INTERVIEW. Montesanti, Edu: Prof. Peter Kuznick on US-Russia Relations

INTERVIEW. Montesanti, Edu: Prof. Peter Kuznick on US-Russia Relations

Several experts all over the world state that the global scenario today is more troubling than at any point in the Cold War. This is what the renowned American Historian Peter Kuznick believes. too, who also points out that the risk of nuclear confrontation are the most serious in decades, comparable to the highly tense years 1953 and 1949.

The world is living under the uncertainty of what will accompany President-elect Donald Trump upon his arrival at the White House, especially with regard to US relations with Russia. Professor Dr. Peter Kuznick talks about the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow and what can be expected from the President-elect. The head of the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the American University in Washington points to positive matters in Trump's election for US-Russia relations, but warns: "Some of the people who have advised and will advise Trump are Russophobes."

The historian refutes the widespread idea in the West that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to recreate the Russian empire.  "The U.S. media and political leaders have been demonizing Putin". He also comments US foreign policy all over the world according to international law: "The United States made a mockery of international law throughout the Cold War and continues to do so today".

Below, the full interview with one of the most respected historians in the world.

Edu Montesanti: How do you evaluate the Barack Obama administration's policy toward Russia, both about Russian borders and especially about what can be considered the epicenter of the new Cold War, that is, Syria?

Peter Kuznick: Obama's foreign policy has been very much of a mixed bag. He has resisted the hawks in a number of areas and done some positive things such as the Iran nuclear deal. But his policy toward Russia has been narrowminded and wrongheaded.

He and other policymakers think they can treat Russia the way the elder Bush and Bill Clinton did in the 1990s. It took them a while to realize that Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin. 

Yeltsin was willing to acquiesce in almost anything the U.S. wanted to do, including the dangerous expansion of NATO, even though top U.S. officials promised Gorbachev that they would not expand NATO one thumb's width to the east. NATO has now expanded to 12 more nations, the final two under Obama.

Is the world living a new Cold War between the US/allies and Russia, with "proxy wars"? Annie Machon, a former intel­li­gence officer for MI5, observed two years ago: "Unfortunately, I have to agree with Gorbachev - we are indeed facing a new Cold War, and this time it is of America's making". She added: "This is being fabricated by the USA, as that country always needs an Emmanuel Goldstein figure to justify its military-industrial complex (...). The first front line in this new Cold War is the internet." Your view, please, Professor Kuznick.

Yes, there is a new Cold War and the situation is very dangerous.It has been driven in large part by Obama, Clinton, Gates, and Kerry. In some ways it is more dangerous than the old Cold War. At least then the two sides respected and understood each other. They knew that there were certain red lines that they avoided crossing. This time the two sides are disdainful of each other and the rules are in flux.

We've been in a new Cold War for years now. Perhaps it started in 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Perhaps it started in 2008 with Bush's announcement that he wanted to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. Libya was a major blow. 

It got worse in 2014 with the coup in Kiev, followed by the annexation of Crimea and the civil war in the Donbass. Then the U.S. and Europeans imposed sanctions and began planning for a troop buildup in the Baltics. On top of that the U.S. deployed its missile defense systems to Poland and Romania. 

The Russians have responded with their Iksander system. Plus the Russian bombing in Syria in 2015 caught the West off guard. Russia has been modernizing its military and dramatically improving its capabilites. it is not the same force that looked so inept in 2008. 

So the danger is not just of a new Cold War but of a new hot war. Clinton's proposed no-fly zone over Syria would have been extremely dangerous. Gen. Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would have provoked a war between the U.S. and both Syria and Russia. 

There are three major fronts -- anyone of which could explode at any time.

The Ukrainian/Crimean situation seems to be a frozen conflict of late. Kiev refuses to implement the Minsk agreement. Sakashvilli recently resigned as governor of Odessa, citing the rampant corruption in the Porshenko administration. Others are equally frustrated with the deepseated corruption. And there is no motion toward decentralizing power and granting more autonomy to the Donbass region as required under the Minsk agreement. But that conflict is more frozen than volatile. 

The other two are more dangerous. First comes Syria where Hillary Clinton and others have been calling for a no-fly zone. Obama has limited direct U.S. military involvement, but the U.S. has been intensely involved indirectly, supplying arms and assistance to groups that refuse to separate themselves from the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Many of those arms end up in Al Qaeda or ISIS hands. Russia has renewed its assault on Aleppo. 

American leaders like Samantha Power accuse them of "barbarism." This sounds hypocritical when the U.S. is taking similar actions in Mosul. Gen. Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that a no-fly zone would mean war with both Russia and Syria. Both the U.S. and Russia are flying over Syria and conducting bombing campaigns. That poses the risk of a military confrontation. 

The situation there looked more promising for a while when Kerry and Lavrov came up with plans for a joint bombing campaign on September 9--a deal that many in the U.S. opposed, including Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. The whole thing blew up when U.S. forces "accidentally" bombed and killed dozens of Syrian army troops. A Russian ceasefire calmed the situation for a brief while, but now it is heating up again.

The other is in the Baltics and Poland, where NATO has been putting troops, tanks, and other military equipment on Russia's border. Russia has responded by putting its S-400 anti-missile system and its Iksander nuclear capable missile system into Kaliningrad, a small enclave between Poland and Lithuania. 

How do you evaluate Trump's victory regarding terrorism specifically in Syria, and for the normalization of US-Russian relations?

 Trump is a wildcard. No one knows what he will do -- probably including him. He is not very well informed when it comes to world affairs.

He has said some wise things about Russia and NATO. He indicates that he will seek friendlier relations with Russia, which would be a good thing. Anything right now that can reduce the rise of war between our countries is extremely welcome. 

We should be working together in Syria. Without U.S.-Russian collaboration, there is no hope for a settlement. That will involve keeping Assad in power for the time being, but I think he will ultimately have to go. He has behaved in a brutal and repressive fashion and will not be able to bring the opposition back into the political process. I think Putin understands this. But this is no other alternative to Putin in the short run. Trump and Putin say they can work with each other. Let's give it a try.

During the campaign, most of my Russian colleagues supported Trump. I gave several addresses at universities and conferences in Moscow and on other forums in which I supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. This was not a popular view in Russia, although the majority of students at MGIMO, who were planning to be future diplomats, agreed with me. That was not the case among students and professors at Moscow State University. But I warned them that it was better to stick with the devil you knew than take a chance on the devil you don't know, especially when that devil was as rash and unpredictable as Donald Trump.

Trump may sound better on U.S.- Russian relations, but he was worse on other things, including his nuclear policies, which were frightening. Clinton was bad; Trump is potentially disastrous. I'm holding my breath. Some of the people he has appointed to Cabinet and advisory positions are extremely hawkish.

Some of the people who have been and will be advising him are Russophobes. They still see Russia as the enemy and are trying to convince Trump to reverse himself on Russia. Almost the entire Republican and Democratic foreign policy establishments feel this way. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain are leading the charge. Hillary Clinton is not far behind. Will Trump stay resolute in the face of so much pressure? No one knows.

Gen. Michael Flynn, his national security advisor. has been more reasonable. Trump, you must remember, is full of contraditory ideas and impulses. He wants to work with Russia against terrorism. Good. But he has also called the Iran nuclear deal a terrible agreement that he wants to change. Russia was instrumental in bringing that into effect. Putin also knows how important Iran has been in Iran and Syria. So Trump will have to reverse himself on Iran or face a confrontation with Russia.

Unfortunately, Trump's inner circle and potential appointees are united on one thing--they all want a tougher policy toward Iran. So that is very troubling. What does Trump do there? Putin also understands the importance of dealing with global warming. Trump is a climate denier, which makes him a science-denying ignoramus. But the consequences of that position can also be disastrous. So the situation is compilcated.

What do you think of the Kremlin's position on Washington?

The U.S. media and political leaders have been demonizing Putin. This is counterproductive. It gets us nowhere. They have been stoking fears of a Russian invasion of the Baltics. There is no evidence to support this. Putin doesn't want to recreate the Russian empire.

During the Soviet period, Russia maintained friendly governments as a buffer zone between itself and the West, particularly Germany, which it feared after being invaded twice by Germany in a 25 year period. But Eastern Europe wasn't an asset for Russia. In fact, it was a drag on the Russian economy. That plus a bloated military budget caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin doesn't need or want a new empire. He just wants Russia to be taken seriously as a major power and consulted on decisions affecting its fate.

During the Yeltsin years, the U.S. and the Western Europeans got used to riding roughshod over Russia. Yeltsin gave in on almost everything they wanted from imposing shock therapy on the Russia economy, which allowed the West and Russia's new gangster capitalists to basically ransack it, to expanding NATO, which eventually reached Russia's border.

When NATO and the EU overreached, Putin said enough is enough. The West needs to start recognizing that there are limits as to how far they can go in imposing their views on the world. Russia and China are making that clear. Trump seems to understand better than Bush and Obama did. But we have to wait to see if his actions are true to his words. 

According to international law, how do you see US foreign policy, which imposes American economic interests first everywhere, using miitary force?

The United States made a mockery of international law throughout the Cold War and continues to do so today. It is almost comical to hear American officials complain of Russian interference in the U.S. elections when the U.S. has been interfering in elections all over the world for 70 years. It is almost comical to hear the U.S. complaining about Russia hacking emails and committing cyber theft when the Edward Snowden exposed the extent of U.S. cyber operations that reached into every country on the planet.


It is almost comical to hear the U.S. take umbrage over the Russian incorporation of Crimea or intervention into Ukraine, when the United States has been invading country after country and has its Special Forces operating in some 135 nations. Trump has said some very troubling things along these lines. He has embraced the use of torture. He expressed his desire to maintain the prison at Guantanamo. He has threatened to not only kill terrorists but also to kill their family members. These would all be violations of international law. 

 How do you evauate Washington's view having Russia as his enemy number 1, an increasing threat to its national secutiry? The New York Times wrote on November 17, 2016: "(...) The new administration should confront fast-evolving threats involving Iran, North Korea, Syria and Russia, among others, and how it should manage relations with allies in Europe and Asia".

 Trump says he wants to get along with Russia and thinks he can. The New York TimesWashington Post, and the foreign policy elites, both neoconservative and neoliberal, are pushing for confrontation. 

Mitt Romney said four years ago that Russia was the United States' number one enemy. And he's supposed to be the adult in the room. 


Do you think that Presidnt-elect Trump will not give in to the intense pressure around him, to confront Russia?

Let's remember that President-elect Trump said during his campaign: "We have been disrespected, mocked and ripped off for many, many years by people that were smarter, shrewder, tougher." Mr. Trump also criticized President Obama for pulling troops out too soon from Iraq. Doesn't his discourse evidences a deep contradiction?

 The main point is that Trump is full of contradictions that are obvious to everyone but himself. No one has any idea which Donald Trump will actually win out. He is trying to placate both his base, who want no part of war and empire, and the establishment figures who demand the U.S. remain the world's sole superpower and hegemon. 

There is strong potential for an alliance of the progressive left and the libertarian right--the Bernie supporters and the Paul supporters -- to defeat the hawkish policies of the establishment aimed at maintaining the American empire. 

Trump and Putin have both decried the notion of American exceptionalism, but then Trump contradicts himself with the nonsense about making America great again. Who knows what that means? 

Do you think the world, or at least the West really needs NATO and the UE army?

 I agree with Trump that NATO has outlived its usefulness. In fact, the world would have been better off if Truman had never created it in the first place. Khrushchev and Kennedy were moving toward ending the Cold War and dismantling the military alliances in 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated. Gorbachev again proposed such measures in 1989. Unfortunately, George H.W. Bush squandered that opportunity as Reagan had squandered the chance to eliminate nuclear weapons in 1986. 


At a minimum, NATO needs to reverse its recent military expansion and drop plans to send thousands of NATO troops to the Baltics. 


Is the world under the risk of a nuclear attack?

The risk of nuclear warfare is very serious. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock at 3 minutes to midnight. The most dangerous it's ever been was 2 minutes to midnight. The reality is that tensions between the U.S. and Russia are the worst they've been in 54 years. 

What Kennedy and Khrushchev learned during the Cuban Missile Crisis is that once a crisis develops, it quickly spins out of control. Despite the fact that both of them were trying desperately to avoid a nuclear war in 1962, they realized that they had lost control. It wasn't brilliant statesmanship that saved us, it was pure dumb luck. They moved after that to eliminate any conflict that might cause another crisis. That was Khrushchev's initiative and Kennedy eventually responded. 

There are now several situations that could spin out of control. If that happens, they could escalate without anyone wanting them to. Who backs down? Who accepts defeat? Putin? Trump? We need to defuse all the crises before they get to that point.

 We also have a very dangerous situation between India and Pakistan. Recent scientific studies by Professors Robock, Toon, Stenchikov, and others show that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which 100 small Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons were used could cause partial nuclear winter resulting in the death of up to 2 billion people. 

There are currently 15,300 nuclear weapons in the world. 95 percent or so are controlled by the U.S. and Russia. Most are 8 to 80 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. What would happen if there was a relatively small nuclear exchange? We know that if the cities burned, they would produce so much smoke that the sun's rays would be blocked and termperatures would drop below freezing for years. Humans and large animals would die off as agriculture collapsed. All life on the planet would be threatened. 

The nuclear winter theory that scientists had developed in the 1980s came under heavy assault and was widely ridiculed. But the latest studies show that scientists were only wrong in that they underestimated the extent of the damage that would be caused. It is actually worse than we thought in the 1980s. The threshold for ending life on our planet is lower. 

While there are far fewer nuclear weapons now than the 70,000 that once existed, there are far more than enough to cause nuclear winter. So that is the challenge for our species. We must avoid conflicts and wars that could lead to nuclear war. 

Does Trump understand this? I hope so for all of our stakes.


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey