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The Bipartisan Cold War

Remember that scene in the Russian novel The Master and Margarita where the characters are dead and dancing at a ball hosted by the Devil? There's a moment in it when the Devil reminds one of the characters that he—that is, the dead character—used to believe that life is followed by non-existence. “One theory deserves another,” the Devil explains. “Among them there is one in which each will be given according to his belief.” And the Devil transforms the non-believer into a goblet. Believe in non-existence, and you won't exist. We are given according to our beliefs.

By this logic, the U.S. is now in a new Cold War, because so many paying attention to Russia seem to believe we are. And this goes for both those who would censure Russia and those who would defend its recent actions on the global stage.

On the one hand, there are those who criticize Russia, which some say is once again our greatest enemy, for invading Ukraine and for its many domestic human rights abuses.

On the other hand, there are academics and journalists who defend Russia —or, if you prefer, criticize the United States and western Europe for putting Russia in a defensive position. They are often called “Putin apologists,” and their position requires, perhaps, a bit more explanation.

Perhaps the most famous of these “apologists” is Stephen Cohen, a professor at NYU, formerly of Princeton, and husband to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of the Nation, where he is a contributing editor (in a phone interview, Cohen stressed that his views are distinct from that of the editorial team of The Nation in general and from those of his wife in particular). Cohen “has found himself addressed as/described as Putin's lackey by other publications,” said Casey Michel, an analyst of the region and investigative writer for The Diplomat and other publications. “He seems to wear that, maybe not with pride, but with some kind of acknowledgement.”

“I'm an American citizen with different obligations,” Cohen, who has penned pieces such as “The Ukrainian Crisis: It’s Not All Putin’s Fault” and “Is the United States Sliding into War in Ukraine—As It Did in Vietnam,” clarified by phone. “I think about America as a citizen. I think about Russia as a longstanding scholar.” He has, he said, been critical of American policy toward Russia not since the annexation of Crimea, but “since 1992." Pointing to his 2000 book Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, he explained that "The turning point for Bush was, when he was behind in the polls [against Clinton], he began claiming what wasn't true. That he had won the Cold War. No, it wasn't true. It was negotiated, the end of the Cold War.” Since “Bush made this flip,” Cohen continued, “this notion that we won the Cold War has been what's guiding American policy, and ever since, [leaders have been] applying [it] to different cases.”

In Cohen’s analysis, this understanding of the Cold War’s end as “negotiated,” plus what he identifies as a penchant for regime change demonstrated by George W. Bush and by both President and former Secretary Clinton, led Russia to where it is today. When asked about human rights abuses in Russia, Cohen says that he believes, as he did during détente, that better relations with Russia will make for better lives for Russians. “What we've been doing is making things much harder for liberalizers and democratizers.” As did (per the portent of George Kennan, author of the containment doctrine) NATO expansion. “Can anybody tell any of us that the expansion of NATO increased the security of the West? Or even of those countries?” Cohen asked. “We're now in a new Cold War.”

There are, to be sure, many who would contest Cohen’s points, but, on the last of them, both Cohen and those who dismiss him are in agreement. American academics, journalists, and politicians who would bury or isolate or place blame solely on Russia, as well as those who want very much to prevent them from doing so, believe that we are in a new Cold War.

There are all sorts of reasons with which one could make the argument that it is not, in fact, helpful to think of ours as a world engulfed in a new Cold War. Berlin is not divided (nor is Germany, which is leading Europe economically and politically). Russia is not advancing an economic philosophy fundamentally at odds with our own. The globe can no longer be sliced into simple or binary spheres of influence, and Russia’s neighboring countries, now independent for over two decades, have agency and identity beyond that which either Russia or the West could foist upon them (even if the former annexes territory and the latter funds governments that even those sympathetic to their cause must admit were established through force). There are other issues—say, the rise of populism in Europe, or liberal democratic backsliding, or Eastern European countries coming to terms with their own problematic pasts—that did not exist, at least to the same extent, in the last millennium. But the phrase “new Cold War” erases all of that by rhetorically reinstating the roles of the last century. And so, too, do policies predicated on the idea of a new Cold War.

And policies are indeed predicated on it. On their websites, seven of the 10 presidential candidates currently polling over one percent say something to the effect of “Putin needs to learn that Russia is weak and America and NATO are strong,” and “we need to arm Ukraine.” Marco Rubio goes so far as to say that he would cut all diplomatic ties with Russia that do not involve the crisis in Ukraine (He is less specific about how he would make good on his later pledge to support Russian journalists and dissidents without any contact with the country, which does indeed still have nuclear weapons and veto power on the UN Security Council). Even candidates who do not mention Russia specifically gesture in its direction; Mike Huckabee’s website says that America needs to rediscover its “rightful place as leader of the Free World.” (The exception to this rule: In a twist that almost certainly could only exist in this election cycle, it was Donald Trump who offered a defense of Putin against accusations of assassinations, saying that the United States, too, kills plenty of people, a line that has since been used by Russian state-sponsored media.)

But, as Cohen points out, Republicans are not alone in making this stand. While Martin O’Malley’s website says only that Russia is neither an ally nor an adversary, and while Bernie Sanders’ mentions the country only in the context of the Iran deal, Hillary Clinton’s explicitly says, “Hillary has gone toe-to-toe with Putin before, and she'll do it again. She'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our European allies and help them decrease dependence on Russian oil. With our partners, Hillary will confine, contain, and deter Russian aggressions in Europe and beyond, and increase the costs to Putin for his actions.” No Clinton thaw, then.

And it isn’t only current candidates sporting this rhetoric of a new Cold War. Last year, during the State of the Union, President Obama announced, “, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads—not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” The crowd applauded the economic isolation of 140 something million people, all of whom, it should be noted, need to eat. What other country’s ruin is met with cheers? (This year, the State of the Union featured the misstatement that Russia is contracting its economy to “prop up” Ukraine, and the rather bold proclamation that we have defended Ukrainian democracy. Neither of these is factually accurate. Both of them would lead a listener to believe that Ukraine is either something to be won or lost by players outside of the country itself.)

But those who are critical of that perspective—that we are to defeat Russia—don’t say that no, we don’t, because it’s more complicated than that. They say that we are in a new Cold War, and that it’s our fault.

And so we are left with a situation in which we understand America and Europe as implicated in near everything, or in which the West does not need to take responsibility for anything. In both cases, there is a hero and a villain, a winner and a loser, because, according to both narratives, we’re at war.

And so, even though it is 2016, not 1956 (or, for that matter, 1986), and the inner workings of the Russian government are fundamentally different (perhaps not better, but certainly different) than they were in Soviet times, and each and every one of Russia’s East European neighbors has an identity that is more than “ex-Soviet”—even though all of this is so, we are indeed in a new Cold War. We are, after all, given according to our beliefs.


Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Previously, she was the associate editor at New America. Her writing has appeared in The Economist and Slate, among other publications. She received her bachelor's in Russian Literature from Columbia and her master's in Russian and East European Studies from Oxford. She has conducted independent research on the topic of Soviet dissidence in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, as a Fulbright grantee, in Bremen, Germany.