"Adam Schiff is Unhinged on Russia"
Adam Schiff's Russi-bashing is unhinged and dangerous
The Grayzone (January 27, 2020)
My guest is Stephen F. Cohen, Emeritus Professor of Russian Studies at Princeton and NYU, author of many books, including his latest War with Russia? From Putin & Ukraine To Trump & Russiagate. Professor Cohen, welcome back to Pushback"
[0:21] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Thank you Aaron."
Aaron Maté: "I wanted to have you on to discuss some of what we've been hearing fkrom the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, where ostensibly we're supposed to be focused on a case of alleged pressure on Ukraine by Trump. But Russia has been front and center from the Democrats' presentation. And before I play some clips and ask you to respond, I want to acknowledge something which is that back when Russiagate and the conspiracy theory about Trump and Russia, back when that collapsed, I remember saying that finally we can get to talking about real issues in this country and we can put this Russia madness behind us. But you said to me, both privately and in interviews with me that this Russia thing was far from over. So I'm wondering why you felt so confident that this intense focus on Russia and hawkish posture towards Russia, especially from Democrats, was not going away."
[1:24] Professor Stephen Cohen: "And this was even after, or at least now is after, the findings of the Mueller investigation, that there was no tie between Trump and Russia. That's what had been driving Russia into our makinstream for a long time. I don't know. I've lived with Russia, I guess, going on 50 years now. And one of the things I've learned is that being highly critical of Russia is good politics in the United States. Nobody ever gets any points for saying anything good about Russia, and only rarely for advocating any kind of partnership with Russia. So that's one reason why I thought Russia wasn't going to go away, even after Russiagate, is that it politically is advantageous to a lot of people to bash Russia. And by the way, we find that, alas, even among progressive Democratic candidates for the presidency. It's not just the right wing. It's a left-wing/right-wing phenomenon."
[2:22] "Why that is so is, of course, historical. It goes back to the old Cold War, which some people, particularly in Moscow think never really ended. That is, it ended in Moscow but not in Washington. But it has become an American way of life to blame Russia when things go wrong. Then, of course, sometimes Russia is to blame, but not all the time. And yet that has become part of our discourse. The Trump thing is, I guess, among the worst I've ever seen. The notion that somehow he was a Kremlin agent and people were saying, liberals were saying, that the Kremlin put Trump in the White House. They've kind of dropped that, though it still appears now and then. But the notion of some special secret relationship between Trump and the Kremlin -- for which there is not a shred of evidence -- is still a standard part of our discourse. I don't know what you do about it."
[3:10] Aaron Maté: "Well, let me go to Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor for the Democrats who has spoken the most throughout the impeachment proceedings so far on the Democrats's behalf. And he has invoked Russia dozens of times and presented it as a threat to the U.S., Europe, and he said that his argument basically is that when Trump briefly paused this military funding at the heart ofthe impeachment allegations, that imperiled not just Ukraine, not just Europe, but the U.S. as well. So lets's to a clip of Adam Schiff:"
"This military aid, which has long enjoyed bipartisan support, was designed to help Ukraine defend itself from the Kremlin's aggression. More than 15,000 have died fighting Russian forces and their proxies. 15,000. And the military aid was for such essentials as sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, radar, night vision goggles, and other vital support for the war effort. Most critically, the military aid that we provide Ukraine helps to protect an advanced American national security interest in the region and beyond. America has an abiding interest in stemming Russian expansionism and resisting any nation's efforts to remake the map of Europe by dint of military force, even as we have tens of thousands of troops stationed there. Moreover, as one witness put it during our impeachment inquiry: 'The United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don't have to fight Russia here.'"
[4:53] Aaron Maté: "So that is Adam Schiff speaking at the impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Professor Cohen, Let me asky you your response to what Adam Schiff says: that 'the U.S. aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there and we don't have to fight Russia here.'"
[5:09] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Well, he also said, which is a false statement, or just ignorance on his part, that that's long been bipartisan American policy to send military equipment to Ukraine. But Obama refused to do so. Correct?
Aaron Maté: "Including resisting pressure from people that include the Democrats' star witness, Bill Taylor, who was among the hawks in Washington who was lobbying the Obama administration to send that military funding to Ukraine."
[5:43] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Tremendous pressure, Obama was under. And to give him credit, though he didn't always resist the current of events, although he did in that case, and with good reason. The idea of giving military aid to Ukraine would essentially be to turn America's collective governmental back on what the newly elected president of Ukraine, Zelensky, has proposed, which is solving the conflict with Russia through peace talks. It would be saying to Zelenski: 'Don't bother about the Peace Talks, we're going to give you plenty of military equipment.' That's number one."
[6:19] Secondly, Russia, sharing a very long border with Ukraine, has what military people call every escalatory advantage. There is absolutely nothing we can do to enhance Ukraine's military capacity that the Russians can't do a hundredfold and a hundredfold more cheaply. I mean, this is ridiculous. But to me the tragedy is, for decades, even centuries, large parts of Russia and Ukraine have been family. And when there's a possibility of peace, which is what President Zelensky was elected on, that the United States would favor war, is interfering in a kind of family dispute in the most awful way."
[7:09] If you were to go to Moscow, Aaron, and hang out for a couple of weeks, and visit, say, a dozen Russian families, very few, to lapse into a double-negative, would not, not have relatives in Ukraine. Or be married to Ukrainians. I mean, this is a kind of tragedy. And instead of trying to help the forces on both sides that want to put an end to it. And by the way, I would include Putin among the people who want -- for his own reasons -- want to put an end to it. For any American policy, whether by sending more weapons or the rhetoric to abet this conflict is really unwise and I think inhumane and tragic."
Aaron Maté: "Can you explain ..."
[7:58] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Which I guess could be said, and I'm sorry to interrupt you, but the extent to which Trump had thought this through, or somebody around him had thought this through and had explained this to him: to the extent that he favored a peace negotiation -- you know there are these Minsk Accords, you know about that, I guess our viewers know that this group has been set up, mainly driven by the Germans but involving the Russians and the Ukrainians and the French -- for ongoing peace talks. The United States had stood aside from that. What we ought to be asking ourselves, is should the United States join this Minsk Accord -- that would be Trump in this case -- and lend its authority to this peace process. I'm not sure, Trump being the disruptive force that he can be. But on the other hand, if Zelensky had full American backing for his peace talks with Putin, that would help him a lot."
[8:49] Aaron Maté: "Can you give us a bit of the background that people like Schiff are omitting here? The narrative that he presents when he speaks to Congress and it's accepted pretty much across the political spectrum, including by Democrats, including progressive Democrats, as you mentioned before, is that this crisis in Ukraine which all this impeachment stuff comes out of, began when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. And in this context, maybe you could explain for us the attempts by the West to actually bring Ukraine into the Western orbit and how that played a very overlooked role in the crisis that we're now discussing"
[9:29] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Well, this is a matter of kind of collective amnesia. 2014 is not that long ago. Right? Six years. What happened was fateful. The properly, duly, constitutionally elected President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych -- and he may not have been a good guy; he may have been a thief; he may have been all the things that his enemies call him -- but nobody doubted, including Europe, that he had been legally, constitutionally elected. He was overthrown by a mob in the street. I don't care what they had written on their banners, 'For Democracy.' He was overthrown by a mob. He was compelled to flee the country to save his life. He fled to Russia. That was the turning point. That was the turning point of legitimacy of leadership in Ukraine. And it was widely believed that the United States played a major role in Yanukovych's overthrow. Certainly Europe did."
[10:31] "So there begins the tragedy, the civil war in Ukraine. There begins the Russian sense -- and we cam talk about this if you want -- that they had to take Crimea. Otherwise, NATO would be moving on Crimea. It was these events of 2014 that set all this off. And they were precipitated by the overthrow of Yanukovych. So we bear a large responsibility. If we don't like what Russia has done since 2014 -- and there were those of us, myself and several others, who predicted this was the way Russia would act if we did this -- then they shouldn't have done what they did in 2014. But nobody is taking responsibililty for it. No one."
[11:16] Aaron Maté: "And, well, you know who has taken responsibility, interestingly, is our U.S. officials, those who bragged about all this. For example, Victoria Nuland, you would recall her testifying and saying openly that the U.S. spent five billion dollars in Ukraine on quote-unquote 'pro-democracy' efforts, but were really efforts to bring Ukraine into the U.S. orbit."
[11:42] Professor Stephen Cohen: "Yeah. I mean there was no mystery, from the moment the Soviet Union ended, Ukraine having been a republic of the Soviet Union, are now independent, that there was a very strong group in Washington, and sometimes it was official White House policy, but not always, but there was a powerful lobby in Washington that was determined, as you put it, to take Ukraine away from Russia. That is to change the course of decades and centuries of history and family and neighborly proximity and economic and social and conjugal relations and take Ukraine from Russia. It was utter folly. But it began a long time ago in the 1990s immediately after the end of the Soviet Union. I'm not going to name him because he has since died, but I happen to know slightly one of the architects of this policy in Washington, a very powerful figure. And I said to him what I've just said to you. 'This is folly. Why are we doing this? And he said: 'Because we can.'"
[12:48] "Because we can. Because these people have what they call a geopolitical way of thinking. That 'What's ours is ours, and what's Russia's is up for negotiation.' And they saw an opoortunity to negotiate away or buy away Ukraine. And that's the way their geopolitical thinking went. You do this and that's what great powers do in their mind. And they were wrong. And a lot of tragedy followed. "
[13:19] "And they have their successors in Washington who think this way. And not only in Washington. I think a large part of American policy intellectuals think this way, too."
Aaron Maté: "Let me go to more about what Schiff said about Russia:
"The Russians have little democracy left thanks to Vladimir Putin. It's an autocracy. It's a thug-ocracy. The Russian storyline, the Russian narrative, the Russian propaganda, the Russian view they would like people around the world to believe is that every country is just the same. Just the same corrupt system. There's no difference. It's not a competition between autocracy and democracy. No, it's just beween autocrats and hypocrites. They make no bones about their loss of democracy. They just want the rest of the world to believe you can't find it anywhere. Why take to the streets in Moscow to demand something better if there's nothing better anywhere else? That's the Russian story. That's the Russian story. That's who prospers by the defeat of democracy."
[14:38] Aaron Maté: "So that's Adam Schiff, Professor Cohen. Framing this impeachment issue as a struggle between democracy in the U.S. and authoritarianism in Russia."
Professor Stephen Cohen: "It's breathtaking. As I said, it's a harking back, a flashing back to the discourse in the United States in the 1950s. But what makes it so stunning, and, of course, Schiff is talking about Russian leader Putin, and has added that Putin wants to sow discord and instability. That's what's behind these Russian attacks. There have been none on the United States. But that's what Schiff has said.The reality is profoundly and fundamentally different, which takes us -- and we've talked about this before -- back to Putin and what he sees as his own historical mission. And it is almost the opposite of what Schiff attributes to him."
"Putin came to power 20 years ago and continues to lead on one profoundly missionary ambition. To rebuild Russia from the disaster into which it fell in the 1990s. The last thing Putin wants is instability. For a number of reasons. He's trying to build economics at home, economic relations with countries abroad, because he sees that as a way to modernize Russia. Those countries include, now, first and foremost, China. But not only. Europe, and he would like it with the United States. So Putin wants to leave office -- and that's a question when he's going to leave, because he's going to term out in four-and-a-half years -- what he wants to do is interesting, we could talk about that maybe some other time. But he clearly talks about this candidly. I'm leaving behind a stable, prosperous Russia. In place of the ruined Russia being inherited in 2000. So the notion that he wants to foster discord in the very countries which he wants what he calls modernizing trade relations, is just ignorance on the part of Adam Schiff. And not only Schiff, but because Schiff runs his mouth a lot about Russia, we get to hear the kind of ignorance about Russia, and about Putin in particular, that dominates a large part of a segment of policymakers in Washington."
[17:07] Aaron Maté: "I want to play one more clip of Adam Schiff's remarks:"
"I don't think we want Vladimir Putin, our adversary, to be thanking God for the President of the United States. Because they don't wish us well. They don't wish us well. They are a wounded animal. They are a declining power. But like any wounded animal, they are a dangerous animal. Their worldview is completely antithetical to ours. We do not want them thanking God for our President and what he is pushing out."
[17:52] Aaron Maté: "So that's Adam Schiff, Professor Cohen, calling Russia a wounded animal, a dangerous animal. I'm wondering about your thoughts on how all this is going to be perceived in Moscow, by the Russian government and the Russian people watching."
Professor Stephen Cohen: "Well. Let's just say that, overwhelmingly, Russian politicians do not speak about the United States in the way that Adam Schiff spoke about Russia. So I would say it's disgraceful. It badly represents America in Russian eyes because all this is broadcast to the Russian people. But what kind of person, be he or she be an eleced official or not, talks about another country, not just a great country, not just a country that, after all -- thought it'd be said because we're on the anniversary, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz much in the news -- in fact the country that defeated Nazi Germany in Europe. I mean what kind of a person says such things? So, it's a pity because this will be broadcast in Russia with Schiff's words by the anti-American faction in Russia, in Russian politics, as representing all Americans. So, it's just not only ignorant, but it's debased. What kind of discourse is this? And the other part of it is, it isn't true. I've already spoken to that. I mean, it's just, his characterization of Russia as a wounded beast, it just isn't historically or in terms of converting terms, true. Schiff simply doesn't know what he's talking about. And his political motives are on him."
[19:40] Aaron Maté: "Let me ask you, finally, about the actual state of U.S.-Russia relations. There's the fantasy state of U.S.-Russia relations as rendered by Schiff where we're under threat by this existential threat from Russia and that Trump, because he briefly paused some military funding is abetting that threat. But let's talk about the actual stae of affairs. And just recently we were given a very chilling reminder of where things are when the bulletin of atomic scientists moved their famous Doomsday Clock closer to midnight to 100 seconds. and among the chief things they cited was the perilous state of arms control between the U.S. and Russia. They say, quote:
"In the nuclear realm, national leaders have ended or undermined several major arms control treaties and negotiations during the last year, creating an environment conducive to a renewed nuclear arms race, to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to lowered barriers to nuclear war. Political conflicts regarding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea remain unresolved and are, if anything, worsening. U.S.-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but nonexistent."
The Demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF Treaty became official in 2019, and, as predicted, the United States and Russia have begun a new competition to develop and deploy weapons the treaty had long banned. Meanwhile, the United States continues to suggest that it will not extend New START, the agreement tht limits US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and that it may withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which provides aerial overflights to build confidence and transparency around the world. Russia, meanwhile, continues to support an extension of New START."
Aaron Maté: "They specifically single out the u.s. under Trump for pulling out of the INF treaty and they warned about the importance of Trump renewing the New START treaty which Vladimir Putin has said he wants to renew, but Trump so far has been non-committal. And they also singled out the U.S. for quote:
"a bullying and derisive tone towards its Chinese and Russian competitors"
So, Professor Cohen, as we wrap, I wonder if you could comment on this: how you have, on the one hand, in the capitol building in Congress you have Democrats accusing Trump for being insufficiently hawkish against Russia, meanwhile shortly, just a few blocks away, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists were unveiling this warning which is pretty much being widely ignored, that the threat of nuclear disaster between U.S. and Russia has gotten that much greater as a result of Trump's hawkish policies."
[21:07] Professor Stephen Cohen: "I've probably quoted this Russian humorous adage to you before, so I risk doing it again, though if its tedious you can cut it out. Russians ask, 'What's the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist thinks things cannot possibly get worse and an optimist thinks they can.' We are what is now clearly on the cusp of a new nuclear arms race in these so-called hypersonic weapons. You're familiar with them, right? Remember the premis and the history of nuclear weapons, that when they were invented first as atomic weapons then as nuclear weapons in the '50s, each side then moved to invent something to have either the same kind of weapon or to nullify the other. And that's been the dialectic, till we got to so-called missile defense, which we claimed to have. And we ringed Russia: land, sea, and air with so-called missile defense, so that the Russians in this theory could not retaliate to an American first strike. And American strategic planners, as they're called, sort-of Dr. Strangelove types, began to talk about the United States having acquired a first-strike capability to which the Russians would be unable to respond. Whether that was true or not, I don't know, scientifically. But the Russians took this seriously. And so they developed these sonic weapons as a counter-measure. And the theory of the sonic weapons -- assuming this is true -- is that they cannot be shot down by any missile defense system. And they can be launched from land, sea, submarines, airplanes, from a submarine off the coast of Florida or wherever the Russians want to put them.This appears to be true. The science seems to be correct. It's been verified by some of our scientists. And Russia has begun to deploy these weapons."
[23:44] "So where are we at? We're on the cusp. If the United States decides to match -- and it appears that's our first impulse -- on a new and more fearful arms race. Or, Putin has said, we can stop. Russia is prepared to stop. To not deploy any more. And we can begin new arms control that would embrace these new weapons. Obviously, this is what should be done. And if I could talk to Trump for three minutes, I would say 'This is your historic legacy.' If you want one. Embrace this. End this new arms race. Negotiate an end to these weapons that are putting jus at great peril, and you can go down in history with a favorable legacy.But I doubt there is anybody around him -- I don't know -- who would tell him this. But this is an opportunity, and it's fleeting. And I worry that it's going to be another lost opportunity in American-Russian relations."
[24:46] Aaron Maté: "And certainly that counsel, that demand is not coming from Trump's opposition who are in fact encouraging him to be even more hawkish."
Professor Stephen Cohen: "I guess that's right. I mean, we haven't talked about the Democratic candidates yet. I think there's at least an exception in Tulsi Gabbard who has made -- she hasn't spelled it out and she's been attacked for it, wickedly, I think, the way they've attacked her -- but she has repeatedly said part of her presidential campaign is ending the new nuclear arms race. And I know enough about her and people she talks to that this, what I have just described, is exactly what she has in mind. So if you're looking -- I want a voice, not a candidate, at the moment, who will carry this message forward. So as far as I can tell, Tulsi Gabbard is the only one. Now, it's possible that Senator Sanders will pick up this issue, but he hasn't shown much enthusiasm. He seems wary of getting involved in Russia issues. For his own reasons. So at the moment it's Tulsi Gabbard. There is, of course, a risk. I learned this when I was young, and I seem to learn the lesson again of being a one-issue person. But I am so worried about these new weapons. So worried about the deterioration of American Russian relations. And so worried that, even if Trump tries to do the right thing, he will not be permitted in Washington to do the right thing, that I am kind of focused on this issue to the exclusion of others. But I think it's that important."