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2014-09-05

Ukraine Ceasefire Takes Hold, but an Expanding NATO on Russia’s Borders Raises Threat of Nuclear War

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Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. He is also the author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His latest article in The Nation is "Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War."

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The Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels are reportedly set to sign a ceasefire today aimed at ending over six months of fighting that has killed at least 2,600 people and displaced over a million. The deal is expected this morning in the Belarusian capital of Minsk as President Obama and European leaders meet in Wales for a major NATO summit. The ceasefire comes at a time when the Ukrainian military has suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels. In the hours leading up to the reported ceasefire, pro-Russian rebels launched another offensive to take the port city of Mariupol, which stands about halfway between Russia and the Crimea region. The Ukrainian government and NATO have accused Russia of sending forces into Ukraine, a claim Moscow denies. The new developments in Ukraine come as NATO has announced plans to create a new rapid reaction force in response to the Ukraine crisis. We are joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, and the author of numerous books on Russia and the Soviet Union.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, now to international news.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian rebels are reportedly set to sign a ceasefire today aimed at ending over six months of fighting in eastern Ukraine that has killed at least 2,600 people and displaced over one million. The deal is expected to be signed in the Belarusian capital Minsk as President Obama and European leaders meet in Wales for a major NATO summit. The ceasefire comes at a time when the Ukrainian military has suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the Russian-backed rebels.

A new dispatch from The New York Review of Books reveals the remnants of at least 68 Ukrainian military vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, pickups, buses and trucks are littered along one 16-mile stretch in eastern Ukraine where the rebels launched an offensive last week. The reporter, Tim Judah, writes, quote, "The scale of the devastation suffered by Ukrainian forces in southeastern Ukraine over the last week has to be seen to be believed. It amounts to a catastrophic defeat and will long be remembered by embittered Ukrainians as among the darkest days of their history."

In the hours leading up to the ceasefire, pro-Russian rebels launched another offensive to take the port city of Mariupol, which stands about halfway between Russia and the Crimea region. The Ukrainian government and NATO have accused Russia of sending forces into Ukraine, a claim that Moscow continues to deny.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile in Wales, NATO has announced plans to create a new rapid reaction force in response to the Ukraine crisis. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the new force could be deployed anywhere in the world in two to five days.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: So we must be able to act more swiftly. In 2002, NATO stood down its high-readiness force. I hope that today we can agree a multinational spearhead force, deployable anywhere in the world in just two to five days. This would be part of a reformed NATO response force, with headquarters in Poland, forward units in the eastern allies, and pre-positioned equipment and infrastructure to allow more exercises and, if necessary, rapid reinforcement. If we can agree this, the United Kingdom will contribute 3,500 personnel to this multinational force.

AMY GOODMAN: In another development, the Pentagon has announced 200 U.S. troops will be sent to Ukraine later this month for a multinational military exercise dubbed Rapid Trident. Another 280 U.S. troops will work with Ukrainian forces next week for a military exercise aboard the USS Ross in the Black Sea.

To talk more about the crisis in Ukraine and the NATO summit, we’re joined by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University, also the author of a number of books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His latest piece in The Nation is headlined "Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War: Neo-McCarthyites Have Stifled Democratic Debate on Russia and Ukraine."

So, welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Cohen. Talk about the latest developments, both the decisions out of NATO and what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine.

STEPHEN COHEN: One latest development is related to what Juan just said about New York kids. There are about a million refugees from eastern Ukraine, most of them having fled to Russia, a lot of kids. Traditionally in Ukraine and Russia, the first day of school is September 1. There are about 50,000 to 70,000 kids who needed to have started school. The Russians have made every effort to get them in school, but there are a lot of little Ukrainian kids who won’t be going to school this September yet, because they’re living in refugee camps. And that’s the story, of course.

This is a horrific, tragic, completely unnecessary war in eastern Ukraine. In my own judgment, we have contributed mightily to this tragedy. I would say that historians one day will look back and say that America has blood on its hands. Three thousand people have died, most of them civilians who couldn’t move quickly. That’s women with small children, older women. A million refugees. Talk of a ceasefire that might go into place today, which would be wonderful, because nobody else should die for absolutely no reason.

But what’s driving the new developments, and partially the NATO meeting in Wales, but this stunning development, that Juan mentioned, reported in The New York Review of Books, though a handful of us in this country have been trying to get it into the media for nearly two weeks, is that it appeared that the Ukrainian army would conquer eastern Ukraine. But what they were doing is sitting outside the cities, bombarding these cities with aircraft, rockets, heavy artillery. That’s what caused the 3,000 deaths and the refugees. They’ve seriously damaged the entire infrastructure, industrial infrastructure, of Ukraine, which is in these eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the so-called Donbas region.

It turned out, though, that the Ukrainian army didn’t want to enter these cities, where the rebels were embedded, ensconced. It’s their homes; these fighters are mainly from these cities. And while this killing was going on, the rebels were regrouping. Now, there’s an argument: How much help did they get from Russia? Some people are saying Russia invaded. Others say, no, Russia just gave them some technical and organizational support. But whatever happened in the last 10 days, there’s been one of the most remarkable military turnarounds we’ve witnessed in many years, and the Ukrainian army is not only being defeated, but it’s on the run. It’s fleeing. It wants no more of this. It’s leaving its heavy equipment behind. It’s really in full-scale retreat, except in one place, the city Juan mentioned, Mariupol, where there’s a fight going on as we talk now. The rebels have the city encircled. Whether that fighting will stop if the ceasefire is announced in the next couple hours, we don’t know. It’s a very important city. But everything has now changed. If there’s negotiation, the government of Ukraine, Poroshenko, the president, our President Obama and NATO thought that when negotiations began, the West would dictate the terms to Putin because they won the war in Ukraine. Now it’s the reverse.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, what about this whole issue of United States forces now actually being introduced, the exercises in Ukraine? To what degree do you see the Obama administration being drawn more and more into the conflict?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, we have to ask ourselves, because we don’t fully know, because Obama is a kind of aloof figure who disappears in moments like this, then reappears and says kind of ignomatic things. But are we being drawn into it, or are we driving these events? It has been true, ever since NATO was created, that the United States controlled NATO. Now, it is also true now that there—that NATO is deeply divided on the Ukrainian issue. There’s a war party. And the war party is led by Poland, the three Baltic states, to a certain extent Romania but not so much, and Britain. Then there’s a party that wants to accommodate Russia, that thinks that this is not entirely Russia’s fault. And moreover, these people—the Germans, the French, the Spanish, the Italians—depend on Russia, in many ways, for their economic prosperity. They want to negotiate, not punish Russia. Where is Obama in this? It would appear nowhere, except occasionally he comes in, as he did in Estonia—was it yesterday or the day before?—and seem to give a speech that favors the war party.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the comments of President Obama when he was in the former Soviet republic of Estonia blaming Russia for the fighting and vowing to defend the Baltic states.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It was not the government of Kiev that destabilized eastern Ukraine. It’s been the pro-Russian separatists, who are encouraged by Russia, financed by Russia, trained by Russia, supplied by Russia and armed by Russia. And the Russian forces that have now moved into Ukraine are not on a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission. They are Russian combat forces with Russian weapons in Russian tanks.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. Professor Stephen Cohen?

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, it is. It certainly is President Obama. Look, here’s the underlying problem. What Obama just said implies, if not asserts, that if it wasn’t for Russia, Ukraine would be stable, that Russia has destabilized Ukraine. No serious person would believe that to be the case. Ukraine is in the throes of a civil war, which was precipitated by the political crisis that occurred in Ukraine last November and then this February, when the elected president of Ukraine was overthrown by a street mob, and that set off a civil war, primarily between the west, including Kiev, and the east, but not only. There’s a central Ukraine that’s here and there. This civil war then became, as I said it would or might when we first started talking earlier this year, a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

Now, it’s absolutely true that Russia has made the destabilization of Ukraine worse. It’s also absolutely true that the United States has contributed to the destabilization of Ukraine. But if tomorrow the United States would go away and Russia would go away, Ukraine would still be in a civil war. And we know what civil wars are. We had one in our country. Russia had one. There were many civil wars around the world in the 20th century and elsewhere today. The point is, the only way you can end a civil war, either the one side completely conquers and the other side gives up, as happened with the Confederacy in the United States, or there’s a stalemate or somebody says, "Enough killing, because these are brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers, they’re part of the same family," and you negotiate.

So we will see later today, perhaps, or tomorrow whether this ceasefire comes and if it holds. Now, negotiating a civil war is terribly complex. In some ways, we’re still arguing about the American Civil War. I grew up in Kentucky, segregated Kentucky, and in my childhood, people were still claiming we, the South, won. So, this isn’t going to end if the United States and Russia goes way. But both sides have the capacity to get these negotiations going. But when Obama says that Russia destabilized Ukraine, it’s a half-truth.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Stephen Cohen, I wanted to ask you—you’ve come under some criticism by other Russia experts in the U.S. as being an apologist for the Russian intervention in Ukraine, I think in Forbes magazine. Op-ed piece there claimed that you were questioning whether Ukraine had the right to exercise control over its own territory, that it was plotting to seize its own territory. I’m wondering your response to that criticism.

STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, I mean, many very harsh and unpleasant, probably libelous and slanderous things have been said about me, which suggests to me that they have no factual response to me. Rather than call me a toady and an apologist and a paid hiring of the Kremlin, I’d like to hear what factual mistakes I’ve made. And I haven’t seen any, because I’m a scholar and I try not to make factual mistakes.

It’s not about whether Ukraine has the right to take back its territory. The problem is, as I just said, that a civil war began when we, the United States, and Europe backed a street coup that overthrew an elected president. When you overthrow a constitution and when you overthrow a president, you’re likely to get a civil war. It usually happens. Now, when you have a civil war, the country is divided. And in this case, the government in Kiev is trying to conquer where the rebels, so to speak, are located. The problem is that the rebel provinces do not recognize the legitimacy of the government in Kiev. The United States recognizes the legitimacy, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

Now, let’s go to what’s going on in Kiev now. I mean, Obama also said—and I kind of chuckled and cried—that we are helping Ukraine build a democracy. What kind of democracy is unfolding in Kiev? All right, they had a presidential election. About a fifth of the country couldn’t vote. Now, Poroshenko has called a parliamentary election in October, a month from now. But where the war is, in the south and the east, they won’t vote. So you’re going to end up with a rump country, further dividing the country. Meanwhile, they’re shutting down democracy in Kiev. Communist Party is being banned. Another party that represents the east is being banned. People are being arrested. There’s censorship kicking in. There’s no democracy in Kiev, because it’s a wartime government. You just don’t get democracy. So, these assertions by the United States that we’re democracy builders, we’re virtuous, and it’s all Putin’s fault, this is—it’s worse than a half-truth; it’s actually a falsehood.

AMY GOODMAN: The possibility of Ukraine in NATO and what that means and what—

STEPHEN COHEN: Nuclear war.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

STEPHEN COHEN: Next question. I mean, it’s clear. It’s clear. First of all, by NATO’s own rules, Ukraine cannot join NATO, a country that does not control its own territory. In this case, Kiev controls less and less by the day. It’s lost Crimea. It’s losing the Donbas—I just described why—to the war. A country that does not control its own territory cannot join Ukraine [sic]. Those are the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Cannot join—

STEPHEN COHEN: I mean, NATO. Secondly, you have to meet certain economic, political and military criteria to join NATO. Ukraine meets none of them. Thirdly, and most importantly, Ukraine is linked to Russia not only in terms of being Russia’s essential security zone, but it’s linked conjugally, so to speak, intermarriage. There are millions, if not tens of millions, of Russian and Ukrainians married together. Put it in NATO, and you’re going to put a barricade through millions of families. Russia will react militarily.

In fact, Russia is already reacting militarily, because look what they’re doing in Wales today. They’re going to create a so-called rapid deployment force of 4,000 fighters. What is 4,000 fighters? Fifteen thousand or less rebels in Ukraine are crushing a 50,000-member Ukrainian army. Four thousand against a million-man Russian army, it’s nonsense. The real reason for creating the so-called rapid deployment force is they say it needs infrastructure. And the infrastructure—that is, in plain language is military bases—need to be on Russia’s borders. And they’ve said where they’re going to put them: in the Baltic republic, Poland and Romania.

Now, why is this important? Because NATO has expanded for 20 years, but it’s been primarily a political expansion, bringing these countries of eastern Europe into our sphere of political influence; now it’s becoming a military expansion. So, within a short period of time, we will have a new—well, we have a new Cold War, but here’s the difference. The last Cold War, the military confrontation was in Berlin, far from Russia. Now it will be, if they go ahead with this NATO decision, right plunk on Russia’s borders. Russia will then leave the historic nuclear agreement that Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987 to abolish short-range nuclear missiles. It was the first time nuclear—a category of nuclear weapons had ever been abolished. Where are, by the way, the nuclear abolitionists today? Where is the grassroots movement, you know, FREEZE, SANE? Where have these people gone to? Because we’re looking at a new nuclear arms race. Russia moves these intermediate missiles now to protect its own borders, as the West comes toward Russia. And the tripwire for using these weapons is enormous.

One other thing. Russia has about, I think, 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes called battlefield nuclear weapons. You use these for short distances. They can be fired; you don’t need an airplane or a missile to fly them. They can be fired from artillery. But they’re nuclear. They’re radioactive. They’ve never been used. Russia has about 10,000. We have about 500. Russia’s military doctrine clearly says that if Russia is threatened by overwhelming conventional forces, we will use tactical nuclear weapons. So when Obama boasts, as he has on two occasions, that our conventional weapons are vastly superior to Russia, he’s feeding into this argument by the Russian hawks that we have to get our tactical nuclear weapons ready.

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