Stephen F. Cohen has long been one of the leading scholars of Russia and the Soviet Union. He wrote a biography of the Bolshevik revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin and is a contributing editor at the Nation, which his wife, Katrina vanden Heuvel, edits and publishes. In recent years, Cohen has emerged as a more ideologically dexterous figure, ripping those he thinks are pursuing a “new Cold War” with Russia and calling for President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to form “an alliance against international terrorism.” Cohen has gone so far as to describe the investigations into the Trump campaign and Russia “the No. 1 threat to the United States today.”
Cohen has been criticized by many people, myself included, for his defenses of Putin. (He once said the Ukraine crisis had been “imposed on [Putin] and he had no choice but to react.”) He scolded President Barack Obama for sending retired gay athletes to Sochi and recently went on Fox News to speak up for Trump’s war against leakers.
I spoke by phone with Cohen, who is also a professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton and the author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Cohen won’t concede that the Democratic National Committee was hacked, whether it’s fair to call Putin a murderer, and why we may be entering an era much more dangerous than the Cold War.
I heard you recently on Fox News. You said that the “assault” on President Trump “was the No. 1 threat to the United States today.” What did you mean by that?
Threat. OK. Threat. That’s a good word. We’re in a moment when we need an American president and a Kremlin leader to act at the highest level of statesmanship. Whether they meet in summit or not is not of great importance, but we need intense negotiations to tamp down this new Cold War, particularly in Syria, but not only. Trump is being crippled by these charges, for which I can find no facts whatsoever.
Wait, which charges are we talking about?
That he is somehow in the thrall or complicity or control, under the influence of the Kremlin.
I think it would help if he would admit what his own intelligence agencies are telling him, that Russia played some role in …
No, I don’t accept that. I don’t accept that at all, not for one minute.
People in the Trump administration admit this too.
Well they’re not the brightest lights.
And the president is?
No. You didn’t ask me that. You asked me, you said, some of the president’s people. You’re referring to that intel report of January, correct? The one that was produced that said Putin directed the attack on the DNC?
I was referring to that and many news accounts that Russia was behind the hacking, yes.
The news accounts are of no value to us. I mean you and I both know ...
No value? None?
No. No value. Not on face value. Just because the New York Times says that I don’t know, Carter Page or [Paul] Manafort or [Michael] Flynn did something wrong, I don’t accept that. I need to see the evidence.
So then how do you know what’s going on in, say, Ukraine? You’re not reading “news accounts” of it?
I read on the internet mainly. I can’t read Ukrainian very well, but most of the sources coming out of Ukraine are in Russian anyway.
So that media’s OK, but the New York Times isn’t?
No. It absolutely is not OK. No, no, no, no, no, no.
OK, let’s just go back to what you were saying about Trump being hamstrung.
You need Trump because he’s in the White House. I didn’t put him there. I didn’t vote for him. Putin’s in the Kremlin. I didn’t put him in the Kremlin either, but we have what we have, and these guys must have a serious dialog about tamping down these cold wars, which means cooperating on various fronts. The obvious one—and they already are secretly, but it’s getting torpedoed—is Syria.
So we come now with this so-called Russiagate. You know what that means. It’s our shorthand, right? And Trump, even if he was the most wonderfully qualified president, he is utterly crippled in his ability to do diplomacy with the Kremlin. So let me give you the counterfactual example.
Imagine that Kennedy had been accused of somehow being, they used to accuse him of being an agent of the Vatican, but let’s say he had been accused widely of being an agent of the Kremlin. The only way he could have ended the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been to prove his loyalty by going to nuclear war with Russia. That’s the situation we’re in today. I mean Trump is not free to take wise advice and use whatever smarts he has to negotiate down this new and dangerous Cold War, so this assault on Trump, for which as yet there are zero facts, has become a grave threat to American national security. That’s what I meant. That’s what I believe.
To use your Kennedy example, there was no evidence that Kennedy was an agent of either the Vatican or the Kremlin—
No, but Isaac you’re not old enough to remember, but during the campaign, because he was the first Catholic, they all went on about he’s an agent of the Vatican.
I know that. I’m old enough to have read “news accounts” of it. Anyway, there was a hacking of the DNC and—
Wait actually no, Isaac stop. Stop. Now, I mean we don’t know that for a fact.
That there was a hacking of the DNC?
Yeah we do not know that for a fact.
What do we think happened?
So you’re really going to argue with me that the DNC wasn’t hacked?
I’m saying I don’t know that to be the case.
I will refer you to an alternative report and you can decide yourself.
Can we agree on this much at least: that Trump said there was a hack, refused to say who he thought did it, encouraged the hackers to keep doing it, at the same time that he was getting intelligence reports that it was the Russians, and that he continued to talk very positively about Putin after he was told this?
You’ve given me too many facts to process, but if Trump said he knew it was a hack, he was not fully informed. We just don’t know it for a fact, Isaac.
So we don’t have any forensic evidence that there was a hack. There might have been. If there was a hack, we have no evidence it was the Russians, and we have an alternative explanation that it was actually a leak, that somebody inside did a Snowden, just stuck a thumb drive in and walked out with this stuff. We don’t know. And when you don’t know, you don’t go to war.
Let me try another tactic.
It’s not me making this stuff up. It’s not my opinion. It’s just out there. I read it, and I think it’s credible.
Why do you think Trump, who has essentially, as far as I can tell, no clue about what’s going on anywhere and can’t keep his mind on some issue for 10 minutes, has had in his head consistently time and again that we must make peace with Putin, we must come together with Putin, Putin’s a good guy? What do you make of that?
Well you have given me a kind of primitive version of what Trump said. First of all, I don’t share the view that Trump’s an idiot. Trump’s a clever, cunning, smart man, or he wouldn’t have become Donald Trump. Whether that’s applicable to the presidency is a different question, but to treat him as a buffoon and an idiot is just silly.
On the face of it, because it so deviated from American mainstream thinking about Putin, which was that he was a demon—that’s what was startling about Trump, you’re absolutely right. That he alone of all the candidates, even when we had multiple ones in the Democratic and Republican primaries, so far as I recall, he alone made this statement, I think I quote exactly, “Wouldn’t it be great if we cooperated with Russia?” My answer is not only great but imperative. He also said, he also said he didn’t know that Putin was actually a killer of personal enemies. That is correct. There is no evidence to support those allegations. He also said that Putin is a strong leader. That is also correct.
You say there’s no evidence Putin was a killer. Don’t you think if Russia had a more robust free press and was more of a liberal democracy, evidence might actually emerge?
There’s no evidence. I know there are allegations, but I have looked into the three or four most famous cases. I can’t look at them all because there’s about 30 now, some of them withdrawn.
So you’re saying these Putin enemies who keep turning up dead in Moscow, and then those deaths are not properly investigated, there’s no evidence that Putin was behind them? That’s your argument?
Not behind, that’s correct. He was not behind. He didn’t order the killings, yes.
We know that because there’s been a fair investigation and there’s a free press to report on that? That’s what you are saying?
I’m saying that the people with expertise and independence who examined, for example, the Litvinenko poisoning in London, find no evidence that Putin was involved. [Ed. note: A public inquiry in the United Kingdom found that Putin had “probably” approved his murder.] These are not Russians or Americans. These are just people who know about polonium. I’m saying that the newspaper in Moscow—and you’re not quite correct that there’s no free press in Moscow. There is a small, embattled free press in Moscow. I and my wife are very, very close, very close to the primary one, that’s Novaya Gazeta. That’s the newspaper that employed Anna Politkovskaya and several other journalists that were assassinated.
Who killed her?
I mean, I don’t know who killed her. They’ve arrested the gunman, but they never get to the contract-giver. It almost certainly came out of Chechnya, almost certainly.
And who runs Chechnya?
You’re headed now into a complicated turf.
You know who runs Chechnya, and you know who his patron is.
Let me put it to you like this: On the chart of federal authority, Ramzan Kadyrov runs Chechnya, and Putin could remove him.
OK, well, there you go.
No, that’s the beginning of the discussion. What would happen in Chechnya if Putin removed Kadyrov? He either leaves Kadyrov in power and tries to rein him in, or the Russian army tries again to occupy Chechnya, which was a catastrophe two times under Yeltsin. You can’t do it. What choice does Putin have at the moment?
Didn’t Putin speak disparagingly after Anna’s death and say she had “minimal influence”?
Wait a minute. Let me just get to the point. That notion that he had her killed and put his signature on it is beyond ridiculous. Why? The next day he comes out, there’s a press conference, and he’s asked about her killing and the charges that the Kremlin was behind it, and he said something that might have been, what’s the word? Not politic. Not diplomatic, but it was true. Essentially, I don’t remember exactly what he said. Why would we want to kill her? Nobody in Russia read her. She had no influence in Russia. What he said was about 95 percent true. Very few people except the inner political class knew who Anna Politkovskaya was, just like the great majority of Americans don’t know who Stephen Cohen and Isaac Chotiner are. We are known to the people who care about the things we do.
What he was saying was, when people said, Why did you kill her? He said, Why would I want to kill her? What was my motive? He shouldn’t have said it, I guess. He should have said, You know, Anna was a great journalist, we mourn her death, but let’s be serious. She was not an influential force in Russia. That would have been better but he just, he’s a blunt sort of guy. He said what he said.
Let’s turn to Putin and America. Why do you think we have entered a new Cold War?
My view is that this Cold War is even more dangerous. As we talk today, and this was not the case in the preceding Cold War, there are three new fronts that are fraught with hot war. You know them as well as I do. The NATO military build-up is going on in the Baltic regions, particularly in the three small Baltic countries, Poland, and if we include missile defense, Romania. That’s right on Russia’s border, and in Ukraine. You know that story. That’s a proxy civil war right on Russia’s border, and then of course in Syria, where American and Russian aircraft and Syrian aircraft are flying over the same airspace.
And there is the utter demonization of Putin in this country. It is just beyond anything that the American political elite ever said about Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and the rest. If you demonize the other side, it makes negotiating harder.
You just said that Ukraine is a civil war. What was the Russian annexation of Crimea?
There’s a long history, but it is a civil war in the sense that Ukraine is a country.
We agree on that.
And a nation, but a country that has long been deeply divided by history or by God. I mean, we’re talking ethnicity, language, religion, political tilting. One part tilts toward Russia, one part tilts toward the West. Many millions of Ukrainians and Russians have intermarried over the years. This is a country that always had the potential to either break apart or launch into civil war. The events of 2014, for which both sides are highly culpable, initiated a civil war. This entourage around Putin, one segment of it was absolutely 1,000 percent convinced that NATO was headed via Kiev to Crimea. Had Crimea fallen in any way to NATO, any way, even in the shadow of NATO, Putin would have had to either go to war or resign. No Russian leader would have been able to sustain that kind of defeat.
Gallup did a poll afterward that 80-some percent of Crimeans wanted to be reunited with Russia.
You’re explaining the way Putin and his advisers were thinking, which I agree is important context, but that doesn’t give you the right to invade a sovereign country regardless of what a Gallup poll may say.
Isaac, come on. Great powers preach international law, and they do what they think they must.
If a province in any country votes for independence … certainly the Crimeans did. There’s just no question that that was a legitimate referendum. People get a little confused about what the choice was.
But this referendum was after the Russians had gone in.
No, no, no. Well ... wait, wait, wait, wait. Russia was already there by treaty. There were approximately 23,000 Russian soldiers at the naval base in Crimea, at Sevastopol. It was an invasion only in the sense that they left the base on Crimea.
[The idea of Crimea being part of Russia] was alive in Russia for years and years. Putin was never interested in it. ... That was a sleeping dog, which should not have been awakened, but the events of 2014 awakened it. Once that happened, it was close to inevitable that Russia would proceed with the annexation of Crimea, which was a part of Russia for 300 years.
What’s now Pakistan was part of India for a long time. That doesn’t mean India can go in and take Lahore tomorrow.
You know if we follow your logic, we’re going to end up in Texas. We got to stay in modern history where leaders have a memory.
You and I are going to end up in Texas?
Well, you know what I mean. Texas wasn’t always ours. The point is how far back in history do we go?
That’s my point. Anyway, what did you mean when you said leakers here had become a fourth branch of government, and one intent on undermining Trump?
When I was asked what’s driving the leaking, because you would agree that virtually every day almost there’s a new news story that’s based on a leak. You have to go back to when it began, which was the summer of 2016. The Clinton campaign was deeply involved. You know the story of this dossier right?
The one BuzzFeed published?
It’s the one that has urinating in the Ritz-Carlton hotel.*
I was trying to get you to keep going without saying that, but there you go.
Well, take it out. But there’s a serious point here. CNN, where they broadcast 1,000 hours about this dossier as though it’s authentic, says it won’t repeat that part because it’s too salacious. No, the reason is if you broadcast that part, people would realize the whole thing is bullshit.
I don’t want to go down in a subway and get blown up. It’s going to happen. The Russians are excellent at this. They’ve got great intelligence. We’re pretty good—not as good as the Russians. We need to combine it all. I see that this kind of alliance is good; we move on then to finding the solution in Ukraine and in the Baltic region. That’s what Reagan did. Do you remember that Reagan going to Geneva, I think it was November 1985? Then two years later—I think this is right—he and Gorbachev for the first time in history, Isaac, abolished an entire category of nuclear weapons. This is what I want. This is probably what’s not possible.
Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. I hope when this is printed that you will believe it is real news and not fake news.
No, no, no. Let me make a distinction. Opinion, what you and I think, is real news. It’s our news. It’s what we think. But when I read in the newspaper that Carter Page was somehow a Russian agent, I had plenty of reasons to know that that is really a super bogus report.
What are those reasons? If you have intel on this, please let me know.
I mean for Christ’s sake. Have you watched Carter Page on television?
It’s not a pretty sight.
No, it’s not a pretty sight. Are the Russians stupid?
I’ve stopped answering all questions like that after Trump.
Do you really believe for example that [Russian Ambassador Sergey] Kislyak is the Russian spymaster in America?
How would I know?
Well, I can tell you. That’s not the way either embassy works. Moscow, America in Moscow, or Moscow here. The two activities are completely separate. Sometimes you know a fact because of things you’ve done in your life. You know when you see something reported as fact, you know it isn’t true, so you begin to ask questions. You’ve got to be like that too. I can’t believe you accept whatever is reported as a given.
Thank you for talking to me.
How unhappy will I be when this appears?
Correction, May 30, 2017: This article originally misstated that the Moscow hotel mentioned in the dossier was the St. Regis. It was the Ritz-Carlton. (Return.)