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A One-Sided Narrative: U.S. Press Focuses on “Russian Aggression” While Ignoring U.S. Escalation

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During a virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Biden threatened to impose new economic sanctions and other measures if Russia invades Ukraine. The talks were held amid growing tension between the two countries over the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe and Russia’s deployment of tens of thousands troops along the border of Ukraine. Editorial director and publisher at The Nation Katrina vanden Heuvel says the U.S. has a “one-sided narrative” of the Russia-Ukraine conflict that neglects to acknowledge its own role in escalating tensions. “​​This [the Russia-Ukraine conflict] is a civil war, but it has become a proxy war between the United States, Russia, NATO.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: The United States is threatening to impose new economic sanctions and other measures if Russia invades Ukraine. President Biden issued the warning Tuesday during a two-hour virtual summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The talks were held amidst growing tension between the two countries over the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe and Russia’s deployment of tens of thousands of troops along the border of Ukraine. After the summit, President Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to reporters.

JAKE SULLIVAN: President Biden was direct and straightforward with President Putin, as he always is. He reiterated America’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He told President Putin directly that if Russia further invades Ukraine, the United States and our European allies would respond with strong economic measures. We would provide additional defensive materiel to the Ukrainians, above and beyond that which we are already providing. And we would fortify our NATO allies on the eastern flank with additional capabilities in response to such an escalation. He also told President Putin there’s another option: deescalation and diplomacy.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin also spoke after the virtual summit and repeated his opposition to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] By the way, the threat on our western borders really grows. We have talked about it repeatedly. Just look at how close to Russian borders come NATO’s military infrastructure. We take it more than seriously. … Speaking to the United States and its allies, we would insist on reaching certain agreements that prevent any expanding of the NATO to the east and deploying weapons systems threatening to us close to Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the Biden-Putin virtual summit and other issues, we’re joined by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, also columnist for The Washington Post. She has been reporting from Russia for the last 30 years, and on Russia.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Katrina.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you start off by responding to what happened yesterday and talk about the escalation of tension on the Russia-Ukraine border?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely. This escalation is not new, Amy. I mean, it goes back, in fact. We have a one-sided narrative in this country, which is a problem, because we haven’t followed the growing mass of NATO troops on Ukraine’s — Russia’s border. The escalation is neither in the United States’ national interest nor security interest at a time when politics, political solution, diplomatic solution is the only way forward.

And got to go back — history matters, Amy. You mentioned NATO expansion. In 1990, Gorbachev presided over the reunification of Germany, and James Baker promised not one inch eastward. NATO would not expand one inch eastward. Well, that promise, which is documented in the National Security Archives, in Condi Rice’s book, in other materials, was violated. And I think that’s the original sin of what we witness today.

It’s hard for Americans to understand NATO expansion and what it means to Russia, having a mass of NATO troops on a border. The Warsaw Pact, which was the military alliance counter to NATO, collapsed. NATO is not a coffee klatsch; it’s a military organization. In addition, the United States has spent about $2.5 billion in drones and whatever nonlethal means, weapons. So, in addition to looking at Russia’s troops in Donbas and forces there, we have to look at the other side of the story, which I’ll — and it’s also naval and air provocations in the last months, a nuclear bomber flying 12 miles from Russia’s border. This is not reported in the United States media. It is in the military press.

But I think you need to have the full vantage point to understand what we’re witnessing now. And the only way forward — the one wise thing Jake Sullivan said — is we need deescalation and a diplomatic political solution. There is no military solution. And President Biden is not sending American men and women to fight in Ukraine. That is a crazy elevation of a problem that can be solved politically, diplomatically.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katrina, I wanted to ask you precisely about this issue of the failure to report the U.S. buildup in the region. You were mentioning the military press. It reported that on October 30th, the USS Porter entered the Black Sea. About a week later, the USS Whitney and the 6th Fleet indicated that more ships were going into the Black Sea. This is tantamount to a Chinese or Russian military ship buildup on the Gulf of Mexico. And could you talk, as well, about the increased arms sales that have occurred from the United States, and even the fact that U.S. advisers are training Ukrainian troops in the Western Ukraine right now? So the buildup is not just on the Russian side, is it?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: No. This again goes back, Juan, to the one-sided narrative that permits sort of the Cold War media establishment to portray it as a one-sided situation. We need to understand that this has a history. And Ukraine has a long significance to Russia. The underreporting of U.S. involvement is a misservice, disservice to American people, because they’re getting every day — I picked up the papers this morning — it’s Russian aggression, Russian aggression. There is Russian aggression, but there’s also U.S. complicity with drones, with, as you said, whatever nonlethal weapons are.

Now, Obama, to his credit, held up shipments. Trump went back and forth. Biden has moved forward. I mean, you do have a danger here of a president who is doing some good things at home but seems committed to the old Cold War tropes and is driving Russia and China together, is not making America more secure, nor is he using his resources to not partner with but work with Russia on mutual interests, such as climate, nuclear proliferation. I mean, Clinton’s secretary of defense says we’re closer to nuclear war than we’ve ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. These are important issues that are getting obscured in the United States, in some ways, and Russia complicit.

This is a civil war, but it has become a proxy war between the United States, Russia, NATO. And so, I think we need to step back before there could be an accidental escalation. But, you know, so that’s where I think we are done a disservice. As you at Democracy Now! know very well, and we at The Nation know, if you don’t get the full side, full debate, full range of views, you’re not learning what’s going on. And that’s our role, to really dig deep.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the role of the European Union in this? Clearly, the Biden administration has been signaling that if Russia does send its troops into Ukraine, that there will be many more — considerably more sanctions this time around, and specifically on this Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that Russia is building. But the reality is that already Europe depends on Russia for close to 40% of all of its natural gas needs. And so, is there a separation of interests to some degree between the European Union and the United States on how to deal with Russia?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Absolutely, Juan. First of all, I think our foreign policy has become one of sanctions reach. And I’m not just talking about Russia. But the expansion of sanctions could well drive a wedge, a growing wedge, between the European Union, the United States, Russia, and drive Russia again more closely tied to China.

But, you know, you have a new government in Germany. I believe Nord Stream 2 has been approved, yet German regulators still need to sign off. There is no question that it’s a way of Russia moving around other gas streams.

But there are other sanctions in play, too. I mean, the most drastic one, which, I mean, is just being recklessly talked about, is removing Russia from the SWIFT global banking system. I don’t know enough about it except that it will again drive Russia more closely toward China and alternative forms of currency.

But I do think the sanctions overreach is something that is — again, we should be trying to work together, not as friends necessarily but as working partners. It is such a waste of resources. You talk about Russian troops amassing. They’re already there. We know that.

There is a diplomatic resolution, Juan and Amy, which Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute wrote about in The Nation cover story a week or so ago, which is this Minsk Accord, which the U.N. and the United States endorsed in 2015. And it would bring together — you were talking about the European allies, Juan — it would bring together Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine, a role for the United Nations, and it would essentially demilitarize the eastern part of Ukraine, Donbas. It would return federal language rights, which has been a big issue. It would possibly put Crimea into a U.N.-moderated referendum situation, but not clear at all.

But Minsk is a way forward that would reduce tensions, that would lead toward a better situation in Ukraine. I mean, what’s not reported, again, or very rarely or column 26, is 13,000 lives have been lost in this proxy war. And I think we owe it to families, others in Ukraine to try and find a way to halt this military conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, it’s not only Biden. It looks like the House, Democratic House of Representatives, is going in the same direction, the House passing this $768 billion military budget, $24 billion higher than what was requested from Biden, and some of that money is going to be going to countering China’s power, building up the nuclear weapons arsenal and sending weapons to Ukraine.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: This is such a tragedy. At a moment we’ve emerged slowly, barely, from COVID, from a pandemic, the idea of more money for nuclear weapons, which is in this bill, how do nuclear weapons relate to dealing with pandemics? We need to invest in the existential crises producing these crises: climate, nukes, pandemics. So, I think Congress, there is a reduce-the-defense-budget caucus, Mark Pocan, Barbara Lee. They’re very good voices.

But what we need in this country, on the eve, by the way, of the summit, Democracy Summit, Biden has called, which again has a kind of Cold War feel to it, is we need to understand that our democracy is on a ventilator. And we need to rebuild our home, to get our act in order at home, before we go out preaching to other countries.

And I think we’ve seen a revival of this national security strategy where we’ve made Russia and China the grave enemies. They’re not going to be friends, but mutual interests demand a working partnership. And I feel that that, for reasons we could spend another show on, is slipping away unless we wake up and understand that it’s simply sober realism, that we’re not going to send men and women to Ukraine, that we need to sort out a relationship with Russia, that China is the great challenge in the next century, if not beyond. And those demand a full, robust debate, which you do have on Democracy Now! But the one-sided coverage — and it’s not even commentary — in the U.S. media about U.S.-Russia is, I think, debilitating and dangerous for our security and thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, you talk about the democracy slipping away. It’s something also that the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov is talking about, who will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday along with the Filipina journalist Maria Ressa. You have known Dmitry for many years. He is warning people about a descent into fascism around the world. Can you talk about his role in the independent media movement?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: He founded his newspaper Novaya Gazeta in a cafeteria 30 years ago. It has remained the independent voice. It has survived. It has done some of the most extraordinary investigations into prison conditions, into corruption. It is a paper of humanism. That he survives — six of his journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed — is a testament to his strength, his resilience and his ability to navigate a system that is not as closed as some Americans think, but demands a commitment to democracy. Mikhail Gorbachev, the other recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in the last century, is a part supporter of the newspaper. It has trained a new generation of investigative reporters, mostly women. And I think it will survive because it has this great, great spirit. And that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Maria Ressa, who I know a little, is a testament to the journalism needed in these times that is so connected to this future possibilities of a democracy that is under siege everywhere, including in our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, I want to thank you for being with us, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, columnist for The Washington Post, has reported on Russia for the last 30 years.

Next up, the largest strike in the United States is underway here in New York City at Columbia University. They’ve called on unions to help them shut down the school today. We’ll speak with a striking student worker and a professor who supports them. Stay with us.

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