Russian and US Escalations Raise Risk of Direct Military Clash in Ukraine

As President Biden seeks to raise $33 billion for Ukraine, we examine the dangers of U.S. military aggression with Medea Benjamin (CodePink) and George Beebe (Quincy Institute). He was the former head for Russia analysis at The CIAHe was a former adviser of Vice President Dick Cheney. The massive spending in Ukraine that outweighs public funding to combat the coronavirus pandemic shows that “there are very few things that the Biden administration thinks are more important right now than defeating Russia, and I don’t think that accords, actually, with the priorities of the American people,” says Beebe. “To support the people of Ukraine and stop the fighting, we need not to pour billions of dollars of more weapons in, but to say, ‘Negotiations now,’” says Benjamin.


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

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker, has called for the strongest military response to Russia. Pelosi made the remarks in Poland Monday, after she was elected the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to visit Ukraine. During a meeting there with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Pelosi vowed the United States would keep backing Ukraine militarily “until the fight is done.”

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI:We are here to express our gratitude for your fight for freedom. We are committed to being there until the fight is over.

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi’s surprise trip to Ukraine came just days after President Biden asked Congress for an additional $33 billion for Ukraine. As evidence mounts that the war in Ukraine has become a proxy war between Russia, the United States, and its allies, this is a good sign. NATO allies. Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. wants to see Russia, quote, “weakened.” Over the weekend, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. and NATO should stop arming Ukraine if they’re really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Well, we’re joined now by two guests. Medea Ben is co-founder and leader of CodePink, an antiwar organization. We usually speak to her in Washington, D.C. Now she’s in Havana, Cuba. George Beebe is also present. He’s grand strategy director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His recent piece is headlined “Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.” He’s the former director of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and was special adviser on Russia to Vice President Cheney from 2002 to 2004. He’s the author of the 2019 book The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War With Russia Could Spiral Into Nuclear Catastrophe.

George Beebe, let’s begin with you. You wrote the piece, “Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.” So, why don’t you tell us? The latest news is that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, may announce war on Ukraine on May 9th. This date marks Victory Day for Russia in 1945, when Russia defeated the Nazis.

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, I think that’s quite possible. Russians have been speculating for quite some time that Putin might take the step of moving from what he has called a “special operation” in Ukraine into a full-fledged and declared war, which would mean a national mobilization, widespread conscription of Russian soldiers and their use in the battle in Ukraine. This would mean that Russia would be preparing for war in Ukraine.

This would mean that Putin would argue that it is not a war between Russia or Ukraine, but rather a much bigger war between Russia, the United States, and NATO. That’s how Russian elites and Putin had been depicting this conflict, actually, for many years, well before Russia’s actual invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. They see Ukraine as a pawn, and believe the stakes are very high for Russia. They think that this is a fight for Russia’s survival, that the stakes are existential. So, if you’re looking at this war and asking how does this end and when does it end, that’s a very bad sign, because it suggests that the Russians are gearing up for a very long-term conflict here.

I believe the same thing is happening to the American side. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is rhetoric which more and more openly discusses our goal being victory over Russia, Russia’s strategic defeat, the weakening of its military, the marginalization of Russia as a player in the world. Some U.S. officials including President Biden even hinted at the possibility of Putin’s departure and regime change.

So, what we’re seeing, I think, on both sides is escalation, escalation in the objectives, I think, that they’re seeking. With this escalation in objectives, I believe the likelihood of this turning into a direct military conflict between the United States or Russia increases. This is a very dangerous time, I believe.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, George Beebe, I’d like to ask you — in terms of this new call for $33 billion in aid that President Biden has made to Congress for Ukraine, this is an astounding amount of money. And, you know, I looked at — for instance, U.S. foreign aid to the entire Latin America and Caribbean region has averaged, over the last 60 years, about $3 billion annually. And yet many Americans are so worried about the increasing flight of so many people from Latin America across the U.S. border, but yet we’re giving so little aid to the countries there, and yet somehow we come up with $33 billion. Is this a — what is the signal that the Biden administration is sending by such a huge request, a big portion of it being military aid, but also direct foreign aid to Ukraine?

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, budgets, of course, are reflections of a government’s priorities. You can’t do everything. We don’t have infinite resources, so you have to make choices about what’s more important and what’s less important. This is an enormous amount of money that the Biden administration wants. It comes on top of a lot of money that’s already been spent on this effort in Ukraine, not just in the United States but on the part of our NATOAllies are also welcome. So this is a very big effort, but it also says something about where the Biden administration’s priorities really are on this. And I think it’s fair to say, if you look at the numbers, that there are very few things that the Biden administration thinks are more important right now than defeating Russia. And I don’t think that that accords actually with the priorities of the American people. But I think that’s up for them to decide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring Medea Benjamin into the discussion. Oh, I’m sorry — well, I wanted to ask you further — there had been a prior attempt, obviously, at reaching a peace accord in Ukraine, the Minsk Accords. Could you tell us about what happened and why the Minsk Accords failed.

GEORGE BEEBE:The Minsk Agreements date back to the 2014 outbreak of the war in Ukraine. This agreement was formed out of a tug of war between the European Union, and to a lesser extent, the United States. NATORussia, on one hand, and Ukraine, on the opposite. And it was really about Ukraine’s geopolitical fate.

For many months, the European Union had been in negotiations with the Ukrainian government about an agreement. That would, I believe, allow for greater trade and commerce between Ukraine and the EU. This offered the prospect of a very bright future economic for Ukrainians. A lot of Ukrainians believed that this was a wonderful thing. There are few populations in the world that don’t look forward to greater economic prosperity. But the terms of that association agreement essentially said to Ukraine, “You’ve got to make a choice: Either you have a very close and deepening trade relationship with the EU or with Russia, but not both. You can’t have the same depth of trading with both Russia and the EU at the same time.”

The Russians objected because they had long-standing relations with Ukraine, both economically and culturally. This was accompanied by the threat that Ukraine would actually move into. NATOand the West at any cost of cordial relations to Russia. And for all kinds of reasons, the Russians found that profoundly threatening, including to Russia’s vital security interests.

The tug-of-war about Ukraine tore apart Ukraine’s country. While there were people living in the western regions of Ukraine who were very European in culture and their political orientation, there were also parts of the eastern Ukraine that were Russian-speaking and more culturally Russian and geared toward closer relations with Russia. The people in the west urged Ukraine to turn westward. However, the people of the east felt threatened and they reacted.

This eventually escalated into a civil war. Violence erupted. And the great powers, of course, got involved — the United States, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand. Fighting broke out. The Russians intervened secretly. They declared they would annexe Crimea, which was part of Russia until the 1950s when Soviet Premier Khrushchev gifted Crimea to the Ukrainian Republic. The Russians took it back. This war ended in years of fighting and the West tried to end it.

And that ultimately resulted in the Minsk accords, which were an attempt to try to find a settlement inside Ukraine that allowed the regions in Ukraine’s east greater autonomy. It allowed for the withdrawal and holding of elections in Ukraine’s east. It also guaranteed language rights in Ukraine’s eastern regions. Russian speakers felt that Ukrainian nationalists were violating them linguistic rights.

This was not implemented because the Ukrainian nationalists feared that it was a way for Russia to use the greater weight from the eastern regions of Ukraine to veto any Ukraine membership. NATO over time. And I believe they were right. This was precisely why the Russians found Minsk accords appealing. It was a guarantee that Ukraine would not join. NATOOver Russian objections As a result, the agreement was essentially canceled. It was never implemented by the Ukrainians. The Russians refused to compromise on their demands for those terms. That played a major role in getting us to where we are today.

AMY GOODMAN:We now have Medea Benjamin on the line along with George Beebe. She’s actually in Havana, Cuba, right now, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Medea, we’re speaking to you in the week when President Biden has asked for $33 billion more for mainly military aid, military weapons to Ukraine. Compare that to the $22 billion requested for all U.S. trade with COVIDThat proposal was rejected by both the Republicans and some Democrats and is far less than the $33 million. But I wanted to ask you about that and the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talking about W and W — weakening Russia and winning, Ukraine winning — and, overall, what you think needs to happen right now.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think it’s terrible that the U.S., on all levels, from the White House to Congress, are pushing this as either regime change or a winnable war, when we know there is no winning in this. I want them to talk about what compromises they are open to making. I want to hear them saying they’re going to put their efforts into negotiations. I want to hear them say they’re going to separate humanitarian aid and military support for Ukraine and get that humanitarian aid approved.

And I want to see that the people of the United States understand that to support the people of Ukraine and stop the fighting, we need not to pour billions of dollars of more weapons in, but to say, “Negotiations now.” And that’s why we’re calling people to come out this weekend, next weekend, the following weekend, have rallies, download our flyers, get people to sign petitions, saying we need to end this war and not allow it to keep spreading and turn into a nuclear holocaust. You can go to PeaceInUkraine.orgClick here to learn more.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Medea, what do you think the chances of a settlement? What might that look like?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, certainly, they’ve been outlined by Zelensky himself and by the Russians. I believe the United States is the greatest obstacle to negotiations. We must recognize a neutral Ukraine and non-expansion. NATODemilitarization and stabilization of the region.

And I want to add one other thing, Juan, which is we’re coming to the 40-year anniversary of the 1 million people out in Central Park saying no to nuclear weapons in 1982. We, the United States, must work with Russians to not only end the war in Ukraine, but also to get serious about banning all nuclear weapons, as the U.N. Treaty calls for the world to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask George Beebe — you have written that “the advent of the cyber age has made the chances of escalation into direct East-West conflict much greater than during the Cold War, while doing [very] little to reduce its potential destructiveness.” Can you explain this, and also just acknowledging that today President Biden is in Alabama at a Lockheed Martin plant, at a weapons plant?

GEORGE BEEBE:I think that the digital era has had a significant impact on the world. The first is the information sphere, and the second is the media sphere. It’s become increasingly segmented. And social media, such as Twitter, encourage outrage. That’s what gets attention online, not people who are saying, you know, “Look, we have to look at this in a balanced way. It’s complicated. We need to understand the dynamics of all of this.” It doesn’t tend to lend itself toward that kind of complexity and reasoned evidence. The loudest and most outspoken people are those that get the most attention. This makes it more difficult to create the political environment in which you can seek diplomatic solutions to problems like this. So that’s one part of the problem.

The other part of the problem is the blurring of things that used to be relatively clearly delineated — espionage and warfare, for example, sabotage and strategic attacks. It used to be, in the old days, that it was clear, when you’re gathering intelligence information, you know, you’re using human agents, or you’re taking photographs from satellites or airplanes, or you’re eavesdropping on phone calls of various kinds, the person who was on the other end of those intelligence collection efforts knew that that was intelligence collection.

AMY GOODMAN:We have five seconds.

GEORGE BEEBE: OK. Today, if you intrude on someone’s computer network, you can not only gather information, but you can destroy that network. It is possible to sabotage it. It is very dangerous to try and sabotage it when there are so many things connected to the internet.

AMY GOODMAN:We have to leave it at that, George Beebe of Quincy Institute and Medea Benjamin (CodePink). I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.