A look at geopolitical aspects that played a role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, and political activist. He is the laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona.
Cross-posted from Truthout
Interview by David Barsamian
David Barsamian: Let’s head into the most obvious nightmare of this moment, the war in Ukraine and its effects globally. But first a little background. Let’s start with President George H.W. Bush’s assurance to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not move “one inch to the east” — and that pledge has been verified. My question to you is, why didn’t Gorbachev get that in writing?
Noam Chomsky: He accepted a gentleman’s agreement, which is not that uncommon in diplomacy. Shake-of-the-hand. Furthermore, having it on paper would have made no difference whatsoever. Treaties that are on paper are torn up all the time. What matters is good faith. And in fact, H.W. Bush, the first Bush, did honor the agreement explicitly. He even moved toward instituting a partnership in peace, which would accommodate the countries of Eurasia. NATO wouldn’t be disbanded but would be marginalized. Countries like Tajikistan, for example, could join without formally being part of NATO. And Gorbachev approved of that. It would have been a step toward creating what he called a common European home with no military alliances.
Clinton in his first couple of years also adhered to it. What the specialists say is that by about 1994, Clinton started to, as they put it, talk from both sides of his mouth. To the Russians he was saying: Yes, we’re going to adhere to the agreement. To the Polish community in the United States and other ethnic minorities, he was saying: Don’t worry, we’ll incorporate you within NATO. By about 1996-97, Clinton said this pretty explicitly to his friend Russian President Boris Yeltsin, whom he had helped win the 1996 election. He told Yeltsin: Don’t push too hard on this NATO business. We’re going to expand but I need it because of the ethnic vote in the United States.
In 1997, Clinton invited the so-called Visegrad countries — Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania — to join NATO. The Russians didn’t like it but didn’t make much of a fuss. Then the Baltic nations joined, again the same thing. In 2008, the second Bush, who was quite different from the first, invited Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Every U.S. diplomat understood very well that Georgia and Ukraine were red lines for Russia. They’ll tolerate the expansion elsewhere, but these are in their geostrategic heartland and they’re not going to tolerate expansion there. To continue with the story, the Maidan uprising took place in 2014, expelling the pro-Russian president and Ukraine moved toward the West.
From 2014, the U.S. and NATO began to pour arms into Ukraine — advanced weapons, military training, joint military exercises, moves to integrate Ukraine into the NATO military command. There’s no secret about this. It was quite open. Recently, the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, bragged about it. He said: This is what we were doing since 2014. Well, of course, this is very consciously, highly provocative. They knew that they were encroaching on what every Russian leader regarded as an intolerable move. France and Germany vetoed it in 2008, but under U.S. pressure, it was kept on the agenda. And NATO, meaning the United States, moved to accelerate the de facto integration of Ukraine into the NATO military command.
In 2019, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected with an overwhelming majority — I think about 70% of the vote — on a peace platform, a plan to implement peace with Eastern Ukraine and Russia, to settle the problem. He began to move forward on it and, in fact, tried to go to the Donbas, the Russian-oriented eastern region, to implement what’s called the Minsk II agreement. It would have meant a kind of federalization of Ukraine with a degree of autonomy for the Donbas, which is what they wanted. Something like Switzerland or Belgium. He was blocked by right-wing militias which threatened to murder him if he persisted with his effort.
Well, he’s a courageous man. He could have gone forward if he had had any backing from the United States. The U.S. refused. No backing, nothing, which meant he was left to hang out to dry and had to back off. The U.S. was intent on this policy of integrating Ukraine step by step into the NATO military command. That accelerated further when President Biden was elected. In September 2021, you could read it on the White House website. It wasn’t reported but, of course, the Russians knew it. Biden announced a program, a joint statement to accelerate the process of military training, military exercises, more weapons as part of what his administration called an “enhanced program” of preparation for NATO membership.
It accelerated further in November. This was all before the invasion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed what was called a charter, which essentially formalized and extended this arrangement. A spokesman for the State Department conceded that before the invasion, the U.S. refused to discuss any Russian security concerns. All of this is part of the background.
On February 24th, Putin invaded, a criminal invasion. These serious provocations provide no justification for it. If Putin had been a statesman, what he would have done is something quite different. He would have gone back to French President Emmanuel Macron, grasped his tentative proposals, and moved to try to reach an accommodation with Europe, to take steps toward a European common home.
The U.S., of course, has always been opposed to that. This goes way back in Cold War history to French President De Gaulle’s initiatives to establish an independent Europe. In his phrase “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” integrating Russia with the West, which was a very natural accommodation for trade reasons and, obviously, security reasons as well. So, had there been any statesmen within Putin’s narrow circle, they would have grasped Macron’s initiatives and experimented to see whether, in fact, they could integrate with Europe and avert the crisis. Instead, what he chose was a policy which, from the Russian point of view, was total imbecility. Apart from the criminality of the invasion, he chose a policy that drove Europe deep into the pocket of the United States. In fact, it is even inducing Sweden and Finland to join NATO — the worst possible outcome from the Russian point of view, quite apart from the criminality of the invasion, and the very serious losses that Russia is suffering because of that.
So, criminality and stupidity on the Kremlin side, severe provocation on the U.S. side. That’s the background that has led to this. Can we try to bring this horror to an end? Or should we try to perpetuate it? Those are the choices.
There’s only one way to bring it to an end. That’s diplomacy. Now, diplomacy, by definition, means both sides accept it. They don’t like it, but they accept it as the least bad option. It would offer Putin some kind of escape hatch. That’s one possibility. The other is just to drag it out and see how much everybody will suffer, how many Ukrainians will die, how much Russia will suffer, how many millions of people will starve to death in Asia and Africa, how much we’ll proceed toward heating the environment to the point where there will be no possibility for a livable human existence. Those are the options. Well, with near 100% unanimity, the United States and most of Europe want to pick the no-diplomacy option. It’s explicit. We have to keep going to hurt Russia.
You can read columns in the New York Times, the London Financial Times, all over Europe. A common refrain is: we’ve got to make sure that Russia suffers. It doesn’t matter what happens to Ukraine or anyone else. Of course, this gamble assumes that if Putin is pushed to the limit, with no escape, forced to admit defeat, he’ll accept that and not use the weapons he has to devastate Ukraine.
There are a lot of things that Russia hasn’t done. Western analysts are rather surprised by it. Namely, they’ve not attacked the supply lines from Poland that are pouring weapons into Ukraine. They certainly could do it. That would very soon bring them into direct confrontation with NATO, meaning the U.S. Where it goes from there, you can guess. Anyone who’s ever looked at war games knows where it’ll go — up the escalatory ladder toward terminal nuclear war.
So, those are the games we’re playing with the lives of Ukrainians, Asians, and Africans, the future of civilization, in order to weaken Russia, to make sure that they suffer enough. Well, if you want to play that game, be honest about it. There’s no moral basis for it. In fact, it’s morally horrendous. And the people who are standing on a high horse about how we’re upholding principle are moral imbeciles when you think about what’s involved.
In the media, and among the political class in the United States, and probably in Europe, there’s much moral outrage about Russian barbarity, war crimes, and atrocities. No doubt they are occurring as they do in every war. Don’t you find that moral outrage a bit selective though?
The moral outrage is quite in place. There should be moral outrage. But you go to the Global South, they just can’t believe what they’re seeing. They condemn the war, of course. It’s a deplorable crime of aggression. Then they look at the West and say: What are you guys talking about? This is what you do to us all the time.
It’s kind of astonishing to see the difference in commentary. So, you read the New York Times and their big thinker, Thomas Friedman. He wrote a column a couple of weeks ago in which he just threw up his hands in despair. He said: What can we do? How can we live in a world that has a war criminal? We’ve never experienced this since Hitler. There’s a war criminal in Russia. We’re at a loss as to how to act. We’ve never imagined the idea that there could be a war criminal anywhere.
When people in the Global South hear this, they don’t know whether to crack up in laughter or ridicule. We have war criminals walking all over Washington. Actually, we know how to deal with our war criminals. In fact, it happened on the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. Remember, this was an entirely unprovoked invasion, strongly opposed by world opinion. There was an interview with the perpetrator, George W. Bush, who then went on to invade Iraq, a major war criminal, in the style section of the Washington Post — an interview with, as they described it, this lovable goofy grandpa who was playing with his grandchildren, making jokes, showing off the portraits he painted of famous people he’d met. Just a beautiful, friendly environment.
So, we know how to deal with war criminals. Thomas Friedman is wrong. We deal with them very well.
Or take probably the major war criminal of the modern period, Henry Kissinger. We deal with him not only politely, but with great admiration. This is the man after all who transmitted the order to the Air Force, saying that there should be massive bombing of Cambodia — “anything that flies on anything that moves” was his phrase. I don’t know of a comparable example in the archival record of a call for mass genocide. And it was implemented with very intensive bombing of Cambodia. We don’t know much about it because we don’t investigate our own crimes. But Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, serious historians of Cambodia, have described it. Then there’s our role in overthrowing Salvador Allende’s government in Chile and instituting a vicious dictatorship there, and on and on. So, we do know how to deal with our war criminals.
Still, Thomas Friedman can’t imagine that there’s anything like Ukraine. Nor was there any commentary on what he wrote, which means it was regarded as quite reasonable. You can hardly use the word selectivity. It’s beyond astonishing. So, yes, the moral outrage is perfectly in place. It’s good that Americans are finally beginning to show some outrage about major war crimes committed by someone else.
I’ve got a little puzzle for you. It’s in two parts. Russia’s military is inept and incompetent. Its soldiers have very low morale and are poorly led. Its economy ranks with Italy’s and Spain’s. That’s one part. The other part is Russia is a military colossus that threatens to overwhelm us. So, we need more weapons. Let’s expand NATO. How do you reconcile those two contradictory thoughts?
Those two thoughts are standard in the entire West. I just had a long interview in Sweden about their plans to join NATO. I pointed out that Swedish leaders have two contradictory ideas, the two you mentioned. One, gloating over the fact that Russia has proven itself to be a paper tiger that can’t conquer cities a couple of miles from its border defended by a mostly citizens’ army. So, they’re completely militarily incompetent. The other thought is: they’re poised to conquer the West and destroy us.
George Orwell had a name for that. He called it doublethink, the capacity to have two contradictory ideas in your mind and believe both of them. Orwell mistakenly thought that was something you could only have in the ultra-totalitarian state he was satirizing in 1984. He was wrong. You can have it in free democratic societies. We’re seeing a dramatic example of it right now. Incidentally, this is not the first time.
Such doublethink is, for instance, characteristic of Cold War thinking. You go way back to the major Cold War document of those years, NSC-68 in 1950. Look at it carefully and it showed that Europe alone, quite apart from the United States, was militarily on a par with Russia. But of course, we still had to have a huge rearmament program to counter the Kremlin design for world conquest.
That’s one document and it was a conscious approach. Dean Acheson, one of the authors, later said that it’s necessary to be “clearer than truth,” his phrase, in order to bludgeon the mass mind of government. We want to drive through this huge military budget, so we have to be “clearer than truth” by concocting a slave state that’s about to conquer the world. Such thinking runs right through the Cold War. I could give you many other examples, but we’re seeing it again now quite dramatically. And the way you put it is exactly correct: these two ideas are consuming the West.
It’s also interesting that diplomat George Kennan foresaw the danger of NATO moving its borders east in a very prescient op-ed he wrote that appeared in The New York Times in 1997.
Kennan had also been opposed to NSC-68. In fact, he had been the director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. He was kicked out and replaced by Paul Nitze. He was regarded as too soft for such a hard world. He was a hawk, radically anticommunist, pretty brutal himself with regard to U.S. positions, but he realized that military confrontation with Russia made no sense.
Russia, he thought, would ultimately collapse from internal contradictions, which turned out to be correct. But he was considered a dove all the way through. In 1952, he was in favor of the unification of Germany outside the NATO military alliance. That was actually Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin’s proposal as well. Kennan was ambassador to the Soviet Union and a Russia specialist.
Stalin’s initiative. Kennan’s proposal. Some Europeans supported it. It would have ended the Cold War. It would have meant a neutralized Germany, non-militarized and not part of any military bloc. It was almost totally ignored in Washington.
There was one foreign policy specialist, a respected one, James Warburg, who wrote a book about it. It’s worth reading. It’s called Germany: Key to Peace. In it, he urged that this idea be taken seriously. He was disregarded, ignored, ridiculed. I mentioned it a couple of times and was ridiculed as a lunatic, too. How could you believe Stalin? Well, the archives came out. Turns out he was apparently serious. You now read the leading Cold War historians, people like Melvin Leffler, and they recognize that there was a real opportunity for a peaceful settlement at the time, which was dismissed in favor of militarization, of a huge expansion of the military budget.
Now, let’s go to the Kennedy administration. When John Kennedy came into office, Nikita Khrushchev, leading Russia at the time, made a very important offer to carry out large-scale mutual reductions in offensive military weapons, which would have meant a sharp relaxation of tensions. The United States was far ahead militarily then. Khrushchev wanted to move toward economic development in Russia and understood that this was impossible in the context of a military confrontation with a far richer adversary. So, he first made that offer to President Dwight Eisenhower, who paid no attention. It was then offered to Kennedy and his administration responded with the largest peacetime buildup of military force in history — even though they knew that the United States was already far ahead.
The U.S. concocted a “missile gap.” Russia was about to overwhelm us with its advantage in missiles. Well, when the missile gap was exposed, it turned out to be in favor of the U.S. Russia had maybe four missiles exposed on an airbase somewhere.
You can go on and on like this. The security of the population is simply not a concern for policymakers. Security for the privileged, the rich, the corporate sector, arms manufacturers, yes, but not the rest of us. This doublethink is constant, sometimes conscious, sometimes not. It’s just what Orwell described, hyper-totalitarianism in a free society.
In an article in Truthout, you quote Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech. What did you find of interest there?
You should read it and you’ll see why it’s interesting. It’s the best speech he ever made. This was 1953 when he was just taking office. Basically, what he pointed out was that militarization was a tremendous attack on our own society. He — or whoever wrote the speech — put it pretty eloquently. One jet plane means this many fewer schools and hospitals. Every time we’re building up our military budget, we’re attacking ourselves.
He spelled it out in some detail, calling for a decline in the military budget. He had a pretty awful record himself, but in this respect he was right on target. And those words should be emblazoned in everyone’s memory. Recently, in fact, Biden proposed a huge military budget. Congress expanded it even beyond his wishes, which represents a major attack on our society, exactly as Eisenhower explained so many years ago.
The excuse: the claim that we have to defend ourselves from this paper tiger, so militarily incompetent it can’t move a couple of miles beyond its border without collapse. So, with a monstrous military budget, we have to severely harm ourselves and endanger the world, wasting enormous resources that will be necessary if we’re going to deal with the severe existential crises we face. Meanwhile, we pour taxpayer funds into the pockets of the fossil-fuel producers so that they can continue to destroy the world as quickly as possible. That’s what we’re witnessing with the vast expansion of both fossil-fuel production and military expenditures. There are people who are happy about this. Go to the executive offices of Lockheed Martin, ExxonMobil, they’re ecstatic. It’s a bonanza for them. They’re even being given credit for it. Now, they’re being lauded for saving civilization by destroying the possibility for life on Earth. Forget the Global South. If you imagine some extraterrestrials, if they existed, they’d think we were all totally insane. And they’d be right.
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