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Journalist Andrew Cockburn & Historian Timothy Snyder on Ukraine, Russia, NATO Expansion & Sanctions

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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, veteran journalist Andrew Cockburn and Yale historian Timothy Snyder discuss the history of the region and what role NATO’s expansion played in the current crisis. Cockburn says the United States and its allies broke promises made in the 1990s not to expand the military alliance into Eastern Europe, setting the stage for an eventual confrontation. “What Putin has done is absolutely disgraceful, but it’s kind of easy to understand. There has been sustained efforts to push NATO forward,” he says. But Snyder says the focus on NATO ignores the agency of leaders in Ukraine and elsewhere who have the right to seek their own arrangements. “It’s very important to remember that the world isn’t just about Washington and Moscow. It’s also about other sovereign states and other peoples who can express their desires and have their own foreign policies,” says Snyder.

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

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González. This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report.

Ukraine’s government has accused Russia of war crimes for deliberately targeting civilians during its invasion of Ukraine. New satellite photos show a massive 40-mile convoy of Russian tanks and armored vehicles stretching from the Russian border to the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Ukrainian officials say troops from Belarus have joined Russia’s invasion.

As we continue to look at the invasion of Ukraine, we’re joined by two guests: Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, author of many books, including The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and, recently, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary; we’re also joined by Andrew Cockburn, the Washington editor for Harper’s magazine. His book, just out, is called The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine.

Andrew Cockburn, let’s begin with you. If you can start off by responding to the latest news, this Russian convoy of 40 miles coming closer and closer to Kyiv? Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, has been bombed, the local municipal building, as well as other sites. The massive departure of Ukrainians fleeing war, half a million Ukrainians, massively, women and children, going to Poland, Romania and other places. Can you comment on what’s happening today?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Yes. Well, it looks like — you know, we hear a lot about how the Russian offensive has slowed down, been ground to a halt or is being — you know, met unexpected resistance, which, you know, is true. On the other hand, they do seem to be moving fairly steadily, in a sort of slightly creaky way, towards their objectives. I mean, they’ve surrounded Kharkiv and Kyiv. They’ve moved — they’ve done — you know, their separatist forces, who are presumably reinforced by regular Russian troops, have done quite well in the east, have advanced out and taken most of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The forces coming out of Crimea are, you know, advancing, it seems, fairly successfully. They’ve got Mariupol surrounded, which they regard as a sort of heartland of what they call neo-Nazi, you know, the Azov Battalion, the extreme-rightist elements that, from Putin’s point of view, this whole war is meant to be about. So, I would think that they’ve — you know, the Russians, in a sort of slightly warped way, may be quite pleased with the Russian high command, may be quite pleased with the way things are going.

Yes, of course, I mean, it’s a horrible tragedy of the — you know, all these refugees, I mean, and as I’m glad you pointed out, in sharp contrast to the way people from the Middle East and, you know, nonwhite or, what have you, non-European refugees have been treated by the Poles and the EU generally. It’s been interesting what Yurii Sheliazhenko just said, of course, I mean, that that does not include people from — the refugees don’t seem to include people from Kyiv, because the way is blocked. The Russians have occupied the — as I say, they’ve encircled the city, so that people from Kyiv, the people really under threat, can’t get out. And there’s been no — apparently, no negotiation, or certainly no successful negotiation, on a humanitarian corridor.

And it’s curious — I mean, it’s hard. This is such a fog of war, that there’s so much misinformation flying around. I mean, it’s interesting whether or not the Russians really have achieved air superiority in Ukraine. I mean, one of the interesting things, and maybe one of the disappointments from the Russian point of view, is that the Russian Air Force hasn’t really been present or hasn’t really been successful in the way you might have thought from all the sort of threat inflation we’ve heard in recent years about how Russia has become a mighty power. I mean, I think they — you know, obviously, they’ve been fighting in Syria. The Air Force certainly has for the last few years. So that’s probably put a strain on them. I’ve heard that they’re running out of precision-guided munitions, which may be a problem. But generally, I mean, given the disastrous calculation, in my view, and heinous calculation by Putin to go ahead with this, I would say they may think they’re not doing too badly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you about that. In terms of the — the media is portraying this as the Russian army already bogged down five days into this war. But I looked back at U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — 


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — which started on March 20th, and it took until April 9th, it took three weeks, for the U.S. military, against a far less powerful army in Iraq, to reach Baghdad. And, of course, the war was initiated by a week of massive bombardment of Iraqi cities and of the military, the Iraqi military, to basically decimate the military before the troops started moving. In retrospect — and I completely agree with you that this was a crazy and fundamentally unjust invasion — but, on the other hand, it seems that Russia has not sought this kind of shock-and-awe approach to just bomb the cities, and instead it’s chosen to send its army in and to try to capture the cities in a methodical way, almost as a — some experts have said that they’re seeking — they understand that if there’s massive casualties among the Ukrainian people, that will be not looked upon kindly even by the Russian population.

ANDREW COCKBURN: Right. I mean, you know, and there would be a 100 years’ war. No, I’m really glad you point that out. I mean, as you said, it took three weeks for the U.S. and British to reach Baghdad, and most of the time they were advancing across desert. But this looks like a sort of — really like a lighting blitzkrieg in comparison. And, obviously, it’s also correct, as you say, that the Russians, Putin didn’t really — didn’t want to sort of permanently alienate the Ukrainian population. I mean, it seems fairly clear that he’s united them, or certainly united a huge proportion of them now, in opposition to Russia in a way that may not have been the case a few weeks ago.

But, yeah, it’s been — you know, I’d like to — I’ve been thinking where one, on CNN or something, with one of these old hacks from the Pentagon who they’re wheeling on to comment and cheer on our side in Ukraine, I’d like to ask them how they would have invaded Ukraine. I mean, as you said, fairly clear what would have happened. It would have been massive destruction, started with massive destruction of infrastructure, as happened in the two Iraq wars that we were engaged in, and bombing water treatment plants and power stations and communications and all the rest, that’s become the traditional U.S. way of war. So, you know, I’m glad that the Russians at least haven’t so far gone in for that. That may change. But, you know, there is a sharp contrast, and none of which — very little of which gets mentioned in the official media, because it’s open season on hypocrisy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Andrew Cockburn, could you talk about the sanctions in place that the West is exacting on Russia, the impact it will have not only on Russia but, clearly, on especially Western Europe?

ANDREW COCKBURN: Well, exactly. You know, we’ve gotten used to sanctions, has become really the premier U.S. and — foreign policy tool of. You know, we sanctioned Cuba for decades, for half a century. We sanctioned Iraq, sanctioned Iran, sanctioned Syria. And we’ve gotten used to it. It’s a great way to beat up, you know, small, comparatively powerless countries who have little, really, input or an impact on the global economy.

Now, if they didn’t think about it before, they’re certainly realizing that — you know, first of all, I should say, quickly, obviously it’s having disastrous effects on the Russian economy, but it’s very interesting. I mean, car factories in Germany are already closing down because they can’t get parts that have turned out to be sourced from Russia and, indeed, Ukraine. It turns out a lot of people are discovering for the first time that Russia and Ukraine, between them, supply a third of the world’s wheat supply, wheat production, which is what a lot of the Middle East eats — Iraq, Egypt particularly. I mean, you’re going to see — if the price of bread can’t be controlled there, you’re going to see, I think, great sort of dissension and riots there. Semiconductors can’t be made here without supplies of various sort of ingredients most of us have never heard of that come from Russia. So, in a way, now that it’s all-out economic warfare, we’re finding that it’s — there’s a lot of pushback, a lot of payback, in a sense that, in a way, we’ve sanctioned ourselves, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Timothy Snyder into the conversation, Yale historian, author of many books, including The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Your response to the latest developments right now?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, so, we know what Russia’s initial war plan was. It was premised on Mr. Putin’s assumption that Ukrainians and Russians are really one people. So, if he can simply send in a strike force to surround the Ukrainian capital and physically eliminate the Ukrainian government, then everyone will go over to the Russian side. We know that because it’s consistent with the initial attack plan. We also know it because they accidentally published these documents a couple of days ago.

So, when we want to look at what’s happening, I think we have to distinguish stage one, which was a failure, thanks to unexpectedly strong and intelligent Ukrainian resistance, resistance on the part of people who are essentially defending their homes — by the way, also from attacks on water supply, energy supply, apartment buildings, and everything which was listed already. All of those things have already been attacked, including cities. So, in stage one, the Russian plan fails because of Ukrainian resistance, but also because of its nature.

Now we’re moving to stage two, which will include precisely the things which were described before. We’re moving towards more like a Grozny scenario or a Syria scenario, where the Russians will do what the Russians do in their doctrine: They besiege cities, and then pound them from the outside and with air power until the civilians force the leadership to capitulate. So, unless these columns can be somehow stopped or we can get to some kind of negotiated solution by way of pressure on Russia, we’re going to see a much more horrifying stage of this war follow.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Snyder, can you talk about the — you’ve mentioned Putin’s belief that Ukraine and Russia are part of one nation. Can you describe your view of the historical truth here?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, I mean, I guess I would say, even if Mr. Putin were a historian, it’s not the job of a historian to say who belongs to what nation. You know, it’s not my job to tell people in Africa what nations they belong to or Canadians whether they belong to a nation or not. A nation is a group of people with a common sense about what the future holds and what they should be doing. And in that sense, Ukrainians are indisputably a nation.

The history, I mean, since you ask, is just unbelievably wrong and abusive. The idea that because a Viking baptized himself a thousand years ago, maybe, therefore Ukraine, Belarus and Russia are one nation is palpably absurd. The idea that the Bolsheviks created Ukraine, as Mr. Putin claims, is also ridiculous. It’s the other way around. The Soviet Union was created as a union, as a federation with national names, precisely because a hundred years ago even the far left in Russia was perfectly aware that Ukraine was a nation and had to be accommodated in some way. And this language, by the way, this language that other people are not states, that other people are not nations, that is the language of destroying the state and of destroying the nation. That’s the logic that follows.

And since we’re on the topic, another of Mr. Putin’s historical claims or abuses of historical language is the idea that he’s carrying out a denazification campaign, when in fact what his army is doing, is set up to do, is to destroy a government which is led by a democratically elected Jewish president. He’s abusing the historical legacy that we have, and he’s abusing our ability to use history to try to make some kind of judgment on what’s happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this conversation. We’re talking to Yale historian Timothy Snyder. He is author of many books, including On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. And we’re talking to Andrew Cockburn. His book is just out. It’s called The Spoils of War. He writes for Harper’s magazine. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Beauty and Ugliness” by Russian rapper Oxxxymiron. The rapper canceled six sold-out shows in St. Petersburg and Moscow, his first headlining tour in five years, to protest the war, saying, “I want to say that I am against this specific war that Russia is waging against the Ukrainian people. I believe this is a catastrophe and a crime.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Europe. I want to turn back to a comment on Democracy Now! in 2014 made by the late historian Stephen Cohen about how NATO expansion in Eastern Europe could lead to war.

STEPHEN COHEN: When we took in — “we” meaning the United States and NATO — all these countries in Eastern Europe into NATO, we did not — we agreed with the Russians we would not put forward military installations there. We built some infrastructure — air strips, there’s some barracks, stuff like that. But we didn’t station troops that could march toward Russia there. Now what NATO is saying, it is time to do that. Now, Russia already felt encircled by NATO member states on its borders. The Baltics are on its borders. If we move the forces, NATO forces, including American troops, to — toward Russia’s borders, where will we be then? I mean, it’s obviously going to militarize the situation, and therefore raise the danger of war. And I think it’s important to emphasize, though I regret saying this, Russia will not back off. This is existential.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s historian Stephen Cohen, late historian, speaking in 2014 on Democracy Now! We’re speaking now with Andrew Cockburn, Harper’s magazine Washington editor, his new book, The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine, and Yale University professor of history Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. Andrew Cockburn, can you respond to this? And then we’ll get the response of Professor Snyder.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN: Well, Steve Cohen, he was exactly right. I mean, what he said would happen has happened. So I don’t hardly need to argue about it. I mean, there’s many — I’m sure that the whole story of NATO expansion will become further encrusted with myth, but it is certainly the case that we did — you know, there were promises made to Gorbachev and the then-Soviet leadership at the time of the German unification, reunification, at the end of the Cold War, that NATO would not expand beyond Germany. I mean, the Russians sort of agreed that all of Germany would be in NATO, but they did say they wouldn’t expand further. And for some reason, the Soviets believed them, though they didn’t have much option, of course.

So, you know, there has been then the further expansion of the — you know, that was in Poland, the first tranche was in — came in '99 and then in 2004, and the Russians complained continually. And then it came up again in 2007, ’08, when there was talk at that point of Ukraine and Georgia joining. And at that point, in 2008, remember, now, we hear — you know, it's glibly said, “And then Russia invaded Georgia.” Well, actually, yes, they did, but that was preceded by a very deliberate provocation or initiative by the Georgian leader, Saakashvili, to move into what was a sort of Russian, whatever you want to call it, protectorate of South Ossetia, with the aim — and I know this from having talked to a lot of the people who were involved both in Georgia and in Washington at the time — with the aim, as one of them said, of flipping — Misha Saakashvili wanted to flip us into a war. And actually, at that point, the Bush — Bush himself and Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, went to some lengths to tamp that down, to tell Saakashvili they were not going to intervene on his behalf, not going to support him in his efforts, in Bush’s words, to start World War III.

So, you know, there has been — you know, again, we have to prefigure this by — have to say, of course, what Putin has done is absolutely disgraceful, but it’s kind of easy to understand. There has been sustained efforts to push NATO forward, to appear in what to Russians might seem like — Russian leadership, might seem like a threatening posture, and to — you know, people say — there’s a saying that NATO exists to deal with the instability that its own existence creates.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’m wondering if Timothy Snyder can respond to this issue of the NATO expansion. But also, you know, I happen to be, unfortunately, old enough to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when President Kennedy was ready to go to war, if necessary, with the Soviet Union over the fact that the Soviet Union was putting missiles in an independent country, Cuba. But the United States felt threatened by the ability of the Soviet Union to enter its sphere of influence. I’m wondering if there’s — you see any parallels with the mentality of Putin right now.

TIMOTHY SNYDER: So, let me just — let me roll back to the history, and I’ll end with Cuba. So, when Germany was unified, the Americans and the Soviets did make an arrangement about West Germany and East Germany. That arrangement, however, did not foresee and had nothing to do with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. We’re talking about something that happened in 1990. In 1991, to everyone’s surprise, the Soviet Union no longer existed. And after that point, it’s very important to remember that the world isn’t just about Washington and Moscow. It’s also about other sovereign states and other peoples, who can express their desires and have their own foreign policies.

So, when we speak of NATO enlargement, I mean, that’s a bit of a misnomer. NATO was not there to enlarge. There wasn’t much willingness on the part of Western Europe or the U.S. to enlarge. It was the East Europeans themselves who pushed the process forward. I mean, we can decide that they didn’t understand their own national interests, but that’s how the process unfolded. It came from the East Europeans. And there was never an understanding between the United States and Russia after 1991 that this wasn’t going to happen. It’s true that the Russians objected, but it’s also true that their understanding of NATO has changed drastically after NATO expansion halted and with the reelection of Mr. Putin. In the 1990s and 2000s, Russia and NATO cooperated, not least in Afghanistan, where the Russians tended to insist that the Americans and NATO had to take a harder line than they were taking. Mr. Putin himself referred to NATO, well into the 21st century, as a defensive alliance. He himself has changed drastically the way that he speaks about NATO. He uses it essentially as a way to try to rally the Russian population.

Now, I would distinguish between what Mr. Putin says about this war and what the Russians think. It’s very hard to find, at least as far as I can read the data, a Russian opinion that somehow Russia was threatened by Ukraine in 2022. I’m not seeing that. But in an important and fundamental way, this entire discussion is moot, because now we know, given the way that the Russians are prosecuting this war, that it never had anything to do with the ostensible motivations that they cited in late 2021. Given the way that they’re prosecuting this war, we know that it’s about the destruction of the Ukrainian state, given what they say and what they’re doing. So, I think it’s important to also give the Russians agency, to give Mr. Putin agency, to understand that he might have motives which go beyond things that we do or go beyond the things he says, that he thinks we’ll understand.

Now, on Cuba, Cuba encourages me in an odd way, because in Cuba the Americans made a deal. We pulled our missiles out of Turkey. That was the deal. I think there are arrangements that can be made to stop this war. I think there are compromises that can be found.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Clearly, a discussion that we need to continue at a future date. Timothy Snyder, Yale professor of history, author of many books, including The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. And thank you to Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor of Harper’s magazine, his new book, The Spoils of War: Power, Profit and the American War Machine.

That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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