 presidential election after allegations of widespread fraud. The West's favored candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, faced Viktor Yanukovich, backed by Moscow, in a new election on Dec. 26. Yushchenko claims that he was poisoned by dioxin in a failed pre-election assassination attempt that left his face disfigured.
But while the Bush administration charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin had improperly interfered in the tainted November election that had initially seen Yanukovich declared the winner, the U.S. was itself deeply involved in Ukraine's political process. British and U.S. press reports indicate that the U.S. spent more than $65 million in support of Ukrainian opposition groups and the underwriting of an exit poll used to discredit the election results. Although the U.S. says it did not directly fund candidates -- but rather supported groups working for democracy -- some members of the Ukrainian parliament are demanding an investigation.
The U.S. State Department has been selectively engaged in similar efforts in other nations once part of, or allied with the former Soviet Union such as Georgia, Belarus and Serbia. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University, who examines U.S. involvement in Ukraine's election and the concern that tensions with Moscow there could trigger a new cold war.
SCOTT HARRIS: We're speaking with Stephen F. Cohen, professor of Russian History and Studies at NYU and contributing editor at "The Nation" magazine. His latest book is titled "Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia." Thank you very much for joining us again.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: Scott, I'm glad to be with you again.
SCOTT HARRIS: As we begin to look at the very hot issue of what's going on in the Ukraine -- the pro-democracy movement there is getting a lot of press attention here in the United States -- tell us a little bit about your overview on importance, the geo-strategic importance of the Ukraine and what's at play here in terms of politics between Russia and the U.S.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the electoral outcome. This is the first true confrontation between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War. It's the most serious crisis in Europe, probably since 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down -- apart possibly from the American air war against Serbia. The stakes here are enormous both for American-Russian relations and the situation in Ukraine, which is a very large country -- nearly 50 million people -- which sits between Russia's western border and Europe and it has enormous ramifications for political and even economic life inside Russia. That's one reason why it's so important that the American media coverage get the story completely and not just the part of it that makes us feel good. I fear that's been the case to date.
SCOTT HARRIS: Maybe you could speak about some of the news surrounding the election and the movement that's come to contest the election in the Ukraine -- and the influence of Moscow and Washington on that electoral process.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: Well, it's scarcely reported in this country. We have a kind of one hand-clapping media coverage. Both Moscow and Washington, both Russia and the United States have been deeply involved in the Ukrainian election and not just on the eve of the election but going back probably a year or so. Russia's involvement is well documented. It's been the main theme of American media coverage, or at least print coverage, that the Russians sent electoral experts (so-called) to the Ukraine to advise the pro-Russian candidate, Mr. Yanukovich. Russian broadcasts in the Ukraine through state-controlled radio and television were unabashedly pro-Yanukovich. The president of Russia, Mr. Putin, several times endorsed Mr. Yanukovich; traveled to Ukraine on one or two occasions; invited Mr. Yanukovich to his birthday party--which in Russia, it is a great honor to be invited to anyone's birthday party. All this is well known.
What is less documented, and one can think about this as one wants, one can think it's a good thing or a bad thing-- but the United States has poured tons of money into Ukraine in support of what we call civil society or democracy. That is, while the Russians have been up front about their support of Mr. Yanukovich, we have said, "We aren't really supporting a candidate, we're non-partisan. We're not really in Mr. Yushchenko's corner (the pro-Western candidate) we're just in the corner of democracy." This of course, is a brilliant, useful half-truth. Because civil society and democracy are code words in this case for the pro-Western candidate, Mr. Yushchenko. Nobody knows exactly how much American or Western money has poured into Ukraine. The State Department admits to having spent $14 million to $16 million on various programs, but the figure may well be closer to $100 million and this leaves aside the role played by George Soros, who has a pro-democracy civil society infrastructure around the world and in Ukraine where millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars flow through that infrastructure.
We have seen this before, as have the Russians. This is a Western, well-tested, well-organized, well-funded pro-democracy movement that was first tried in modern times in Serbia, which essentially overthrew (Slobodan) Milosevic and ended up with for the time being, a pro-Western head of Serbia and Milosevic standing trial--as he does now--in the Hague. More closely related to Russia, just about a year ago, it was employed in former Soviet Georgia. The former Soviet Republic of Georgia where Mr. (Eduard) Shevardnadze was overthrown by similar demonstrators in the streets and a pro-American candidate then came in to power, Mr. (Mikhail) Saakashvili, though an election. Now, one can look at this in one of two ways: One could say that we're on the side of the angels and we are virtuous; the cause we espouse -- democracy, civil society capitalism, a western orientation -- these are good things in international affairs. Therefore, we should spend all the money we can manage and exert all the effort we can manage on behalf of candidates who represent this. The corollary of that argument is the Russians are not good; they don't represent the forces of light and therefore it's good that we oppose their candidate. I call that the sermonizing or moralistic media coverage, which doesn't go on to ask a number of analytical questions.
One could be for or against it, but one needs to ask the questions: Should the United States be so deeply involved in the electoral politics of another country? Indeed, have we been in violation of federal law. Some federal law prohibits the use of some federal funds, even if they are filtered through various democracy institutes, for use in foreign elections. Secondly, what are the consequences of this? Are we employing a dual standard? For example, the problem with the tainted, much more tainted electoral outcome of the presidential race in Azerbaijan, also a former Soviet republic a couple years ago. We liked the tainted candidate. We thought he was our guy who would provide access to Caspian oil. We didn't protest at all. Lots of countries held their noses it was so bad. There was no talk of a fair playing field. And yet in Ukraine, where there was fraud, but nowhere to the degree of elsewhere, we are very lathered up. So the question becomes--and the Russians ask it: "Are we employing a dual standard?" And in fact, the Russians go on to ask: "Are we really now going to claim that the election that we propose to hold in Iraq, an occupied country, controlled by the United states, is a fair election, is that the standard? Why isn't that the standard elsewhere? Why isn't the Ukrainian standard applied in Iraq for example?"
And then there's another analytical question, If we're prepared to intervene so deeply in a country such as Ukraine--with such deep cultural, political, economic, historical, linguistic, religious ties to Russia--then it raises a question of international affairs that in turn raises a possibility of a new Cold War. Does Russia have any legitimate security interests at all in the world? Is there any area in the world at all where Russia ought to have a zone of security, free of a government that might well join NATO, that might well take the country in NATO? The answer would appear to be -- given the American position on Ukraine -- no, Russia has no such legitimate interests. Again, one can be on either side. Yes, Russia has a legitimate interest and we ought to step back. No, go forward. But you have to know what we're doing and the consequences of this particular intervention may be very dangerous to everyone.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Cohen, when it comes to the U.S. media's portrayal of the pro-democracy movement gathered in Kiev, protesting what they think to be a fraudulent election in the Ukraine, the U.S. paints a picture of a very positive and proactive movement trying to reclaim democracy in their country -- but there are other, darker sides of that movement. I've read, as maybe you have, that there are some nationalistic tendencies in that movement that is in support of Washington's favorite candidate Victor Yushchenko and that movement has sometimes allied itself with the groups that have expressed some anti-Semitism and harking back to the roots of the fascist past in the Ukraine. Do you want to explore that for us?
STEPHEN F. COHEN: I can't explore it too deeply for two reasons. First of all, you would really have to be an expert, not only on Ukraine but on the western Ukraine which was once part of Poland and you have to know the history of anti-Semitism and quasi-fascism going back to WWII when Hitler's troops, in parts of that area, were welcomed and the anti-Jewish pogroms were ferocious. But secondly, I don't think it would be right to taint Mr. Yushchenko with that very dark historical brush. These bad things happened and they left their residue. I have, for example, close acquaintances in the now Ukrainian city (but it's really a Russian city) of Odessa, Crimea. These are Jewish intellectuals. They voted for Mr. Yanukovich, the so-called pro-Russian candidate, the man who represents the eastern Ukraine, which abuts Russia, and not western Ukraine. Not because they like Yanukovich so much; he's not a lovely political figure. But because they feared the forces that Mr. Yushchenko's victory might unleash. And when asked about those forces, they are deeply persuaded that they are profoundly anti-Semitic. One has to assume though, that Yushchenko would keep those under control or not give them any prominence in his government. Though, some newspapers which support him have run such articles. I think a more fundamental question about the consequences of a Yushchenko victory--a pro-Western victory--which now seems likely, not certain, but likely on Dec. 26. The old victory having been overturned, the pro-Russian one. Can any stable result be possible when you have a truly, not artificially, profoundly divided country? Ukraine, where the east is very different from the west--they speak Russian, they are orthodox as the Russians are in their religiosity, where the bulk of Ukraine's industrial infrastructure, ore and pipelines, are, where the traditional ties to Russia just run so terribly deep. And yet, the western Ukraine, which has determined it wants to be in the West with Poland, so, how can you ever, now, reunify, or stabilize Ukraine? And by the same token, either the United States or Russia is going to be deeply embittered or aggrieved by the outcome. Whether or not they accept it diplomatically, the result is that a deep division has been made between the U.S. and Russia.
Now, if that is not a reconcilable problem, whether or not there are fascist tendencies in the west. If that's not reconcilable, the danger here is that we'll have a new division of Europe, now eastward. No longer in Berlin, as it was in the last Cold War, but now through the very heart of Ukraine, in the heart of Eastern Europe. That, of course, is a recipe for all sorts of conflict. Not necessarily civil war, but all kinds of social protest, demonstrations and extremism. If that were to happen and the area in between destabilizes, there's a worse scenario, not one that can be ruled out. Then I think these crazy fascist movements to which you refer might have their chance to exert some influence because these kinds of movements, no matter how small, these fascist movements, only matter in times of social strife, social suffering, or social disturbances. In good harmonious times these factions have no consequences, they exist but are impotent. But if Ukraine becomes polarized and destabilized, they may have their moment.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Cohen, when you assess the situation in Ukraine, as you say, it could destabilize fairly quickly given the divisions in that country, ethnically, along religious lines and ties to Russia and so forth. There was an immediate threat of partition on the part of some eastern Ukraine politicians who are very unhappy with the shelving of the election results favoring their candidate. Is the threat of partition real? And if that were to take place, if there was a move for a division of the country, would that play into the instability and social unrest that you were referring to?
STEPHEN F. COHEN: Well, let's start with the last part of your question. Obviously, if the Ukraine were to split either formally or informally--whether into two countries or a kind of secessionist or autonomous movement that didn't try to claim independent statehood, but say, for example, (the east) refused to pay its taxes to the west, possibly refuse to ship energy to the west. That would destabilize not only Ukraine, but that whole part of the world. It would draw the United States and Russia into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in Ukraine. The Russians are convinced, and I don't think they have any reason not to be convinced, because it's happened in country after country, that if Yushchenko is elected with American support as now seems probable, eventually, maybe not tomorrow but the day after tomorrow, he will move to take Ukraine into NATO. What that would mean for Russia is that this powerful military alliance would now be sitting right on Russia's western borders all the way from the Baltics, where NATO already is, to Ukraine, and Russia would have to remove its Black Sea fleet from the ports of Ukraine, a fleet which is absolutely essential to Russia's concept of national security.
For Russia, this is, rightly or wrongly again, but it's always important to understand the other guy's perspective -- this is a geopolitical catastrophe of almost unparalleled magnitude, short of defeat in war. So, that kind of divide would be not only destabilizing, but maybe more than that. Now, is it going to happen? Well the governors in the east, which are pro-Russian, which did propose having a referendum in the eastern territories on Jan. 6, they called it an "autonomy referendum," they didn't claim secession, but a form of federalism that would give those areas autonomy -- they've withdrawn that referendum for now. They have backed off. But the answer to your question is twofold: First of all, the political sentiment for such a breakaway movement and the economic and social basis for it certainly exist in eastern Ukraine. But secondly, whether or not it would happen would depend entirely on Russia. If Russia encourages it and says "Come little brother to us, come to us, join our fold, we will supply you with energy but no more energy to western Ukraine. Our intermarriage is such that we're one family. Of course, we take you in, you have been orphaned by the American occupation in Kiev." Then, they would go. "Why not?" But if Russia doesn't want that kind of extreme development, they would say: "Stay where you are and bargain and negotiate." So that card, the ultimate card, is in Russia's hands, if it comes to that.
SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Cohen, as far as NATO is concerned, is the United States consciously taking a gamble to surround Russia with former allies of the Russian empire, turning them into allies of the West by taking them into the NATO military alliance? Is that a gamble that you think Washington can win? Or, as you said earlier, is this possibly going to trigger a new Cold War?
STEPHEN F. COHEN: Let me start at the end, and then we'll wind the story back to the beginning because the context is important. In modern history, and indeed in ancient history, Russia has been on its knees more than once; it has collapsed more than once. But it has always gotten up from its knees. Even after the Soviet Union, it remains the largest territorial country in the world. It remains the country aggregately with the most mineral deposits in the world. Oil, gas, nickel, everything. This is potentially an exceedingly rich and powerful country with a highly educated and very patriotic population. Russia will be back.
The question is: What kind of world will it rise from its knees in? Will it find itself in a world that's taken advantage of its weakness? And therefore will become a reviser of the international status quo? A maverick, a renegade nation from the point of view of the West? It remains a country laden with every nuclear device we have and maybe even more in some cases. Now much depends on how Russia sees what has happened.
Remember that in 1990, 1991, in return for Gorbachev's agreement that Germany could not only reunite, but the united Germany could be in NATO. That was an enormous concession on the part of Gorbachev, regarded , by the way in Russia as a betrayal of Russia's national interest. The first President Bush, the father of this president, promised Gorbachev that NATO would not move eastward, beyond Berlin. That promise was broken by Clinton, and NATO since Clinton has moved ever more eastward. All the way to the Baltics, threatening now Ukraine, talking about entering the Caucasus, to Russia's south. There appears to be no limit to NATO's appetite. In addition, Russia's had an additional encirclement of actual American military bases. There are American military bases now in the Central Asian states which Russia agreed to temporarily to fight the Afghan war after Sept. 11, but it's clear the United states has no intention of leaving. There is a growing American military presence in former Soviet Georgia. (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld has spoken of an American military presence in Azerbaijan.
When the Kremlin looks out on all this, it sees what you and I see. Not only an encirclement of Russia by NATO and American bases, but a threat to Russia's oil lines to the Caspian Sea. In other words, from the Kremlin point of view, the United States wants Russia's traditional sources of oil. Everybody understands that is a recipe for eventual conflict and the policy of taking advantage of Russia while it is weak, of a winner-take-all American military and foreign policy--we won the Cold War, we take it all. "Yes, Georgia was yours, now it is ours. Yes, the Ukraine was yours, now it is ours. Yes, the Caspian was once your oil, now it's ours." We seem to be saying to Russia, "We will take every advantage of you when you are weak, all this talk of friendship is fraudulent, and moreover, you, Russia, just as you were when you were the Soviet Union, are an illegitimate nation. You have no legitimate rights anywhere in the world outside your own borders and maybe not even within your own borders."
Russia's worried about American intervention within Russia itself. And so what we see, those of us who have lived through the whole Cold War, and what the Russian political elite think, is maybe the Cold War was never about communism. It was about Russia. And if this generation of young Russians grows up believing that, when they come of age and when Russia gets back on its feet, we -- if not you and I -- our children, are going to have a humungous problem on our hands. Because the opportunity to reduce the nuclear arsenals in Russia and in the United States are being lost every day. Because as we drive Russians back to the wall and as Russia has no money to build a conventional army, it relies more and more on its unstable nuclear infrastructure. And indeed begins to build new nuclear weapons, as it's doing now. That to me, at least, is an exceedingly unwise, irresponsible American foreign policy. And yet there is almost no critical thought about it in the executive branch, the legislative branch, or even in the mainstream American media. Everybody seems to think it's just fine and the right thing to do.
SCOTT HARRIS: And as you said, it seems a unified policy among Democrats and Republicans alike in terms of the actions that Bill Clinton took in pushing NATO eastward as you mentioned before.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: By the way, one of the things I did not mention. We complain bitterly--to go back to Ukraine--that Moscow sent Putin and other eminents to Ukraine to lobby for its candidate. Overlooked is the fact that so did we. Democrats and Republicans, American notables visited Ukraine, in the run-up to the election, making clear their preference. (Henry) Kissinger was there, Sen. (Richard) Lugar was there and Sen. (John) McCain was there. Former Democratic officials, (Madeleine) Albright and (Richard) Holbrooke were there. It was a bipartisan invasion of American political figures on behalf of "our" candidate. So when we tell the Russians, "You're bad boys! You shouldn't have sent your people into Ukraine to campaign for Yanukovich." Wait, just one minute, excuse me, did I miss something? Who are all these Americans pouring in? The State Department boasts on this. When he testified to Congress about its contribution to the situation in Ukraine, a deputy undersecretary of State itemized how the money had been spent and he included the trips of these Americans I've just mentioned, to Ukraine.
SCOTT HARRIS: And of course, in a greater global context, the United States has time and again interfered with money and all sorts of assistance to candidates they like in this hemisphere, in the Western Hemisphere, in Latin American politics and Latin American elections. Most notably, the recent referendum in Venezuela as an example. That one they lost.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: This is all so. This is a playing with democracy--one has to wonder at some point how much thought we've given to whether it's truly democracy. I am not against the pro-democracy movements anywhere in the world. I always thought of myself as a supporter of them. But we have to understand exactly what is democratic and what is not, for example, in Ukraine. People in the streets, a couple hundred thousand people, 90 percent of them no doubt sincere democratic activists. Nonetheless, they brought such pressure on the parliament by trying at one point, not only encircling the parliament. But actually breaking into the parliament, to the foyer. And, on the Supreme Court that was making a decision. The crowds had frightened those members of the parliament and the Supreme Court, I think, into the result they wanted. And this happened in Georgia, too, where the crowd, some would say a mob, stormed the parliament. You have to ask yourself, is that democratic procedure? Is that what we want to sell as democracy?
For example, imagine that in 2000, Al Gore, embittered about what had happened in Florida and convinced that he won, while the Supreme Court was deciding who would be the next president of the United States, called 200,000 democratic activists into the streets of Washington to stand outside the Supreme Court building shouting and playing rock music, on the verge of more, while the Supreme Court made its decision. We would have said, that is an attempt to interfere with the judicial process. We would have denounced it as even anti-democratic. But we have applauded it in the Ukraine, in the streets of Kiev. The Russians again think, "Double standard, one for you, one for us."
Even if we don't agree, we need to think about it.
SCOTT HARRIS: Final question for you, Stephen Cohen. As you look at the U.S. press coverage of what's going on in the Ukraine as well as the larger picture that you've talked about tonight in terms of the danger of reigniting a new cold war with current U.S. policies in Eastern Europe and in the Caucasus, why do you think the U.S. media ignores that aspect of the story and paints it in glowing terms without the critical analysis that we've gotten here today? And much of the European press seems to cover it to a greater extent than in the U.S.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: I'm not a professional press critic or media critic, but I did write a column for The Nation for many years, I did try to practice some scholarly journalism, and I have written this book, "Failed Crusade," that you mentioned, a very critical analysis of American press coverage of post-communist Russia. I also read what other press critics have to say about the media in general and one of the things they say is there's always a template, there's always a paradigm, there's always a basic narrative particularly about foreign affairs which we don't understand very well. And the mainstream press tends to adhere to and galvanize around that narrative. It has always been the case. And I think even going back to the 19th century that when it came to Russia, the narrative was not very charitable towards Russia, not very forgiving, not very problematic, not very understanding. The old journalistic as well as American adage that there are two sides to every story, go out and report both sides. If you're a fair-minded person you can understand the other side. It is almost always missing when it comes to Russia and certainly on the Ukraine crisis. The Russian half of the story is nearly totally missing. I would add that if you say what I've said to you today on your broadcast, in certain quarters you will be denounced as somehow pro-something--communist, Russian, something, and anti-American. It's happened just recently. For example, if you look at the current issue of the New Yorker, it denounced an article published in The Nation, because the article written by a British journalist, (not a Nation staffer), pointed out the Russian side of the story. To which the New Yorker editorial says, "There, The Nation is taking the Russian side in the Cold War again." You know, The Nation was being unpatriotic. No. It is just good journalism to try to report both sides of the story. Somehow, for some reason, and I've been at this 35 years and I'm not entirely sure why, we can't do that when it comes to Russia. We can't do both sides of the story when it comes to Russia. I don't know why exactly. Somehow we've always had to measure ourselves, in modern times, by this evil witch in the east, RUSSIA. Even after the Cold War, we have to be good and they have to be bad. And therefore there is no legitimate other side of the story. We see that now in Ukraine, very vividly.
SCOTT HARRIS: Well, Stephen F. Cohen, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us about the situation in Ukraine and the broader context of western/Russian relations. I hope we can call upon you again and I want to just remind listeners that your most recent book is titled, "Failed Crusade: America and The Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia," published by Norton and thank you very much, Stephen F. Cohen.
STEPHEN F. COHEN: My pleasure.
Scott Harris is executive producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations and in RealAudio and MP3 on our website at An excerpt of this interview was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines for the week ending Dec. 24, 2004. The full interview was featured on Scott Harris' live talk show, Counterpoint, Mondays 8-10 p.m. on WPKN 89.5 FM in Bridgeport, Conn. This Between The Lines Q was compiled by interns at The Nation magazine.
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