Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took much of the world by surprise. In an exclusive interview, Noam Chomsky argues that it is an unprovoked attack that was not justified. TruthoutThis is what you will see. The following is the conclusion. In the face of this horrific invasion, though, the U.S. must choose urgent diplomacy over military escalation, as the latter could constitute a “death warrant for the species, with no victors,” Chomsky says.
Noam Chomsky is recognized internationally as one of the greatest intellectuals alive. His intellectual stature is often compared to that a Newton, Galileo, and Descartes. His work has had an enormous influence on many areas scholarly and scientific inquiry, including logic and mathematics, linguistics, psychology and media studies, philosophy and international affairs. 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 (Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel 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, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken most people by surprise, sending shockwaves throughout the world, although there were plenty of indications that Putin had become quite agitated by NATO’s expansion eastward and Washington’s refusal to take seriously his “red line” security demands regarding Ukraine. Why did he decide to invade Ukraine at this time?
Noam Chomsky Before we get to the question, it is important to settle a few facts. The most important is that the Russian invasion in Ukraine is a war crime. This is alongside the U.S. invasions in Iraq and Poland’s Hitler-Stalin invasion in September 1939. While it makes sense to search for explanations, there isn’t any justification. There is also no mitigation.
Turning now to the question, there are plenty of supremely confident outpourings about Putin’s mind. The usual story is that he is caught up in paranoid fantasies, acting alone, surrounded by groveling courtiers of the kind familiar here in what’s left of the Republican Party traipsing to Mar-a-Lago for the Leader’s blessing.
Although the invective may be true, there are other options. Perhaps Putin meant what his associates and he have been saying for years. It might be, for example, that, “Since Putin’s major demand is an assurance that NATO will take no further members, and specifically not Ukraine or Georgia, obviously there would have been no basis for the present crisis if there had been no expansion of the alliance following the end of the Cold War, or if the expansion had occurred in harmony with building a security structure in Europe that included Russia.” The author of these words is former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Jack Matlock, one of the few serious Russia specialists in the U.S. diplomatic corps, writing shortly before the invasion. He goes on to conclude that the crisis “can be easily resolved by the application of common sense…. It is in the US’s interest to promote peace and not conflict, according to any common-sense standard. To try to detach Ukraine from Russian influence — the avowed aim of those who agitated for the ‘color revolutions’ — was a fool’s errand, and a dangerous one. Have we so soon forgotten the lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis?”
Matlock is not the only one. There are many other examples. same conclusionsThe memoirs by William Burns (CIA head and another Russian specialist), provide details about the underlying issues. [Diplomat] George Kennan’s even stronger stand has belatedly been widely quoted, backed as well by former Defense Secretary William Perry, and outside the diplomatic ranks by the noted international relations scholar John MearsheimerMany other figures who could not possibly be more mainstream.
None of this is difficult to understand. U.S. internal documentsReleased by WikiLeaks, reveal that Bush II’s reckless offer to Ukraine to join NATO at once elicited sharp warnings from Russia that the expanding military threat could not be tolerated. Understandably.
We might incidentally take note of the strange concept of “the left” that appears regularly in excoriation of “the left” for insufficient skepticism about the “Kremlin’s line.”
We don’t know the reason for the decision, regardless of whether it was made by Putin or the Russian Security Council in which Putin plays the leading role. We do know some things with fair confidence, including the records reviewed in detail by the cited individuals, who have been at the top of the planning system. The crisis has been in the making for 25 years, as the U.S. has consistently rejected Russian security concerns, especially those of Ukraine and Georgia.
There are good reasons for believing that this tragedy could be avoided, even though it was too late. We’ve discussed it before, repeatedly. We can speculate as much as we want about the motivation behind Putin’s criminal aggression. But the immediate background is not obscure — evaded but not contested.
It’s easy to understand why those suffering from the crime may regard it as an unacceptable indulgence to inquire into why it happened and whether it could have been avoided. It is understandable, but it is wrong. If we want to help victims and prevent further disasters, it is wise and necessary to find out as much as possible about what went wrong and how we could have corrected it. While heroic gestures can be satisfying, they are not helpful. They are not helpful.
As often before, I’m reminded of a lesson I learned long ago. In the late 1960s, I took part in a meeting in Europe with a few representatives of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (“Viet Cong,” in U.S. parlance). It was during a brief period of intense opposition against the horrific U.S. crimes committed in Indochina. Some young people were so outraged that they felt only a violent response would be appropriate to the unfolding monstrosities: smashing windows on Main Street, bombing a ROTC center. Anything less was complicity to terrible crimes. Vietnam saw things differently. They strongly opposed any such measures. They showed their model for a protest that was effective: a few women standing silently in prayer at the graves U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam. They didn’t care about what made American war opponents feel righteous or honorable. They wanted to survive.
It’s a lesson I’ve often heard in one or another form from victims of hideous suffering in the Global South, the prime target of imperial violence. One that we should all take into consideration, and adapt to our circumstances. This means trying to understand the circumstances that led to this tragedy and how we can prevent it from happening again.
The question cuts deep. This is a very important question. It’s almost a reflex, and the consequences have generally been awful — for the traditional victims. It’s always worthwhile to try to understand, to think a step or two ahead about the likely consequences of action or inaction. These are not truths, but they are worth repeating because they can be dismissed easily in times of passion.
The options after the invasion look grim. The best option is to support the diplomatic options that remain, in the hope of reaching an outcomes not too far off what was possible a few days ago: Austrian-style nullification of Ukraine, and some form of Minsk II federalism inside. It’s much harder to reach right now. And — necessarily — with an escape hatch for Putin, or outcomes will be still more dire for Ukraine and everyone else, perhaps almost unimaginably so.
Justice is very far away. But when has justice prevailed over injustice in international affairs? Is it necessary for us to go back and review the appalling record?
Like it or not, the choices are now reduced to an ugly outcome that rewards rather than punishes Putin for the act of aggression — or the strong possibility of terminal war. It may feel satisfying to drive the bear into a corner from which it will lash out in desperation — as it can. It is not wise.
While we wait, we should do everything we can to help those bravely defending their homeland from cruel aggressors, those fleeing the horrors, as well as for the thousands courageous Russians who have publicly opposed the crime of their government at great personal risk. It is a lesson for us all.
We must also find ways to help a larger group of victims: all life on Earth. This catastrophe occurred at a crucial moment when all of the major powers, indeed all of humanity, must work together to combat the environmental disaster that is already taking a terrible toll. If not, it will get worse. The IPCC just emphasized the obvious. releasedThe latest and most concerning of its regular assessments about how we are headed towards disaster is this.
The necessary actions are being stalled or even reversed as desperately needed resources are devoted for destruction. The world is now on the course to increase its use of fossil fuels, including coal, which is the most dangerous and easily available.
A malevolent demon could not have imagined a more horrific conjuncture. It can’t be ignored. Every moment matters.
The Russian invasion is clearly in violation of Article 2(4) UN Charter. This prohibits the use or threat of force against another state’s territorial integrity. Putin attempted to provide legal justifications for his invasion during his speech of February 24, and Russia cites Kosovo as evidence that the United States (and its allies) violate international law repeatedly. Can you comment on Putin’s legal justifications for the invasion of Ukraine and on the status of international law in the post-Cold War era?
There is nothing to say about Putin’s attempt to offer legal justification for his aggression. Its merit is zero.
Of course, it is true that the U.S. and its allies violate international law without a blink of an eye, but that provides no extenuation for Putin’s crimes. However, the conflict over Ukraine did have direct implications for Kosovo and Libya.
The invasion of Iraq was a classic example of the crimes for that Nazis were hanged at Nuremberg. It was pure unprovoked aggression. And a punch in Russia’s face.
In the case of Kosovo, NATO aggression (meaning U.S. aggression) was claimed to be “illegal but justified” (for example, by the International Commission on Kosovo chaired by Richard Goldstone) on grounds that the bombing was undertaken to terminate ongoing atrocities. This ruling required a reversal on the chronology. The evidence is overwhelming in favor of the conclusion that the invasion caused the flood of atrocities. This was predicted, predicted, and anticipated. Furthermore, diplomatic options were available, [but]As usual, violence is ignored.
High U.S. officials confirm that it was primarily the bombing of Russian ally Serbia — without even informing them in advance — that reversed Russian efforts to work together with the U.S. somehow to construct a post-Cold War European security order, a reversal accelerated with the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya after Russia agreed not to veto a UN Security Council Resolution that NATO at once violated.
Even though events have consequences, the facts can be hidden within the doctrinal system.
In the post-Cold War period, the status and importance of international law remained unchanged, in words and in actions. The President Clinton stated that the U.S. did not intend to abide by international law. The Clinton Doctrine declared that the U.S. reserves the right to act “unilaterally when necessary,” including “unilateral use of military power” to defend such vital interests as “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources.” His successors as well, and anyone else who can violate the law with impunity.
That’s not to say that international law is of no value. It has a wide range of applicability and is useful in some respects.
The Russian invasion appears to have the goal of removing the Zelensky government from power and replacing it with a pro-Russian one. However, no matter what happens, Ukraine is facing a daunting future for its decision to become a pawn in Washington’s geostrategic games. In that context, how likely is it that economic sanctions will cause Russia to change its stance toward Ukraine — or do the economic sanctions aim at something bigger, such as undermining Putin’s control inside Russia and ties with countries such as Cuba, Venezuela and possibly even China itself?
While Ukraine may not be the most prudent of countries, it did have the option to make the same choices as the imperial states. I think that Russia will be even more dependent upon China as a result of the sanctions. Russia is a kleptocratic petrostate that depends on a resource that must fall sharply or else we will all be finished. It’s not clear whether its financial systemCan weather a strong attack by sanctions or other means. It is all the more reason for a grimace to offer an escape hatch.
Western governments, mainstream parties, including the Labour Party, U.K., as well as corporate media have all launched an anti-Russian chauvinist campaign. The targets include not only Russia’s oligarchs but musicians, conductors and singers, and even football owners such as Roman Abramovich of Chelsea FC. Russia has been expelled from Eurovision in 2022 because of the invasion. This is the same reaction that the corporate media and the international community in general exhibited towards the U.S. following its invasion and subsequent destruction of Iraq, wasn’t it?
Your wry comment is very appropriate. We can continue in familiar ways.
Do you think that the invasion will bring about a new era for Russia (and perhaps an alliance with China)?
It’s hard to tell where the ashes will fall — and that might turn out not to be a metaphor. China has been playing it cool so far. It is likely to continue its extensive program for economic integration of many parts of the world within its expanding global systems. incorporating ArgentinaBelt and Road initiative, while rivals are destroying themselves.
As we’ve discussed before, contestation is a death warrant for the species, with no victors. We are at an important point in human history. It is not to be denied. It cannot be ignored.