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“A Very Dangerous Moment”: Russian & U.S. Escalation Raises Risk of Direct Military Clash in Ukraine

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As President Biden seeks $33 billion more for Ukraine, we look at the dangers of U.S. military escalation with Medea Benjamin of CodePink and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute. He is the former head of Russia analysis at the CIA and a former adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. The massive spending in Ukraine that outweighs public funding to combat the coronavirus pandemic shows that “there are very few things that the Biden administration thinks are more important right now than defeating Russia, and I don’t think that accords, actually, with the priorities of the American people,” says Beebe. “To support the people of Ukraine and stop the fighting, we need not to pour billions of dollars of more weapons in, but to say, 'Negotiations now,'” says Benjamin.

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

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

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for the strongest possible military response against Russia. Pelosi made the comments in Poland Monday after she became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Ukraine. During a meeting there with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Pelosi vowed the United States would keep backing Ukraine militarily “until the fight is done.”

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: We believe that we are visiting you to say thank you for your fight for freedom, that we are on a frontier of freedom and that your fight is a fight for everyone. And so our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done.

AMY GOODMAN: Pelosi’s surprise trip to Ukraine came just days after President Biden asked Congress for an additional $33 billion for Ukraine. This comes as evidence grows that the war in Ukraine is increasingly becoming a proxy war between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies. Last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. wants to see Russia, quote, “weakened.” Over the weekend, Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. and NATO should stop arming Ukraine if they’re really interested in resolving the Ukraine crisis.

Well, we’re joined now by two guests. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the antiwar group CodePink. We usually speak to her in Washington, D.C. Now she’s in Havana, Cuba. George Beebe is also with us. He’s grand strategy director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His recent piece is headlined “Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.” He’s the former director of Russia analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency and was special adviser on Russia to Vice President Cheney from 2002 to 2004. He’s the author of the 2019 book The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Nuclear Catastrophe.

George Beebe, let’s begin with you. You wrote the piece, “Tell us how this war in Ukraine ends.” So, why don’t you tell us? The latest news is that it may well be that the Russian President Vladimir Putin will announce the war on Ukraine on May 9th, Victory Day in Russia, when they beat the Nazis in 1945.

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, I think that’s quite possible. Russians have been speculating for quite some time that Putin might take the step of moving from what he has called a “special operation” in Ukraine into a full-fledged and declared war, which would mean a national mobilization, widespread conscription of Russian soldiers and their use in the battle in Ukraine. So, what that would mean would be that Russia would be gearing up for all-out war in Ukraine.

And the context of this, of course, would be that Putin would argue that this is not actually a war between Russia and Ukraine, that this is a much larger war between Russia and the United States and NATO. That’s how Russian elites and Putin had been depicting this conflict, actually, for many years, well before Russia’s actual invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. They think that Ukraine is simply a pawn in this much bigger geopolitical game, and they think the stakes are astronomically high for Russia. They think that this is a fight for Russia’s survival, that the stakes are existential. So, if you’re looking at this war and asking how does this end and when does it end, that’s a very bad sign, because it suggests that the Russians are gearing up for a very long-term conflict here.

And the same thing, I think, is going on on the American side, as well. What we’ve seen in the last few weeks is rhetoric which more and more openly discusses our goal being victory over Russia, Russia’s strategic defeat, the weakening of its military, the marginalization of Russia as a player in the world. And some U.S. officials, including President Biden, have even alluded to the possibility of Putin leaving power, regime change.

So, what we’re seeing, I think, on both sides is escalation, escalation in the objectives, I think, that they’re seeking. And with that escalation of objectives, I think the likelihood that this turns into a direct military clash between the United States and Russia goes up. So this is a very dangerous moment, I think.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, George Beebe, I’d like to ask you — in terms of this new call for $33 billion in aid that President Biden has made to Congress for Ukraine, this is an astounding amount of money. And, you know, I looked at — for instance, U.S. foreign aid to the entire Latin America and Caribbean region has averaged, over the last 60 years, about $3 billion annually. And yet many Americans are so worried about the increasing flight of so many people from Latin America across the U.S. border, but yet we’re giving so little aid to the countries there, and yet somehow we come up with $33 billion. Is this a — what is the signal that the Biden administration is sending by such a huge request, a big portion of it being military aid, but also direct foreign aid to Ukraine?

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, budgets, of course, are reflections of a government’s priorities. You can’t do everything. We don’t have infinite resources, so you have to make choices about what’s more important and what’s less important. And this is an enormous sum of money that the Biden administration is requesting. It comes on top of a lot of money that’s already been spent on this effort in Ukraine, not just in the United States but on the part of our NATO allies, as well. So this is a very big effort, but it also says something about where the Biden administration’s priorities really are on this. And I think it’s fair to say, if you look at the numbers, that there are very few things that the Biden administration thinks are more important right now than defeating Russia. And I don’t think that that accords actually with the priorities of the American people. But I think that’s up for them to decide.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to bring Medea Benjamin into the discussion. Oh, I’m sorry — well, I wanted to ask you further — there had been a prior attempt, obviously, at reaching a peace accord in Ukraine, the Minsk Accords. Could you talk about what happened, why those Minsk accords failed?

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, the Minsk accords go back to the outbreak of this war in Ukraine back in 2014. That had its origins in a tug-of-war between the European Union and, to some degree, NATO, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand. And it was really about Ukraine’s geopolitical fate.

The European Union had been negotiating with the Ukrainian government for many months about an association accord. And that would, I think, allow greater trade and commerce and interaction between Ukraine and the EU, and that held the prospect of a very bright economic future for Ukrainians, and a lot of Ukrainians felt that that was a wonderful thing. There are few populations in the world that don’t look forward to greater economic prosperity. But the terms of that association agreement essentially said to Ukraine, “You’ve got to make a choice: Either you have a very close and deepening trade relationship with the EU or with Russia, but not both. You can’t have the same depth of trading with both Russia and the EU at the same time.”

Now, the Russians objected to that, because, of course, they had long-standing relationships with Ukraine, very deep economic relationships but also cultural and personal. And looming behind this was the threat that Ukraine would essentially move into NATO and the West at the expense of cordial relations with Russia. And for all kinds of reasons, the Russians found that profoundly threatening, including to Russia’s vital security interests.

Now, this tug-of-war over Ukraine tore the Ukrainian country apart, because there were people in the western regions of Ukraine that were very, very European culturally and in their political orientation; there were parts of the eastern parts of Ukraine that were largely Russian-speaking and culturally Russian and were more oriented toward relationships with Russia. And as the people in the western parts of Ukraine urged that Ukraine turn westward, the people in the east felt threatened, and they objected.

This eventually broke out into an actual civil war. Violence erupted. And the great powers, of course, got involved — the United States, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other hand. And fighting broke out. The Russians intervened covertly. They announced they would be annexing Crimea, which had been part of Russia up until the 1950s, when then-Soviet Premier Khrushchev gifted Crimea from the Russian Federation to the Ukrainian Republic within the Soviet Union. And the Russians took it back. And this, of course, collapsed into this years-long war, and the West tried to find a way to end that fighting.

And that ultimately resulted in the Minsk accords, which were an attempt to try to find a settlement inside Ukraine that allowed the regions in Ukraine’s east greater autonomy. It provided for the withdrawal of Russian forces, the holding of elections in the east, the guarantees of language rights in the eastern parts of Ukraine. The Russian speakers felt that Ukrainian nationalists were violating their linguistic rights.

This was never implemented, largely because the Ukrainian nationalists were concerned that this was ultimately a formula to allow Russia to use the greater weight of the eastern regions within the Ukrainian state to veto any membership of Ukraine in NATO over time. And I think they were right. That was exactly why the Russians found the Minsk accords appealing, that this was a way of guaranteeing that Ukraine would not join NATO over Russian objections. And that, you know, essentially fell apart as a result. The Ukrainians never were willing to implement it. The Russians were never willing to compromise on their insistence on those terms. And, you know, that played a big role in producing where we are today.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to George Beebe, we do now have Medea Benjamin on the line with us. She’s actually in Havana, Cuba, right now, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Medea, we’re speaking to you in the week when President Biden has asked for $33 billion more for mainly military aid, military weapons to Ukraine. Contrast that with the $22 billion asked for for all of the U.S. dealing with COVID, and that has been summarily rejected by the Republicans and some Democrats, far less than the $33 billion. But I wanted to ask you about that and the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talking about W and W — weakening Russia and winning, Ukraine winning — and, overall, what you think needs to happen right now.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think it’s terrible that the U.S., on all levels, from the White House to Congress, are pushing this as either regime change or a winnable war, when we know there is no winning in this. I want to hear them talking about what compromises are they willing to make. I want to hear them saying they’re going to put their efforts into negotiations. I want to hear them say they’re going to separate humanitarian aid and military support for Ukraine and get that humanitarian aid approved.

And I want to see that the people of the United States understand that to support the people of Ukraine and stop the fighting, we need not to pour billions of dollars of more weapons in, but to say, “Negotiations now.” And that’s why we’re calling people to come out this weekend, next weekend, the following weekend, have rallies, download our flyers, get people to sign petitions, saying we need to end this war and not allow it to keep spreading and turn into a nuclear holocaust. People can go to PeaceInUkraine.org to find more information.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Medea, how would you see the prospects for a settlement, for an agreement? And what might that entail?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, certainly, they’ve been outlined by Zelensky himself and by the Russians. I think the United States is one of the greatest obstacles to negotiations. We have to recognize a neutral Ukraine, non-expansion of NATO and demilitarization of the region.

And I want to add one other thing, Juan, which is we’re coming to the 40-year anniversary of the 1 million people out in Central Park saying no to nuclear weapons in 1982. We in the United States have to work with the people inside Russia, not only to end this war in Ukraine but also to get serious about banning nuclear weapons, like the U.N. treaty calls on the world to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask George Beebe — you have written that “the advent of the cyber age has made the chances of escalation into direct East-West conflict much greater than during the Cold War, while doing [very] little to reduce its potential destructiveness.” Can you explain this, and also just acknowledging that today President Biden is in Alabama at a Lockheed Martin plant, at a weapons plant?

GEORGE BEEBE: Well, I think the advent of the digital era has changed things in a couple of important ways. One is the information sphere, the media sphere. It’s become increasingly segmented. And social media, Twitter and other platforms, I think, encourage outrage. That’s what gets attention online, not people who are saying, you know, “Look, we have to look at this in a balanced way. It’s complicated. We need to understand the dynamics of all of this.” It doesn’t tend to lend itself toward that kind of complexity and reasoned evidence. The people that get attention are the ones that scream the loudest and provoke the most outrage. That actually makes the political context in which you can try to aim toward diplomatic settlements of things like that more difficult, not less. So that’s one part of the problem.

The other part of the problem is the blurring of things that used to be relatively clearly delineated — espionage and warfare, for example, sabotage and strategic attacks. It used to be, in the old days, that it was clear, when you’re gathering intelligence information, you know, you’re using human agents, or you’re taking photographs from satellites or airplanes, or you’re eavesdropping on phone calls of various kinds, the person who was on the other end of those intelligence collection efforts knew that that was intelligence collection.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

GEORGE BEEBE: OK. Today, if you intrude on someone’s computer network, you can not only gather information, but you can destroy that network. You can sabotage it. And when you think about all the things that are connected to the internet, that becomes very dangerous in a crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there, George Beebe of the Quincy Institute and Medea Benjamin of CodePink. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.

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