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Noam Chomsky: After Dangerous Proxy War, Keeping Ukraine Neutral Offers Path to Peace with Russia

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The recent ceasefire in Ukraine continues to hold after a shaky start, days after Secretary of State John Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. The United Nations says the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. This comes as tens of thousands rallied in Moscow to honor the slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of authoritarian rule. “It’s fashionable in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of distorted mind,” says Noam Chomsky, but he notes no Russian leader can accept the current Ukrainian move to join NATO. He argues a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized offers the path to a peaceful settlement.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Aaron Maté. Our guest for the hour is MIT institute professor emeritus, Noam Chomsky, known around the world for his political writings.

We’re going to turn right now to the issue of Russia and Ukraine. Secretary of State John Kerry is meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. The meeting comes just days after Kerry publicly accused Russian officials of lying to his face about their military support for separatist rebels. Russia and Ukraine are also holding direct talks in Brussels to resolve a dispute over the delivery of Russian gas. The U.N. said today the death toll from the nearly year-old conflict has topped 6,000. A recent ceasefire continues to hold, over a shaky start.

Also in Russia, the murder this weekend on Friday night of the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov. A former deputy prime minister turned dissident politician, Nemtsov was shot dead Friday night near Red Square. He was going to lead a major rally that was critical of Vladimir Putin on Sunday. It grew much larger after his death, with tens of thousands, perhaps 50,000 people, marching past the Kremlin carrying signs reading, “I am not afraid.”

Noam Chomsky, if you can comment on what’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

NOAM CHOMSKY: What’s happening is quite ugly. And I think the criticisms are mostly accurate, but they’re kind of beside the point. There’s a background that we have to think about. It’s fashionable now in the United States and Britain to condemn Putin as some sort of a distorted mind. There’s an article in Psychology Today analyzing his brain, asking why he’s so arrogant. He’s been accused of having Asperger’s; an irritable, rat-faced man, as he’s described by Timothy Garton Ash and so on. This is all very reminiscent of the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student then. At that time, the U.S. had overwhelming power, and it was able to use the United Nations as a battering ram against its enemy, the Soviet Union, so Russia was, of course, vetoing lots of resolutions, condemning it. And leading anthropologists in the United States and England developed a—began to analyze why the Russians are so negative, what makes them say no at the United Nations all the time. And their proposal was that the Russians are negative because they raise their children in swaddling clothes, and that makes them negative. The three or four of us at Harvard who thought this ridiculous used to call it diaperology. That’s being re-enacted—a takeoff on Kremlinology. This is being re-enacted right now.

But the fact is, whatever you think about Putin—OK, irritable, rat-faced man with Asperger’s, whatever you like—the Russians have a case. And you have to understand the case. And the case is understood here by people who bother to think. So, for example, there was a lead article in Foreign Affairs, the main establishment journal, by John Mearsheimer with a title like something like “The West is Responsible for the Ukraine Crisis.” And he was talking about the background. The background begins with the fall of the Soviet Union, 1989, 1990. There were negotiations between President Bush, James Baker and Mikhail Gorbachev about how to deal with the issues that arose at the time. A crucial question is: What happens to NATO? NATO had been advertised, since its beginning, as necessary to protect western Europe from the Russian hordes. OK, no more Russian hordes, so what happens to NATO?

Well, we know what happened to NATO. But the crucial issue was this. Gorbachev agreed to allow Germany, a unified Germany, to join NATO, a hostile military alliance. It’s a pretty remarkable concession, if you think about the history of the preceding century, half-century. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times, and now he was agreeing to have Germany join a hostile military alliance led by the only superpower. But there was a quid pro quo, that Germany—that NATO would not move one inch to the east. That was the phrase that was used in the interchanges, meaning to East Germany. And on that condition, they went forward. NATO immediately moved to East Germany. When Gorbachev vigorously protested, naturally, he was informed by the United States that it was only a verbal commitment, it wasn’t on paper. The unstated implication is, if you are naïve enough to think you can make a gentlemen’s agreement with us, it’s your problem. They didn’t say that; I’m saying that. But NATO moved to East Germany; under Clinton, moved right up to Russia’s borders.

Just a couple of weeks ago, U.S. military equipment was taking part in a military parade in Estonia a couple hundred yards from the Russian border. Russia is surrounded by U.S. offensive weapons—sometimes they’re called “defense,” but they’re all offensive weapons. And the idea that the new government in Ukraine, that took over after the former government was overthrown, last December, late December, it passed a resolution, overwhelmingly—I think something like 300 to eight or something—announcing its intention to take steps to join NATO. No Russian leader, no matter who it is, could tolerate Ukraine, right at the geostrategic center of Russian concerns, joining a hostile military alliance. I mean, we can imagine, for example, how the U.S. would have reacted, say, during the Cold War if the Warsaw Pact had extended to Latin America, and Mexico and Canada were now planning to join the Warsaw Pact. Of course, that’s academic, because the first step would have led to violent U.S. response, and it wouldn’t have gone any further.

AMY GOODMAN: The Cuban missile crisis.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Yeah, and it’s very interesting to think about what actually happened at the Cuban missile crisis, which is very striking. The issue—the crucial issue with the missile crisis was—the peak moment was October 26th and 27th, right at the end. Khrushchev had sent a letter to Kennedy offering to end the crisis by simultaneous, public withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. These were obsolete missiles for which a withdrawal order had already been given, because they were being replaced by much more lethal U.S. missiles and Polaris submarines, invulnerable submarines. So that was the offer. They would withdraw the missiles; we would withdraw obsolete missiles, which are already being replaced by more lethal ones. Kennedy refused. And his own subjective assessment, whatever that means, of nuclear war was a third to a half. That’s got to be the most horrific decision in history. Khrushchev backed down, fortunately. The U.S. did secretly say that it would withdraw the obsolete missiles, of course, which it didn’t need anymore. But if you take a look at the balance of power that was assumed to be legitimate, we are—you have to establish the principle that we have a right to surround anyone with lethal offensive weapons that can obliterate them in a second, but they can’t do anything anywhere near us. Same as with—take a look at the conflict with China over the maritime conflict. Where is it taking place? I mean, is it off the coast of California? Is it in the Caribbean? No, it’s off the coast of China. That’s where we have to protect what we call freedom of the seas, not in—in China’s waters. This is a part of the concept that we basically own the world, and we have a right to do anything anywhere we like, and nobody has a right to stand up to it.

Now, in the case of the Ukraine, again, whatever you think about Putin—think he’s the worst monster since Hitler—they still have a case, and it’s a case that no Russian leader is going to back down from. They cannot accept the Ukrainian move of the current government to join NATO, even probably the European Community. There is a very natural settlement to this issue: a strong declaration that Ukraine will be neutralized, it won’t be part of any military alliance; that, along with some more or less agreed-upon choices about how—about the autonomy of regions. You can finesse it this way and that, but those are the basic terms of a peaceful settlement. But we have to be willing to accept it; otherwise, we’re moving towards a very dangerous situation. I mentioned before that the Doomsday Clock, famous clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has just been advanced to three minutes before midnight. That’s very close. Midnight means we’re finished. That is the highest, closest it’s reached since 1983.

And we might remember what happened then. What happened then was that the Reagan administration, as soon as it came into office, began highly provocative actions. It wanted to probe Russian defenses, so they simulated air and naval attacks against Russia, very publicly and openly. They wanted the Russians to know, to see how they’d respond. Well, it was a very tense moment. Pershing II missiles were being installed in western Europe with a five- to 10-minute flight time to Moscow. Reagan had announced the so-called Star Wars program, which is called defense, but strategic analysts on all sides agree that it’s a first-strike weapon, what’s called missile defense. It was an extremely tense period. The Russians were concerned. It was known at the time that they were concerned, but recently released archives, Russian archives, indicate that the concern was very high. There’s a recent U.S. intelligence report analyzing in detail what their reactions were, and it concludes—its words are—”The war scare was real.” We came close to war. And it’s worse than that, because right in the—1984, right at the peak of this—this is when the Doomsday Clock was approaching midnight—right in the midst of that, Russian automated detection systems, which are much worse than ours—we have satellite detection. We can detect missiles from takeoff. They have only radar detection, line of sight, so they can only detect missiles when you can kind of see them with radar. They detected a U.S. missile attack. The protocol is for that information to be transmitted to the high command, which then launches a preventive strike. It went to a particular individual, Stanislav Petrov. He just decided not to transmit it. That’s why we’re alive to talk about it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to break, then come back to Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of over a hundred books. We’ll be back in a minute.

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