Our Priority on Ukraine Should Be Saving Lives, Not Punishing Russia

Nearly two months after the start of the war in Ukraine, peace is still not in sight. In fact, both sides appear to have little hope of a peaceful settlement. The international situation is heating up as European neutral countries consider joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This development prompted the Kremlin’s threats to deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic area if such a move occurs.

These developments are discussed in the exclusive interview with Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned scholar who is also a leading dissident. Truthout. He emphasizes that we must prioritize saving human lives — not punishing Russia — in determining next moves.

Chomsky is widely recognized as one the most important intellectuals living. He is the author of some 150 books and the recipient of scores of highly prestigious awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto Prize, and of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities. Chomsky is currently Laureate Professor at Arizona University and Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at a joint press conference with ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that peace talks have reached a “dead end” and that the invasion is proceeding as planned. He said that the war would continue unless all the goals that were set at inception of the invasion are achieved. Putin doesn’t want peace in Ukraine. Is Putin really at war against NATO and the U.S. If so, particularly given how dangerous the West’s policy toward Russia has been so far, what can be done now to prevent an entire country from being potentially wiped off the map?

Noam Chomsky: Before proceeding with this discussion, I’d like to emphasize, once again, the most important point: Our prime concern should be to think through carefully what we can do to bring the criminal Russian invasion to a quick end and to save the Ukrainian victims from more horrors. Unfortunately, there are many who find heroic declarations more satisfying than this essential task. This is not a new development in history. We must remember the main issue and act accordingly.

Turning to your comment, the final question is by far the most important one; I’ll return to the earlier ones.

There are two possible endings to this war: a negotiated settlement or complete destruction of either side, either quickly or slowly. It won’t be Russia that is destroyed. Russia has the capability to wipe out Ukraine, and Putin and his friends might, in desperate times, use that capacity. That surely should be the expectation of those who portray Putin as a “madman” immersed in delusions of romantic nationalism and wild global aspirations.

That’s clearly an experiment that no one wants to undertake — at least no one who has the slightest concern for Ukrainians.

This qualification is necessary, unfortunately. There are respected voices in the mainstream who simultaneously hold two views: (1) Putin is indeed a “deranged madman” who is capable of anything and might lash out wildly in revenge if backed to the wall; (2) “Ukraine must win. That is the only acceptable outcome.” We can help Ukraine defeat Russia, they say, by providing advanced military equipment and training, and backing Putin to the wall.

Those two positions can only be simultaneously held by people who care so little about the fate of Ukrainians that they are willing to try an experiment to see whether the “deranged madman” will slink away in defeat or will use the overwhelming force at his command to obliterate Ukraine. These two views win. They will win if Putin is quiet about his defeat. They win if he destroys Ukraine. It will justify Russia’s harsher punishments.

It is not surprising that such willingness to play with the fate and lives of Ukrainians is praised highly. It is also considered a courageous and noble stance. Other words may be possible.

Putting aside the qualification — unfortunately necessary in this strange culture — the answer to the question posed seems clear enough: engage in serious diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Of course, that’s not the response for those whose prime goal is to punish Russia — to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, as Ambassador Chas Freeman describes current U.S. policy, matters we have discussed.

The basic framework of a diplomatic settlement has been well understood for many years and was reiterated by Volodymyr Zeleskyy, Ukrainian President. First, neutralization and granting Ukraine a status similar to that of Mexico or Austria. Second, delaying the matter of Crimea. Third, arrangements for Donbass to have a high degree of autonomy, possibly in a federal arrangement. This should be settled through an internationally-run referendum.

All of this is still the official U.S. policy. High administration officials don’t just concede that “prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States made no effort to address one of Vladimir Putin’s most often stated top security concerns — the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO.” They praise themselves for having taken this position, which may well have been a factor in impelling Putin to criminal aggression. The U.S. maintains this position and stands in the way of a negotiated solution along the lines Zelenskyy described, regardless of the cost to Ukrainians.

Can a settlement be reached along the same lines as before the Russian invasion? It is possible to find out if you just have to try. Ambassador Freeman is far from alone among informed Western analysts in chastising the U.S. government for having “been absent [from diplomatic efforts] and, at worst, implicitly opposed” to them with its actions and rhetoric. That, he continues, is “the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy” and a bitter blow to Ukrainians by prolonging the conflict. Anatol Lilien, another respected analyst, is also included. generally agree, recognizing that at the very least, “The U.S. has done nothing to facilitate diplomacy.”

Regrettably, rational voices, however respected, are at the margins of discussion, leaving the floor to those who want to punish Russia — to the last Ukrainian.

At the press conference, Putin did appear to be joining the U.S. in preferring “the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy,” though his remarks do not close off these options. If peace talks are now at a “dead end,” that doesn’t mean that they cannot be resumed, at best with committed participation of the great powers, China and the U.S.

China is rightly condemned for its unwillingness to facilitate “statecraft and diplomacy.” The U.S. as usual is exempt from criticism in U.S. mainstream media and journals (though not completelyIt seems that the primary concern is not to provide more weapons to prolong the conflict, or to use other measures to punish Russians.

One measure the U.S. could employ is the suggestion from Harvard Law School, which is at the supposed liberal extreme. Laurence Tribe, Professor Emeritus, and Jeremy Lewin (Law student) propose that President Joe Biden should follow the precedent set by George W. Bush in 2003, when he seized “Iraqi funds sitting in American banks, allocating the proceeds to aid the Iraqi people and to compensate victims of terrorism.”

Did President Bush do something else in 2003 “to aid the Iraqi people”? That annoying question would be raised only by those guilty of the sin of “whataboutism,” one of the recent devices designed to bar any attention to our own actions and their consequences for today.

The authors acknowledge that freezing funds that were kept in New York banks for security purposes can have some difficulties. They bring up the freezing of Afghanistan’s funds by the Biden administration, which was “controversial, owing mostly to unsettled questions regarding court attachment of assets and allocating claims among dueling plaintiffs … suits filed by the relatives of those killed or wounded on 9/11.”

Perhaps unnoticed but not controversial is the plight Afghan mothers starving to death because they can’t access the bank accounts to purchase food in the markets.

Further comment bearing on President Bush’s 2003 efforts “to aid the Iraqi people” is provided, inadvertently, by the leading foreign policy analyst of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman in his headline: “How Do We Deal With a Superpower Led by a War Criminal?

In this modern age of information and technology, who would have thought that a superpower could actually be led by a war criminal? It is a difficult dilemma to confront, even to consider, in a country like ours that is pristinely innocent.

Is it any wonder then that the more civilized parts of the world, mostly in the Global South, look on at the spectacle unfolding with astonishment?

Putin stated that the invasion was continuing as planned and would continue until the original goals are achieved. If the consensus of Western military analysts and political elites is anywhere near accurate, that is Putin’s way of acknowledging that the initial goals of quickly conquering Kiev and installing a puppet government had to be abandoned because of fierce and courageous Ukrainian resistance, exposing the Russian military as a paper tiger incapable even of conquering cities a few miles from its border that are defended by a mostly citizens army.

Experts then reach a consensus: The U.S. must invest more resources in protecting itself from the next attack by this military monster, who is poised for an attack on NATO and the U.S.

The logic is overwhelming.

According to the consensus Russia is now revising its plans and focusing on a major attack in the Donbass area, where approximately 15,000 people have been killed since 2014. Who? It should not be difficult to establish with many OSCE observers.

It seems too far to conclude Putin wants war with NATO and the U.S. (that is, mutual destruction). I think he wants peace — on his terms. (What monster doesn’t?) What these terms are we can only discover by trying to find out, through “statecraft and diplomacy.” We cannot find out by refusing to engage in this option, refusing even to contemplate or discuss it. Carrying forward the agenda will not lead us to this conclusion. official policy announced last September and reinforced in November, matters that we have discussed repeatedly: the official U.S. policy on Ukraine that is withheld from Americans by the “free press” but surely studied very carefully by Russian intelligence, which has access to the White House website.

Let’s get back to the main point. We should do all we can to stop the criminal aggression. Doing so will spare the Ukrainian people from further suffering, and even possible extermination, if Putin and his entourage are driven to the wall. This requires a popular movement that will push the U.S. to change its official policy, and to participate in diplomacy. If they help to achieve this end, sanctions and military support for Ukraine might be justified. However, they could not be used to punish Russia while prolonging the agony of Ukraine and threatening it with destruction with unimaginable consequences.

There are unconfirmed reports that Russia has used chemical weapons in the Ukrainian city that has been perhaps most brutally attacked — namely Mariupol. In turn, the U.K.’s government rushed to announce rather boldly that “all options are on table” if these reports are correct. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already stated that such development would “totally change the nature of the conflict.” What does “all options on table” mean, and could it possibly include that scenario that the Ukraine war might go nuclear?

The phrase “all options are on the table” is normal in what passes for statecraft in the U.S. and U.K. — all in direct violation of the UN Charter (and if anyone were to care, the U.S. Constitution). We don’t know what might be in the minds of those who regularly issue these declarations. They may mean that the U.S. has declared that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons to destroy itself and most of Earth’s life. However, beetles as well as bacteria could continue to thrive. Maybe that is tolerable in their minds if it at least punishes Russians, who, we are told, are such an irremediable curse that the only solution may be “permanent Russian isolation” or even “Russia delenda est.”

It is appropriate to be concerned about chemical weapons use, even if unconfirmed. We should be concerned about well-confirmed reports that deformed fetuses were reported in Saigon hospitals, at the risk of more whataboutism. terrible results of the chemical warfare unleashed by the Kennedy administration to destroy crops and forests, a core part of the program to “protect” the rural population who were supporting the Viet Cong, as Washington knew well. We should be concerned enough about the terrible consequences of these programs to take action.

It is extremely concerning that Russia might use or contemplate using chemical weapons.

There are also claims that thousands upon thousands of Ukrainians were deported from Mariupol to remote regions of Russia. This recalls dark memories of Soviet mass deportations under Stalin. Kremlin officials have rejected such claims as “lies,” but have openly talked about relocating civilians trapped in Mariupol. If reports of forced civilian deportations from Mariupol to Russia are proven true, what would be the purpose of such reprehensible actions, and wouldn’t they add to the list of Putin’s war crimes?

They will surely add to the already extensive list. We will be able to learn a lot about these crimes. Despite technical difficulties, extensive investigations are already underway into Russian war crimes. they will proceed.

This is also normal. A major industry is mobilized to uncover every detail when enemies commit crimes. As it should be. It is not acceptable to conceal or forget war crimes.

This is unfortunately a nearly universal practice in the U.S. But the fact that today’s global hegemon adopts the reprehensible practices of its predecessors still leaves us free to expose the crimes of today’s official enemies, a task that should be undertaken, and surely will be in this case. Others outside of the reach of the U.S. propaganda system will be appalled by the hypocrisy, but that’s no reason not to welcome the highly selective exposure of war crimes.

People with a perverse interest in looking at themselves can learn from atrocities that are exposed. After Seymour Hersh, a freelance journalist, exposed the crime the My Lai massacre was finally identified. To the West. It was known for years in South Vietnam but not much attention. The Quaker medical center in Quang Ngai didn’t even bother reporting it because such crimes were so common. The official U.S. government investigation actually found another similar one in the nearby village of My Khe.

The My Lai massacre could be absorbed within the propaganda system by restricting the blame to GIs in the field who didn’t know who was going to shoot at them next. Exempt were — and are — those who sent them on these mass murder expeditions. The emphasis on one of the many crimes on ground served to conceal that they were just a footnote to a large bombing campaign of slaughtering and destruction from air-conditioned offices. Edward Herman, I, and others were able. write aboutIt was done using detailed studies that were provided by Newsweek Kevin Buckley was the correspondent. He had been investigating the crime with Alex Shimkin and was unable publish more than fragments.

These cases are rare and U.S. crimes are rarely investigated. Little information is available about them. An old tale among the powerful.

It’s not easy to understand what is in the back of the minds of war criminals like Putin — or those who don’t exist, according to the canon as preached by New York Times pundits who are aghast at the discovery that war criminals exist — among official enemies.

Finland and Sweden seem to be more open to the idea that NATO could be a possibility. Russia has threatened to deploy nuclear weapons or hypersonic missiles in Baltic regions in the event that such developments occur. Is it sensible for neutral countries to join NATO Are they legitimately concerned about their security?

Let’s return to the overwhelming consensus of Western military analysts and political elites: The Russian military is so weak and incompetent that it couldn’t conquer cities near its border that are defended mostly by a citizen’s army. Therefore, those with vast military power must fear for their security as they face this overwhelming military power, on the move.

One can understand why this conception should be a favorite in the offices of Lockheed Martin and other military contractors in the world’s leading arms exporter, relishing the new prospects for expanding their bulging coffers. It is worth considering again that it is accepted in broader circles and guides policy.

Russia does have advanced weapons that can destroy (though clearly not conquer), as the Ukraine case shows. Finland and Sweden might be more likely to use them if they leave neutrality and join NATO. Because the security argument is difficult to take seriously, it seems that this is the most likely outcome of their joining NATO.

It’s also worth recognizing that Finland and Sweden are already fairly well integrated into the NATO command system, just as was happening with Ukraine from 2014, solidified further with the official U.S. government policy statements of last September and November and the refusal of the Biden administration “to address one of Vladimir Putin’s most often stated top security concerns — the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO” — on the eve of the invasion.

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