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As Pentagon Chief Talks of “Weakening” Russia, Is U.S. Treating the Ukraine Conflict as a Proxy War?

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The Biden administration has pledged billions in military aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February, and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this week that the U.S. goal was “to see Russia weakened.” Author and analyst Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, warns that unless there is a commitment to finding a diplomatic resolution to the conflict, it could become a U.S. proxy war with “very, very dangerous potential consequences.”

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StoryApr 12, 2024“A Stalemate and Attritional Grind”: Journalist Luke Mogelson on 2 Years of Russia’s War in Ukraine
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 Nermeen Shaikh.

Ukraine says Russia is intensifying its attacks in eastern Ukraine. This comes as the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is visiting Kyiv today to meet with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Earlier today, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg revealed NATO nations have pledged and provided more than $8 billion in arms and military aid to Ukraine. On Wednesday, Russian Vladimir Putin warned Western nations about intervening in the war in Ukraine.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] If someone decides to intervene in the current events in Ukraine from the outside and create unacceptable strategic threats for Russia, then they must know that our response, our retaliatory strikes, will be lightning fast, quick. We have all the tools for this, such that no one else can boast of right now. And we won’t brag. We will use them if needed. And everyone should know about it. We have made all the decisions on this matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Putin’s comments come just after his foreign minister accused the United States and its allies of waging a proxy war in Ukraine. Putin also met with the U.N. secretary-general on Tuesday.

We’re joined now by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia. His latest piece is headlined “The horrible dangers of pushing a US proxy war in Ukraine.”

Explain, Anatol, what you mean by a proxy war. And what is happening right now?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the reason I wrote the piece was in response to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s statement that U.S. strategy is now to weaken Russia through the war in Ukraine. And, you know, basically, that is what a proxy war is, you know, the U.S. trying to use the war in Ukraine not just to defend Ukraine, but for a wider strategic objective.

The worrying thing about this is that this has been accompanied by more and more statements in the U.S. and NATO about helping Ukraine to win. Now, if that means helping Ukraine to fight Russia to a standstill and prevent Russia conquering Ukraine, then that is, of course, completely legitimate. But there have been suggestions that winning means actually helping Ukraine to reconquer all the territory it has lost to Russia since 2014, including territory that Russia now regards as part of its national territory. That, of course, would represent a really drastic escalation of U.S. aims, with very, very dangerous potential consequences.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, the question is whether the Americans think that a government apart from Putin’s might be willing to relinquish areas, including Crimea.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, if they think that, they are totally wrong. If you look at Russian public opinion, if you look at the statements of basically the whole of the Russian political establishment, including, by the way, Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, they all now regard Crimea as part of Russian national territory. And this, by the way, does seem to be supported by a very large majority of the population of Crimea, which is heavily ethnic Russian. So, no, I mean, to bring about a Russian surrender of Crimea, you would have to basically destroy the Russian state. Now, at that point, the Russian threats of using nuclear missiles begin to look a little less like bluster and a little more like something that could actually happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And how can that be avoided, Anatol Lieven?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, my sense is that it’s quite likely that if Russia can conquer the whole of the Donbas, which it hasn’t done so far — you know, the Russian military performance has been pretty pathetic, frankly. But if it can do that, precisely because Russia has suffered such heavy casualties, Russia might stop and offer a ceasefire and negotiations.

And the Ukrainian government has put forward some very sensible proposals for a peace settlement, based on a treaty of neutrality and compartmentalizing the territorial issues for future discussion, and essentially moving the Ukraine war to the diplomatic field as was done with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus 45 years ago. So, that, in my view, would be a much more sensible approach for the West to support — in other words, support the defense of Ukraine and Ukrainian independence and sovereignty, but not use Ukraine for maximal either U.S. or Ukrainian goals. Because also remember that it’s one thing for Ukraine to defend its cities against Russian attack, which they’ve done with tremendous success and skill and courage, and, of course, with help of Western weaponry; it’s a very different matter for Ukraine to go onto the offensive and try to actually attack Russian dug-in positions. At that point, Ukraine itself will lose terribly in terms of casualties.

But also, of course, Lloyd Austin’s comments, and those of the British government, as well, imply a war that will go on essentially forever, you know, an endless war against Russia. You know, we have to ask what that will do to Ukraine, what it will do to the world economy, and what it will do to Europe.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, on this question of weapons supply, Western weapons supplies to Ukraine, Russia has attempted to disrupt these supplies to Ukrainian territories, but they have not yet done so, for example, in supply routes — through supply routes in Poland. What would happen if Russia were to begin doing that?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, that, of course, would be an attack on a NATO member. There would then be tremendous pressure, I think, in America to launch a no-fly zone, you know, to send the American Air Force into action in Ukraine. American planes would then be shot down, and pilots killed, by missile batteries based in Russia itself, which can cover most of Ukrainian territory. How long then would it be before America would start attacking those batteries in Russian territory?

You would then have a situation in which the United States and Russia were — or at least the United States and NATO were firing missiles into each other’s territory — you know, two nuclear-armed superpowers with the ability between them to destroy humanity. That is precisely the scenario that generations of U.S. presidents during the Cold War took very great care to avoid, because the risks are too great. Now, that did not mean in any way sympathy with Soviet rule, Soviet oppression, communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe. It was simply a reflection of a recognition of the reality of the hideous dangers involved in a direct military confrontation with Moscow.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Anatol, you mentioned that Ukraine had put forward sensible proposals with respect to negotiations with Russia. Now, Lavrov has just said that the West’s arming of Ukraine is jeopardizing negotiations. Where does Russia stand on the question of negotiating peace with Ukraine? What are their demands? And how close are those demands to being fulfilled?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, towards the end of last month, it looked as if the two sides were in fact moving closer together on this and Russia had abandoned its maximal goals in Ukraine. And President Zelensky and the Ukrainian government declared their willingness to sign a treaty of neutrality, which is one of Russia’s principal aims, because, as Zelensky said, since NATO had refused to admit Ukraine, you know, why not sign a treaty of neutrality, with, of course, really strong guarantees, international guarantees, for Ukrainian sovereignty and security?

Now, since then, what Russia is clearly trying to do is to occupy the full territory of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, because Russia has recognized the independence of the Donbas republics on the full territory of the Donbas but has not yet actually managed to conquer the whole of the Donbas. Now, it seems to me that this is the minimum that Putin needs to be able to achieve in order to — well, basically, to pretend to the Russian people that this disastrous war has been some kind of Russian victory. So, that, I think, is what the Russian military are now trying to do.

And if they can achieve that — which isn’t certain, but, though, they are making progress — then we have to see what Russia does next, whether it in fact stops and offers a ceasefire or whether it tries to go further. One can’t say for sure, but I think, given the enormous casualties Russia has suffered and the impossibility they faced of actually capturing really big Ukrainian cities, I think that it is possible that one will then see a new Russian attempt at a negotiated settlement.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the possibility of it moving out — not just possibility, I mean, the Russia bombing Transnistria, the significance of Moldova now being involved with this, and what that means, as well as that, just overall — you’ve written about this — I mean, the Secretary of Defense Austin’s change of rhetoric — W and W, right? — winning and weakening. It’s a whole new level right now.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, on Moldova, it’s very difficult to say what’s going on. Of course, you’ve had a threat by a Russian general to basically cross Ukraine to support the Transnistrian breakaway republic backed by Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Is it fair to say Russia bombed it? Do we know?

ANATOL LIEVEN: We don’t know. And when it came to that communications tower in Transnistria, I think it’s perfectly likely that it was the Ukrainians, for perfectly legitimate reasons, because, of course, Russian intelligence is using Transnistria as a base. So, we’re not quite clear what’s going on there.

But the greatest danger, it seems to me, is in the Caucasus, because with the Russian army so completely pinned down now in Ukraine, Georgia could well take the opportunity to try to take back the territories, the separatist territories backed by Russia. And so could Azerbaijan. It could make an attempt to take the whole of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian territory that Russian peacekeepers are protecting. And then you could see a great expansion of the war elsewhere. And, by the way, you know, although the West —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Oh, well, remember, I mean, there are an awful lot of Armenians in America who would not be happy with this development.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to be clear, it was a series of unexplained explosions that have occurred in parts of Transnistria, the breakaway territory within Moldova. That does it for our show. Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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“A Stalemate and Attritional Grind”: Journalist Luke Mogelson on 2 Years of Russia’s War in Ukraine

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