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Anatol Lieven: U.S. Lawmakers’ Framing of Ukraine as Proxy War Is “​Wonderful for Putin’s Propaganda”

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his invasion of Ukraine, saying it was a necessary blow against NATO. His remarks came during Russia’s annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9 marking the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, are increasingly describing the fighting in Ukraine as a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia. We speak with the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven, who says the war can only end through negotiations, and aggressive U.S. rhetoric risks prolonging the fighting. “That is a recipe for this war going on essentially forever, with colossal suffering for Ukraine,” says Lieven.

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

AMY GOODMAN: In a major speech in Moscow’s Red Square today, Russian President Vladimir Putin has defended his invasion of Ukraine, saying it was needed to preemptively rebuff NATO. Putin spoke at a military parade to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 during World War II.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: Preparations were openly underway for another punitive operation in Donbas and an invasion of our historic lands, including Crimea. Kyiv has announced a possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. The NATO bloc began active military development of the territories adjacent to ours. This was an absolutely unacceptable threat, systematically created for us and right on our borders. … Russia has preemptively rebuffed the aggression. It was forced, timely and the only right decision, the decision of a sovereign, strong, independent country.

AMY GOODMAN: In his speech, Putin directly addressed Russian soldiers fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, which Russia has pledged to liberate from Kyiv’s control, and he paused for a minute of silence for fallen Russian fighters. But Putin did not actually mention Ukraine by name, and he did not declare a broader war in Ukraine as some had predicted. He spoke as some lawmakers, U.S. lawmakers, are openly describing the fighting in Ukraine as a proxy war between the United States and Russia.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the United States and the Group of 7 leaders announced a new round of sanctions against Russia Sunday, including a ban or phaseout of Russia oil imports.

Also on Sunday, U.S. first lady Jill Biden made an unannounced Mother’s Day trip into Ukraine, where she visited a school and met with the first lady of Ukraine, who appeared in public for the first time since Russia’s invasion.

For more, we’re joined by Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where his latest piece is headlined “Giving Ukraine intel on Russian generals is a risky gamble.” He’s author of a number of books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia. His recent piece in The Guardian is headlined “Ukraine is already winning: victory can be achieved without risking nuclear war.”

Well, thanks so much for joining us again, Anatol Lieven. I wanted to ask you about V Day today in Russia. So many pundits in the West predicted that President Putin would declare war on Ukraine today. This is V Day, Victory Day, when the Soviet Union in 1945 declared victory over the Nazis. But the fact is, while he did blame the West for not agreeing to security issues in December, while he did talk about what’s happening in Ukraine as a clash with neo-Nazis, and he did say Donbas fighters are on their own land, what Putin did not do was declare war on Ukraine. And he addressed the issue of the loss of Russian soldiers. If you could comment on this and then talk about your latest piece, where you say that U.S. providing intel, that ultimately led to the killing of Russian soldiers, as well — the killing of Russian generals, as well as the sinking of the Moskva battleship in the Black Sea, is a mistake?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Yes. Well, I mean, as to the Victory Day parade and Putin’s — the fact that he didn’t declare general mobilization in Russia for war, I think this indicates that they are going to go for a long, long campaign of trying to grind down the Ukrainian army in the east so as to take the whole of the Donbas region. What they will do after that is not clear. Their casualties have been so enormous that at some point point they may offer a ceasefire and negotiations, and Ukraine has also proposed negotiations.

On the killing of the generals, it was well known in private that American intelligence was being very helpful to the Ukrainians in their defense. It does seem to me, though, that actually deliberately killing Russian senior officers is a pretty provocative step, which during the Cold War neither side would have contemplated doing because of the risk of escalation.

And if, as has been the case so far — and if, one presumes, it continues — U.S. and NATO arms supplies to Ukraine continue to play a critical role in Ukrainian military successes, then there is an obvious risk that Russia will try to terrify the West, particularly the Europeans, of course, into supporting a Russian peace on Russian terms by some form of drastic escalation. Now, also contrary to some analysis, Putin did not declare anything of this kind today. So, clearly, Russia has not made up its mind to this. But, of course, the worse Russia does in Ukraine and the longer the war lasts, the greater the temptation will be for Russia to escalate, so as, basically, to frighten off Western support for Ukraine.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance also of the U.S. actually admitting it provided intelligence, for example, on the battleship Moskva, which is the flagship in the Black Sea, sinking, but apparently, behind the scenes, furious that the leak was made that says the U.S. provided the intel, and again, in both cases, saying they did not provide the intel for the ship to be sunk or the generals to be assassinated.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Yes, well, Bill Burns, the head of the CIA, has very strongly criticized the leaks and tried to roll back on them. But, certainly, people I know who are knowledgeable in this field believe that the leaks were actually accurate. And indeed, I mean, you know, if the U.S. is giving real-time intelligence to Ukraine about Russian targets, then this is very much what one would have predicted. But as I say, targeting senior officers is a step further than that. And once again, I mean, it goes beyond the traditional CIA playbook and the KGB playbook, which was that you don’t target commanders on either side, because that does risk drastic escalation.

AMY GOODMAN: Yesterday, on May 8th, President Zelensky in Ukraine compared Russia’s actions in Ukraine to those of Nazi Germany, saying, “The evil has been reborn.” And again, today Putin referred once again to what’s happening in Ukraine, the invasion, is to fight neo-Nazis.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Oh, everybody is doing this now on both sides. You know, this is war propaganda. And, of course, the use of the term “genocide” by both sides and the United States, you know, has become completely ridiculous, frankly. Genocide is now being used as a synonym for any killing or even mild oppression of civilians. I have to say that for me as a historian, this is deeply insulting to victims of true genocides, like the Nazi Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. It’s just a piece of sloppy and either stupid or cynical propaganda on all sides.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think the fact that, really, Putin’s speech was very muted today — again, did not talk about this as a war and did not refer to it, as he has, as a special security operation — that he is really dealing with the blows of Ukraine, extremely armed by the West, fighting back, even taking back towns that the Russians had occupied in the last weeks?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, yes, indeed. I mean, you know, Putin has got Russia into the most terrible mess in Ukraine. So far, Russia has not fully achieved any of its key objectives. And its main one, its initial one, to overthrow the Ukrainian government and subordinate the whole of Ukraine to Russia, has failed completely. So now they’re trying for a much more limited success in the east, but they’re making only the slowest of progress on the ground even towards that.

Now, the Putin propaganda and state machine has managed so far to rally a majority of the Russian people behind the government and the campaign, but if this war goes on and on, and Russian casualties mount and mount, and there is quite obviously no Russian victory, then the future of the Putin regime must be in serious doubt, sooner or later. And undoubtedly, I mean, public discontent must grow. Though how quickly, who can say?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Democratic Congressmember Seth Moulton, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, the Armed Forces Committee, who has joined a number of U.S. lawmakers in openly describing the fighting in Ukraine as a proxy war between the United States and Russia. This is what he said on Fox.

REP. SETH MOULTON: We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians; we’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia, and it’s important that we win.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Anatol Lieven?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, all I can say is that Representative Moulton ought to be working for Vladimir Putin, because this kind of thing is just wonderful for Putin’s propaganda, partly because he can tell the Russian people, “Oh, you know, it’s not Ukraine that is fighting us to a standstill. You know, we are fighting against the whole of NATO and the United States.” That makes Russian defeats much easier to excuse, of course, and accept, and it really mobilizes Russian nationalism behind the campaign.

But also, I think it’s profoundly stupid as a strategy, because it implies that the U.S. is at war, which it isn’t — I mean, you know, it’s providing weapons and intelligence — and that there are U.S. goals in this war which go beyond Ukraine and Ukrainian goals. Because as President Zelensky has said again and again, this war has to end in some kind of peace agreement and compromise. But people in America, like Moulton, seem to be aiming more and more for complete victory over Russia. Well, of course, defeating Russia and driving it out completely is a very different matter from fighting Russia to a standstill. I mean, that is a recipe for this war going on essentially forever, with colossal suffering for Ukraine, but also, of course, as I say, the risk that sooner or later Russia will lose its temper and escalate in some way, by way of trying to frighten the West. So, for me, this is an extremely risky strategy and also a very stupid thing to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your warning to the West right now?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, by the way, I mean, I should say that I completely agree with Western support to Ukraine and also sanctions against Russia. But the question is: What is the goal of this? Is the goal of this peace and Russian withdrawal, which must be based on some kind of territorial compromise over Crimea and at least part of the Donbas? Is that what our pressure on Russia and support for Ukraine is aiming at? Or do we have a much, much greater and much more dangerous goal? I don’t think Western governments are at all clear about this. I think they’re divided. And I think we really need to achieve clarity on this critical point.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, I want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, author of Ukraine and Russia, his latest piece headlined “Giving Ukraine intel on Russian generals is a risky gamble.” His recent piece in The Guardian, “Ukraine is already winning: victory can be achieved without risking nuclear war.” We’ll link to it all at

Next up, major development in the ongoing attacks on the lives of trans people here in the United States. Alabama has become the first state to make it a felony to provide gender-affirming medical care to trans youth. We’ll turn to Chase Strangio, deputy director for trans justice with the ACLU. Stay with us.

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