You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Don’t Turn Ukraine into Another Afghanistan: Anatol Lieven Urges Peace Talks, Not a Prolonged War

Media Options

NATO, the G7 and the European Council held unprecedented emergency meetings in Brussels Thursday as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second month. NATO has announced plans to send even more troops to Eastern Europe, where its troop presence has already doubled from last month to 40,000. We speak with Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who says that as the war becomes a prolonged stalemate, the U.S. and other countries should be doing everything possible to facilitate an end to the fighting. “There is something deeply immoral in trying to wage a war of this kind at the expense of other people if a reasonable peace settlement is on the cards,” says Lieven.

Related Story

StoryMay 16, 2024“In Cold Blood”: Russian Forces Executing Surrendering Ukrainian Soldiers
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden is in Brussels for an emergency NATO summit as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its second month. NATO has announced it’s sending more troops to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Over the past month the number of NATO troops in Eastern Europe has doubled — reaching about 40,000 — from just a month ago.

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis inside Ukraine continues to grow. UNICEF is now saying half of Ukraine’s seven-and-a-half million children have been displaced in one of the largest displacements of children since World War II.

On the battlefront, Ukraine is claiming it’s blown up a Russian ship in the port of Berdyansk on the Black Sea. Video posted online shows a large ship on fire in the Russian-occupied southern port city.

This comes as the United States has officially declared Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

In another development, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has once again rejected calls to boycott Russian oil and gas, saying the cost to Germany’s economy would be too high. On Wednesday, activists with Greenpeace painted the slogans “Oil fuels war” and “Oil is war” on the side of a massive Russian tanker in the Baltic Sea delivering 100,000 tons of crude to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

As NATO, the G7 and the European Council hold unprecedented emergency summits today in Brussels, we’re joined now by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s the author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Anatol. Why don’t you start off simply by laying out the significance of this triple summit today of the European Council, of the G7, of NATO, and what’s taking place on the ground in Ukraine?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the purpose of the summit is, of course, to cement Western unity against Russia and to impose or at least threaten Russia with additional sanctions if the war continues. I don’t think we should take these NATO deployments too seriously. Russia has no intention of attacking any of the countries named, and indeed has no capacity to do so. We should take account of the fact that if the Russian military is incapable of taking cities less than 20 miles from Russia’s borders in a month of fighting, the idea that it’s going to invade NATO is simply fantastical, so we shouldn’t panic over this.

And, yes, I mean, as far as the situation on the ground is concerned, the Russians, of course, are making progress in capturing Mariupol, but it’s very slow process — progress, and it involves the destruction of much of the city through artillery. Elsewhere, the Russian forces appear to be thoroughly bogged down, thanks to the strength and courage of the Ukrainian resistance and their own inadequate numbers.

So, my feeling is that, on the ground, the war is heading for some kind of prolonged stalemate, in which Russia will not be able to defeat Ukraine completely and occupy the country or overthrow the Ukrainian government, but Russia will hold certain territories that it has occupied in the east and south of the country. And unless there is a peace settlement, for which there do seem to be some real grounds now, this war could go on indefinitely.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, too, let’s talk more about what a peace settlement would entail. In a 2014 piece following the Russian annexation of Crimea — the piece was titled, headlined “Ukraine—The Way Out” — you suggested at the time that the only resolution would be a federal Ukraine with elected regional governments and robust protection for regional interests. Now, do you think that that is still a likely resolution? You also pointed out then that prolonging the war would not present more options.

ANATOL LIEVEN: No, I don’t think that that is an option anymore. I mean, I still think that, in principle, it would be a good thing. Ukraine, you know, given the great differences between its regions, is a naturally federal country. And, of course, that’s a perfectly democratic solution. But I don’t think that now that is at all possible, because it would be seen by the Ukrainians as another means of Russian interference in the country and attempts to manipulate Ukraine.

A federal or confederal relationship with Ukraine, however, remains one of the only ways — well, the only way that the Donbas republics can possibly return to Ukrainian sovereignty. Barring that, the only solution there would be local referenda, under international supervision, to decide their fate. As for Crimea, I’m afraid that, since 2014, that has been lost to Ukraine. And once again, it’s really a question of, well, firstly, finding democratic and legal legitimacy for any territorial changes, and, secondly, of course, really guaranteeing and securing the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine as a whole.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, you just said, and it does appear that way, that the war is heading towards a prolonged stalemate. Could you explain why you think the Russians, on the admission of certain Russian military analysts, that they so poorly calculated what this war would look like? What do you think the reasons for that are? I mean, there are a number of close military advisers to Putin who have been involved in this, in planning this invasion.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, it’s clear that the Russians or the Putin regime completely underestimated the strength, the courage and the efficiency of Ukrainian resistance. They deployed far too few troops for the operation, and they spread those troops over far too wide an area. They attacked from too many directions at once.

An additional reason for this may be that it seems that the Kremlin has tried as far as possible not to use conscript troops in this operation. They’ve tried to use professional volunteers. That could be because they don’t trust the quality of the conscripts, and that there is real evidence of lack of morale among the Russian forces. But it could also be, of course, that Putin fears the political repercussions at home if large numbers of Russian conscripts start dying.

And as far as their poor intelligence is concerned, yes, I mean, that is surprising. But I think there, it does reflect the degree to which Putin and his immediate core have shrunk, you know, to barely half a dozen people and have become really isolated from wider advice, especially since the physical isolation of the COVID pandemic. It really does seem as if Putin has simply not been receiving intelligence or advice which conflicts with his prejudices. Now, you know, it has to be said, we know something about this in the West, given what the Bush and Blair administrations did in the run-up to the Iraq War, where they simply brushed aside intelligence that conflicted with their plans and their prejudices. And, of course, Russia being an authoritarian country, this syndrome is obviously even worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you believe is happening with Putin, how isolated or not he is right now? Reuters is reporting that Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia’s post-Soviet economic reforms, has quit his post as a Kremlin special envoy. He was the climate envoy now, but he’s very close to Putin for years. I believe he’s the one who brought him into the Kremlin. He’s left the country due to the war in Ukraine, the highest-ranking defection yet over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as another high military official hasn’t been seen in like two weeks. Is too much being made of this? And a readout that was just done, a U.S. general meeting with a Russian general in Moscow, where at the end he said to him, “How is your family doing? I know that they live in Ukraine.” And he uncharacteristically somewhat broke down, saying he’s very concerned. Does this have real impact? And could this mean the beginning of some kind of disruption of the elite, power elite, around Putin?

ANATOL LIEVEN: In the long run, I think yes; in the short term, no, because, as I say, you know, Putin’s inner core is very narrow now, and they’re all deeply implicated in the Ukraine war. You know, Chubais has been excluded from that inner circle for many years. Believe me, as far as the Russian elite is concerned, climate envoy is not a senior or influential position. But, with time, as the economic suffering of the Russian people grows due to sanctions and the war, as casualties mount, if the war goes on, and as the wider elites, especially the business elites, become more and more unhappy with what is happening, then I think, in the longer run, there is a real threat to the Putin regime, probably of some kind of move to push them out from within the wider elites, perhaps by, you know, a kind of almost agreed resignation, as happened with Yeltsin. But I fear that this may take some considerable time, given both the narrowness of Putin’s power elite and, of course, the grip that they have on the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And then I wanted to ask you about WMD, weapons of mass destruction. The Kremlin is refusing to rule out nuclear weapons on the battlefield if it faces what it determines to be an existential threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, made the remarks in a conversation with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: I want to ask you again: Is President Putin — because, again, the Finnish president said to me that when he asked Putin directly about this, because President Putin has laid that card on the table, President Putin said that if anybody tries to stop him, very bad things will happen. And I want to know whether you are convinced or confident that your boss will not use that option.

DMITRY PESKOV: Well, we have a concept of domestic security. And, well, it’s public. You can read all the reasons for nuclear arms to be used. So, if it is an existential threat for our country, then it can be used in accordance with our concept.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you could comment on this, Anatol Lieven, as well as the possibility, the concern that’s being raised about the use of biological and chemical weapons? These are supposedly what we understand are being discussed at these emergency summits today in Brussels.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, Putin is clearly using the threat of nuclear weapons to deter any kind of direct NATO intervention in Ukraine and to suggest that if it comes to a war between NATO and Russia, then, you know, as in the Cold War, the use of nuclear weapons by both sides is a possibility. I find it impossible to believe, however, that Putin would use the weapons simply in the context of a war with Ukraine, because the political consequences would be devastating. You just mentioned that, I mean, a Russian general has his family in Ukraine. A former Russian deputy prime minister is an ethnic Ukrainian, with relatives there. This, I think, would be too much even for the Russian elites to stomach, and would also gain nothing for Russia. I mean, if Russia actually hopes to incorporate some of these territories or turn them into client states, then, by definition, creating a nuclear wasteland not a good way to begin.

As far as chemical weapons are concerned, I’m not sure. There is always the risk, of course, of false flag operations to discredit either side. But, once again, I doubt that this would, as far as Russia is concerned, justify the appalling consequences in terms of world public opinion. I hope I’m right about that, anyway.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, can we talk about some of the broader context and history of this war, as you’ve discussed in recent interviews? You’ve said, for example, that since the 1990s, the EU and NATO have made membership in these organizations synonymous with belonging to Europe, and that this, in itself, is a problem. And then also explain what the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 — what that agreement was about and whether that has any bearing on where we stand today.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Yes, well, as I often say, if you want to read some very cogent arguments against NATO expansion, and in particular against the suggestion that Ukraine and Georgia should be brought into NATO, you could read the memoir of the present head of the CIA, William Burns, The Back Channel, in which he sets out these arguments, that he made in memos to the State Department, first as policy planning staff in the ‘90s and then as ambassador to Moscow. And he quotes Russian officials and Russians, in general, under the Yeltsin administration in the ‘90s, warning that this would lead to confrontation and quite possibly war. So, I mean, there is simply — you know, there is no excuse for saying that we were not warned about the likely consequences of this. And also, I mean, it has become clear that, verbally, Gorbachev was promised, actually several times, that NATO would not expand after the end of the Cold War.

What happened in the '90s was that there was an attempt to blur the exclusion of Russia and, you know, the — as perceived from Moscow, the West's moves to basically drive Russia out of Europe by creating the Partnership for Peace, which was a sort of halfway house between NATO and non-NATO members, which included Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, in 2008, at the Bucharest summit, Britain and America tore that up, as far as Ukraine and Georgia were concerned, and proposed to offer those countries full NATO membership, which of course then, well, set the stage for what has now happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And the European Union right now, Zelensky is going to be addressing the summits today from Ukraine, but they want to become also a member of the European Union. But there’s opposition even now within the European Union. The significance of Ukraine not being a part of either right now, and that Zelensky has very recently said, as recently as a few weeks ago on ABC — and this could be the broad outlines of an agreement — “I’m talking about security guarantees. I think that items regarding temporary occupied territories and unrecognized republics that have not been recognized by anyone but Russia, these pseudo-republics, but we can discuss and find a compromise on how these territories will live on.” And as Foreign Minister Kuleba said, “If we could reach an agreement where a similar system of guarantees as envisaged by the North Atlantic Charter could be granted to Ukraine by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including Russia, as well as by Ukraine’s neighbors, this is something we are ready to discuss.” Aren’t we seeing the broad outlines of a ceasefire at whatever point these two parties decide to make one?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, yes. I mean, that is why I am relatively hopeful, and also, of course, because of the growing military stalemate on the ground, that a peace agreement is possible, because we have seen the grounds for that drawn up by both sides. It might be necessary to kick certain issues into the diplomatic long grass. Ukraine has also suggested that perhaps the territorial issues might be compartmentalized as part of a peace settlement. In other words, you would have a peace agreement and an agreement, you know, not to fight over these territories, and then agree to negotiate them, a bit like the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, if you wish. But, yes, and, obviously, security guarantees of Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. So, given that it seems to me that neither side can actually win militarily on the ground, as far as their maximal positions are concerned, this does seem to me a way out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Now, Anatol, you covered — and, very briefly, before we conclude, you covered as a journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but also of Chechnya. You’ve expressed concerns that this war may also come to look similar to those wars, or indeed already does. Could you talk about that?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I mean, the Russian intervention in Chechnya, you know, simply the storming of Grozny, both in the first war of '94 to ’96, which I covered on the ground, and then the second war, which I didn't, involved the massive destruction of that city, as we are now seeing in Mariupol — not, it has to be said, because of deliberate Russian war crimes in this case, but simply because that is the nature of urban warfare. The defenders hole themselves up in residential areas, quite rightly, from their point of view, to hold their positions, and the attacking forces bombard them and destroy them in the process of storming those positions. And if this war goes on and Russia attacks more cities, then the same thing is going to happen over and over again. So that is my bitter memory of what happened in Grozny.

In Afghanistan, of course, it’s rather different, the lesson. I mean, there, Hillary Clinton and others have explicitly raised the idea of what happened in Afghanistan as a model for how the United Nations should support and even encourage a protracted war in Ukraine, so as to bleed and weaken Russia and eventually bring down the Putin regime. Well, the thing is that that war was waged in Afghanistan at the cost of perhaps a million Afghan lives, the destruction of the Afghan state, from which it has never recovered, and the permanent wreckage of Afghan society, including the disappearance of its educated elite. You know, I find that there is something deeply immoral in trying to wage a war of this kind at the expense of other people if a reasonable peace settlement is on the cards, as it may now be.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Stay with us as we look at confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, who appears poised to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Stay with us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

“You Are My Harbinger of Hope”: Sen. Cory Booker Defends Ketanji Brown Jackson Amid GOP Attacks

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation