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Phyllis Bennis on Progressive Dems Retracting Letter Urging Diplomacy to End Ukraine War

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A group of progressive Democrats in the House of Representatives this week sent, then retracted, a public letter urging the Biden administration to engage in direct diplomacy with Russia to end the war in Ukraine while continuing to arm and support the government in Kyiv. The letter was signed by 30 lawmakers from the Congressional Progressive Caucus and saw an immediate and fierce backlash, as critics said it undermined Ukraine’s position and downplayed Russian atrocities. Progressive Caucus Chair Congressmember Pramila Jayapal issued a retraction less than 24 hours after it was published, blaming her staff for improperly releasing it. Meanwhile, some signatories said they had signed the letter months earlier, when the war was at a much different stage, and that they were unaware it would be released now. Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says ignoring diplomatic channels will only prolong the war. “The level of outrage that greeted this very careful sort of commonsense approach shows us how much work is still needed … to stop the kind of control that militarism seems to have on our assumptions about what foreign policy looks like,” says Bennis.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the war in Ukraine and a controversy on Capitol Hill over a call for Biden to push for talks to end the Ukraine war. On Monday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House which urged the Biden administration to pursue direct negotiations with Russia for a ceasefire in Ukraine while continuing to arm the Ukrainian military. The letter, which was signed by 30 Democrats, stated in part, quote, “we urge you to pair the military and economic support the United States has provided to Ukraine with a proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire. This is consistent with your recognition that ‘there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here,’ and your concern that Vladimir Putin ‘doesn’t have a way out right now, and I’m trying to figure out what we do about that,’” unquote.

The release of the letter was soon attacked by other Democrats. Democratic Congressmember Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts called it a, quote, “olive branch to a war criminal who is losing his war,” unquote.

Within a day, the Congressional Progressive Caucus withdrew the letter. Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal issued a statement saying, quote,, “The letter was drafted several months ago but, unfortunately, was released by staff without vetting. Because of the timing, our message is being conflated by some as being equivalent to the recent statement by Republican Leader McCarthy threatening an end to aid to Ukraine if Republicans take over,” unquote. Last week, Kevin McCarthy warned Republicans won’t give Ukraine a, quote, “blank check” if the GOP regains control of Congress.

While Jayapal withdrew the letter, some progressive lawmakers have defended the letter’s message, like Congressmember Ro Khanna, who appeared on CNN Wednesday.

REP. RO KHANNA: I have supported every package of giving aid to Ukraine, and I plan to support continuing to arm Ukraine. All the letter said is that we, at the same time that we stand with Ukraine, need to make sure that we’re reducing the risk for nuclear war, that we’re engaging in talks with the Russians to make sure that the conflict doesn’t escalate. We need to support Ukraine with arms, and we need diplomacy. That’s common sense.

AMY GOODMAN: This all comes as fears grow that the war in Ukraine may turn nuclear. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin oversaw annual drills of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces. Meanwhile, Politico reports the United States has moved up plans to deploy upgraded nuclear weapons to Europe.

To talk more about the controversy around the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s letter and what U.S. diplomatic efforts could entail, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her recent piece for The Progressive is headlined “It’s Time for Diplomacy.”

Phyllis, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you lay out what happened? Talk about the content of this letter, the fact that 30 congressmembers signed on, it was released, then retracted.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, Amy, what happened was very much reflected in Ro Khanna’s statement just now. The letter was a very carefully drawn, mild letter, that was very important because there had not been an official congressional statement urging the Biden administration to call for diplomacy. On the contrary, we’ve seen significant evidence that the administration has really not supported the idea of moving towards a diplomatic approach in Ukraine, along with the military aid that they’re providing, despite the fact that there have been statements from President Biden and others that this war, like all wars, will end with some kind of diplomacy. The issue is always, at what cost, and after how long? Are we going to wait until this war becomes a long-standing war of attrition or with all of the additional deaths that that could lead to? Or are we going to say there needs to be a diplomatic component right away?

Some of us, myself included, have been saying right from the beginning — my first piece on the war, that was drafted just a day after the illegal Russian invasion, recognized that there was going to have to be a ceasefire then. There needed to be a ceasefire on day one, a ceasefire when Russia was succeeding in pulling in more territory to itself. It needed a ceasefire when the Ukrainians were able to seize the offensive and take back some of that territory. And we need a ceasefire now.

So, this letter was actually a very cautiously, mildly drafted letter that said, as Ro Khanna said and as you indicated in reading it, that we need an additional component of policy in Ukraine that needs to include a ceasefire and diplomacy.

The level of outrage that greeted this very careful, you know, sort of commonsense approach shows us how much work is still needed by our movement and, more broadly, in society to stop the kind of control that militarism seems to have on our assumptions about what foreign policy looks like.

The notion that this could be solely a situation where the U.S. continues to send tens of billions of dollars with all of the weapons that are ever required by Ukraine — to what end? What’s the endgame here? Those are not the questions, unfortunately, that are being asked. Instead, the focus has been on the timing, and did the letter match the position of the Republicans — which, of course, it didn’t, but that isn’t really the important part. The important part is to look at the need for a ceasefire and diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Phyllis, as you said, because the letter was, in some sense, quite mild, what do you think accounts for the fact that more conservative or mainstream Democrats responded with such vehemence? And what about this one brief clause in the letter that said that Putin at the moment, Russia at the moment, does not have a way out; he needs to be given a way out? What exactly would that mean?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, I think it means a series of steps. The first step in any of these situations is you need a ceasefire. A ceasefire is not sufficient. A ceasefire is not a guarantee that you’re going to be able to end the war in a just way anytime soon, but it sets the stage that you can begin the process of negotiations.

And I think what the letter was referring to in that point was that there have been public and private, from what we understand, positions taken by the U.S. administration — and it’s certainly been true in Congress and in much of the mass media in this country — that says there is no room for diplomacy here, that this is going to be a war that is ended with a great Ukrainian victory. It’s going to be — you know, one imagines that there is this sense it’s going to be like World War II, where the war ends with a complete surrender and a flag raising, and some band is playing “Hail to Some Chief,” and everybody will be happy. It’s not going to work that way. I think everybody acknowledges that who’s serious about examining both the political and the military realities of this war, that there’s going to have to be some kind of diplomacy.

That doesn’t mean that the United States — despite the fact that the U.S. is providing such enormous amounts of money and arms to Ukraine for its resistance, that doesn’t mean that the U.S. has the right to tell the Ukrainians how they should engage in diplomacy, what they should concede, if anything. But it does mean that we cannot pretend that while providing $65 billion so far, overwhelmingly for the military — not quite all of it, but most of it — with another $50 billion under discussion now in Congress, and all of these weapons, all of this training, that we can then also simultaneously stand back and act like a cheerleader that’s not connected to the war that’s underway.

The U.S. has significant issues of diplomacy that need to be raised with Russia that do not depend on what the Ukrainian decisions are about their diplomacy with Russia. The U.S. needs to be negotiating with Russia about reopening all of these abandoned nuclear and conventional arms treaties that right now pretty much don’t exist at all. It makes everything much more dangerous. The U.S. needs to be negotiating with Russia on the question of: What are the consequences of building a new U.S. military base in Poland, less than a hundred miles from the Russian border? I mean, talk about provocation. This is quite serious, and there needs to be some discussion about that. These are things that the U.S. can be negotiating with Russia that don’t go to the Ukrainian position. Making clear to Russia that when there is a ceasefire, the U.S.-imposed sanctions will begin to be lifted is crucial, because without that, there’s no real incentive for Russia.

We know while the sanctions are in place, I assume that they are looking to the precedent the U.S. set in Iraq, when it made very clear at the United Nations that at a certain point it didn’t matter whether Saddam Hussein allowed in the U.N. inspectors or not; the sanctions were simply not going to be lifted anyway. That took away any incentive that the sanctions may ever have had to encourage a change in behavior. There needs to be U.S.-Russian negotiations on all of those issues, which are not dependent on the views of Ukraine, which of course are crucial in determining the nature of the long-standing need for real diplomacy to end this war. But first there needs to be a ceasefire to allow all that to go forward.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Phyllis, let’s just talk about what attempts, if any, significant ones, there have been to reach a ceasefire, either initiated by the Europeans — it’s Macron in France who has sustained conversation with the Russians since the invasion and even prior to it. Just this past weekend, Austin, Lloyd Austin, had conversations with his Russian counterpart. Although no details were released of their conversation, the one thing that was told about the conversation, the one detail that was revealed, is that Austin reportedly emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication, lines of communication between Russia and the U.S. Their conversation was the first in several months. In May, they spoke — May was the last time they spoke.

And again, reportedly, the U.S. did press for a ceasefire, which the Russians rejected on the grounds that the U.S. is not willing to talk to the Russians as equals. In talks with NATO countries, Turkey, France and Britain, who, to varying degrees, have urged a ceasefire, Russia has been unwilling to budge. These are according to news reports in Europe, as well as here. So, your response to that? How can pressure be brought to bear on Russia, which is, of course, the aggressor in this war?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Russia is indeed the aggressor in this war on the ground. There is a question of the larger, longer-lasting geopolitical war that’s underway, that goes back many, many years, in which the U.S. and NATO have played a very provocative role against Russia. But there is no question that none of those provocations justified any of the Russian moves. This is Russian aggression, pure and simple.

I think there are reports that have other views, as well, that indicate both British and perhaps other NATO reports about indications that there is not support for a ceasefire coming from NATO and the other U.S. allies. I think that the fact that all of these reports are based on evidence of discussions with diplomats and with others that are not identified, that can’t be confirmed, it makes it very difficult to know: Is there is actually support among NATO leaders for a ceasefire or not? There were certainly reports about the role of Boris Johnson going to meet with President Zelensky and urging him not to consider a ceasefire. I don’t think that Zelensky is necessarily getting only one position from his allies. He is, of course, completely dependent on NATO, and particularly on the United States, for both economic and military support. But I think that the question needs to be raised to our own government, which is playing such a crucial role in this war, about the need to support a ceasefire immediately and longer-term negotiations to end the war.

The meetings that you referenced between the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart was very important — not meeting; a telephone call — because there had not been communication since last May. And that makes things particularly dangerous on the question of the potential escalation to a nuclear exchange, which is what makes the war in Ukraine so incredibly dangerous, so much more dangerous globally than any of the horrific wars we’ve seen over the last 20 years, more than the War in Iraq, more than the War in Afghanistan, despite the horrific level of destruction that was wrought in those countries by the U.S. invasions and occupations. Those wars never threatened to erupt into a globally impactful nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, which together, of course, control 90% of the nuclear weapons in the world.

In the situation of Ukraine, that’s very different. There is a threat of that kind of escalation. And what we don’t have in Ukraine right now is what the U.S. speaks of as a deconfliction line, which basically means a direct line of communication, a hotline, telephone, whether by computer or whatever form, that we did have, for example, in Syria, when you had a history of the U.S. and Russia supporting proxy forces on opposite sides. And they made sure that while neither Russia in Aleppo or the United States in Raqqa, for instance, where those two cities were destroyed by the two global powers — the U.S. and Russia didn’t care very much whether they killed enormous numbers of Syrian civilians, which they did with their bombing in those two cities, but they were both very concerned about not killing the other side. The U.S. did not want to kill any Russian soldiers. The Russians were just as concerned that they not kill any U.S. soldiers or pilots or whatever. And as a result, they had a direct means of communication to call off any mistaken escalation and to warn the other side when they were planning to bomb in a certain area, saying, “We’re going to bomb in X place. Get your people out of there.” And it worked.

We don’t have that in Ukraine, and that means things are much more dangerous in terms of a potential escalation, maybe with neither side actually intending to use a nuclear weapon. And right now I don’t see any evidence that either Putin nor President Biden have any intention of using nuclear weapons, but the fact that there have been these statements from Russia that seem to imply pretty directly a nuclear threat, as well as potentially a threat of the use of other nonconventional weapons — chemical, nuclear, whatever, or biological — and for the U.S., of course, a very provocative move sending a hundred upgraded versions of one of the most commonly deployed nuclear weapons in Europe. There are now, of course, five countries in Europe, NATO members, that are holding U.S. nuclear weapons under U.S. control in their territory. They now are being upgraded. That’s a deliberate nuclear escalation. That’s a deliberate nuclear threat. So the threats are coming from both sides.

I don’t believe either president has any intention of using a nuclear weapon. But when there are nuclear weapons involved, until they are abolished, when they are involved in this theater of war and the two nuclear powers are directly engaged, the threat of a nuclear escalation is dramatic, no matter how small it is. If it’s anything other than zero — if it’s anything other than zero, that’s way too high a risk to take.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, we only have 30 seconds now, but next month Biden and Putin are both scheduled to attend the G20 meeting in Bali. Do you have any hope that there could be some communication between the two there?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: We have to hope. Of course. There needs to be that kind of communication, whether it’s between the two leaders, which of course would be very visible, and the world’s press would be watching, or whether it’s at a lower level of assistants, of aides, meeting to say, “OK, on these bases, we will meet.” There needs to be that kind of discussion for a ceasefire immediately and negotiations to end this horrific war, to stop the killing of Ukrainian civilians, stop the destruction of the country, the destruction of these cities. The impact of this war on the globe, you know, as a whole, not only in Ukraine — environmentally, in terms of the threat of famine as a result, the militarization of Europe and in so much of the rest of the world as a result of this war — demands that there be a move towards an immediate ceasefire and a move towards diplomacy.

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