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What’s Next for U.S.-Russia Relations? Stephen Cohen & Ken Roth on Trump, Hacking & Tillerson

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We turn now to take a broader look at U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. On Tuesday, Trump officially nominated Rex Tillerson, chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state. Tillerson is known to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship decoration in 2013. One of the focuses of the Senate confirmation hearings will be Exxon’s $500 billion oil exploration partnership with the Russian government’s oil company, Rosneft. Considered the largest oil deal in history, the partnership can only go through if the U.S. lifts sanctions against Russia, which the Obama administration imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The news of Rex Tillerson’s nomination came just days after the CIA accused Russia of meddling in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump win. Trump has rejected the CIA’s conclusion, decrying it as “ridiculous.” But President Obama ordered a review of Russia’s role in influencing the presidential election. With us are Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to take a broader look at U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. On Tuesday, Trump officially nominated Rex Tillerson, chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state. Tillerson is known to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who awarded Tillerson the country’s Order of Friendship decoration in 2013. One of the focuses of the Senate confirmation hearings will be Exxon’s $500 billion oil exploration partnership with the Russian government’s oil company, Rosneft, considered the largest oil deal in history. The partnership can only go through if the U.S. lifts sanctions against Russia, which the Obama administration imposed over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.

The news of Tillerson’s nomination came just days after the CIA accused Russia of meddling in the U.S. election to help Donald Trump win. Trump has rejected the CIA’s conclusion, decrying it as “ridiculous.” But President Obama ordered a review of Russia’s role in influencing the presidential election.

Still with us, Kenneth Roth, who is executive director of Human Rights Watch, and Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.

Stephen Cohen, start with the elections.

STEPHEN COHEN: Be more precise.

AMY GOODMAN: What we understand, what the U.S. allegations are around Russian intervention in the elections. The New York Times today has a major top story.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: “Hacking the Democrats: How the Russia Honed Its Cyberpower and Trained It on an American Election.”

STEPHEN COHEN: I don’t know where to begin. Let me context it, because when we first—when you first had me on, February 2014, I said we were headed for a new Cold War with Russia, and it would be more dangerous than the last one. That has happened. We now have three Cold War fronts that are fraught with hot war, the possibility of hot war—the Baltic area, Ukraine and Syria—between two nuclear powers. Things are very, very dangerous.

We desperately need in this country a discussion of American policy toward Russia. We can’t keep saying an untruth, that this new Cold War is solely the fault of Putin. We need to rethink our policy, at least over 20 years, but over the last five or six years, toward Russia. That has been made even more impossible now with this slurring of anybody who disagrees from the official American position of how the Cold War arose. The slurring began against people such as myself two or three years ago. We were called Putin apologists, Kremlin toadies, Kremlin clients. It moved on to even accuse Henry Kissinger of that. And then, of course, when Trump come along, this was a great blessing to these people, who are essentially neo-McCarthyites. It’s spread to The New York Times.

So we have his allegation that the Russians deliberately—word Mr. Roth likes; I think there’s more accident and miscalculation in history than he seems to think—deliberately, on the orders of Putin, hacked into the Democratic National Committee, and not only, in order to—and here the narrative gets a little puzzling. The original intention was simply to throw American democracy into chaos, cast disrepute on the American political system, but then they realized that they could actually throw the election to Trump. Now we have The New York Times, what used to be a newspaper we thought would protect us from these kinds of allegations, saying in an editorial that they did this, the Russians did this, because Trump is surrounded by Kremlin lackeys. This is an extremely serious and reckless allegation, that he’s—our new president is surrounded by Kremlin lackeys. They don’t name names, but we know how they mean—what they mean. And both the editorial page of the Times and Paul Krugman, who, after all, won a Nobel Prize and once was my colleague at Princeton as an economist—it’s really astonishing to see what he now writes—says that Trump won only because of what the Russians did. What we have from the CIA, which itself is divided—we know that there are different opinions in the CIA—we have yet to be presented with a single fact. In this New York Times story, which rehearses, basically, New York Times’ miscoverage of this whole episode, they do the same thing. They are assessments, which is judgment. They are allegations. But no one has produced how they know this with facts. Did they tap into Russian cellphones? Do they have a mole in Putin’s inner circle who’s telling them? Do they have satellite surveillance? We don’t know.

Let me bring to your attention something that’s not been reported. There’s a group of very serious former American intelligence officers called, I think, Veteran Intelligence Officers for Sanity. I’m not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: VIPS [Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity].

STEPHEN COHEN: You know them. And they issued a report yesterday. I can’t judge it. I’m not an intelligence person in that sense. But they believe this wasn’t hacking at all, but leaking, that somebody leaked this stuff from the Democratic—in other words, somebody in the United States. So, here we have no facts presented by the CIA. The FBI itself will not go along, because it’s a fact organization. It’s got to have evidence that’s presentable in a court. We have the possibility—I don’t know, but it’s offered by credible people—that this wasn’t hacking, but leaking. And the result is, we’re having the new president called essentially a Kremlin lackey. Senator McCain has said, to his eternal discredit, that Putin is a bully, a liar, an invader of countries, a man who’s determined to destroy the American way of life, and adds, if anybody doesn’t agree with Senator McCain, he’s a liar. So—

AMY GOODMAN: He also calls Putin a killer. Do you agree?

STEPHEN COHEN: A killer, a murderer. No, I do not. Well, I mean, killer, in warfare, yes. He didn’t—oh, well, McCain went on to say that Putin had personally ordered the killing of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian opposition who was shot down on a bridge. No one in Moscow takes that seriously, not even Nemtsov’s family. But the point we have here, Amy—and this is exceedingly dangerous—is that we have a new accepted practice of labeling anyone who dissents from American policy toward Russia as a Kremlin apologist. And I know very serious people who have become afraid to speak out now, because they don’t want to be labeled.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s get Kenneth Roth’s response and also to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan—of course, both Republicans—announcing their support for an investigation into whether Russia did hack the elections.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, by all means, there should be an investigation. I mean, why not?

STEPHEN COHEN: Sure.

KENNETH ROTH: You’ve got to be very careful, though, when—you know, when there are accusations against Russia, and the response is “new Cold War,” as if “Let’s not look into this. Might be a new Cold War.” You know, let’s look at the reality here. In Syria—we’ve just discussed this—there has been Putin’s involvement in the deliberate targeting of civilians. Ukraine, I mean, Amy, you had made a major faux pas by saying that Russia invaded Ukraine. You know, that was utterly denied by the Kremlin for a long time. It was the “little green men” in Crimea, until suddenly it was Russian forces. It was, you know, just a spontaneous uprising in eastern Ukraine, until suddenly there were Russian forces behind all that. So, you know, the truth is malleable when it’s useful. And I think it’s—we should be focusing on the reality.

Now, I have no special insight into the hacking allegations. By all means, there should be an investigation. And I do—I am concerned about Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, because, you know, here is a guy, Rex Tillerson, who has had a career in cozying up to autocrats around the world, you know, in the name of Big Oil. And he has developed very good relations with Angola, with Equatorial Guinea and with Putin. And I worry about whether a man like that, who has put the interests of Big Oil ahead of everything else, is going to be able to pursue a foreign policy where, in theory, the promotion of human rights was a major part of it. One thing these autocrats all have in common is a general disregard for human rights. And is this the person we want in charge of our foreign policy?

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of, if he is chosen, and Exxon’s desire to have these sanctions lifted, the largest oil deal in not just U.S., but in world, history, if these sanctions are lifted, would benefit his company.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, now, clearly, ExxonMobil didn’t like the sanctions that were imposed on Russia because of the adventurism of these “little green men” that have nothing to do with the Kremlin in eastern Ukraine. And ExxonMobil fought that. Now, this is, you know, not a human rights issue. It’s not something that Human Rights Watch has taken a position on. But it does raise questions about, you know, what is the primary concern of Rex Tillerson. And can he really, after having spent his entire career at Big Oil, his entire career, professional life, at ExxonMobil, suddenly switch hats and pursue other values as the head of the State Department?

AMY GOODMAN: Then this issue that Professor Cohen raises of a new McCarthyism?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, that’s another way of saying, you know, a new Cold War. You know, just because you start accusing people who say bad things about Putin of McCarthyism doesn’t mean it’s not true. I mean, you know, these big labels don’t help. Let’s look at the facts. You know, who actually did act in Ukraine? You know, was it really just a spontaneous uprising, or was there a Russian role in this? You know, who is providing the precision weapons in Syria that have been targeting civilians and civilian institutions? Nobody else has an air force like that other than Russia. Nobody even pretends that there are planes up there above Aleppo other than Russia, with their Syrian allies. So, you know, you’ve got to get down to the reality here. And I don’t think throwing around these names of “new Cold War” or accusing people of McCarthyite tactics has anything to do with this. Let’s get to the facts. And the facts are pretty ugly right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, I presume, Professor Cohen, that you have some concerns about Donald Trump. Are any of them around his relationship with or the—the relationship with or his professed admiration for Putin?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I’m kind of startled by a number things that Mr. Roth said. And I don’t like the way he dismisses everything I say as kind of a way of avoiding it by referring to a new Cold War and what happened in Ukraine. I don’t think he really knows what happened in Ukraine, but that could be a separate discussion between us. And then he goes back to Syria. But what surprises me is, is that a man who represents human rights, one of which is freedom of speech, or, as Roosevelt would say, freedom of fear of speech, of being afraid to speak out, isn’t worried about this new neo-McCarthyism and isn’t on my side on this, that we should stop this. And he’s kind of—and let me finish. He’s kind of mangled it. I didn’t say that anybody who says something bad about Putin is the target of this neo-McCarthyism. What I said was, anybody who dissents from the orthodox account of how we ended up in this new Cold War—and if Mr. Roth thinks it’s not a new Cold War, he’s welcome to that thought, though he’ll miss all the attendant dangers. It’s the people who speak out who are being called apologists for Putin, and it’s chilling debate here. So let me make the point I began at the beginning.

AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds.

STEPHEN COHEN: Only, and I can say it in 10. We’re in the most dangerous confrontation with Russia since the Cuban missile crisis. It needs to be discussed. And at the moment, it can’t be discussed because of these charges that everybody is a client of Putin who disagrees with the mainstream opinion. And it’s coming from the Senate. It’s coming from The New York Times. It’s coming from—and I wish we had a second to say what the motives are. But one motive is to keep Trump from going to the White House. Another is to delegitimize him before he gets there. But the main motive—and you can hear it clearly—is Trump has said he wants cooperation with Russia, and the war party here that’s against that is determined to stop it. And the way you do it is level against Putin the kinds of accusations that Mr. Roth uncritically levels, so the rest of us will say we can’t have any cooperations with Putin because he’s a war criminal.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty seconds, Ken Roth.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I’m all for talking with Putin, trying to cooperate with him. In fact, my New York Review piece argues that the key to Syria is for Trump to put pressure on Putin, because Assad wouldn’t be able to commit these atrocities without Putin’s active support. So, I’m—

STEPHEN COHEN: That’s not talking with Putin; that’s putting pressure on Putin.

KENNETH ROTH: And talk to him, too. And we never objected to the ongoing debate, the ongoing conversation, but it shouldn’t be in lieu of the kind of pressure, which is all that Putin listens to these days.

STEPHEN COHEN: Oh, for God’s sake. That’s all he listens to. And you base that on what? Your careful study—

KENNETH ROTH: I’m watching—I’ve watched—

STEPHEN COHEN: Your careful study of Putin? Your following of Russian politics?

KENNETH ROTH: I’ve watched two—yeah, I’ve watched—let me answer. Let me answer.

STEPHEN COHEN: Look, at some point, let’s be fact-based, OK?

KENNETH ROTH: I’ve watched him for two years—

STEPHEN COHEN: You simply don’t know what you’re—oh.

KENNETH ROTH: —talk and talk and talk with Kerry and Lavrov.

STEPHEN COHEN: Oh, oh.

KENNETH ROTH: And he just continued with the atrocities.

STEPHEN COHEN: You watched it, or you listened to what he said? Or you listened—you read it?

KENNETH ROTH: The only way to ratchet up—the only way he has made any—

STEPHEN COHEN: Oh, for God’s sake.

KENNETH ROTH: —change in Syria is when the pressure mounts.

STEPHEN COHEN: We’re back to Syria now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. We’re going to have to leave it there, but I want to thank you both for being a part of this discussion. Stephen Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at Princeton and New York University. And Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we look at Trump’s pick to be the secretary of energy, Rick Perry. Stay with us.

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