Six Months Into War, Diplomatic Settlement in Ukraine Is Still Possible

The war in Ukraine is not ending. There are no visible signs of a conclusion to this tragedy, although it’s hard to imagine the current situation remaining unchanged for much longer. The war has exposed dramatic weaknesses in Russia’s armed forces, while Ukrainian resistance has surprised even military experts. In the meantime, it is more than obvious that the U.S. is fighting a “proxy” war in Ukraine, as Noam Chomsky underlines in the exclusive interview for Truthout, thus making it extremely difficult for Russia’s military planners to make major advances.

Noam Chomsky was a key voice on the war in Ukraine from the beginning. He condemned Russia’s invasion as a criminal aggression while analyzing the subtle political and historical context surrounding Putin’s decision to launch an attack on Russia’s neighbor. In the interview that follows, Chomsky reiterates his condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, suggests that the situation over peace talks inevitably recalls the “Afghan trap,” and talks about the exceptional form of censorship that is taking place in the U.S. through a systematic suppression of unpopular ideas over the war in Ukraine.

Chomsky is a professor emeritus in MIT’s philosophy and linguistics departments. He is also a laureate in linguistics and the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair in University of Arizona’s Program in Environment and Social Justice. One of the world’s most-cited scholars and a public intellectual regarded by millions of people as a national and international treasure, Chomsky has published more than 150 books in linguistics, political and social thought, political economy, media studies, U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. His most recent books are The Secrets of Words(with Andrea Moro; MIT Press 2022); The Withdrawal: Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility Of U.S. Power(with Vijay Prashad, The New Press, 2022); The Precipice: Neoliberalism, The Pandemic and the Urgent need for Social Change (with C.J. Polychroniou; Haymarket Books, 2021).

C.J. Polychroniou: It’s been six months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, yet there is no end to the war in sight. Putin’s strategy has backfired in a huge way, as it not only failed to take down Kyiv but also revived the western alliance while Finland and Sweden ended decades of neutrality by joining NATO. The war has also created a huge humanitarian crisis, raised energy prices, and made Russia a pariah nation. From day one, you described the invasion as a criminal act of aggression and compared it to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin invasion of Poland, in spite of the fact that Russia felt threatened from NATO’s expansion to the east. You still believe this view. But do you think Putin would have second thoughts about invading Russia if he knew that his military venture would result in a long-lasting war?

Noam Chomsky: Reading Putin’s mind has become a cottage industry, notable for the extreme confidence of those who interpret the scanty tea leaves. Although I have some guesses, they are not based upon better evidence than others, so they are low in credibility.

My guess is that Russian intelligence believed that the conquest of Kyiv would be easy and that a puppet government could be established. This was not the case. His plans would have been different if Putin had more information about Ukraine’s resistance ability and will to defeat it, and the incompetence displayed by the Russian military. Perhaps the plans would have been as expected by many analysts. Russia seems to have now turned to Plan B to try to control Crimea more effectively and allow Russia to pass through the Donbas.

Perhaps Putin could have had the intelligence to respond to Macron’s tentative efforts for a negotiated settlement. This would have avoided war and would have allowed Europe-Russia to agree to a similar arrangement to those made by Gorbachev and de Gaulle. We know that the Russians rejected the proposals with contempt. Instead, Putin launched a brutal war of aggression that ranks alongside the U.S. invasions of Iraq and the Hitler–Stalin invasions of Poland.

Nearly every American diplomat who has been in contact with Russia for more than 30 years has stressed that Russia feels threatened by NATO’s expansion to the East. This is contrary to Gorbachev’s unambiguous promises. To take just one of a rich array of examples, in 2008 when he was Ambassador to Russia and Bush II recklessly invited Ukraine to join NATO, current CIA director William Burns warned that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin).” He added that “I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.” More generally, Burns called NATO expansion into Eastern Europe “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.” And if the expansion reached Ukraine, Burns warned, “There could be no doubt that Putin would fight back hard.”

Burns was merely reiterating common understanding at the highest level of government, back to the early ‘90s. Bush II’s own Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized that “trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching, … recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests.”

The warnings made by government sources were strong, and they were very explicit. They were rejected by Washington, Clinton and beyond. In fact, they are still in force at the moment. Recent data confirms this conclusion. comprehensive Washington Post studyAn overview of the background to the invasion. Anatol and George Beebe reviewed the study. observe that “the Biden administration’s efforts to avert the war altogether come across as quite lacking. As Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it during the weeks preceding the invasion, for Russia `the key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward.’ But nowhere in Post’s account is there any mention that the White House considered offering concrete compromises regarding Ukraine’s future admission into NATO.” Rather, as the State Department had already conceded, “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.”

In short, the provocations continued right up to the end. They were not confined to undermining negotiations but included expansion of the project of integrating Ukraine into the NATO military command, turning it into a “de facto” member of NATO, as U.S. military journalsIt is important to do so.

The glaringly obvious record of provocation is, presumably, the reason for the tacit rule that the Russian assault must be called “unprovoked,” a term otherwise scarcely if ever used but required in this case in polite society. The curious behavior should not be a problem for psychologists.

Though the provocations were consistent and conscious over many years, despite the warnings, they of course in no way justify Putin’s resort to “the supreme international crime” of aggression. Although it may help to explain a crime it does not provide any justification.

As for Russia’s becoming a “pariah state,” I think some qualifications are in order. It is becoming a pariah country in Europe and the Anglosphere to an extent that has surprised even seasoned cold warriors. Graham Fuller is a top figure in U.S. intelligence over many years. recently commented that:

I don’t think that I’ve ever seen—in my entire life—such a dominant American media blitz as what we’re seeing regarding Ukraine today. The U.S. isn’t only pressing its Interpretation of events — the U.S. is also engaging in full-scale Demonization Russia as a country, as a society and as a culture. The bias is extraordinary — I never saw anything like this when I was involved in Russian affairs during the Cold War.

Picking up those tea leaves again, one might perhaps surmise that as in the required reference to the “unprovoked” invasion, some guilt feelings are not too well concealed.

This is the U.S. position and its close allies. However, most of the world remains silent, condemning the aggression, but maintaining normal relations to Russia. This is just like western critics who were not provoked by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There is also considerable ridicule of the pious proclamations on human rights, democracy, and “sanctity of borders” issued by the world champions in violence and subversion — matters the Global South knows about well from ample experience.

Russia claims that the U.S. is directly implicated in the Ukraine war. Is the U.S. fighting a “proxy war” in Ukraine?

It is undisputed that the U.S. has been heavily involved in this war, and proudly so. It is widely believed that it is fighting a proxy conflict, even though it is not within the Europe-Anglosphere domain. It is easy to see why. The U.S. official policy is to continue the war until Russia is too weak to allow for further aggression. This is openly stated and made public by the U.S. This policy is justified by exalted statements about a cosmic struggle between democracy and freedom, all good things, and the ultimate evil bent upon global conquest. This fevered rhetoric is not a new phenomenon. The fairy tale style was popularized in NSC 68, a major Cold War document.

Official policy, taken literally, means that Russia must face a harsher punishment than Germany at Versailles in 1919. Targets are likely to interpret explicit policy literally, with obvious consequences regarding how they might respond.

Common Western discourse reinforces the perception that the U.S. is committed to a proxy conflict. While there is extensive discussion of how to fight Russian aggression more effectively, one finds hardly a word about how to bring the horrors to an end — horrors that go far beyond Ukraine. Those who dare to raise the question are usually vilified, even such revered figures as Henry Kissinger — though, interestingly, calls for a diplomatic settlement pass without the usual demonization when they appear in the major establishment journal.

No matter what terminology you prefer, the fundamental facts about U.S. policies and plans are obvious enough. To me, “proxy war” seems a fair term, but what matters are the policies and plans.

As one would expect, the invasion has also sparked a long-running propaganda war by all sides. You mentioned that Americans now have less access than Soviets to the official enemy in the 1970s because RT and other Russian media outlets were banned. Could you please elaborate on this? Your statement about U.S. censorship over the war with Ukraine was totally distorted. It left readers thinking that the U.S.’s censorship today is worse than under communism in Russia.

The Russian propaganda war against domestic media is extreme. On the U.S. side, while there are no official bans, it’s hard to deny Graham Fuller’s observations.

Literal censorship is rare in the U.S.A and other western countries. However, George Orwell’s 1945 introduction (unpublished) stated that censorship is rare in the West. Animal Farm, the “sinister fact” about free societies is that censorship is “largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban,” generally a more effective means of thought control than overt force.

Orwell was speaking of England, but the practice can be seen in many other ways. Alain Gresh is a highly respected Middle East scholar. censored by French TV because of his critical comments on Israel’s latest terrorist crimes in occupied Gaza.

Gresh observed that “this form of censorship is exceptional. On the question of Palestine, it is rarely presented in such an obvious manner.” A more effective form of censorship is exercised by careful selection of commentators. They are acceptable, Gresh concludes, if they “regret the violence” while adding that Israel has “the right to defend itself” and stress “the need to “fight extremists on both sides,” but “it seems there is no room for those who radically criticise Israel’s occupation and apartheid.”

These methods of suppressing unpopular ideas and keeping inconvenient truths dark have been perfected in the United States. It is a rare society that allows for such freedom. The details of these practices are documented on literally thousands pages. Fine media critique organizations like FAIRIn the U.S. Media LensEngland releases more money on a daily basis.

There is also much discussion in print on the benefits of western models for indoctrination over the transparent and crude measures of totalitarian governments. The more advanced devices of free society instill doctrines based on presupposition, and not assertion, like Gresh’s case. The rules are not heard but only tacitly assumed. Debate is permitted, even encouraged, provided that the rules are clearly defined and adhered to. They become internalized. As Orwell puts it, those subjected to subtle indoctrination, with a good education for example, have instilled into them the understanding that there are certain things “it wouldn’t do to say” — or even to think.

It doesn’t matter if you are conscious of the indoctrination methods. Those who implement them already have internalized the understanding that there are certain things “it wouldn’t do to say” — or even to think.

These devices are especially effective in a highly isolated culture like the U.S. where few would ever dream of seeking out foreign sources, especially those of a reviled adversary, and where the illusion of unlimited freedom does not encourage anyone to venture beyond the established framework.

It’s in this general context that I mentioned the case of banning of Russian sources such as RT — “exceptional” as Gresh pointed out. While Gresh did not have the time to go into detail in his lengthy interview on other topics. However, he brought up the direct ban. an interesting topic I had written about 30 years ago. Like much other work, the article reviewed many cases of the usual modes of silencing unpopular ideas and suppressing unwanted facts in free societies, but it also reported government-academic studies seeking to determine where Russians were getting their news in the ‘70s: the late Soviet period, pre-Gorbachev. The results showed that, despite strict censorship, a remarkable percentage of Russians were accessing sources such as BBC and illegal Samizdat. This may have meant that they were better informed than Americans.

I checked at the time with Russian émigrés who related their own experiences of evading the intrusive but not very efficient censorship. They confirmed the picture. However, they felt that the reported numbers were too high. This could be due to the sampling being biased towards Moscow or Leningrad.

Direct banishment of publications from adversaries is not only illegal but also harmful. Thus, it would be important for Americans to have been aware that immediately before the invasion, the Russian Foreign Minister was emphasizing that “the key to everything is the guarantee that NATO will not expand eastward” to Ukraine — the firm redline for decades. This could have been a great opportunity to explore if there had been concern about avoiding horrible crimes and moving to a better place.

The same is true of Russian government pronouncements when the invasion was already underway, for example, Lavrov’s statement on May 29 that:

Our goals are to demilitarize Ukraine (no weapons should threaten Russia on its territory); restore the rights of the Russian population in line with the Constitution of Ukraine (the Kiev regime broke it by adopting antiRussian laws); and to denazify Ukraine. Nazi and neo Nazi ideology and practice are deeply embedded in daily life in Ukraine, and are codified by its laws.

It might be helpful for Americans to have such words at their fingertips by flipping the switch on TV. At least, those Americans who are interested in ending the horrors and not just diving into the apocalyptic battle brewed from the tea leaves to contain the rampaging bear before it devours us all.

Since early spring, peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have been deadlock. Apparently, Russia wants to enforce peace on its own terms, while Ukraine seems to have adopted the position that there can be no negotiations until Russia’s prospects on the battlefield become dim. Do you see a resolution to this conflict in the near future? Is negotiating to stop the war an appeasement?

It is not clear if negotiations are in a rut. Little is reported, but it seems possible that “Talks to end the war are back on the agenda: A meeting between Ukraine, Turkey and the UN shows that Kyiv may be warming to the idea of discussions with Moscow,” and that “Given Russian territorial advances,” it may be that Ukraine “has softened its opposition to considering a diplomatic end to the war.” If so, it’s up to Putin to show whether his “avowed zeal for negotiations is really a bluff,” or has some substance.

What’s happening is obscure. It brings to mind the “Afghan trap” that we discussed earlier, when the U.S. was fighting a proxy war with Russia “to the last Afghan,” as Cordovez and Harrison put it in their definitive study of how the UN managed to arrange for a Russian withdrawal despite U.S. efforts to prevent a diplomatic settlement. That was the period when Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who claimed credit for instigating the Russian invasion, applauded the outcome even though it came at the cost of some “agitated Muslims.”

Is there something similar happening today? Perhaps.

Russia is determined to make peace on its terms. A negotiated diplomatic agreement is one that both sides accept while giving up some of their demands. There’s only one way to find out whether Russia is serious about negotiations: Try. There is no way to lose.

Military experts make conflicting claims about battlefield prospects. I have no such credentials; I think it’s fair to conclude from the spectacle that the fog of war has not lifted. We do know what the U.S. position is, or at least was last April at the Ramstein Air Base conference of NATO powers and other military leaders that the U.S. organized: “Ukraine clearly believes it can win and so does everyone here.” Whether it was actually believed then, or is now, I don’t know, and know of no way to find out.

For what it’s worth, I personally respect the words of Jeremy Corbyn published on the day after the Ramstein war conference opened, words that contributed to his being virtually expelled from the Labour Party: “There must be an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine followed by a Russian troop withdrawal and agreement between Russia and Ukraine on future security arrangements. All wars end in a negotiation of some sort—so why not now?”