The tension at the Russia-Ukraine border is part of an ongoing conflict between two countries with many cultural affinities. It also forms part of a larger rivalry between the U.S., Europe, and Russia. In an exclusive interview, Noam Chomsky reminds of this. Truthout As you can see, in 2014, a Russia supported government in Ukraine was removed from power by a U.S.-supported coup and replaced by a U.S.-backed government. It was a development that brought closer to war the two main antagonists of the Cold War era, as Moscow regards both U.S. and European involvement in Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) continued eastward expansion as part of a well-orchestrated strategy to encircle Russia. This strategy of encirclement goes back as far as NATO itself. It is why Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a recent statement. a list of demands to the U.S. and NATOregarding their actions in Ukraine and parts of the former Soviet Space. Meanwhile, high-ranking Russian officials have gone further. warning of military response if NATO continues to ignore Moscow’s security concerns.
As Chomsky notes below, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a solvable problem, but one wonders if the U.S. will remain dedicated to a “zombie policy” that could produce potentially awful consequences in the event of a diplomatic failure.
Noam Chomsky has been recognized internationally as one the most important intellectuals living. His intellectual stature is often compared to that o Newton, Galileo and Descartes. His work has had an enormous influence on a wide range of scientific and scholarly inquiry areas, including linguistics and logic, mathematics, psychology, media studies and philosophy, as well as politics and international affairs. He is the author of some 150 books and recipient of scores of highly prestigious awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto Prize (Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), and of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of MIT and currently Laureate professor at the University of Arizona.
C.J. Polychroniou: In 1991, Ukraine’s people voted in overwhelming numbers to end the Soviet Union between 1980 and 1991. Since then, Ukraine has sought to align closely with the European Union (EU) and NATO, but Moscow has objected to such plans, as it has always considered Ukraine to be part of Russia, and, accordingly, continued to meddle in the country’s internal affairs. In fact, Ukraine became a battleground in 2014 when Putin decided to annex Crimea, which he called the “spiritual source” of the Russian state, and, since then, tensions between the two countries have been very hard to diffuse. In your own view, what’s really behind the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?
Noam Chomsky There’s more to add, of course. Whatever one’s view of 2014, it was a coup with U.S. assistance that replaced the Russia-oriented government with a Western-oriented one. Russia annexed Crimea in order to protect its only warm-water port and naval base. This was apparently done with the consent of a substantial majority of the Crimean people. There’s extensive scholarship on the complexities, particularly Richard Sakwa’s Frontline UkraineRecent work.
There’s an excellent discussion of the current situation in a recent article in The NationAnatol Lilien Lieven argues realistically that Ukraine is “the most dangerous [immediate] problem in the world,” and “also in principle the most easily solved.” The solution has already been proposed and accepted — in principle: the Minsk II agreement, adopted by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine in 2015, and endorsed unanimously by the UN Security Council. The agreement tacitly presupposes withdrawal of George W. Bush’s invitation to Ukraine to join NATO, reaffirmed by Barack Obama, vetoed by France and Germany, an outcome that no Russian leader is likely to accept. It calls for disarmament of the separatist Russia-oriented region (Donbas) and withdrawal of Russian forces (“volunteers”), and spells out the key elements of settlement, with “three essential and mutually dependent parts: demilitarization; a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, including control of the border with Russia; and full autonomy for the Donbas in the context of the decentralization of power in Ukraine as a whole.” Such an outcome, Lieven observes, would not be unlike other federations, including the U.S.
Because of disagreements over the timing of its various actions, Minsk II was not implemented. The issue has been “buried” in U.S. political circles and media, Lieven writes, “because of the refusal of Ukrainian governments to implement the solution and the refusal of the United States to put pressure on them to do so.” The U.S., he concludes, has been keeping to “a zombie policy — a dead strategy that is wandering around pretending to be alive and getting in everyone’s way, because U.S. policy-makers have not been able to bring themselves to bury it.”
The imminent dangers force us to abandon our policy and adopt a sound one.
Although it will not be easy to break the impasse, Lieven says that there are no other options. The essence of the matter is understood: Ukraine should be neutralized according to Austrian principles. This means that there are no military alliances with Ukraine and no foreign military bases. There must also be an internal solution in accordance with Minsk II.
“The most dangerous problem in the world” can therefore be solved with a modicum of rationality.
The wider context goes back to the collapse 30 years ago of the Soviet Union. Three different visions of the new global order were presented in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. All accepted that Germany would be unified and would join NATO — a remarkable concession by Russia, considering that Germany alone, not part of a hostile military alliance, had virtually destroyed Russia twice in the past century, a third time joining with the West (including the U.S.), in the “intervention” immediately after the Bolsheviks took power.
One proposal was Mikhail Gorbachev’s: a Eurasian security system from the Atlantic to Vladivostok, with no military blocs. This was not considered an option by the U.S. George H.W. offered a second proposal. Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker, endorsed by West Germany: NATO would not move “one inch to the East,” meaning East Berlin; nothing beyond was contemplated, at least publicly. The third was Bill Clinton’s: NATO would move all the way to the Russian border, carry out military maneuvers in the states adjoining Russia, and place weapons on the Russian border that the U.S. would certainly regard as offensive weapons in the (inconceivable) event that it would even tolerate anything remotely comparable anywhere in its vicinity. It was the Clinton Doctrine.
The root causes of the asymmetry are far deeper. It is a core component of the “rule-based international order” that the U.S. advocates (while by coincidence, setting the rules), replacing the supposedly archaic UN-based international order that bans “the threat or use of force” in international affairs. Rogue states that insist on the right to use the threat of force continuously and resort to force at will find this unacceptable. This is an important topic we have previously discussed.
One crucial illustration of the rule-based asymmetry that should be familiar is President Kennedy’s response to Nikita Khrushchev’s sending of nuclear missiles to Cuba — in reaction to the threat of invasion as the culmination of JFK’s terrorist war against Cuba, and to his huge arms buildup in response to Khrushchev’s offer for mutual reduction of offensive weapons even though the U.S. was far in the lead. The status of U.S. nuclear-armed missiles directed at Russia and Turkey was the critical issue that almost led directly to a devastating war. As the crisis drew closer to war, the crucial issue was whether the missiles should either be withdrawn publicly (as Khrushchev requested), or secretly (as Kennedy required). The U.S. had ordered their withdrawal to be replaced with far more dangerous Polaris submarines. There was no withdrawal, but only an escalation.
The crucial asymmetry is presupposed, an inviolable principle of world order, established more extensively as the Clinton’s NATO Doctrine was imposed.
It should be recalled that this was only one component of a more expansive Clinton Doctrine, which accords the U.S. the right to use military force “unilaterally when necessary” to defend vital interests such as “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” No one else can claim such a right.
There is a lot of academic debate about the status and merits of the Bush/Baker proposal. As Washington violated the agreement immediately, it was only verbal. The facts are not in dispute.
NATO was established in response to the Soviet Union’s threat to Western democracies. NATO was not only founded to counter the threat posed by the Soviet Union to Western democracies. NotHowever, NATO did not cease to exist after the end of Cold War. It continued its expansion eastwards and considers Ukraine today a potential member. What is the relevance of NATO today, and to what extent is it responsible for escalating tensions on Russia’s borders and for potentially ushering in a new Cold War?
The expansion to East, including regular military maneuvers or threatening weapon systems, is clearly a factor that has contributed to escalating tensions. As was discussed, the offer to Ukraine for NATO membership is even more significant.
In thinking about the acutely dangerous current situation, it’s useful to bear in mind the founding of NATO and the “alleged threat.” There’s a good deal to say about that topic, specifically about how the Russian threat was actually perceived by planners. Inquiry shows that it was quite different from the fevered rhetoric employed “to scare the hell out of the country” in a manner “clearer than truth” (Sen. Arthur Vandenberg and Dean Acheson, respectively).
It is well known that George Kennan, an influential planner, believed the Russian threat was political and ideological and not military. In fact, he was sent to pasture for failing to join the panic that was largely manufactured. Still, it’s always instructive to see how the world is perceived at the dovish extreme.
Kennan, who was the State Department planning staff head, was so concerned by the threat from postwar Russia that he felt that a partition of Germany might be necessary to violate wartime agreements. The reason was the need to “rescue Western zones of Germany by walling them off against Eastern penetration,” not, of course, by military force, but by “political penetration,” where the Russians had the advantage. In 1948, Kennan advised that, “The problem of Indonesia [is] the most crucial issue of the moment in our struggle with the Kremlin,” even though the Kremlin was nowhere in sight. The reason was that if Indonesia falls under “Communism” it could be an “infection [that] would sweep westward” through all of South Asia, even endangering U.S. control of the Middle East.
The internal record is full of similar illustrations that show oblique and sometimes quite explicit recognitions of reality. In general, “The Kremlin” became a metaphor for anything that might fall out of U.S. control — until 1949, when the “Sino-Soviet conspiracy” could sometimes fill the bill.
Russia was a threat in its Eastern European domains. As many around the world can attest, so were its Western allies. This terrible history should not be forgotten. NATO played a small part in it.
With the collapse and disintegration of the USSR, NATO’s official justification was no longer valid. It was time to create something new. A new pretext for violence and subversion had to be found. One device, quickly seized upon, was “humanitarian intervention.” This was soon framed within the doctrine of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). Two versions of the document were created. The UN adopted the official version in 2005. It adheres to the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use or threat of force in international affairs, except for conditions that are not relevant to R2P. It also calls upon states to respect humanitarian law.
That’s the official version of R2P. The Report of the International Commission on Intervention, State Sovereignty on the Responsibility to Protect (2001), was an initiative of Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister. It departs from the official version in one crucial respect: a situation in which “the Security Council rejects a proposal or fails to deal with it in a reasonable time.” In that case, the Report authorizes “action within area of jurisdiction by regional or sub-regional organizations under Chapter VIII of the Charter, subject to their seeking subsequent authorization from the Security Council.”
In practice, the right to intervene is reserved to the powerful — in today’s world, to the NATO powers, which are also unilaterally able to determine their own “area of jurisdiction.” They did in fact do so. NATO unilaterally determined that its “area of jurisdiction” includes the Balkans, then Afghanistan, and well beyond. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer instructed a NATO meeting in June 2007 that, “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally have to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system. NATO’s area of jurisdiction is therefore worldwide.
Some people disagree with this view, and not just the ones who have been under the tutelage of Europe or its offshoots. Their opinions, as always rejected, were made clear at the South Summit of 133 states in April 2000. Its declaration, surely with the recent bombing of Serbia in mind, rejected “the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention, which has no legal basis in the United Nations Charter or in the general principles of international law.” The wording of the declaration reaffirms earlier UN declarations to the same effect, and is mirrored in the official version of R2P.
Since then, the standard practice has been to refer only to the UN official version to justify any action taken, but to stick to the Evans Commission version to determine the best course of action.
There are signs that Russia is increasing its ability to attack Ukraine. Some military analysts believe that this could happen within the first few months of the new year. Although it is unlikely that NATO would intervene militarily during a conflict between Russia, Ukraine, an invasion by Russia would undoubtedly change the international landscape. What is the most realistic solution for the Ukraine conflict?
The signs are real and alarming. Most serious analysts doubt that Putin would insinuate an invasion. He would have a great deal to lose — maybe everything if the U.S. reacted with force, as we all might. At best from his perspective, Russia would be engaged in a bitter “endless war” and subjected to very severe sanctions and other harsh measures. I presume that Putin’s intention is to warn the West not to disregard what he takes to be Russian interests, with some justice.
Anatol Lieven has provided a realistic solution. It is difficult to imagine another solution, as he explains. There has never been one.
This solution is available, fortunately. It is vital to prevent popular opinion from becoming enflamed by familiar devices that have caused disaster in the past.