A New Interview

Noam Chomsky on Ukraine War

Joshua Yaffa

Noam Chomsky: Fossil fuel companies and weapons contractors are “being lauded for saving civilization by destroying the possibility for life on Earth.” (Cancillería del Ecuador/Flickr)
[Now ninety-three, Noam Chomsky is still offering his insights and wisdom to a younger generation of leftists. Here is his latest interview with Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian, which first appeared in TomDispatch. Jacobin reproduced it].

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 HW 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, HW Bush, the first Bush, did honour 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 marginalised. 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.

Bill 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 US 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 United States 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 US 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.

Can we try to bring this horror to an end? Or should we try to perpetuate it? Those are the choices.

In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected with an overwhelming majority—I think about 70 percent 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 federalisation of Ukraine with a degree of autonomy for the Donbas, which is what they wanted. Something likes 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 United States refused. No backing, nothing, which meant he was left to hang out to dry and had to back off. The US 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 programme, a joint statement to accelerate the process of military training, military exercises, and more weapons as part of what his administration called an “enhanced programme” 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 formalised and extended this arrangement. A spokesman for the State Department conceded that before the invasion, the United States refused to discuss any Russian security concerns. All of this is part of the background.

On February 24, Vladimir 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 United States, 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 US 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 percent 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 United States. 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.

David Barsamian: In an article in Truthout, you quote Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech. What did you find of interest there?

Noam Chomsky: 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.


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Vol 55, No. 7, Aug 14 - 20, 2022