Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University talking with journalists of democracy now February 20, 2014
Transcript from video (min. 11:45 – 35:14)
(This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form)
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A short-lived truce has broken down in Ukraine as street battles have erupted between anti-government protesters and police. Last night, the country’s embattled president and the opposition leaders demanding his resignation called for a truce and negotiations to try to resolve Ukraine’s political crisis. But the truce only lasted a few hours. The last three days have been the bloodiest period of Ukraine’s 22-year post-Soviet history. Over 50 people have died, including at least 21 today. The truce ended today when armed protesters attempted to retake Independence Square. Both sides have accused the other of using live ammunition. A Ukrainian paramedic described the chaotic scene.
UKRAINIAN PARAMEDIC: [translated] Some bodies are at the concert hall. Some are at the barricades. Now there are maybe around 15 or 20 dead. It is hard to count, as some are carried away, others are resuscitated. Now, as far as I know, three dead people are at the city hall, and two more dead are at the main post office. There are so many at the concert hall that we didn’t even take them.
AMY GOODMAN: The Ukrainian parliament, Rada, and Cabinet buildings have reportedly been evacuated because of fears they could be stormed by protesters. The street clashes are occurring while the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, is meeting with the foreign ministers from Germany, Poland and France.
The Obama administration stepped up pressure on the Ukrainian government Wednesday by announcing a visa ban on 20 members of the Ukrainian government. The U.S. is also threatening to place sanctions on the Ukrainian government.
The protests began in late November after President Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union, or EU, to forge stronger ties with Russia instead.
To talk more about the latest in Ukraine, we’re joined 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, is now out in paperback. His latest piece in The Nation is called “Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent Putin, Sochi and Ukraine.”
So, talk about the latest, Professor Cohen.
STEPHEN COHEN: Where do you want me to begin? I mean, we are watching history being made, but history of the worst kind. That’s what I’m telling my grandchildren: Watch this. What’s happening there, let’s take the big picture, then we can go to the small picture. The big picture is, people are dying in the streets every day. The number 50 is certainly too few. They’re still finding bodies. Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle, because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West. We now have reliable reports that the anti-government forces in the streets—and there are some very nasty people among them—are seizing weapons in western Ukrainian military bases. So we have clearly the possibility of a civil war.
And the longer-term outcome may be—and I want to emphasize this, because nobody in the United States seems to want to pay attention to it—the outcome may be the construction, the emergence of a new Cold War divide between West and East, not this time, as it was for our generation, in faraway Berlin, but right on the borders of Russia, right through the heart of Slavic civilization. And if that happens, if that’s the new Cold War divide, it’s permanent instability and permanent potential for real war for decades to come. That’s what’s at stake.
One last point, also something that nobody in this country wants to talk about: The Western authorities, who bear some responsibility for what’s happened, and who therefore also have blood on their hands, are taking no responsibility. They’re uttering utterly banal statements, which, because of their vacuous nature, are encouraging and rationalizing the people in Ukraine who are throwing Molotov cocktails, now have weapons, are shooting at police. We wouldn’t permit that in any Western capital, no matter how righteous the cause, but it’s being condoned by the European Union and Washington as events unfold.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you say the Western countries who bear some responsibility, in what sense do they bear responsibility? I mean, clearly, there’s been an effort by the United States and Europe ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union to pull the former Soviet states into their economic sphere, but is that what you’re talking about?
STEPHEN COHEN: I mean that. I mean that Moscow—look at it through Moscow’s eyes. Since the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the U.S.-led West has been on a steady march toward post-Soviet Russia, began with the expansion of NATO in the 1990s under Clinton. Bush then further expanded NATO all the way to Russia’s borders. Then came the funding of what are euphemistically called NGOs, but they are political action groups, funded by the West, operating inside Russia. Then came the decision to build missile defense installations along Russia’s borders, allegedly against Iran, a country which has neither nuclear weapons nor any missiles to deliver them with. Then comes American military outpost in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which led to the war of 2008, and now the West is at the gates of Ukraine. So, that’s the picture as Moscow sees it. And it’s rational. It’s reasonable. It’s hard to deny.
But as for the immediate crisis, let’s ask ourselves this: Who precipitated this crisis? The American media says it was Putin and the very bad, though democratically elected, president of Ukraine, Yanukovych. But it was the European Union, backed by Washington, that said in November to the democratically elected president of a profoundly divided country, Ukraine, “You must choose between Europe and Russia.” That was an ultimatum to Yanukovych. Remember—wasn’t reported here—at that moment, what did the much-despised Putin say? He said, “Why? Why does Ukraine have to choose? We are prepared to help Ukraine avoid economic collapse, along with you, the West. Let’s make it a tripartite package to Ukraine.” And it was rejected in Washington and in Brussels. That precipitated the protests in the streets.
And since then, the dynamic that any of us who have ever witnessed these kinds of struggles in the streets unfolded, as extremists have taken control of the movement from the so-called moderate Ukrainian leaders. I mean, the moderate Ukrainian leaders, with whom the Western foreign ministers are traveling to Kiev to talk, they’ve lost control of the situation. By the way, people ask—excuse me—is it a revolution? Is it a revolution? A much abused word, but one sign of a revolution is the first victims of revolution are the moderates. And then it becomes a struggle between the extreme forces on either side. And that’s what we’re witnessing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the Ukrainian opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who admitted earlier today the opposition does not have full control of protesters in Independence Square.
ARSENIY YATSENYUK: The only chance to do it is to stop the riot police, to stop the protesters, to impose a DMZ, like demilitarized zone, and to move this conflict from the streets to the Parliament.
REPORTER 1: Parts of the protesters are out of control?
ARSENIY YATSENYUK: No one—I would be very frank, that the government doesn’t control the riot police, and it’s very difficult for the opposition to control Maidan. And there are a number of forces who are uncontrolled. This is the truth.
REPORTER 2: So, Ukraine is in chaos now.
ARSENIY YATSENYUK: Ukraine is in a big mess.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Professor Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: A moderate.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go—
STEPHEN COHEN: Who wants to be president.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to President Obama. He’s in Mexico for the big Mexico-Canada-U.S. summit talking about Ukraine.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With regard to Ukraine, along with our European partners, we will continue to engage all sides. And we continue to stress to President Yanukovych and the Ukrainian government that they have the primary responsibility to prevent the kind of terrible violence that we’ve seen, to withdraw riot police, to work with the opposition to restore security and human dignity, and move the country forward. And this includes progress towards a multi-party, technical government that can work with the international community on a support package and adopt reforms necessary for free and fair elections next year. Ukrainians are a proud and resilient people who have overcome extraordinary challenges in their history, and that’s a pride and strength that I hope they draw on now.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama in Mexico, Professor Cohen.
STEPHEN COHEN: What are you asking me to comment on?
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to his response.
STEPHEN COHEN: To what he just said? Shame. Shame. He is saying that the responsibility for restoring peace is on the Ukrainian government, and it should withdraw its security forces from the streets. But let me ask you, if in Washington people throwing Molotov cocktails are marching on Congress—and these people are headed for the Ukrainian Congress—if these people have barricaded entrance to the White House and are throwing rocks at the White House security guard, would President Obama withdraw his security forces? This is—this is—and do you know what this does? And let’s escape partisanship here. I mean, lives are at stake. This incites, these kinds of statement that Obama made. It rationalizes what the killers in the streets are doing. It gives them Western license, because he’s not saying to the people in the streets, “Stop this, stop shooting policemen, stop attacking government buildings, sit down and talk.” And the guy you had on just before, a so-called moderate leader, what did he just tell you? “We have lost control of the situation.” That’s what I just told you. He just confirmed that.
So what Obama needs to say is, “We deplore what the people in the streets are doing when they attack the police, the law enforcement official. And we also don’t like the people who are writing on buildings ‘Jews live here,'” because these forces, these quasi-fascist forces—let’s address this issue, because the last time I was on your broadcast, you found some guy somewhere who said there was none of this there. All right. What percent are the quasi-fascists of the opposition? Let’s say they’re 5 percent. I think they’re more, but let’s give them the break, 5 percent. But we know from history that when the moderates lose control of the situation, they don’t know what to do. The country descends in chaos. Five percent of a population that’s tough, resolute, ruthless, armed, well funded, and knows what it wants, can make history. We’ve seen it through Europe. We’ve seen it through Asia. This is reality. And where Washington and Brussels are on this issue, they won’t step up and take the responsibility.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, even in most recent history, whether you look at Libya or whether you look at the situation in Syria, where those presidents warned that there were extremist elements inside a broader popular movement that were eventually going to gain control, this seems like a replay in terms of what’s going on here in the Ukraine of a popular movement, but yet a very, very, as you say, right-wing movement—not only a right-wing movement, but a fascist movement with a history. Ukraine has had a history of a fascist movement going back to the days of Nazi Germany.
STEPHEN COHEN: Let’s go to real heresy. Let’s ask a question: Who has been right about interpreting recent events? Let’s go to the Arab Spring. Obama and Washington said this was about democracy now, this is great. Russia said, “Wait a minute. If you destabilize, even if they’re authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, you’re not going to get Thomas Jefferson in power. You’re going to get jihadists. You’re going to get very radical people in power all through the Middle East.” Looking back, who was right or wrong about that narrative? Have a look at Egypt. Have a look at Libya. Who was right? Can Russians ever be right about anything?
Now what are the Russians saying about Ukraine? They’re saying what you just said, that the peaceful protesters, as we keep calling them—I think a lot of them have gone home. There were many. By the way, at the beginning, there were hundreds of thousands, tens of thousands, of very decent, liberal, progressive, honorable people in the streets. But they’ve lost control of the situation. That’s the point now. And so, the Russians are saying, “Look, you’re trying to depose Yanukovych, who’s the elected government.” Think. If you overthrow—and, by the way, there’s a presidential election in a year. The Russians are saying wait ’til the next election. If you overthrow him—and that’s what Washington and Brussels are saying, that he must go—what are you doing to the possibility of democracy not only in Ukraine, but throughout this part of the world? And secondly, who do you think is going to come to power? Please tell us. And we’re silent.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to the famous leaked tape right now. The top State Department official has apologized to her European counterparts after she was caught cursing the European Union, the EU, in a leaked audio recording that was posted to YouTube. The recording captured an intercepted phone conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe. Nuland expresses frustration over Europe’s response to the political crisis in Ukraine, using frank terms.
VICTORIA NULAND: So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it. And, you know, [bleep] the EU.
AMY GOODMAN: While Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s comment about the EU dominated the news headlines because she used a curse, there were several other very interesting parts of her conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
GEOFFREY PYATT: Let me work on Klitschko, and if you can just keep—I think we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. Then the other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych, but we can probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.
VICTORIA NULAND: So, on that piece, Geoff, when I wrote the note, Sullivan’s come back to me VFR saying, “You need Biden?” And I said, “Probably tomorrow for an attaboy and to get the deets to stick.” So Biden’s willing.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Pyatt, speaking with Victoria Nuland. The significance of what she is saying? She also had gone to Ukraine and was feeding protesters on the front line.
STEPHEN COHEN: Cookies, cookies. Well, here again, the American political media establishment, including the right and the left and the center—because they’re all complicit in this nonsense—focused on the too sensational, they thought, aspect of that leaked conversation. She said, “F— the European Union,” and everybody said, “Oh, my god! She said the word.” The other thing was, who leaked it? “Oh, it was the Russians. Those dirty Russians leaked this conversation.” But the significance is what you just played. What are they doing? The highest-ranking State Department official, who presumably represents the Obama administration, and the American ambassador in Kiev are, to put it in blunt terms, plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of Ukraine.
Now, that said, Amy, Juan, you may say to me—neither of you would, but hypothetically—”That’s a good thing. We don’t like—we don’t care if he was elected democratically. He’s a rat. He’s corrupt.” And he is all those things. He is. “Let’s depose him. That’s what the United States should do. Then the United States should stand up and say, ’That’s what we do: We get rid of bad guys. We assassinate them, and we overthrow them.’” But in Washington and in Brussels, they lie: They’re talking about democracy now. They’re not talking about democracy now; they’re talking about a coup now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this is more from—
STEPHEN COHEN: And we—excuse me—and we should—we, American citizens, should be allowed to choose which policy we want. But they conceal it from us. And I’m extremely angry that the people in this country who say they deplore this sort of thing have fallen silent.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let’s listen to little bit more of the leaked conversation between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe.
VICTORIA NULAND: Good. So, I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.
GEOFFREY PYATT: Yeah. I mean, I guess, you think—in terms of him not going into the government, just let him sort of stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking, in terms of sort of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok and his guys. And, you know, I’m sure that’s part of what Yanukovych is calculating on all of this. I kind of—
VICTORIA NULAND: I think—I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the guy—you know, what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week. You know, I just think Klitsch going in, he’s going to be at that level working for Yatsenyuk. It’s just not going to work.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, speaking with Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. Stephen Cohen, this—this chess game—
STEPHEN COHEN: You don’t need me here. What do you need me for?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —this chess game that they’re conducting here?
STEPHEN COHEN: There it is. There it is.
AMY GOODMAN: But explain the names. Who is Klitsch, Yats?
STEPHEN COHEN: All right. And notice the intimacy with which the Americans deal with the two leading so-called “moderate”—and these are big shots, they both want to be president—Ukrainian opposition. Klitschko is Vitali Klitschko, a six-foot-eight former—he resigned his title two months ago to enter politics—heavyweight champion of the world. His residence has been Ukraine—I mean, Germany. He plays—he pays taxes in Germany. He’s a project of Merkel. He represents German interests. I’m sure he’s also faithful to Ukraine, but he’s got a problem. Yatsenyuk, however—not Yatsenyuk, but the other guy she calls “Yats” is a representative of the Fatherland Party. It’s a big party in Parliament. But Washington likes him a lot. They think he’ll be our man. So you could see what they’re saying. We don’t quite trust Klitschko. Now, if you want to get esoteric, that’s the tug between Washington and Berlin. They’re not happy with Merkel, the chancellor of Germany. They don’t like the role Merkel is playing, generally. They think Germany has gotten too big for its britches. They want to cut Merkel down. So you noticed Klitschko, the boxer, is Merkel’s proxy, or at least she’s backing him. You notice that they say, “He’s not ready for prime time. Let him do his homework.”
Now, this guy—I’m bad on Ukrainian names. Tyagnybok, that they say has got to play a role, he’s the leader of the Freedom Party, the Svoboda Party, but a large element of that party, to put it candidly, is quasi-fascist. And they’re prepared to embrace this guy. This is the guy, by the way, that Senator John McCain in November or December went to Kiev and embraced. Either McCain didn’t know who he was, or he didn’t care. The United States is prepared to embrace that guy, too—anything to get rid of Yanukovych, because they think this is about Putin. That’s all they really got on their mind.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, here you have President Obama, again, speaking yesterday in Mexico.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia. Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children, or chemical weapons, or towns being starved, because a despot wants to cling to power.
AMY GOODMAN: Who benefits from the instability, Professor Cohen, in Ukraine? And what does it mean for Putin? Is he concerned about this?
STEPHEN COHEN: Of course he’s concerned. It’s right on his borders, and it’s all tainting him. I mean, The Washington Post wrote an editorial yesterday. Putin is happy that the violence has broken out in the streets. Everybody understands, even The Washington Post understands, which understands almost nothing about Russia, but they got this, that during the Sochi Olympics, the last thing Putin wants is violence in Ukraine. So why is he happy about it? He deplores it. He’s unhappy. He’s furious at the president of Ukraine. He read him the Riot Act on the phone last night, that why doesn’t he get control of the situation? What is he doing? So Putin is not responsible for this. Can we speak about Obama?
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly.
STEPHEN COHEN: Very quickly. I grew up in the segregated South. I voted for him twice, as historical justice. That’s not leadership. That’s a falsification of what’s happening in Ukraine, and it’s making the situation worse, what he says, is that we deplore the violence and call upon Ukrainian government to withdraw its forces and stop the violence. He needs to talk about what’s happening in the streets.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And is it conceivable, if Ukraine descends into a further civil war, that Russia might intervene?
STEPHEN COHEN: It’s conceivable. It’s conceivable. Here—I mean, Yanukovych—you might say, as an adviser to Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, “Impose martial law now, because you’ve got bad PR in the West anyway, and you’re not in control of the situation.” The problem is, Yanukovych isn’t sure he controls the army.
AMY GOODMAN: He just fired the head of the army yesterday.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, we don’t know what it means, but it indicates he’s not too sure about the army. But, by the way, you asked, would Russia intervene? Would NATO intervene? NATO is all over the place. NATO was in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Ask yourself that: Would NATO send troops in? Is that, yes, you think they would?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I—
STEPHEN COHEN: We don’t know.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We don’t know, yeah.
STEPHEN COHEN: And we’re not going to be told, just like we’re not being told what’s going on in these private conversations about deposing the president of Ukraine. If they depose—
AMY GOODMAN: Unless they’re leaked again.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, and if the Russians leak them, it doesn’t count. Is that right?
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. can hardly protest, given the whole scandal with the NSA recording conversations.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, well, you know what they said. They said—they said, when this got leaked, that this is a low point in statecraft. After Snowden? After Snowden? I mean, what did Tennessee Williams used to say? Mendacity? Mendacity? The mendacity of it all? Don’t they trust us, our government, to tell us a little bit of the truth at last?
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Cohen, I want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to move onto Venezuela. Stephen Cohen is 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 just out in paperback. His latest piece in The Nation is “Distorting Russia: How the American Media Misrepresent [Putin], Sochi and Ukraine.” This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.