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As NATO Weighs Expansion in Eastern Europe, Russia Amasses Military on Ukraine Border

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As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Latvia for a meeting of NATO foreign secretaries, is war on the horizon? The meeting comes as tension continues to mount between Russia and Ukraine, while how to resolve the countries’ differences remains an open question. Russia has reportedly amassed 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, and aggressions have also recently intensified in eastern Ukraine between Moscow-backed separatists and government forces. “Russia is just trying to send a message of its absolutely inflexible opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and is also trying to extract concessions from Ukraine and, more importantly, Washington,” says Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Latvia for a meeting of NATO foreign secretaries. The meeting comes as tension continues to mount between Russia and Ukraine. Russia reportedly has amassed 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border. Fighting has also recently intensified in eastern Ukraine between Moscow-backed separatists and government forces. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke Friday ahead of the meeting.

SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: We will address Russia’s continuing military buildup in and around Ukraine. This is the second time this year that Russia has massed a large and unusual concentration of forces in the region. This includes heavy capabilities like tanks, artillery, armored units, drones and electronic warfare systems, as well as combat-ready troops. This military buildup is unprovoked and unexplained. It raises tensions, and it risks miscalculations.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia has denied any plans to invade Ukraine and has accused NATO of trying to destabilize the region by sending troops closer to Russia’s borders. On Monday, Latvia called for a permanent U.S. military presence inside the former Soviet republic. Last week, Ukraine called for a constant presence of NATO warships in the Black Sea, and Poland recently called for more NATO troops to be deployed to Eastern Europe.

We’re joined now by Anatol Lieven. He’s senior fellow for Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s the author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. His most recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State: The Case for Nationalism in a Warming World.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Anatol. Talk about the significance of this NATO meeting and what exactly is happening between Ukraine and Russia.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, most probably Russia is just trying to send a message of its absolutely inflexible opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and is also trying to extract concessions from Ukraine and, more importantly, Washington about the reopening of political negotiations about the future of the separatist region of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine. Moscow wants to see a restarting of the Minsk-2 process of 2015, which led to a recommendation by France, Germany, endorsed by the United States, for autonomous status for that region within Ukraine. So, most probably this is just Russia sending a message and trying to exert pressure. But it does have to be said that Russian language this year from President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, other officials has been a good deal harsher than it has been for several years now, and so the possibility of war certainly cannot be excluded.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you mentioned France and Germany. Could you talk about how the European Union sees the ongoing conflict, and the differences between the European Union and the United States, especially given Europe’s heavy dependence on Russia for natural gas and energy?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the differences are not that great. France and Germany drew up this Minsk agreement in 2015, but they have done nothing to push it forward since then. There has been — France and Germany have opposed, or at least delayed, NATO membership for Ukraine, but they have not opposed it permanently or categorically. I mean, the main point, though, to keep in mind about NATO, and most probably the United States, as well, is that despite all this language of support for Ukraine, it is in fact highly unlikely that NATO would fight to defend Ukraine. After all, we didn’t in 2014, nor did we fight to defend Georgia in 2008, despite many talks of support, commitment of these countries as major partners of the West. And, of course, that is also known in Moscow, that there is a certain degree of emptiness about NATO rhetoric on this.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve said that the only country that might benefit from a war between Russia and Ukraine would be China. Could you explain why?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, a war between Russia and Ukraine is still more, of course, a war or a really deep crisis between Russia and the West, because it would be another massive distraction of U.S. attention from the Far East. And if, God forbid, unlikely that that may be, the United States actually got into a war with Russia over Ukraine, then I think it’s undeniable that China would immediately try to exploit this, possibly by an invasion of Taiwan. So, every country involved in such a conflict would suffer except the Chinese, who, frankly, would be laughing.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why they would be laughing. And also, if you could comment on this latest news that the Pentagon is going to focus on building bases in Guam and Australia to better prepare the military to counter China, and how that fits into this picture?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, obviously, the more deeply the U.S. becomes militarily committed in Europe, the more attention it pays to the possibility of war with Russia, the more this is to the advantage of China. It is a massive distraction of U.S. attention, money and forces. I’m not saying that the Chinese are behind what the Russians are doing. Russia obviously has its own very good reasons to try to deter the West from turning Ukraine into a military ally against Russia. But this, after all, is one reason why there are — one key reason why there are many elements within the American security establishment who would actually oppose any serious U.S. military commitment to Ukraine, just as they opposed U.S. troops going to Georgia in 2008, because it would be a colossal distraction from what they regard as the biggest challenge to the United States, which is China.

AMY GOODMAN: And, overall, what NATO means today, Anatol Lieven, as this summit takes place in Riga, Latvia, and how Russia perceives NATO, and how you think tensions could decrease?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, Russia perceives NATO as an enemy — fair enough: NATO perceives Russia as an enemy — and is determined to prevent major countries on Russia’s borders from becoming members of NATO. Russia, in this way, I have to say, is no different from the United States. Your previous segment was about the history of U.S. coups in Honduras and other parts of Latin America to ensure that this area remains in American sphere of influence, or at the very least that external powers are excluded from that region. It’s called the Monroe Doctrine, right? Russia is no different in that regard. It doesn’t mean that Putin hopes for a new Soviet Union, but he does certainly want to keep NATO out of that region and is prepared to fight, as he’s shown in the past, to stop that happening.

The problem about NATO is that it talks the talk, but, I mean, no serious person thinks that European countries, with the possible exception of Poland, will go to war for Ukraine. So, this, as well as the gas dependence, which you mentioned, is, in the end, a major card in Russia’s hand, that — in the very last resort. I’m not saying that the Putin government wants war, but it is prepared to go to war in the very last resort, and NATO almost certainly is not.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, I wanted to ask you about the Ukrainian President Zelensky, who said on Friday that he believes a group of Ukrainians and Russians is planning a coup against him in the coming days. Your sense of whether there’s any validity to the potential for a coup against Zelensky?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Possibly. And of course the Russian secret services are very active in Ukraine. But it is very difficult to say for sure what the truth of this is, because, of course, it’s so much to Zelensky’s advantage to portray internal opposition within Ukraine as Russian-inspired and as aiming at his undemocratic overthrow. Zelensky is extremely unpopular now for the failure to improve the economic situation — worsened by COVID, of course — and continued very high levels of corruption. And so, you know, this could be just a very traditional gambit to try to deflect this unpopularity by blaming Russia for the internal opposition to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Final assessment of the U.S. and the role that it’s playing? So many have criticized Biden for revving up a cold war or a hot war with China. Do you see a parallel with Russia, with China taking a very different approach to the world? For example, we just reported in headlines, talking about a billion vaccines to places like Africa.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the problem is, I think, that America has got stuck on this path of NATO expansion, although, in fact, in private, very few American officials believe that Ukraine can be a member of NATO. Now, in the process, the United States has also effectively abandoned the Minsk process, which I mentioned, aimed at a political settlement in eastern Ukraine, guaranteeing autonomy for that region within Ukraine. That remains not just the best but, in effect, the only way of resolving the Ukrainian crisis politically.

And it would certainly be vastly to America’s advantage to do that, when, as we know, America is facing — as you suggest, I mean, it’s not so much a military challenge from China, though that is there, but there is this question about whether China is providing a more positive model, in certain respects, in the world. And instead of trying to meet that challenge by — well, I mean, look at the previous segment — by paying really close attention, for example, to the economic and social development of America’s neighbors in Central America, there is this tradition of an intensely militarized response to every potential challenge or rivalry in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anatol Lieven, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow for Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Next up, we look at the Wet’suwet’en land defenders continuing their fight against the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Stay with us.

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