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Phyllis Bennis: The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War & Increased Militarization

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President Biden announced $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine on Wednesday, just days after Congress cleared a $1.5 trillion spending bill that included nearly $14 billion for Ukrainian humanitarian aid and security assistance. Experts warn that sending more lethal weapons could escalate war and result in more losses for Ukraine. “The cost on civilian lives is horrific,” says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, who says increasing military aid in Ukraine could thwart peace talks between Russia and Ukraine — which appeared to be making progress in the past few days. Her latest piece is headlined “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, President Biden has announced $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine. According to the White House, the package will include over 20 million rounds of ammunition, 100 unmanned drones, 2,000 Javelin anti-armor missiles and 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems. Biden spoke at the White House Wednesday.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our new assistance package also includes 9,000 anti-armor systems. These are portable, high — high accurately — high-accuracy shoulder-mounted missiles that the Ukrainian forces have been using with great effect to destroy invading tanks and armored vehicles. It’ll include 7,000 small arms — machine guns, shotguns, grenade launchers — to equip the Ukrainians, including the brave women and men who are defending their cities as civilians, and they’re on the countryside, as well. And as well as the ammunition, artillery and mortar rounds to go with small arms, 20 million rounds in total. Twenty million rounds. And this will include drones, which — which demonstrates our commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defense.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden’s remarks came hours after the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, gave a virtual address to Congress. While repeating his call for a NATO no-fly zone, Zelensky invoked the attacks on 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. While most of Zelensky’s speech was in Ukrainian, he delivered part in English directly to President Biden.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: As the leader of my nation, I am addressing the President Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.

AMY GOODMAN: While the Biden administration has so far rejected calls for a no-fly zone, more details are emerging of how the U.S. has covertly aided Ukraine. Yahoo News is reporting a small group of veteran CIA paramilitaries helped train Ukrainian special forces prepare for fighting against Russian forces.

As the United States is pouring arms into Ukraine, there are signs that progress is being made on the diplomatic front to end the war. The Financial Times is reporting that Ukrainian and Russian delegates have discussed a 15-point deal under which Russia would withdraw troops in exchange for Ukraine renouncing its ambitions to join NATO and agreeing not to host foreign military bases or weapons — to remain neutral.

To talk more about these latest developments, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, her recent piece headlined “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

So, Phyllis, thanks so much for rejoining Democracy Now! to talk about this issue now. Can you respond to what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine and what President Biden announced yesterday, the massive infusion of weapons to Ukraine?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well, you know, Amy — and good morning to you both — the $800 million that was just announced in new weapons comes on top of an almost $15 billion aid package that has — much of which will go to Ukraine for a combination of humanitarian and military support. So this is something that’s been going on for several months now, the massive arming of Ukraine in this war.

And I think that what we’re seeing in terms of the diplomatic possibilities is very much a way to see what — the term they like to use is an “off-ramp,” an off-ramp for Russia, but also an off-ramp for the Ukrainian authorities to get out from under this constant escalation that we’re seeing, that the cost on civilian lives is horrific. And although we don’t have good numbers, it does seem clear that the numbers of Russian troops that are being killed is also rising at a very, very fast rate. And both of these leaders are going to have a hard time continuing that level of casualties. So the question of whether this will be the beginning of an actual diplomatic solution becomes very, very important.

The new weapons obviously could shift somewhat the conditions on the ground. As we’ve all seen, the Russian military assault has not played out the way Biden — sorry, the way Putin presumably intended it to. The Russian troops have been bogged down, partly physically bogged down in a number of parts of the convoys trying to get to take over Kyiv. But, on the other hand, the attacks, the continuing bombings, missile attacks, has created enormous civilian casualties, and the ability of the Ukrainian forces, both the military and the volunteer forces, to protect civilians is somewhat limited in that context. So the deal becomes very, very important.

What we’re hearing about this deal is not different than what has been anticipated in recent days, that a deal would have to include a Russian withdrawal and, of course, a ceasefire, that Ukraine would have to give up its claim to be intending to join NATO. The language that we’re hearing now may be included is some definition of a separate protection, a Ukrainian protection alliance, which would essentially allow an official legal treaty to be signed between Ukraine and a number of other countries, probably including the U.S., the U.K., Turkey, maybe a couple of other European countries, who would agree that if Ukraine were to be invaded or threatened again, they would come directly to the aid of Ukraine. So it would almost be like a sort of NATO countries lite, without the official political consequences of being an official member of NATO. And the theory is — and this may well work — that for the political goals that Putin has had, he would be able to say, “I won. I got what I wanted. I got what I wanted when I sent in the troops. This is what they were sent in for, to be sure that Ukraine does not join NATO and that it emerges as a neutral country.”

So, the question of Ukraine being neutral is apparently on the agenda. It’s not one of the items that at least the initial reporting is saying Ukraine has already agreed to, but it’s a likely possibility. There are different versions of neutrality. There’s the existing European versions in Finland, Switzerland, Norway, and they all differ somewhat in what kind of militaries they can have, what kind of relationships they can have with other military forces. The Ukrainian authorities who have been involved in the diplomacy have said that the issue of maintaining a separate, independent military is not up for grabs, that that’s a definite commitment that they will have, that they will have a Ukrainian military, and that the question of not allowing any foreign bases or foreign troops to be stationed in the country is not an issue because those are already prohibited under the Ukrainian Constitution. So, what’s changed is not so much the terms of a possible agreement, but the fact that both sides — and most notably Russia, which has been much more resistant to a diplomatic solution — appears to be moving closer to that possibility.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Phyllis, could you respond specifically — to go back to the question of the U.S. sending arms to Ukraine — the provision, in particular, of these 100 so-called killer drones, Switchblade drones? This is the first time since the Russian invasion that the U.S. will be providing drones, though Ukraine has been using, apparently to great effect, Turkish — armed drones provided by Turkey. Could you speak specifically about these drones that the U.S. is going to supply?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, this is a serious escalation of what the U.S. is sending. As you say, Nermeen, the Turkish drones have been in use by the Ukrainians for some time now. But these drones are significantly more powerful, and the expectation is that they would be used against groupings of Russian soldiers on the ground. And they could result in the deaths of large numbers of soldiers if they were used effectively.

The question of drone extension, where drones are being used, is a very serious global question as we look at the militarization that is increasing in the context of this war. Countries across Europe are talking about remilitarizing. Germany, in particular, is saying they are going to spend a lot more money on their military, that they’re going to start spending 2% of their GDP on military forces, something that has been a goal of NATO, that has so far has only been reached by about 10 European countries, not including Germany, which is of course the wealthiest country in Europe. So, this is a very serious level of escalation. Whether it will have a qualitative shift in the battlefield situation in terms of the balance of forces, I don’t think we know yet, but it does represent a serious U.S. commitment.

It’s important, I think, to keep it in the context of what we’re so far seeing as a continued commitment by the Biden administration to say no to the continued call for a no-fly zone. And this is important, because after President Zelensky’s speech yesterday at the joint session of Congress — that was a major focus of his demand, although his language, I think, indicated some recognition that he’s really not likely to get that. But it is something that he has called for continuously, and I think he, presumably, felt that he had to continue to call for this kind of support, for a no-fly zone, because it’s such a popular demand inside Ukraine. And that’s absolutely understandable. People in Ukraine are desperate with these attacks from the air. Most of the attacks so far have not come from Russian planes. Some have. And a no-fly zone, in theory, would be able to stop some of that. But most of the air attacks are coming from missiles and rockets that are coming from other ground-launched and other Russian military forces.

The other thing that we have to keep in mind here is what the cost would be of a no-fly zone. This is something that I think sounds so intriguing. It sounds like such a great idea. It sounds like something out of Star Wars, that it’s sort of a magical shield that will protect people on the ground. And it leaves out the reality of: How does a no-fly zone start? We can remember back a decade ago in the Libya crisis when U.S. diplomats — it was centered in the State Department. There was a call for a no-fly zone. The opposition came from the secretary of defense, came from the Pentagon, ironically enough, saying — and this was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who said, “We should be clear that a no-fly zone in Libya starts with attacking Libya.” It starts with, you have to take out the anti-aircraft forces on the ground; you have to take out the Russian, in this case, planes that are flying around, potentially dropping bombs. So it’s a major attack by the United States directly on Russia: the two most powerful nuclear-armed countries going to war with each other. That’s the beginning. That’s just the beginning of a no-fly zone.

So, it’s very, very important that the pressure remain on the Biden administration to maintain the opposition to a no-fly zone. It’s going to be increasingly difficult, I think, because in Congress there is — there’s certainly not a majority, thankfully, but there are increasing members of Congress that are calling for a no-fly zone. Some of that is presumably political posturing. But if that rises and if there’s a public call because there’s this sense of, “Well, let’s just do that, let’s just have a no-fly zone,” as if it was this magical shield, I think that it will become increasingly difficult for the Biden administration. So that becomes increasingly important.

It’s taking place, this debate is taking place, in the context of what I mentioned earlier, the increasing militarization that is one of the consequences of this war. We’re seeing that certainly across Europe, but we’re also seeing it in the United States — the new $800 billion [sic], parts of the $14.5 billion — sorry, the $800 million for the new package, the $14.5 billion package that has already been underway for Ukraine. The arms dealers are the ones who are thrilled with this war. They’re the ones that are making a killing. And that will continue. That will continue with a newly militarized Europe in the aftermath of this war. So the consequences are going to be very, very severe.

And the potential, if there is anything remotely resembling a no-fly zone, not only holds the threat of escalation, up to and including a nuclear exchange — not something that I think the main forces on either side want, but is something that might be impossible to prevent if there were to be an escalation in a direct conflict between the U.S. and Russia. And in that context, again, the call may return for European countries to want U.S. nuclear arms in their countries. Right now there are five NATO nations that host nuclear weapons, that are under the control of the United States. That’s in complete violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. None of the nonproliferation and abolition treaties across Europe are working right now. There needs to be new arms control treaties. And right now the trajectory is in the opposite direction.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Phyllis, on the question of, you said, increasing pressure, that there may be increasing pressure on the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone, one question: Is it possible for the U.S. to become involved in imposing a no-fly zone without the consent of NATO countries? Because so far it’s not just the U.S., the Biden administration, that’s ruled that out, but also the EU, also NATO countries. And then, second, despite the fact that there may have been progress in these negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, there’s been a simultaneous escalation of rhetoric, with Biden calling Putin a war criminal, and Putin, in a televised speech yesterday, talking about scum and traitors in Russia, those who are pro-Western, who are not patriots, and rooting them out. Could you talk about both these issues?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah. On your first point, Nermeen, you know, the question of “Could the U.S. do something that the other NATO members don’t like?” the answer is, of course, they could. They are by far the most powerful part of NATO, and the notion that NATO members are somehow equal within NATO is almost as absurd as the notion that members of the U.N. Security Council are somehow all equal, or members of the General Assembly are all equal. The realities of world politics, that includes military strength, economic clout, all of those things, obviously play a role here.

Now, the question of “Would the U.S. engage in creation of a no-fly zone with the significant opposition of their allies?” I think is unlikely, but I think it’s unlikely the U.S. wants to do it anyway. I think that people in Washington, particularly in the Pentagon, recognize what the dangers might be of this. But it’s also — it’s certainly possible that the U.S. could move unilaterally to engage in Ukraine. Ironically, it would presumably have the permission, or even a request, as it’s already had, from the government of Ukraine. So, the governments of surrounding countries would not be in that position, unless they were prepared to say that they were going to deny their airspace to the United States, which is simply not a reasonable thing to anticipate. So I don’t think that NATO opposition in the face of a U.S. determination is likely to work. But again, I don’t think that the U.S., at this stage at least, is intending to move towards a no-fly zone.

I’m sorry, and I’m forgetting what the second question was.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: [inaudible] negotiations to succeed, given the escalating rhetoric.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah. On the one hand, you know, this would not be the first time that escalations, both, unfortunately, on the ground, as we’re seeing in this horrific attack on the theater in Ukraine — escalation in force before negotiations succeed is a common reality. Escalation in rhetoric before negotiations succeed is even more common. So, on a certain perverse level, this might actually be a good sign.

One of the challenges that we’re facing here is that these negotiations that are underway are direct bilateral talks between the two major parties, Russia and Ukraine. The U.S. has not engaged yet and said explicitly what would they be willing to accept in a deal, what would they be willing to give up. The U.S. has said, in the past, that it wants Ukraine to be a member of NATO. It has also said — government officials have also said, quietly, privately, that they have no intention of allowing Ukraine to become a member of NATO, because they know what a provocation that would be on Russia. But they have not said explicitly, “We are taking that off the table.” Are they prepared to do that? Are they prepared to back a Ukrainian concession on that issue? That would be very important for the Biden administration to make clear, what the U.S. is prepared to give up in its own positioning and, crucially, what it’s prepared to accept from Ukraine. Is it prepared to accept all concessions that are made by Ukraine, whether it involves Ukraine as a neutral country, Ukraine permanently staying out of NATO?

The possibility — the two tricky issues, I would say, that are not yet — there’s not even a report that they might be resolved — they might be put off — is the recognition of Crimea as belonging to Russia, something that Russia says it’s insisting on — in the past, the Ukrainian government has said that’s not acceptable — and also the question of the status, whether independence, autonomy or something else, of the eastern provinces in Donbas. Both of those seem to be unresolved, but there is an indication that they might agree to put those off and not resolve those in the midst of a broader — this 15-point agreement that we’re hearing about being underway, that would, crucially, begin with a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces. So those remain uncertain, but they may not ultimately prevent some kind of an agreement from being reached, hopefully soon.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis Bennis, we want to thank you for being with us, author and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. We’ll link to your piece, “The Best Way to Help Ukraine Is Diplomacy, Not War.”

Coming up, we talk to a Syrian filmmaker about how many of Russia’s military tactics in Ukraine resemble what she witnessed in her home city of Aleppo. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: John Lennon’s “Imagine,” performed in Russian by Nailskey. Interestingly, Russia’s prima ballerina Olga Smirnova has quit Moscow’s world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet after denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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