The Russia-Ukraine crisis continues unabated as the United States ignores all of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s security demands and spreads a frenzy of fear by claiming that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent.
In a new exclusive interview TruthoutNoam Chomsky, a world-renowned intellectual, discusses the dangerous consequences of U.S. intransigence regarding Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (NATO). This is despite key Western allies having vetoed previous U.S. efforts to do so. He also tries to shed light on why Republicans are divided on Russia today.
Chomsky — whose intellectual contributions have been compared to those of Galileo, Newton and Descartes — has had tremendous influence on a variety of areas of scholarly and scientific inquiry, including linguistics, logic and mathematics, computer science, psychology, media studies, philosophy, 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), as well as dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is currently Laureate professor at the University of Arizona.
The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.
C.J. Polychroniou: Tensions continue to escalate between Russia and Ukraine, and there is little room for optimism since the U.S. offer for de-escalation fails to meet any of Russia’s security demands. As such, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the Russia-Ukraine border crisis stems in reality from the U.S.’s intransigent position over Ukrainian membership in NATO? In the same context, is it hard to imagine what might have been Washington’s response to the hypothetical event that Mexico wanted to join a Moscow-driven military alliance?
Noam Chomsky The second question is not really relevant. No country would dare to make such a move in what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson called “Our little region over here,” when he was condemning all spheres of influence (except for our own — which in reality, is hardly limited to the Western hemisphere). Secretary of State Antony Blinken is no less adamant today in condemning Russia’s claim to a “sphere of influence,” a concept we firmly reject (with the same reservation).
The 1962 missile crisis was a famous example of a country within our region that came very close to joining a military alliance. However, the circumstances were not like Ukraine. President John F. Kennedy was increasing his terrorist war against Cuba to a threat for invasion; Ukraine, however, faces threats due to its potential joining a hostile military alliance. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s reckless decision to provide Cuba with missiles was also an effort to slightly rectify the enormous U.S. preponderance of military force after JFK had responded to Khrushchev’s offer of mutual reduction of offensive weapons with the largest military buildup in peacetime history, though the U.S. was already far ahead. We know what that resulted in.
The tensions over Ukraine are extremely severe, with Russia’s concentration of military forces at Ukraine’s borders. The Russian position has been quite clear for some time. It was stated clearly by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at his press conference at the United Nations: “The main issue is our clear position on the inadmissibility of further expansion of NATO to the East and the deployment of strike weapons that could threaten the territory of the Russian Federation.” Much the same was reiterated shortly after by Putin, as he had often said before.
There is a simple way to deal with deployment of weapons: Don’t deploy them. There is no legal basis to do so. The U.S. may claim that they are defensive, but Russia surely doesn’t see it that way, and with reason.
Further expansion is a more complicated question. The question of further expansion goes back more than 30 years to the time that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed. There were extensive negotiations between Russia, the U.S., and Germany. (The core issue was German unification. Two visions were offered. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed an Eurasian security system that would run from Lisbon to Vladivostok and have no military blocs. The U.S. rejected it: NATO stays, Russia’s Warsaw Pact disappears.
Russia doesn’t take German reunification as a small matter, for obvious reasons. Gorbachev nevertheless agreed to it, with a caveat: No expansion of the East. President George H.W. Bush and Secretary James Baker were in agreement. In their words to Gorbachev: “Not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well, it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.”
“East” meant East Germany. Nobody had any thoughts about anything beyond the obvious, at least not in public. That’s agreed on all sides. German leaders were even more clear about it. They were thrilled to see Russia agree to unification. The last thing they wanted was more problems.
There is extensive scholarship on the matter — Mary Sarotte, Joshua Shifrinson, and others, debating exactly who said what, what they meant, what’s its status, and so on. It is a fascinating and illuminating work. However, the bottom line is what I quoted in the declassified record.
President H.W. These promises were fulfilled by President Bush. At first, President Bill Clinton did not fulfill these commitments until 1999, the 50th anniversary NATO. Some speculate that this was because they were keeping an eye on the Polish vote during the next election. He added the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to NATO. President George W. Bush — the lovable goofy grandpa who was celebrated in the press on the 20th anniversary of his invasion of Afghanistan — let down all the bars. He welcomed the Baltic states and other nations. He poking the bear in his eye, and invited Ukraine into NATO in 2008. Ukraine is Russia’s geostrategic heartland, apart from intimate historic relations and a large Russia-oriented population. Germany and France vetoed Bush’s reckless invitation, but it’s still on the table. Gorbachev made it clear that no Russian leader would agree to this.
There is an easy answer, just like in the case with the Russian border deployment of offensive weapons. Ukraine can be treated in the same way as Austria and the two Nordic countries during the Cold War: neutral but closely linked to the West, and quite secure, and can even be a member of the European Union, if they choose to.
The U.S. adamantly rejects this outcome, loftily proclaiming its passionate dedication to the sovereignty of nations, which cannot be infringed: Ukraine’s right to join NATO must be honored. Although this principled stand is being praised in the U.S., it is certainly eliciting loud guffaws around the world, including in the Kremlin. The world is aware of our indomitable dedication to sovereignty, particularly in the three cases which angered Russia: Iraq, Libya, and Kosovo-Serbia.
There is no need to talk about Iraq. U.S. aggression has angered almost everybody. The NATO assaults on Libya and Serbia, both a slap in Russia’s face during its sharp decline in the ‘90s, is clothed in righteous humanitarian terms in U.S. propaganda. As is well documented elsewhere, it all dissolves quickly. The richer record of U.S. reverence towards the sovereignty and rights of nations is worth a closer look.
Sometimes, NATO membership is claimed to increase security for Poland and other countries. NATO membership can be seen as a threat to their security, as it heightens tensions. This argument is stronger. Historian Richard Sakwa, a specialist on East Europe, observed that “NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage threats provoked by its enlargement” — a plausible judgment.
There are many things to say about Ukraine and how we can deal with the growing crisis there. But perhaps this is enough to suggest there is no need for us to escalate the situation and move on to what could well prove to be a disastrous war.
In fact, there is a surreal quality in the U.S. rejection Austrian-style neutrality to Ukraine. The U.S. government policy makers are well aware that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is not an option in the near future. We can, however, forget about the absurd posturing about sovereignty’s sanctity. For the sake of a principle they don’t believe and to pursue an objective they know is beyond reach, the U.S. may end up in a devastating disaster. It may seem impossible, but there are plausible imperial calculations.
It is possible to wonder why Putin takes such a hostile stance on the ground. There is a cottage business that tries to solve this mystery. Is he trying to force Europe into becoming a Russian satellite. What is his plan?
Listening to Putin’s words can help you find out. For years, Putin tried to get the U.S. attention to the repeated requests he and Foreign Minister Lavrov made, but to no avail. One possibility is that the use of force could be a way to achieve that goal. This has been suggested. by well-informed analysts. It seems that it succeeded, at most in a limited manner.
France and Germany have already resisted earlier U.S. attempts to offer Ukraine membership. So why is the U.S. so keen on NATO expansion eastward to the point of treating a Russian invasion of Ukraine as imminent, even when Ukrainian leaders themselves don’t seem to think so? And when did Ukraine become a beacon of democracy and freedom?
It is quite fascinating to watch the unfolding events. While the U.S. is feigning excitement, Ukraine is asking for a more measured approach. Although there is much controversy about why Putin is acting the way he is, U.S. motives rarely come under scrutiny. The reason is easy to understand: U.S. motives by definition are noble, even though they may not be well-intentioned.
Nevertheless, the question might merit some thought, at least by “the wild men in the wings,” to borrow former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy’s phrase, referring to those incorrigible figures who dare to subject Washington to the standards applied elsewhere.
A famous slogan about NATO’s purpose suggests a possible solution: to keep Russia out, keep Germany down, and keep the U.S. inside. Russia is far out. Germany is down. What remains is the question whether the U.S. will be in Europe — more accurately, should be in charge. Not all have quietly accepted this principle of world affairs, among them: Charles de Gaulle, who advanced his concept of Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural’s; former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik; and French President Emmanuel Macron, with his current diplomatic initiatives that are causing much displeasure in Washington.
If the Ukraine crisis is resolved peacefully, it will be a European affair, breaking from the post-World War II “Atlanticist” conception that places the U.S. firmly in the driver’s seat. It might even be a precedent for further moves toward European independence, maybe even moving toward Gorbachev’s vision. With China’s Belt-and-Road initiative encroaching from the East, much larger issues of global order arise.
As we have seen in the past, there is a bipartisan frenzy regarding Ukraine. The Republicans in Congress want President Joe Biden take a stronger stance against Russia, but the proto-fascist base has questioned the party line. What does the split in Republicans over Ukraine reveal about the state of the Republicans?
One cannot easily speak of today’s Republican Party as if it were a genuine political party participating in a functioning democracy. More apt is the description of the organization as “a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” This characterization by political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise is from a decade ago, pre-Donald Trump. By now it’s far out of date. In the acronym “GOP,” what remains is “O.”
I don’t know whether the popular base that Trump has whipped up into a worshipful cult is questioning the aggressive stance of Republican leaders, or if they even care. The evidence is sparse. Leading right-wing figures closely linked to the GOP are moving well towards the right of European opinion and the stance of those who want to preserve some degree of democracy in the U.S. They are going even beyond Trump in their enthusiastic support for Hungarian President Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy,” extolling it for saving Western civilization, no less.
This effusive welcome for Orban’s dismantling of democracy might bring to mind the praise for Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini for having “saved European civilization [so that] the merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history”; the thoughts of the revered founder of the neoliberal movement that has reigned for the past 40 years, Ludwig von Mises, in his 1927 classic Liberalism.
Fox NewsTucker Carlson, a commentator, has been the most vocal of all the enthusiasts. Many Republican senators either agree with him or deny knowing what Orban is doing. This is a remarkable admission of ignorance at the height of global power. Charles Grassley, a respected senior senator, says he knows a lot about Hungary only from Carlson’s TV expositions, and approves. These performances tell us a lot about radical insurgency. The GOP leadership must be resigned from Ukraine. Carlson asks why we should take any position on a quarrel between “foreign countries that don’t care anything about the United States.”
Whatever one’s views on international affairs, it’s clear that we’ve left the domain of rational discourse far behind, and are moving into territory with an unattractive history, to put it mildly.