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Katrina vanden Heuvel: Smart Diplomacy Can Still Resolve the Ukraine Crisis Without War

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As President Biden warns of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine, France has secured a commitment from both Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet at a summit in an effort to defuse the escalating tension. We speak to veteran journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel, whose latest article for The Washington Post, “A path out of the Ukraine crisis,” argues both leaders must work to avoid a catastrophic war. “There’s a bluffing that could be taken more lightly, except this is the most dangerous confrontation between the United States, NATO and Russia in decades,” says vanden Heuvel.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The French government has announced President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed “in principle” to meet at a summit to discuss the escalating tension over Ukraine. The announcement came after French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin for almost three hours. Earlier today, the Russian government said there were no concrete plans for a summit, but did not rule out that one could take place. The White House has confirmed Biden has agreed to the summit, but says it could only take place if Russia does not invade Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are scheduled to meet Thursday, when more details about a possible summit could be ironed out.

This diplomatic development comes just days after President Biden said he was convinced that Putin had already decided to invade Ukraine. This is Biden responding to a question Friday.

REPORTER: Do you have any indication about whether President Putin has made a decision on whether to invade? Do you feel confident that he — that he hasn’t made that decision already?”

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: As of this moment, I’m convinced he’s made the decision. We have reason to believe that.

AMY GOODMAN: Over the weekend, tension escalated in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region continue to accuse each other of violating a ceasefire agreement. Two Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed Saturday, and Russian-backed separatists ordered evacuations of civilians — a move Ukraine blasted as part of a Russian plan to stage attacks in the region. On Sunday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the situation in eastern Ukraine.

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: All the signs are that the plan has already, in some senses, begun. That’s what our American friends think. And you’re seeing these provocations now in Donbas. You’re starting to see this — these explosions and so on that we’ve been warning about for a long time. And I’m afraid to say that the plan that we’re seeing is for something that could be really the biggest war in Europe since 1945, just in terms of sheer scale.

AMY GOODMAN: In more news from the region, Russia has announced it will keep troops indefinitely in Belarus, which is along Ukraine’s northern border. Joint Russian and Belarusian military exercises were scheduled to end Sunday, but they’ve been extended.

We’re joined now by Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine, president of the American Committee for US-Russia Accord. She’s also a columnist for The Washington Post. Her latest piece is headlined “A path out of the Ukraine crisis.”

Well, why don’t we start there, Katrina? What is that path? And how significant is what Macron has announced, agreement “in principle” of a summit between Putin and Biden?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Amy. I think we’re looking at two escalating forces. One is military, and the other is diplomatic. I don’t believe that the military jangling and noise and showdowns are effective as deterrents. I think the danger is of stumbling into a conflict if one goes down that road. But it’s interesting that Macron and the German Chancellor Scholz have played important roles in these last weeks in trying to keep a diplomatic front moving. And part of the path out is something that Germany and France has been involved in for years, which is called the Minsk accords. There’s also something called the trilateral forum, with Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe. But the Minsk accords are the most hopeful. And this is providing Ukraine with independent boundaries, with autonomy, nonalignment and assured independence — very tough to get to. This has been endorsed by the U.S., the United Nations, the EU. And I think Macron, channeling his inner Charles de Gaulle, is showing that, you know, it’s not that there are cracks in the alliance, which there are, but that there are differences and that there is talk now not just of the NATO issue, which is so key, but also a new security architecture in Europe, which is being laid for in the groundwork of this.

But the key right now, Amy, is to stop the fighting, to get to a diplomatic table — clear, persistent, tough. And I think it’s important that Biden and Putin meet — perhaps even more important, Lavrov, the foreign minister, and Foreign Minister Tony Blinken. There has been, as you know, an exchange of documents, and that is being hammered away at. It has not made much progress, but these things take time. And one hopes that our media, which has not had much experience in these last years reporting diplomatic complexities, would do more patient reporting. There has been a drumbeat, fueled by, obviously, imminent, imminent — I think we were supposed to have war last week, not to be light about it, because this is the most dangerous moment of U.S.-Russian confrontation, possible European war, in decades.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the Minsk accord. Talk about how it was developed.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: It was developed in the wake of, really, post-Crimea as a way to build out of what is essentially, Amy, what we’re looking at in Ukraine right now. Ukraine is a civil war that has become a proxy war that has been politicized into a geopolitical struggle — how to keep Ukraine as a bridge between east and west, and not make it a tug, make it into a conflict zone, make it into a place where 15,000 civilians have already died. This is a country deeply divided between east and west. When you hear about separatists in the east, it is the Donbas region; you hear about the west, it is Kyiv, it’s other central capitals. But it was designed to keep Ukraine whole and independent, not aligned, that there would be respect for Ukraine’s language and Russian language, which is spoke largely in the eastern side, east side of Ukraine. So, I think it’s tough. It’s going to be hard. It needs to be monitored. But it is a way to keep Ukraine out of NATO for now. And I think one face-saving compromise is a deep moratorium on NATO expansion, certainly to Ukraine. But it’s an alternative structure, just as this OSCE is an alternative to NATO, which is a militarized structure.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the OSCE is.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe was founded out of the Helsinki agreements in 1975, and it has a set of buckets, human rights, economic, monitoring agreements. It is an alternative structure that could have been more central than NATO. But with NATO expansion at the forefront of U.S. politics and East European politics post-1997, it’s been put aside. But there are alternative security infrastructures. And I think, interestingly, Macron is framing that out, as are the Russians — not to link the two. But there is an interest in something that is less militarized, and more needed for times where pandemics, nuclear proliferation, climate crisis are central to the quandaries and future of a world.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about the documents back and forth between Russia and the United States. Russia published its written response to the United States last week about deescalating the crisis. It received very little attention in the U.S. media. Can you talk about what they offered?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The documents, essentially, the Russian, back and forth — obviously, at the centerpiece of the Russian response is the halt to NATO expansion for Ukraine and putting that off the table. But there are other — the other: keeping U.S. weapons systems and advisers out of Ukraine; the anti-missile defense system, which we’ve paid some attention to in Europe, which has always been said by the United States was intended for Iran — Russia saw it otherwise; and beginning a new round of a very weak nuclear arms infrastructure, which was essentially unraveled in 2002, the foundational treaty being the ABM, Anti-Ballistic Missile, Treaty. But NATO is at the core. Ukraine is at the core. But there are other issues, as I said, about halting weapons systems, halting advisers into Ukraine.

And at, you know, the heart of it, Amy, it’s interesting. You know, we should read more of our adversaries’ speeches and documents, and not just take it through often filtered, convoluted, secondhand. But, you know, 15 years ago at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, Putin essentially laid out what we’re witnessing today. He went and he spoke not only about NATO — enough with expansion — but he also spoke about America — it’s no longer a unipolar world. This was at the height of the Iraq War. And he also spoke about respect. And I think — I have no grief for Putin. I believe, as someone once said, that demonizing Putin is not a policy, it’s an alibi for not having a policy, but that Putin has become, like, “Can we read his mind?” How about reading the mind of the Russian parliament last week, which voted — the lower house of the Russian parliament voted to give independence, autonomy, to the two republics in the Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk. Putin’s press secretary and Putin have said they will not pay attention to this resolution, that it’s not active. But that is a measure of public opinion among Russia’s own elite blob.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the Donbas region. And we’re going to put that map up again. Talk about what’s happening there, what everyone sees as the kind of flashpoint, the back-and-forth right now with shelling. Explain what happened in 2014, and explain what’s happening right now.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: So, in 2014, I think it’s fair to say, there was an attempted coup. I mean, the United States and other forces did play a role in ousting an elected, deeply corrupt president, Yanukovych. There was an agreement to hold provisional elections. Yanukovych fled to Russia. Those were put off. Victoria Nuland, someone who comes up often, was caught on a telephone call saying “F-U-C-K you” to the EU, because she had her candidate. The forces in Ukraine at this moment are similar to the ones in 2014, except there’s a new prime minister, but it’s not clear he’s his own man, Zelensky, because the right-wing forces are powerful. The freedom forces on Maidan Square have been exaggerated. There were those, but there were others. There were snipers.

So, then Crimea. Crimea was given to Russia’s people — no, the Soviet Union, by Khrushchev, the leader, I believe, in '53. There is a warm water port there. It's critical to the Soviet Union, Russia’s military and other needs. There was a fear that NATO would take that port. So, there was — what you’re witnessing today — and I talk to Russian friends — is, in Moscow, there is no real appetite for taking Ukraine. It’s very different than Crimea, which led to a popularity boost for Putin and patriotism and mobilization. There is polls, independent polls — and there are such, Levada polls — show there’s no real interest in taking Ukraine.

The country is divided, Amy. It’s been divided for decades. The eastern part of Ukraine — this is Donbas — Russian-speaking, is heavy in industries, the steelworkers, the mineworkers. And this has been tied to Russia for centuries — for decades. And it’s a civil war. And what we’re witnessing, in a humanitarian way, Amy, in the east, 15,000 casualties, and now men and women — and this is also partly due to the Russian separatists — are being put on buses, taken to Russia, across the border, for their safety. But people want peace and stability. And the ages of some of these people is appalling. People who are being forced to fight are losing lives. And the danger of a real war on that territory is catastrophic. And we haven’t even talked about the escalatory doctrines both Russia and the United States, in nuclear terms, have adopted. And these are two nuclear-secure, -powered countries. But humanitarian — humanitarian — we’re looking at a crisis in Afghanistan. We are going to see another one here with refugees displaced, people of all ages being caught in, again, what is a civil war that has become a geopolitical struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the nuclear aspect. You’re talking about two nuclears here: nuclear weapons and nuclear power. What? Does Ukraine have something like 15 nuclear power plants? And let’s be clear: Ukraine is Chernobyl. And what it could mean if one —

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, no, to be — I’ll tell you, Amy — forgive me — but I was in touch with a very good independent Russian defense correspondent, Pavel Felgenhauer, who a few weeks ago warned, as troops massed in Belarus. And the terrain he reported, from Belarus to Ukraine, was not as easy as some have said in terms of invasion. But really dangerous is that Chernobyl is Ukraine, Belarus, and it’s still not contained. You pass by that, what could happen with upturning the still-not-contained nuclear power plant? So, there are others there, too. So, that’s one piece of it, as you said well.

And the other is both — you know, Russia has been testing these hypersonic missiles, and the United States has nuclear-powered submarines in the Black Sea wandering around — provocations on both sides. My concern — and I know people talk about World War II and the analogy of appeasement — I think this is far more like World War I: the stumble, the miscalculation, the trench warfare that may result — even with the super sophistication and horror of nuclear, but trench warfare is also part of this picture. But there have been provocations, as we’ve talked about, Amy, that have not been reported: bomber planes five miles, 12 miles off the Russian border, Russian —

AMY GOODMAN: Whose bomber planes?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: The United States’ bomber planes, Russian — about a week ago, Amy, at the height of all of this, two — a Russian and a U.S. plane nearly collided over the Mediterranean, five feet away. This is what is the — I mean, accidental miscalculation, miscommunication, and then it cycles up. This is why the diplomatic process, to keep talking — now, not everyone is engaged in diplomacy to make change toward a positive outcome. Mr. Johnson and his foreign secretary, I mean, when — I believe it’s Secretary Truss and Foreign Secretary Lavrov emerged from serious meetings last week, he said it was a dialogue of the death. And I think Johnson has no interest in a new security architecture. I mean, he’s living with the runt of something, Brexit, etc., but also is not interested in finding a diplomatic way out.

And let’s not forget, this is, again, about people at the end of the day. It’s not just about Putin and Biden. It’s about, you know, those Russian women you spoke to last week who signed a letter seeking peace. They represent those in these two countries.

And finally, you know, there’s talk of sanctions, right? Sanctions, sanctions, sanctions. I mean, Russia has prepared itself over these last few years. They’ve been hit by almost as many sanctions as exist. Of course, the SWIFT banking system could be used to take them out of it. That would hurt. But, you know, anything that’s going to hurt Russia in terms of sanctions is going to possibly hurt the Europeans even more, or as much, or the United States, and gas and things like that. So, there’s a lot of talk. In fact, there’s a lot of bluffing going on about this whole situation, where Biden, weeks ago, said, “We have no national security interest, and we’re not going to send American men and women.” So, there’s a bluffing that could be taken more lightly, except that this is the most dangerous confrontation between the United States, NATO, Russia in decades. And it is — no one knows where it’s heading. There’s a feeling of leaderlessness, even with Biden announcing every other day that we’re going to war.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, I want to thank you for being with us, publisher of The Nation magazine. We’ll link to your recent piece, “A path out of the Ukraine crisis.”

Coming up, we look at the fatal police shooting up Daunte Wright, after former Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter was sentenced Friday for two years in prison. We’ll also look at the closing arguments beginning in the federal hate crimes trial against Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered two years ago this Wednesday. We’ll speak with civil rights lawyer Ben Crump.

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