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Can Peace in Ukraine Be Achieved Without War? Medea Benjamin & Barbara Smith Debate

StoryOctober 11, 2023
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So far this year, U.S. spending on Israel, typically the largest annual recipient of U.S. military aid, has been outstripped by military aid to Ukraine, though that balance could begin to change as President Biden plans to ask Congress to approve emergency funding to support Israel’s retaliatory campaign against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip following Saturday’s attack by Hamas militants. For more on U.S. policy in Ukraine and Israel, we host a discussion with CodePink’s Medea Benjamin and the Ukraine Solidarity Network’s Barbara Smith. Benjamin urges diplomacy and deescalation, arguing that “we have to get off this treadmill of military madness that only benefits the weapons companies and brings horror, suffering, death, destruction,” while Smith, a co-founder of the Combahee River Collective and of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, says that calls for immediate ceasefire are idealistic. “This is an invasion by an imperial power, namely Russia, and I stand with the people of Ukraine,” she states.

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.

President Biden said Tuesday he’ll ask Congress to approve emergency funding to bolster Israel’s retaliation on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after the surprise attack by Hamas. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Congress could pass a single emergency defense spending bill in coming weeks for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. In order to vote, Congress must move past political chaos after hard-right Republican lawmakers who oppose aid to Ukraine ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week and have yet to approve his replacement.

For more, we host a debate on Ukraine military spending with two leading progressive activists. We’ll also talk about increased spending for Israel. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the antiwar group CodePink, author of War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict. CodePink is calling on U.S. lawmakers, push for a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine instead of sending more weapons. Last week, 11 members of CodePink were arrested as they occupied the office in D.C. of Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders to call for peace talks. Also with us, Barbara Smith, an author, activist and scholar who’s part of the Ukraine Solidarity Network, co-founder of the Black feminist organization Combahee River Collective and author of many books, including The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Barbara, let’s begin with you. You are a Black feminist organizing in solidarity with Ukraine. Can you talk about why?

BARBARA SMITH: I know that some people — thank you for having me, Amy. And hi, Medea, even though I can’t see you.

I know that many people might wonder about that, because I am so known for the Black feminist politics that we started building in the 1970s. But if people read The Combahee River Collective Statement, which was written in 1977 and published about a year later, one of the things that’s even in the statement is our talking about solidarity with other people around the world. We, from Combahee, not every Black feminist, by any means, but my politics have always been internationalist.

So, because of where I live — I live in — well, it’s actually Haudenosaunee, Mohican and Mohawk land, unceded land, in the capital region of New York, known as Albany. But because of where I live, I have friends — I’ve been politically active here for all the decades that I’ve lived here, and I have friends who were involved in issues around Ukraine. Last year, I was very mindful of what was going on in Ukraine, but I wasn’t in any organization. And they were telling me about the fights in and among people in our progressive and left communities right here locally and how it was really very, very painful and very upsetting that people who had worked together for years, even decades, were now in disagreement about Ukraine. So, there were informal meetings here, and they told me when they were, and these meetings were on Zoom. I didn’t have to leave home. And I went to those local meetings, started going to those local meetings. We didn’t have a name at that time. And then, people from our capital region were also participating. Some people were participating in the Ukraine Solidarity Network. So that’s how I got involved.

But as far as why I got involved, it’s because my politics have always been about fighting oppression wherever it might be and whoever is targeted by oppression. And in this case, this war, this is an invasion. This is an invasion by an imperial power, namely Russia. And I stand with the people of Ukraine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Medea Benjamin, could you talk about why you have been persistently now calling for peace negotiations in Ukraine and also why you oppose the funding of further weapons to Ukraine? Of course, much of that money is being spent to pay for U.S. weapons, basically for the defense industry. But there are reports now that President Biden is going to increase his request for Ukraine from the initial $24 billion additional he was asking to as much as another $100 billion that he is going to request from Congress.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Especially after your last segment, Juan, in hearing about the atrocities in Palestine and Israel, I just feel such a heavy heart about this military madness. There is no military solution in the case of Palestine. There is no military solution in the case of Ukraine. I think the sanest voices are coming from the global majority around the world that are calling for peaceful solutions to both of these crises. In fact, the president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, at the United Nations, before this latest round of violence in Palestine, came out and said that the U.N. needs two urgent peace conferences — one to deal with Ukraine and one to deal with Palestine — because the world needs to come together to deal with what he called the mother of all crises, which is climate change. We have to get off this treadmill of military madness that only benefits the weapons companies and brings horror, suffering, death, destruction to people who are the victims of militarism.

So, as progressives, I think we have to come together and say to the Democrats, like Bernie Sanders, like to the Squad, you know in your heart of hearts — in fact, Bernie Sanders, we read his own words right before the Ukraine invasion saying there needs to be negotiations. There are no military solutions to these crises. And I think for all progressives — and I’m happy to be on with you, Barbara, about this, but I think you know in your heart of hearts that we have to find diplomatic solutions to these crises. And in the case of Ukraine, we have seen from Pentagon documents, we’ve seen from this latest counteroffensive, that the Ukrainians are not, quote, “winning” this war. They are losing so many of their soldiers, of their civilians. And that’s why we formed this Peace in Ukraine Coalition, to bring groups together, from veterans’ groups like Veterans for Peace, World Beyond War, Progressive Democrats of America, DSA International, to build more of a movement in the United States to force the Democrats to join with those in the right wing of the Republican Party who are saying, “Enough is enough. Stop funding and fueling this war. Let’s find a solution.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Medea, I wanted to ask you — we never hear — we almost always, when the war in Ukraine is referred to, the Russian invasion as an unprovoked invasion. We’re hearing the same now about the Hamas attack on Israel, that it was unprovoked. You have a clear stand on this issue.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, absolutely. It’s ridiculous to say it’s unprovoked. And let’s remember, unprovoked doesn’t mean that it’s justified. We say that this is a provoked invasion that the United States and NATO, whether it’s from violating their agreement not to expand NATO eastward and now surrounding Ukraine, whether it’s the U.S. involvement in the internal affairs to be supporting a coup in 2014 that overthrew a democratically elected government that had good relations with Russia, and put one in that was anti-Russia, or whether it was the funding of anti-Russian groups that Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state, crowed about the U.S. spending $5 billion to create this kind of civil society — the U.S. has been heavily involved in trying to shape Ukraine to be a pro-Western, anti-Russian government.

And, of course, the U.S. would never tolerate having an anti-U.S. military alliance on its borders. We saw what happened in the 1962 Russian missile crisis. And there, we should learn from the lessons of JFK, who negotiated and came up with a compromise with Khrushchev, and also said, “When you’re in a conflict with a nuclear-armed country, never leave them with the option of either a humiliating retreat or the use of a nuclear weapon.” And that’s exactly what we are setting up in the case of Ukraine.

We should be very, very concerned about more funding of this, because it is so dangerous. We’ve already sent in cluster bombs. We’ve sent in depleted uranium. We’re sending in longer-range missiles. It will be inevitable, if this keeps going, that it will affect directly a NATO country, which will invoke Article 5 of all of NATO countries getting more directly involved, U.S. troops getting involved, and increase the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons. We must stop the military madness.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Smith, I wanted to get your response to Medea. Yesterday in the afternoon, you were at an anti-occupation protest — that was anti-Israeli occupation of Palestine. As Medea talks about Ukraine, your final thoughts?

BARBARA SMITH: So many things that were just said are about what should happen in an ideal world. Sadly, we do not live in that ideal world. We are dealing with Putin. You just said, Medea, that what we should be guarding against is a nuclear conflagration, because — if we don’t go to peace talks. Why are we afraid of nuclear war? It’s because Putin is a monomaniacal, autocratic, imperialist ruler. That’s why. And if we — one of the things we do in the Ukraine Solidarity Network is that we are in direct contact with people on the ground in Ukraine. Also we are in direct contact with dissident Russians who don’t live in Russia because if they did, they would either be in prison or dead. But these are socialists. These are people with whom we share politics. I’m a socialist. The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist socialist statement, or a Black socialist feminist statement. We’ve listened the people who are actually on the ground in those nations.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Smith, we’re going to have to leave it there — 

BARBARA SMITH: The people — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — but we’re going to continue our conversation and post it at Barbara Smith, author, activist, scholar, part of the Ukraine Solidarity Network, and Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the antiwar group CodePink. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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