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Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings on Ukraine and Russia Crises

Stephen P. CohenBrookings Senior Fellow Stephen Philip Cohen (Twitter @AbuCohen) is an expert on security and nuclear non-proliferation issues, particularly in South Asia. He is often confused with Columbia University's Stephen F. Cohen, a scholar of Russian studies who has recently come under some criticism for his seemingly pro-Putin and pro-Russia views in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis. Stephen P. Cohen of Brookings, whose views are, as he puts it, "opposite" those of the other, was recently asked by Pravda.ru to answer some questions about the situation in Ukraine. Here is that interview reprinted from the original email:

From: [Pravda.ru email address]

Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 3:59 AM

To: Stephen Cohen

Subject: Stephen Cohen - Comment for Pravda.Ru

Dear Mr. Cohen,

I'm writing from the Russian online newspaper Pravda.Ru. Professor Robert Bruce Ware recommended me to write you. We would be pleased to get your comment about the situation in and around the Ukraine. It would be great if you would answer our questions in writing or via Skype.

1) Recently the nuclear safety summit in Hague was held.
 There are the nuclear stations in Ukraine that work on the fuel transported from Russia, and some experts worry that some of the Right sector party radicals would try to attack some of the strategic objects. The results could be rather catastrophic, if such militants would take control of it.
 Why, from your point of view, the West doesn’t take this issue into account and doesn’t speak about it?

I'm not sure who these "experts" are, but I do know that both the U.S. and Russia have had problems with safety and security of nuclear materials in the past. The solution is to help the Ukraine with its own fuel management, improving their internal security system, etc. As for why the West does not speak about this I do not know, but there are government-to-government discussions going on now and this particular issue is overshadowed by the greater destabilization of the region that has occurred. The strategy for the U.S. should not be to develop strategies to punish Russia but to help liberal and democratic groups in Ukraine.

2) Ukraine proclaimed that it intends to withdraw the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The corresponding bill was introduced in Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine. Is there a danger that Ukraine will turn into the nuclear power? Will there be any consequences if so?

SPC: This would be both unwise and improbable. To prevent it, Ukraine's borders should be regarded as inviolable so that it has no need to rebuild its nukes (which would be technically difficult in any case), and its conventional forces should be strong enough to deter any neighbor from meddling.

3) As we know, General Assembly of UN approved the resolution according to which the referendum on Crimea was illegal. Does that mean that these 100 countries that voted for it don't consider the opinion of people in Crimea as something important? Don't people who are against the authorities they didn't choose have a right to make such a decision?

SPC: The question is the rights of minorities, both in Ukraine and Crimea; if (as in the case of Pakistan) a power regards itself as a protector of a minority group in another country then the world will become very unsafe. Minorities, whether Russians or non-Russian Ukrainians, should be protected so that this meddling does not happen. Hitler moved into Austria for the same reason. It's a bad principle. Ask the Indians.

4) Obama admitted that sanctions against Russia would do no good for West. So will there be any serious sanctions against Russia eventually? Is it correct for the USA to blame Russia for the aggression after the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yugoslavia?

SPC: Some of these "aggressions" were misguided. For example, we should not have gone into Iraq before ensuring that Afghanistan was going to be settled and stable.We may wind up with a limited defeat in both countries. The major difference is that the U.S. pulled out of those countries and never thought of incorporating them into the Union.

Get recent research and commentary on Ukraine and also nuclear nonproliferation.


  • Fred Dews

The State of the U.S.-India Relationship

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivers an address at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) in Mumbai (REUTERS/Vivek Prakash).

Event Information

September 18, 2013
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM EDT

Falk Auditorium
Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

Register for the Event

On September 27, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. Over the last decade and a half, U.S.-India relations have progressed steadily, albeit with some hiccups along the way. More recently, there has been a sense that the relationship has been dominated by drift and differences, but even so, the bilateral relationship today is broader and deeper than ever before.

On September 18, the India Project at Brookings hosted a discussion on the state of U.S.-India relations, exploring the foreign and security policy, economic, energy and people-to-people dimensions of the relationship, the prospects for further cooperation and the differences that might persist. Panelists included Subir Gokarn, director of research of Brookings India in New Delhi; Tanvi Madan, fellow and director of the India Project; Neil Ruiz, senior policy analyst and associate fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program; and Charles Ebinger, senior fellow and director of the Brookings Energy Security Initiative. Brookings Senior Fellow Stephen P. Cohen moderated the discussion.



Event Materials


Asia Pivot: Obama’s Ticket out of Middle East?

Members of Security Force Advisor Team 10 provide sniper coverage during a shura - a meeting between village elders, U.S. troops and Afghan National Security Forces - near Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan (REUTERS/Andrew Burton).

Ever since the United States’ “pivot” to Asia was announced in 2011, there has been lively debate over its content, its potential effects on U.S.-China relations, and, more recently, whether or not it will actually happen.

The motivation for the pivot seems clear: the global “center of gravity” is shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the United States needs to respond. We argue that this geostrategic motivation is not the only reason for the pivot: equally important is President Obama’s desire to exchange the long, costly, and increasingly politically unpopular war in Afghanistan, as well as the broader focus on the unstable, violent Middle East, for the relative stability of East Asia.

The President’s desire to get out of Afghanistan can be seen in his approach to the war in Iraq. Eleven years ago, then-State Senator Barack Obama launched his national political career with a speech claiming that the upcoming invasion of Iraq was “rash,” irresponsible, and downright “dumb.” Saddam Hussein did not pose an immediate threat to the United States, Obama argued, and the war would require an occupation “of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” The song by the Scottish indie rock group, Camera Obscura, expresses the strategy perfectly: “let’s get out of this country.”

While the president was never as vocally opposed to the war in Afghanistan, his views on it today are very similar to his picture of pre-war Iraq: the Taliban, by itself, does not pose an immediate threat to the U.S. homeland, and after twelve years of occupation, we still face an Afghan civil war of undetermined length, cost, and consequences. The solution? We leave as quickly as we can without a complete collapse of the Afghan government.

To be fair, Afghanistan isn’t the only country where the U.S. is engaged in the Middle East, especially if we draw it like Vali Nasr does, extending from Pakistan to Morocco. Pakistan, the fifth largest nuclear state, has a marginally competent government and is aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan while ineffectively fighting its own set of Islamist militants; Iran is creeping closer to a nuclear weapon and refuses to respond to U.S. pressure; and the United States has been largely unable to shape events in Syria and Egypt. The U.S. has not fared well in the Middle East over the last ten years, and from a political perspective, a shift in focus is completely understandable.

But why “rebalance” to Asia, instead of simply bringing the troops home? One answer is the usual geostrategic one: we must maintain our alliance and economic interests in the area and help ensure that China’s rise to power is as peaceful as possible. That may be true five years from now, but there are political reasons that may be more important today.

First, while the Obama administration has little taste for costly counterinsurgencies, the president clearly does believe in a foreign policy of global engagement, and is willing to undertake relatively politically safe interventions that don’t directly risk American lives, such as the NATO air campaign in Libya. The pivot is even safer: while there are real international tensions in Asia, the possibility of the newly deployed U.S. Marines in Australia or the large American bases in Korea and Japan coming under attack is nearly nonexistent.

Second, engagement in the Asia-Pacific region allows the U.S. military to play to its strengths: air and naval forces oriented toward other major powers. The United States enjoys enormous advantages in air and sea power over any other military, but during the last twelve years of asymmetric ground wars, the allocation of defense resources shifted away from this traditional focus, with the Air Force and Navy’s share of the defense budget dropping from 54 percent in 2000 to just 41 percent in 2008. Today, while the Army and Marine Corps are facing major cuts, the Navy and Air Force budgets are holding steady. And while growing Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities reduce American military superiority in this realm, naval and aerial competition remains far more palatable than continued ground-based conflict for an American president and public weary of war. Further, the majority of the U.S. military as a whole wants to stop fighting these draining and frustrating wars, and welcomes a return to a region chock-full of genuine allies like South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan.

But why does the motivation behind the pivot matter, if the strategy is already being implemented? The more dependent the pivot is on President Obama’s personal convictions, the need to generate political cover for the departure from Afghanistan, and the whims of U.S. public opinion, the more likely it is to evaporate the moment President Obama leaves the White House, or even before. This is a problem because the pivot is meant to reassure American allies in Asia of continued U.S. engagement and manage the gradual rise of China–and a short pivot, or even a pivot that Asian leaders believe will be short, cannot accomplish those goals. The pivot is already frequently depicted as a paper tiger, and if the pivot is more about getting out of Afghanistan than about long-term engagement in Asia, this critique will be proven right.

If there is a price to pay, it will not occur on Obama’s watch. The spread of extremism to Pakistan, and then to India—a new version of the domino theory—may be reading too much into the situation, but it is a reasonable scenario to consider. Crises between India and Pakistan are also likely to recur, and we still believe as a government that Pakistan belongs to Af-Pak and the Middle East, rather than to South Asia. It is natural to think “Let’s get out of this country,” but it is also poor statecraft. The real question is: how can the resources of the rising powers, China and India, be brought to bear on the weaknesses and fragility of the Middle East and Pakistan? This is a question ignored by this administration as it purports to undertake a major shift in U.S. strategy, and we will probably have to wait for another president to see it asked again.


Publication: The Diplomat
Image Source: © Andrew Burton / Reuters

The India-Pakistan Conundrum: Shooting for a Century

Event Information

June 14, 2013
10:00 AM - 11:30 AM EDT

Saul/Zilkha Rooms
Brookings Institution
1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20036

The rivalry between India and Pakistan has proven to be one of the world’s most intractable international conflicts. In his new book, Shooting for a Century (Brookings Press, 2013), Brookings Senior Fellow Stephen P. Cohen explores the origins and costs of India-Pakistan hostility, various explanations of why the dispute endures, past and current efforts to normalize the relationship, as well as the consequences of nuclearization. He argues that the prospects for normalization are poor, but because of the stakes and urgency, it is a process deserving of bilateral effort and greater world attention. Cohen also outlines suggestions as to how the rivalry might end, as well as the approach he believes the United States should take vis-à-vis the rivalry.

On June 14, the India Project at Brookings hosted the launch of Shooting for a Century with a discussion on present and past ties between India and Pakistan, prospects for normalization, as well as what role, if any, the U.S. should play. Brookings Distinguished Fellow Thomas Pickering and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Senior Associate Ashley J. Tellis joined Cohen for the discussion. Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings, introduced the session. Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project, moderated the discussion.




How Not to Deal with Defense Corruption in India

Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials carry a bag of documents after conducting a raid at a building as part of probes into the AgustaWestland bribery case in New Delhi March 13, 2013

The furore over the latest arms procurement scandal in India — this time over the AgustaWestland helicopters — has led, predictably, to calls for greater indigenisation of the military industrial complex, as if excluding foreign weapons-makers will clean up the corruption.

The problem is not foreign suppliers, but a defence marketplace where domestic industry produces low-quality weapons at great cost, often late, which India’s armed services do not want. To the extent that foreign suppliers act in venal manner, it is because India’s defence marketplace is dysfunctional. Excluding foreign sellers only reduces the number of players and externalises the problem; it does not stop corruption.

The so-called “China solution,” which lauds Beijing’s success in weapons development and manufacture, is misconstrued: China’s self-reliance has not produced new conventional weapons. Chinese aircraft, tanks and ships are quite ordinary platforms. Its successes in nuclear, missile, laser, and cyberwar technologies are all unconventional. The causes of Chinese successes in unconventional military technologies are many, but it is worth remembering that the Chinese government has used an extensive spying campaign in pursuit of commercial and military secrets. This consequences of the campaign are now catching up with Beijing as the United States and other Western powers gear up to prevent Chinese infiltration.

As an emerging power, India is better off being seen as a benign force. It is better off buying technology rather than stealing it. It is better off inviting the world to participate in its rise than keeping the world outside and suspicious. Better off acting transparently in the defence marketplace even at the cost of sacrificing secrecy. Better off reforming its procurement system, rather than winnowing down the market. India buys weapons from foreign suppliers not only to develop military capacity but also to build relationships with other key countries that facilitate its rise.

The key instrument of economic efficiency in any market, pricing, is mind-bogglingly inefficient when it comes to armaments. Weapons in the same category made by different manufacturers are not readily comparable, especially at the higher rungs of the technology ladder. There are too few sellers and even fewer buyers to make a truly competitive market. Further, the value of a particular weapon-system in the context of a national security strategy is hard to calculate. Try, for example, figuring out whether missiles or attack aircraft have greater utility; practically every government faced with the decision went with both, the most expensive and least efficient option.

India’s defence market faces these challenges and more. We argued in our book Arming without Aiming that Indian military procurement is disconnected from national objectives. Indian grand strategy de-emphasises the use of force and consequently, the military receives little strategic guidance from the political leaders. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, for example, has repeatedly said at conferences with Indian military commanders that the country’s primary threats are internal, without publicly clarifying the role of the armed forces in meeting internal security challenges. Only the Indian army participates in internal security operations, that too, in well defined areas such as Kashmir; what should the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy do? According to the Constitution, the armed forces are not responsible for internal security. The police, which is responsible for domestic law and order, remains in the hands of the states and outside the ability of the Central government to reform.

On the military side, the result is that the services are left to define the threats they believe the country faces and accordingly they appear to be preparing to fight three different wars against three different enemies. Today, the army thinks it needs an air force of its own, the navy wants to acquire its own thermonuclear capability, and the IAF appears to be planning for wars independent of the other two services. India was one of the first countries in the world to integrate officer training — at the NDA and the Staff College — but everything else seems to be contributing to service rivalries. India’s unified commands are feeble and there is no movement on a new combined defence chief. Only actual wars and initial setbacks seem to produce inter-service cooperation, such as between the army and the IAF in Kargil.

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of military expertise in the political and bureaucratic class. Several retired defence secretaries we spoke with during the course of writing Arming without Aiming reported that it was not until their second or third postings in the ministry that they had acquired a sense of competence in the field. Arun Singh, one of the more respected defence ministers in Indian history, once proposed keeping certain IAS and IFS officers in defence-related positions for much of their careers — in effect creating a specialist cadre within the civilian bureaucracy. Another option might be to bring in outside civilian experts from the academy or journalism into government for short-periods of time like in the American system, but the thought of lateral entry into the civil service, or a defence cadre within the IAS, remains unthinkable.

The Indian defence industry is largely state-owned and has its own problems of bias and corruption that result in cost and quality losses for the armed forces. The DRDO and the defence public sector units operate as a monopoly with attendant failures in innovation, cost, and accountability. The scientific advisor to the defence minister, who shapes procurement decisions, also heads the military research labs, which puts him in the position of evaluating his own work in comparison with those of others. This conflict of interest is not even seen as a source of corruption.

The continued absence of Indian firms in the defence marketplace reflects a deep-seated ideological bias against profit as a motive for productive action. The expectation that Indian private industry, if allowed entry into the military production, will be less corrupt is misguided as well. Doubtless, the government will have greater control over an Indian seller than it does over a foreign supplier, but the actions of businesses alone do not cause corruption; government officials have to take bribes. There is no reason to expect that Indian firms will not be asked to pay up to win contracts.

These dysfunctions persist behind the trope of secrecy. Military-strategic matters are national secrets no doubt, but the process of buying weapons (that are already owned by other countries) hardly needs to be conducted in secret. Similarly, the DRDO, which is not building any unheard of weapon-system, should conduct itself in full public view and allow its scientists to join the peer review system. Closed-off organisations generally fail to innovate; little wonder that only 3 per cent of DRDO scientists and engineers have PhDs. Opening up the military research and weapons procurement process to public view would reduce the potential for corruption, and it would not be worse than the present glacial acquisition process.

Indian defence badly needs reform, but the recommendations of several high-powered committees — including those headed by Arun Singh, Naresh Chandra and the irreplaceable K. Subrahmanyam (Kargil review) — remain ignored by several governments. India needs to begin at the beginning, with a clearer vision of the role of the military and use of force in the country’s rise as a great power. This vision must balance between domestic and external threats to security, include non-military challenges, push through difficult reforms to enhance harmony across government agencies and departments and welcome transparency. With defence matters not on the electoral agenda, we are not very hopeful this will happen without the shock of another crisis.

Publication: The Indian Express
Image Source: © Mansi Thapliyal / Reuters

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