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Stephen Cohen: This is Most Dangerous Moment in U.S.-Russian Relations Since Cuban Missile Crisis

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has wrapped up a visit to Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meetings come at a time of increased tension between Washington and Moscow. On Wednesday during a press conference, President Trump said relations with Russia had reached a new low point. Trump’s comments came a day after the White House accused Russia of attempting to cover up the role of the Syrian government in the recent chemical attack in Syria that killed 87 people. Russia has rejected the claim, saying the U.S. has been too quick to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. We speak to Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University.

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at U.S.-Russian relations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has wrapped up a visit to Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The meetings come at a time of increased tension between Washington and Moscow. On Wednesday during a press conference, President Trump said relations with Russia had reached a new low point.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It would be wonderful, as we were discussing just a little while ago, if NATO and our country could get along with Russia. Right now we’re not getting along with Russia at all. We may be at an all-time low in terms of relationship with Russia. This has built for a long period of time. But we’re going to see what happens. Putin is the leader of Russia. Russia is a strong country. We’re a very, very strong country.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump’s comments came a day after the White House accused Russia of attempting to cover up the role of the Syrian government in the recent chemical attack in Syria that killed 87 people. Russia has rejected the claim, saying the U.S. has been too quick to blame Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At the United Nations, Russia blocked a Security Council resolution Wednesday to denounce the chemical attack and to call on Assad’s government to cooperate with an international probe. Meanwhile, Russia has accused the United States of violating international law by bombing a Syrian air base last week.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The rising tension also comes at a time when President Trump is reversing his criticism of NATO. On the campaign trail, Trump described NATO as “obsolete” and vowed to reconsider U.S. membership because it was, quote, “costing us a fortune.” But on Wednesday, Trump struck a different tone.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The secretary general and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago, and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete. It’s my hope that NATO will take on an increased role in supporting our Iraqi partners in their battle against ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump’s remark came one day after he signed off on allowing the former Yugoslav republic Montenegro to join NATO, a move opposed by Russia, which has criticized the expansion of NATO.

We’re joined now by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, it’s out in paperback. He’s a contributing editor at The Nation magazine.

And joining us from London, Jonathan Steele, former Moscow correspondent for The Guardian, chief reporter at the website Middle East Eye. He’s the author of Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev, and the Mirage of Democracy.

Stephen Cohen, let’s begin with you. Explain what you understand took place in Moscow yesterday in this meeting between the foreign minister, Lavrov, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, joined by the president, Putin.

STEPHEN COHEN: The Russian leadership knows Mr. Tillerson very, very well. For six or seven years, they dealt directly with him, including Putin, on one of the largest energy deals Russia had ever made with a Western energy giant, in this case, ExxonMobil. They would not have made that deal, for many billions of dollars, if they did not think—excuse me—that Mr. Tillerson was a deeply serious, competent and honorable man. Now, we can have our own views about the power of global oil companies in world affairs, but this is a bilateral relationship that was very important. Therefore, when Tillerson came to Moscow yesterday in his new capacity, they knew they were talking with a man of immense experience, because ExxonMobil has its own State Department, its own intelligence services, and a man that they could trust to be candid with them.

And they had questions for Mr. Tillerson. We only heard echoes of that in the public statements. One question was—and, by the way, Lavrov, the foreign minister, met first with Tillerson, then Putin joined them. But altogether, it was about five hours. The first was: What’s going on in Washington? What is this all—all this talk that Putin is our puppet? Are you people operating on that assumption?

Secondly, and this was very important: Who’s making policy toward us in Washington? Remember that when President Obama had reached an agreement last year with President Putin for joint military cooperation in Syria, our Department of Defense sabotaged that policy by bombing a Syrian troop camp. And Putin publicly said, “Who’s making policy in Washington?” So I think those were the two fundamental questions they were going to ask.

And the third question was that “We had agreed,” said Putin to Tillerson, I assume, “that you now accepted our position, which we have held to for years, but which President Obama rejected, that the choice is between President Assad in Damascus or the Islamic State in Damascus. You said you accepted that position. But after this chemical gas attack, you seem to have drifted from that position. We need to know now your position, because we’re going to base our military calculations in Syria on what you tell us today.”

I end by saying that Tillerson and President Trump said something extremely important yesterday—it’s been lost in all this madcap Kremlingate in Washington—that American-Russian relations, said President Trump, may be at an all-time low. That’s a very important statement. It gets our attention back on what’s essential. And Tillerson said—and this was important—there is no trust between us. And that’s not acceptable when we’re talking about the two nuclear superpowers. So, for all the media blitz and riff on this, because the mainstream media hears what it wants to hear and has its own narratives, I thought that was very important. The news is very bad, but that was a piece of good news.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But when you say that Russia wanted to know who’s making policy in Washington, what do they suspect, if it’s not Trump and Tillerson? Who might be making policy in Washington?

STEPHEN COHEN: What do you suspect?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You tell us.

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we—I mean, I’m not a conspiracy buff, but we have a certain reality. I did not vote for President Trump, but I certainly supported his campaign promise that cooperation with Russia would be, as he put it, great. And if I have a minute, let me tell you why I think it’s great. I think—and I’ve been doing this for 40 years, studying American-Russian relations, as a professor, but I’ve also been inside occasionally. I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis. And arguably, it’s more dangerous, because it’s more complex. Therefore, we—and then, meanwhile, we have in Washington these—and, in my judgment, factless accusations that Trump has somehow been compromised by the Kremlin. So, at this worst moment in American-Russian relations, we have an American president who’s being politically crippled by the worst imaginable—it’s unprecedented. Let’s stop and think. No American president has ever been accused, essentially, of treason. This is what we’re talking about here, or that his associates have committed treason.

Imagine, for example, John Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. And for the viewers who are not of a certain age, the Kennedy administration was presented—and the evidence, by the way, was presented to us; they showed us the surveillance photos. There was no doubt what the Soviets had done, putting missile silos in Cuba. No evidence has been presented today of anything. Imagine if Kennedy had been accused of being a secret Soviet Kremlin agent. He would have been crippled. And the only way he could have proved he wasn’t was to have launched a war against the Soviet Union. And at that time, the option was nuclear war.

So the question arises, naturally: Why did Trump launch 50 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian Air Force base, when, God help us, he did kill some people, but was of no military value whatsoever? Was this meant to show “I’m not a Kremlin agent”? Because, normally, a president would have done the following. You would go to the United Nations—though Putin says you should go to The Hague, but they both have investigative units—and ask for an investigation about what happened with those chemical weapons. And then you would decide what to do. But while having dinner at Mar-a-Lago with the leader of China, who was deeply humiliated, because he’s an ally of Russia, they rushed off these Tomahawk missiles. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Over chocolate cake, you heard Donald Trump himself describe.

STEPHEN COHEN: I didn’t take umbrage at that, because I often say that about carrot cake. I often say, “God, this is the best carrot cake I’ve ever seen in the world.” I mean, that’s an American expression.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, he also initially said Iraq, and not Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: That they bombed Iraq.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, I’m not in the mode of bashing Trump if he gets something right. We have to cling to what we have. But—so we asked this question: Why did they do that? And why did Trump do it? And was he fed bad intelligence information or dubious information? We have a long history of that in America. And that’s why the Russians wanted to ask Tillerson, “Who’s making policy? Because we tell you that your narratives aren’t true. But we are”—and, by the way, let me add one thing, because this is—and then I’ll stop. This is very important.

The number two man in the Kremlin leadership, the prime minister of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, now, remember who he is. He’s considered to be the most pro-Western member of the leadership. And he was the man on whom President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton based their entire so-called reset. And if we could only—he was sitting in the presidency at the moment—only keep him in power. So everybody liked Prime Minister Medvedev—said, in the aftermath of this, “We are on the brink of war, and American-Russian relations are utterly ruined.” So if the pro-Western faction in the Kremlin is saying that, need I tell you what the so-called state patriots are telling Putin about what’s going on? That’s why what Tillerson said was so important.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. In addition to Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at both New York University and Princeton University, we’ll be joined by Jonathan Steele, former correspondent for The Guardian Moscow for years and now working with Middle East Eye. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.

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