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Tariq Ali on Ukraine, NATO Expansion & How Putin’s Invasion Galvanized a Russian Peace Movement

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We go to London to speak with writer and activist Tariq Ali about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s historic address to the British House of Commons, Russia’s invasion and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. officials have reportedly traveled to Venezuela to discuss lifting sanctions and increasing imports of Venezuelan oil to make up for the oil shortage induced by new sanctions on Russia. “Further escalation, further armaments, pouring in weapons is going to make conditions worse, principally for people of Ukraine,” says Ali.

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

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

As we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we go to London. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, gave a historic virtual address to the British House of Commons.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] We will not give up, and we will not lose. We will fight ’til the end. We will fight at sea. We will fight in the air. We will defend our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the cities and villages, on the streets. We will fight on the hills. … Strengthen the sanctions against the country, terrorist Russia, and recognize it as a terrorist country. Find a way to make our Ukrainian skies safe. Do what you can, what you have to, what is obliged by the greatness of your country and your people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Zelensky received a standing ovation from the British lawmakers.

Joining us now from London is historian, activist, filmmaker, author Tariq Ali. He’s on the editorial committee of the New Left Review. Days before the Russian invasion, he wrote a piece headlined “News from Natoland.” On Sunday, he took part in an international day of action against the war in Ukraine.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tariq. Can you talk about what Zelensky’s message was, what Britain is doing, and, overall, your response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

TARIQ ALI: Well, Amy, let’s start with Zelensky’s message. It was, you know, a propaganda message, quite honestly, using some famous phrases from Churchill’s speeches, but forgetting it wasn’t Churchill’s speeches that won the Second World War. It was, as the whole world knows or should know, the key battles fought by the Red Army on Russian soil, and what is now Ukrainian soil, that destroyed the spinal cord of Hitler’s Germany and led to defeat. We should never forget that, whatever the rhetoric.

The basic purpose of Zelensky’s address to the House of Commons, clearly organized by the Foreign Office, etc., was to plead for a no-fly zone. That’s the key demand of the Ukrainians. But it’s a demand that NATO has, intelligently, so far rejected, because it knows that to impose a no-fly zone over the Ukraine at the present time could lead to a mega escalation of the war and possibly the use of nuclear weapons. So, that particular demand isn’t going to get anywhere. It’s largely pressure on Putin, but Putin knows what he’s doing.

Now, as far as the war itself is concerned, Amy, how will it end? In fact, nobody knows, neither Putin who launched it, nor NATO who have created a situation over the last 30 years, as some of the more intelligent U.S. commentators have been telling us now for a long time, has finally reached its apogee. It will end here, whatever the solution. My own feeling is that Putin’s attempt to mimic the United States and pretend that Russia is a great imperial power is foolhardy. It won’t work. Apart from anything else, apart from the fact that he is isolated from large chunks of the countries around him, if you look at the U.S., if you look at the GDP of Russia, it’s $1.4 trillion, less even than Italy and minuscule compared to the United States, which is on $20.9 trillion. So how can you even attempt to mimic the United States, even were it a good thing, which it obviously isn’t?

So I think it’s backfired. And I think the key question now we have to ask is the following: How should we try and end this war? Further escalation, further armaments, pouring in weapons is going to make conditions worse, principally for the people of Ukraine. They are the ones who are suffering the most. And it’s the refugees and the ordinary citizens, who don’t want this, who are suffering. And so, the question has to be asked: Is a bloody partition the only solution? And if it is, then why not start the process now? Neither side wants it, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t argue for it, just like we argue for ending fossil fuels. It’s no more utopian than that. So, it’s something that nobody is arguing.

In Britain — and, I mean, just look at it. In Russia, we’ve seen the emergence of a really courageous, powerful peace movement, for which one has total sympathy. They are being beaten up. They’re being locked up. In Britain, both Boris Johnson and his understudy, the Labour Leader Keir Starmer, have attacked Stop the War. In Russia, Putin tells them, “You’re agents of NATO,” which they deny and say, “We don’t support to NATO.” Here in Britain, Johnson and Starmer attack the peace movement in saying, “By bringing in criticisms of NATO, you’re supporting Putin,” which we deny, as well. It was George Bush who started this whole thing: “If you’re not with us and our wars, you’re with the terrorists.” And we said it wasn’t an acceptable way of arguing, and we refused to accept that divide, as we are doing now.

So, the key thing politicians in Europe and elsewhere should be asking are: How are we going to end this tragedy? I don’t think Putin, who miscalculated, I think, disastrously what he could achieve — I mean, it’s obvious now from information coming out, he thought it would be a quick sortie, and they met with resistance which they were not prepared for. I mean, to give you just one example, Putin sent policemen, you know, his police guard, people who do special duties as security, into Kyiv, who were beaten back. Quite a lot of them were killed. So, it’s not in anyone’s interest, not in the interest — certainly not in the interest of Russia.

So, we could have a number of things coming out of this conflict — a bloody partition of the Ukraine, which I think is better than a continuing war. And Putin could be toppled from within Russia, because people in Russia are beginning to see exactly what is going on. And some of my more utopian friends, Russian philosophers and activists, are telling me, “We are hoping that he will suffer a blow at the hands of the Ukrainians, not NATO, and so it might trigger off a new revolution in Russia itself.” I don’t believe any of this.

I think, effectively, the Russian elite will get very angry if this war goes on endlessly, because how can you maintain control of a country which doesn’t want to be occupied? NATO has just learned that after 20 years in Afghanistan, or I hope they have learned that and will not attempt a repeat performance anywhere in Europe. Putin should have learned that from Russia’s own experiences in Afghanistan, but he clearly hasn’t. How can you occupy a country without keeping thousands and thousands and thousands of your own troops there? Even if you set up a puppet government, they will need the backing of Russian troops. So I’m sure these things are being discussed seriously.

Or, Amy, you could do what the U.S. did in relation to Venezuela. Having failed to topple the Chavista governments and Maduro, they actually imagined, created an imaginary government with a total imbecile, Guaidó, as its president, recognized him, got their European friends to do the same. No one in South America takes it seriously. No one. So you can imagine, you know, an imagined president in an imagined country. Putin could try the same. I wouldn’t advise it. It would be a total failure.

And the third thing to point out, that whereas in the past you had a situation where Ukrainians were fairly evenly divided between being not with Russia but, broadly speaking, on that side, or, broadly speaking, being with United States and its military organization, NATO. It was 40/40. It was at one stage even higher, 50/50. Now I would — we don’t know, but I would suggest, from speaking to some of my friends from Ukraine, that no one wants a permanent occupation by the Russians, or very few people do, and that there are probably more people now in favor of NATO than there were before. So —


TARIQ ALI: [inaudible]

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Tariq, I wanted to ask you — this issue of the response of those on the left, there’s an article in The New York Times today that says, “Socialists’ Response to the War in Ukraine Has Put Some Democrats on Edge,” and it’s openly critical of the Democratic Socialists of America for claiming that the imperialistic expansionism of NATO helped to fuel the crisis that exists now. There are already candidates running against people like Jamaal Bowman on a foreign policy position and attacking DSOC. What should be the response of those on the left to this invasion and the situation right now?

TARIQ ALI: I think we can’t dissociate the invasion completely from NATO’s aggressive policies over the last few decades. I mean, they were warned that “Don’t try it on in the Ukraine.” And yet, last November, Biden went ahead and, more or less — not more or less — said that the protocols were all ready to incorporate the Ukraine into NATO. Now, it’s not just the left that is saying this. You have to understand, Thomas Friedman in The New York Times, their star columnist, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be on the left, yet his two columns in February were very critical. And he quoted a very interesting piece from George Kennan, who, you know, is the father of Cold War historiography, of the real old Cold War. And Kennan warned some years ago that if you carry on like this, you will end up with a very ugly situation in the Ukraine.

Then you have other examples, that in 2008 Condoleezza Rice in Bush’s White House was told clearly by an intelligence official that he had been in Russia for two-and-a-half years and had met nobody — he said, “I met everyone, people who hated Putin, liberals, people in the military, and none of them supported NATO in the Ukraine.” So he said, cleverly and intelligently, “Move back from that position.” This man who said this, William Burns, is currently director of the Central Intelligence Agency, having to deal with the consequences of his own rejected — of advice he had given that was rejected.

So, saying that NATO is involved is, you know, just a fact of life. I mean, there are a number of very good books by U.S. foreign policy scholars coming out, one called Not One Inch by M.E. Sarotte at Johns Hopkins. And she argues that from the very beginning, there was the failure of Russian leaders to understand that basically the U.S. and Germany were going to go their own way, and Gorbachev was stabbed in the front. “Not one inch eastwards should we move,” said Baker. That was the pledge given in return for German unification. And Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor at the time, told Gorbachev, “We will not even permit NATO bases on the former East Germany.” That is how far they went, not one inch. They came in 300 miles through swathes of former Soviet Union territory. So, you have to understand—

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq, we have 10 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Tariq. Clearly, a lot to unpack here, and we will continue this conversation. We also will post online a discussion with you about what’s happening in Venezuela, with Juan Gonzalez — not our own Juan González but the emissary for President Biden — going to meet with Maduro in Venezuela and what this means. Tariq Ali is historian, activist, filmmaker and author, on the editorial committee of the New Left Review.
Days before the Russian invasion, he wrote a piece headlined “News from Natoland.”

Coming up, Florida state Senate has passed the so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which aims to ban the discussion of sexuality and gender identity in schools. Students, teachers are rising up in protest. Stay with us.

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