Don’t Turn Ukraine Into Another Afghanistan. We Need Peace Talks, Expert Says.

NATOThe G7 and European Council held unprecedented emergency meetings at Brussels on Thursday, as the Russian invasion in Ukraine entered its second month. NATOIt has announced plans to send more troops to Eastern Europe. The country’s troop presence in the region has already increased by a third from last month’s 40,000 to 30,000. Anatol Lieven (senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft) says that as the war erupts into a prolonged stalemate the U.S. and other nations should do all they can to bring an end to the fighting. “There is something deeply immoral in trying to wage a war of this kind at the expense of other people if a reasonable peace settlement is on the cards,” says Lieven.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:President Biden is in Brussels to address an emergency NATO summit as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second month. NATO has announced it’s sending more troops to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. The number of soldiers deployed to Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia has increased over the past month. NATO troops in Eastern Europe has doubled — reaching about 40,000 — from just a month ago.

The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine continues to escalate. UNICEF is now saying half of Ukraine’s seven-and-a-half million children have been displaced in one of the largest displacements of children since World War II.

On the battlefront, Ukraine is claiming it’s blown up a Russian ship in the port of Berdyansk on the Black Sea. Online video shows a large ship in flames in the Russian-occupied southern port.

This is after the United States officially declared that Russian forces committed war crimes against Ukraine.

In another development, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has once again rejected calls to boycott Russian oil and gas, saying the cost to Germany’s economy would be too high. On Wednesday, activists with Greenpeace painted the slogans “Oil fuels war” and “Oil is war” on the side of a massive Russian tanker in the Baltic Sea delivering 100,000 tons of crude to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

As NATO, the G7 and the European Council hold unprecedented emergency summits today in Brussels, we’re joined now by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s the author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A fraternal rivalry.

Welcome back Democracy Now!, Anatol. Why don’t you start off simply by laying out the significance of this triple summit today of the European Council, of the G7, of NATO, and what’s taking place on the ground in Ukraine?

ANATOL LIEVEN:The summit’s purpose is to consolidate Western unity against Russia, and to impose or threaten Russia with additional sanctions if war continues. I don’t think we should take these NATOYou shouldn’t take deployments too seriously. Russia does not intend to attack any of the named countries and has no ability to do so. We should take account of the fact that if the Russian military is incapable of taking cities less than 20 miles from Russia’s borders in a month of fighting, the idea that it’s going to invade NATO is simply fantastical, so we shouldn’t panic over this.

And, yes, I mean, as far as the situation on the ground is concerned, the Russians, of course, are making progress in capturing Mariupol, but it’s very slow process — progress, and it involves the destruction of much of the city through artillery. The Russian forces seem to be completely bogged down elsewhere, due to the strength of the Ukrainian resistance as well their insufficient numbers.

My feeling is that the war on the ground is heading for a prolonged stalemate. Russia will not be in a position to completely defeat Ukraine and occupy the country, or overthrow its government. However, Russia will retain certain territories it has occupied in the south and east of the country. And this war could go on indefinitely unless there’s a peace agreement, for which there seem to be some grounds.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, too, let’s talk more about what a peace settlement would entail. In 2014 piece following the Russian annexation of Crimea — the piece was titled, headlined “Ukraine—The Way Out” — you suggested at the time that the only resolution would be a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. Do you still believe that this is a possible solution? You also said that prolonging the war wouldn’t offer any more options.

ANATOL LIEVEN: No, I don’t think that that is an option anymore. I mean, I think it would be a good idea in principle. Ukraine, due to the vast differences between its regions is a naturally federated country. And, of course, that’s a perfectly democratic solution. But I don’t think that now that is at all possible, because it would be seen by the Ukrainians as another means of Russian interference in the country and attempts to manipulate Ukraine.

A federal or confederal relationship with Ukraine, however, remains one of the only ways — well, the only way that the Donbas republics can possibly return to Ukrainian sovereignty. Without that, local referenda under international supervision would be the only way to determine their fate. As for Crimea, I’m afraid that, since 2014, that has been lost to Ukraine. And once again, it’s really a question of, well, firstly, finding democratic and legal legitimacy for any territorial changes, and, secondly, of course, really guaranteeing and securing the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine as a whole.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Anatol, you said that the war is heading towards a prolonged standstill. Could you please explain why you believe the Russians, based on certain Russian military analysts, so poorly predicted the outcome of this war? What are your thoughts on the reasons? Putin’s military advisers are involved in this plan.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, it’s clear that the Russians or the Putin regime completely underestimated the strength, the courage and the efficiency of Ukrainian resistance. They sent far too few troops to the operation and spread their troops far too widely. They attacked in too many directions at once.

Another reason could be that the Kremlin tried to avoid using conscript troops in this operation. They’ve tried to use professional volunteers. That could be because they don’t trust the quality of the conscripts, and that there is real evidence of lack of morale among the Russian forces. Putin may be concerned about the political repercussions that could result from large numbers of Russian conscripts dying at home.

Their low intelligence is quite surprising. It does, however, reflect the extent to which Putin and his immediate circle have shrunk to hardly half a dozen people. They have also become really isolated from advice, especially considering the physical isolation of the COVID pandemic. It seems that Putin has not been receiving any intelligence or advice that conflicts with his prejudices. We know a lot about this in the West from what the Bush and Blair administrations did during the war in Iraq. They simply ignored intelligence that was not in line with their plans and prejudices. This is evidently worse because Russia is an authoritarian nation.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you speak about what you believe Putin is doing, how isolated or not, right now? Reuters reporting that Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia’s post-Soviet economic reforms, has quit his post as a Kremlin special envoy. He was the climate envoy now, but he’s very close to Putin for years. I believe he’s the one who brought him into the Kremlin. He’s left the country due to the war in Ukraine, the highest-ranking defection yet over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as another high military official hasn’t been seen in like two weeks. Is there too much being made of all this? And a readout that was just done, a U.S. general meeting with a Russian general in Moscow, where at the end he said to him, “How is your family doing? I know that they live in Ukraine.” And he uncharacteristically somewhat broke down, saying he’s very concerned. Is this going to have any real impact? Could this also mean that the elite, the power elite, will be disrupted around Putin?

ANATOL LIEVEN: In the long run, I think yes; in the short term, no, because, as I say, you know, Putin’s inner core is very narrow now, and they’re all deeply implicated in the Ukraine war. For many years, Chubais was excluded from this inner circle. Believe me, climate envoy is not an important or senior position in the Russian elite. As the economic pain of the Russian people increases due to sanctions and war, and as casualties mounts, I believe there is a real threat against the Putin regime. This could be in the form of some sort of move to push them from within the wider elites or perhaps a kinda almost agreed resignation, like with Yeltsin. But I fear that this may take some considerable time, given both the narrowness of Putin’s power elite and, of course, the grip that they have on the country.

AMY GOODMAN:I then wanted to ask you questions. WMDWeapons of Mass Destruction. If the Kremlin faces an existential threat to its nuclear weapons, it will not rule out nuclear weapons being used on the battlefield. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, made the remarks in a conversation with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I want to ask you again: Is President Putin — because, again, the Finnish president said to me that when he asked Putin directly about this, because President Putin has laid that card on the table, President Putin said that if anybody tries to stop him, very bad things will happen. I also want to know if you are confident or convinced that your boss won’t use that option.

DMITRY PESKOV:We have a concept for domestic security. And, well, it’s public. You can find all the reasons why nuclear arms should be used. If it is a threat to the country’s existence, then it can use in accordance with our idea.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could comment on this, Anatol Lieven, as well as the possibility, the concern that’s being raised about the use of biological and chemical weapons? These are the supposedly topics being discussed at the emergency summits in Brussels today.

ANATOL LIEVEN:Putin clearly uses the threat of nuclear arms to deter any type of direct attack NATOIntervention in Ukraine and to suggest it if it comes down to a war NATORussia, and you know that both Russia and the Cold War saw the possibility of nuclear weapons being used by both sides. It is impossible to believe that Putin would use nuclear weapons in the context of a conflict with Ukraine. The political consequences would be catastrophic. You mentioned that a Russian general lives in Ukraine with his family. A former Russian deputy prime-minister is an ethnic Ukrainian and has relatives there. This would be too much for the Russian elites to eat and would not benefit Russia. If Russia does indeed intend to incorporate these territories or make them client states, then it is by definition a bad way to start.

As far as chemical weapons are concerned, I’m not sure. False flag operations can be used to discredit any side. However, Russia would not be able to justify the terrible consequences for world public opinion. I hope I’m right about that, anyway.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, can we talk about some of the broader context and history of this war, as you’ve discussed in recent interviews? You’ve said, for example, that since the 1990s, the EU and NATOThese organizations have become synonymous with belonging to Europe and made membership in them a problem. And then also explain what the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 — what that agreement was about and whether that has any bearing on where we stand today.

ANATOL LIEVEN:Yes, I agree. NATOexpansion, and in particular against suggestions that Ukraine and Georgia should come into NATOYou could read the memoirs from the current head of the CIAWilliam Burns The Back Channel, in which he sets out these arguments, that he made in memos to the State Department, first as policy planning staff in the ‘90s and then as ambassador to Moscow. And he quotes Russian officials and Russians, in general, under the Yeltsin administration in the ‘90s, warning that this would lead to confrontation and quite possibly war. So, I mean, there is simply — you know, there is no excuse for saying that we were not warned about the likely consequences of this. Also, it is clear that Gorbachev verbally promised, actually multiple times, that he would. NATOThe Cold War ended and the Cold War was over.

What happened in the ’90s was that there was an attempt to blur the exclusion of Russia and, you know, the — as perceived from Moscow, the West’s moves to basically drive Russia out of Europe by creating the Partnership for Peace, which was a sort of halfway house between NATOBoth non-NATORussia and other former Soviet Union states were also included in the group. Unfortunately, the Bucharest summit in 2008 saw America and Britain tearing that apart, as far Ukraine and Georgia were concerned. They offered to give these countries full assistance. NATOMembership was, of course, the first step in what is now happening.

AMY GOODMAN:And the European Union. Zelensky, who will be addressing summits today from Ukraine is going to be making remarks, but they also want the European Union to become a member. But there’s opposition even now within the European Union. The significance of Ukraine being not a member of either of these groups is evident, and Zelensky just recently stated that, as recently as a few days ago. ABC — and this could be the broad outlines of an agreement — “I’m talking about security guarantees. I think that items regarding temporary occupied territories and unrecognized republics that have not been recognized by anyone but Russia, these pseudo-republics, but we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories will live on.” And as Foreign Minister Kuleba said, “If we could reach an agreement where a similar system of guarantees as envisaged by the North Atlantic Charter could be granted to Ukraine by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia, as well as by Ukraine’s neighbors, this is something we are ready to discuss.” Aren’t we seeing the broad outlines of a ceasefire at whatever point these two parties decide to make one?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, yes. Yes. Some issues might need to be put on the diplomatic back burner. The Ukrainian government has suggested that the territorial issues could be separated as part of a peace agreement. This would mean that you would have a peace deal and an agreement, you understand, not to fight for these territories, and then you would agree to negotiate them. It could be a little like the Turkish Republic or Northern Cyprus. Yes, and obviously, security guarantees for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. This seems to be a way out, considering that I don’t believe either side can win militarily on ground, at least not in terms of their maximum positions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, Anatol, you covered — and, very briefly, before we conclude, you covered as a journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but also of Chechnya. You’ve expressed concerns that this war may also come to look similar to those wars, or indeed already does. Could you please talk about this?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, the Russian intervention in Chechnya, you know, simply the storming of Grozny, both in the first war of ’94 to ’96, which I covered on the ground, and then the second war, which I didn’t, involved the massive destruction of that city, as we are now seeing in Mariupol — not, it has to be said, because of deliberate Russian war crimes in this case, but simply because that is the nature of urban warfare. The defenders huddle in residential areas to defend their positions. However, the attacking forces bombard them with missiles and destroy them. If the war continues and Russia attacks other cities, then the exact same thing will happen again and again. So, that’s my bitter memory from Grozny.

In Afghanistan, of course, it’s rather different, the lesson. Hillary Clinton and others raised the idea that the United Nations should support and encourage a prolonged war in Ukraine to bleed and weaken Russia, and eventually bring down the Putin regime. It is true that the war in Afghanistan was waged at the cost of a few million Afghan lives, the destruction and devastation of the Afghan state, which has never recovered, as well as the permanent destruction of Afghan society and its educated elite. You know, I find it deeply unmoral to wage war like this at the cost of other people, even if a reasonable settlement is possible.

AMY GOODMAN:Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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