GWEN IFILL: And now we get the perspective of Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian studies and history emeritus at New York University and Princeton University.
What — why are — why are we in this position tonight, Professor Cohen? What is Putin’s endgame here?
STEPHEN COHEN, New York University: I don’t know where to begin, because I have just listened to two statements of the official American position, the position about where we are today and how we got here.
I think they’re fundamentally wrong. What we’re watching today is the worst kind of history being made, the descent of a new Cold War divide between West and East in Europe, this time not in faraway Berlin, but right on Russia’s borders through Ukraine.
That will be instability and the prospect of war for decades to come for our kids and our grandchildren. The official version is that Putin is to blame; he did this. But it simply isn’t true. This began 20 years ago when Clinton began the movement of NATO toward Russia, a movement that’s continued.
And even if we just go back to this November, just a few months ago, when the protesters came into the streets in Ukraine, Putin said to Europe and Washington, why are you forcing Ukraine to choose between Russia and Europe? We’re prepared with Europe to do a kind of mini-Marshall Plan to bail Ukraine out. Let’s do it together.
And that was refused by Washington and Brussels. And that refusal led to the situation today. And one last point. The worst outcome, you asked Michael, and he didn’t say, but he said what he didn’t want. The worst outcome, because we hear this clamor in Washington and we hear it in Europe, is a movement in response to what Putin’s done in Crimea to move NATO forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border.
We do that, Putin will certainly bring troops in from Russia itself. The troops in Crimea seem to be troops that were based at the naval base, not the troops in Russia. I’m not sure.
STEPHEN COHEN: And then you will have a real confrontation.
GWEN IFILL: Is this something that Putin has already made up his mind to do, or is there room for a negotiated settlement, a go-between, perhaps Angela Merkel from Germany?
STEPHEN COHEN: Yes.
I mean, Merkel is a key player in this, because Putin doesn’t trust Obama, doesn’t consider him a strong and resolute leader. He likes Merkel. They have got their problems. He speaks German together. They speak German together.
But, I mean, the fundamental issue here is that, three or four years ago, Putin made absolutely clear he had two red lines. You remember Obama’s red lines in Syria. But Putin was serious. One was in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. NATO and NATO influence couldn’t come there.
The other was in Ukraine. We crossed both. You got a war in Georgia in 2008, and you have got today in Ukraine because we, the United States and Europe, crossed Putin’s red line. Now, you can debate whether he has a right to that red line, but let’s at least discuss it. Let’s discuss it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s kind of the question. That’s kind of the question, isn’t it?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let me turn it back to you, because it — what I hear is in the American commentary is, Russia has no legitimate national interests abroad, not even on its borders, as though we don’t care what happens in Canada and Mexico.
I mean, if you come to that point — and we never said that about the Soviet Union, by the way. We recognized the Soviet Union had national interests. If the position is, there are no legitimate national security interests that Russia can defend, then we are where we are. If we acknowledge those interests, there are ways to negotiate out of this crisis, though I’m not sure Obama can do it.
GWEN IFILL: Well, can Kerry do it?
STEPHEN COHEN: No.
GWEN IFILL: That’s the one who is headed tomorrow to Kiev.
What should he be trying to do at the meeting?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I don’t think Kerry is going to Kiev for the reason he’s giving. He says he’s going to find out what this so-called government in Kiev wants.
It’s an extremist government with no constitutional or international legitimacy. It’s unelected. I think what Kerry is doing is going to Kiev to chill out that government, which has been issuing provocative anti-Russian statements. What Kerry and Obama should do is beg Merkel to keep talking to Putin, because he trusts her, for better or worse.
GWEN IFILL: Why is any of this important to anyone who is not in Russia or Ukraine?
STEPHEN COHEN: I told you at the top. I mean, you and I are old enough to have lived through divided Europe in Berlin.
And we were lucky, they say, that we survived it. Now imagine that on the borders of Russia. I mean, just imagine what that means, the possibility of provocation, the possibility of misunderstanding.
And let me mention one other thing. You want to talk about Russia’s ties to Ukraine? There is simply much more primary. Tens of millions of Russians and Ukrainians are married. They are married. They are conjugal. They have children together.
You want to divide — put a new Iron Curtain or whatever you call it right through that biological reality? This is madness. It’s gone too far.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Stephen Cohen of the NYU and Princeton, thank you very much.