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Anatol Lieven: Ukraine Has Become a Bloody Stalemate. We Need a Settlement to End the Fighting.

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Six months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the war has reached a stalemate. We speak with Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who says a possible path to a general ceasefire can begin with securing the safety of the region around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

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

AMY GOODMAN: It was six months ago this week when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. While Pope Francis and others marked the anniversary with calls for peace, there are few signs from the capitals of Ukraine and Russia — or in Washington — that an agreement to end the war is near. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to add 137,000 more troops to Russia’s Armed Forces. On Wednesday, as Ukrainians marked Independence Day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to take back all land seized by Russia since 2014, including Crimea. Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced this week a new $3 billion military aid package for Ukraine to boost its long-term military power.

We go now to Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest piece is just out. It’s headlined “Six months after Russian invasion, a bloody stalemate, a struggle for peace.”

Anatol, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by just laying out what you think has happened over this six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and what needs to happen?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, it’s pretty clear that militarily the war has turned into a stalemate. And that has been due, of course, to heroic Ukrainian resistance, Western help, Russian military failures. But I think something that we also need to look at is the way in which military technology has changed recently. Almost a bit like the First World War, the power of the defensive, particularly in urban areas, has greatly increased compared to the offensive, because if you look at the history of great, sweeping military victories going back to 1939, they were achieved with tanks and backed up by aircraft, above all. Now, what we’ve seen in Ukraine is that handheld anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles used by the Ukrainians have caused colossal casualties to Russian armor, helicopters, ground attack aircraft, and have basically fought the Russians to a standstill. Of course, Russia has taken some land, but, you know, not nearly what they had planned and hoped to do. And it now looks very unlikely to me that Russia can make sweeping new gains, as long as the West goes on supplying Ukraine. But, of course, on the other hand, if the Ukrainians try to launch massive offensives to regain land, they may well find the same factors working against them, so that although I think both sides can make certain gains — Ukraine could reconquer Kherson, Russia might be able to take the whole of the Donbas — it looks to me as if an outright victory for both sides is highly unlikely.

And so, we are essentially in a situation, if that’s correct, where either — I mean, once again, a little bit like the First World War — the war will just drag on and on and on, with, of course, heavy casualties on both sides, massive damage to Ukraine, and also massive damage to the world economy and to inflation and energy supplies in the West, or we have to attempt, at least at first, a ceasefire, beginning with a ceasefire in the region around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, of course, and then try to use that as the basis for negotiations towards a peace settlement. It doesn’t seem to me that we would gain very much more, or we have a chance of gaining very much more, you know, if we do this years down the line than if we try to do this now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anatol Lieven, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the failures of Russia to be able to have a quick victory. But there’s also been an enormous failure, it seems to me, of the West in being able to use sanctions as a means to force Russia to stop its military incursion and invasion in the Ukraine. Europe is facing energy prices 10 times what they were a year ago. And as we’re heading now into the fall and the winter, what do you make of the pronouncements by President Biden that the sanctions, unprecedented in history, would force Russia to relent?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, that has just not proved the case. And indeed, I mean, as various people have pointed out, it’s not easy to see why people thought this would work, when sanctions have not worked against much, much weaker states — haven’t worked against Cuba, haven’t worked against Iran, haven’t worked against North Korea, didn’t work against Iraq in the 1990s. I mean, Russia is obviously a much stronger state and has, obviously, I mean, enormous amounts of energy and raw materials to export. And as you’ve said, I mean, this has led to tremendous and worsening economic damage for the West.

And then, on top of that, of course, not that this is a direct result of sanctions, but in part, because of difficulties of paying for Russian grain, you have the effect on global food supplies and global food prices. And that has been made worse in recent months by climate change, by heat waves in India, in Western Europe, now in China. Agricultural yields in Western Europe are estimated to be down this year by more than 15% as a result of the impact of these heat waves. So, the other thing that the war is producing is the threat of starvation in certain parts of the world and also of deep political instability. So, you know, the economic damage has been — from this war, has been to all sides, of course most of all to Ukraine and its population.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you also — when you mentioned the stalemate that has been evident now for several weeks, there has not been a rising call for ceasefire. What do you — what is your sense of the United States’s position on a ceasefire? Does the Biden administration want one, or does it prefer to continue to have the Ukrainian people basically be cannon fodder to continue to weaken Russia? Does Ukraine want a ceasefire? And does Russia want ceasefire?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, to start with the Ukrainian government, it clearly does not want a ceasefire at the moment, because, well, partly, they still think that they can regain a lot of territory — you know, the key test is whether in fact they can do that — but also because there are deep divisions within the Ukrainian government. Previously at least, President Zelensky appeared to be in favor of some kind of peace settlement, but he is also under tremendous pressure from his own hard-liners in his government and in the military. And so, more recently, he has been making much harder-line statements.

The Russian government does not seem, at present, interested in a ceasefire. Russia also, it seems, thinks that it can gain at least some more territory, though I am told that if Russia can conquer the whole of the Donbas region, with independence which is recognized, then Russia might favor a ceasefire, because Russian casualties have been enormous, and Russian progress on the ground for months now has been minimal.

The Biden administration, of course, is basically saying it’s all up to the Ukrainians, that essentially America doesn’t have a say in trying to bring about a ceasefire or peace settlement. In my view, that is a very foolish thing to say, because, I mean, obviously, if America is giving massive aid to Ukraine and running enormous risks for the American economy and the world economy and for climate change, then — and American citizens are suffering as a result economically, then that, by definition, means that America has a — not just a moral right but a duty to its own citizens to play a part in any peace process.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, I wanted to ask you about what’s happening at Zaporizhzhia. The largest nuclear power plant in all of Europe is in Ukraine. On Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of putting the whole world at risk of a major nuclear disaster, after the Russian-occupied nuclear plant was cut off the power grid Thursday. Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of attacking the plant in recent weeks. This is President Zelensky.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Diesel generators were immediately activated to provide energy to the station itself, to support it after the shutdown. The world must understand what a threat this is. If the diesel generators had not turned on, if the automation and our station staff had not reacted after the blackout, then we would have already been forced to overcome the consequences of a radiation accident. Russia has put Ukraine and all Europeans in a situation one step away from a radiation disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this and the threat of a nuclear meltdown here? I mean, we should comment that the Ukrainian crew, I believe, at the plant is still there. They’re just being — they’re just occupied by Russia right now. And also, what this means in the whole energy context? And could you see this leading — being the main force that could lead to a ceasefire?

ANATOL LIEVEN: I think it certainly could play a role, because the — I think what we need to focus on is, I mean, obviously, Russia is basically to blame for the situation by invading Ukraine and occupying the plant. I have to say, it doesn’t make any sense to me to think that Russia is deliberately shelling the plant, because the plant is in Russian-occupied territory. Why would they do that? Its electricity also supplies, strangely enough, both the territories occupied by Russia and the territory held by Ukraine. But I think the point is, without either, you know, saying that Ukraine is deliberately shelling the plant, the plant is very close to the frontline between Russia and Ukraine. And, you know, on a frontline, with shells and rockets flying around, that obviously endangers the plant.

Now, I mean, two things should happen. One, which, however, is not wanted by Ukraine or Russia, is that it should simply be shut down. The whole plant should be shut down. It shouldn’t be operating. But that would, of course, cut off electricity to most of the Russian-occupied areas and a large part of Ukraine, which would obviously hurt the population and shut down industry. But the other thing that should happen is that both sides should agree now to a ceasefire in the region around the plant, the Zaporizhzhia region — I mean, not a ceasefire, obviously, along the whole of the line, but a ceasefire extensive enough to ensure the safety of the plant. That is the first thing. Now, if that could be used as the first step towards a general ceasefire, well, that would be very good. But the first thing, of course, is to ensure the safety of the nuclear plant.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anatol Lieven, I wanted to ask you about the broader issue of — from the perspective of the media in the United States and the U.S. government, we’re constantly being bombarded by information and news that shape the narrative that the key enemies of the West right now are China and Russia as belligerent powers. But there was an interesting article by Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University professor, this week, challenging that narrative and basically saying that what we’re seeing, and that the Ukrainian war is a reflection of that, is a continued insistence of the United States and Europe to be the dominant powers in the world, at a time when, really, power is shifting to the Global South. And Sachs mentions that the BRICS nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — now have a greater GDP, gross domestic product, combined, than do the G7 nations, that have been basically running the political and economic affairs of the planet now for so long. And he says that what is happening here is that the Global South is not going along with the narrative when it comes to the battle between Russia and Ukraine. I’m wondering your perspective on all of these nations of the Global South that are not rallying as the United States would like to the cause of the Ukrainian people.

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I think the Global South is ambivalent. Most countries did vote against Russia, vote to condemn the invasion. Certainly, you know, almost no countries have recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea. So, there is, you know, definite feeling against Russia. But, yes, I mean, there is also a widespread feeling that American policy did help to cause the war by this endless expansion of American power and American insistence that the rest of the world follow its orders on key issues. And that, of course, is why even countries that have condemned the Russian invasion have not joined in sanctions against Russia.

But I’ve just been reading a very good biography of Putin by Philip Short, and in his conclusion, he states the whole case, basically, very simply. He said, you know, America is determined to lead the world, and Russia is determined not to be led. But that should not, in itself, turn Russia into an enemy of the West, in general. Nor indeed should China’s claim to Taiwan turn China into an enemy of the West. You know, these are issues which have to be managed and negotiated.

I mean, in the case of Ukraine, I have to say, I mean, having worked in the former colonial world, having studied it as a historian, what’s happening in Ukraine, for me, is very much one of these postcolonial struggles over territory and identity, you know, which we have seen in so many parts of the world — in India, in Pakistan, in Myanmar, in Africa. It did not have to become a battle between Russia and the West, if both sides had behaved with more circumspection and more restraint and, obviously, respect for the interests of the Ukrainian people. But I think, you know, so much of what Russia has done against the West since the war began, it’s been very damaging — you know, the cutoff of energy supplies and so forth. But that was inevitable, if the West was going to side completely with Ukraine and impose massive economic sanctions on Russia. I mean, what on Earth did we expect?

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