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Phyllis Bennis on Ukraine War & Why a Ceasefire Is the First Step Toward Lasting Peace

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As Russia marks the Soviet Union’s defeat of the Nazis 78 years ago, Ukraine is preparing to launch a major counteroffensive, which has forced Moscow to issue an evacuation order for thousands of residents in areas occupied by Russian forces. Meanwhile, international actors are calling for negotiations, possibly brokered by China or Brazil, to end the war. For more on the prognosis for peace in Ukraine, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, author and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the West of unleashing a war against Russia during a Victory Day celebration in Moscow marking the Soviet defeat of the Nazis 78 years ago. Putin’s remarks came over 14 months after Russia invaded Ukraine. In recent days, Russia has stepped up attacks on Ukraine, launching waves of drone and missile attacks targeting Kyiv and other areas. Putin spoke in Moscow’s Red Square earlier today.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] Today, civilization is once again at a crucial turning point. A real war has once again been unleashed against our homeland. But we have fought back against international terrorism. We will also protect the people of the Donbas and ensure our security. For us, for Russia, there are no unfriendly, hostile nations, neither in the West or the East. As with the absolute majority of people on the planet, we want to see the future peaceful, free and stable. We believe that any ideology of supremacy is disgusting, evil and deadly in its nature. …

The Western globalist elites, however, still preach about their exceptionalism. They are pitting people against each other and dividing society, provoking bloody conflicts and coups, sowing hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism, destroying the traditional family values that make people people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also marked the anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II. On Monday, Zelensky compared Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany.

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY: [translated] Unfortunately, evil has returned. Just as evil rushed to our cities and villages then, it is doing so now. Evil killed our people then. So it does now. Although now the aggressor is different, the goal is the same: enslavement or destruction. And just like in the Second World War, we are not alone against evil. We fight against him together in the same way with the entire free world, with the states and peoples who created a joint victory at that time. … We fought then, and we fight now, so that no one ever again enslaves other peoples and destroys other countries, and the old evil that modern Russia is bringing back will be defeated, just as Nazism was defeated.

AMY GOODMAN: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s remarks come as Ukraine is preparing to launch a major counteroffensive, which has forced Moscow to issue evacuation orders for thousands of residents in some areas occupied by Russian troops. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is announcing today a new $1.2 billion military aid package for Ukraine.

To talk more about the war in Ukraine, we’re joined by Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Phyllis, welcome back to Democracy Now! So, let’s start there. As this counteroffensive begins by Ukraine and Russia rains down strikes on Ukraine, the U.S. is announcing today another $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine. Where do you see this going?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Good morning, Amy.

I’m afraid that what we’re looking at is already collapsed into a war of attrition. The analogies to World War II are dangerous on a number of levels, but one of the levels is that this is not a war that’s going to end like World War II with the surrender of one side or another. I think there is widespread understanding that this is not a war that’s going to be won militarily.

The question is: How long is it going to be prolonged? How many more Ukrainian civilians, and also Russian soldiers that have been forced into the military, are going to be killed? How much more Ukrainian territory is going to be destroyed? How much more of a global set of consequences, including the environmental consequences, the economic crisis, and the famine that is attacking large parts of the Global South, because of the consequences of this war — all of that and the potential threat of an escalation to a nuclear exchange, the most dangerous and the most deadly possibility that could come from this? So, all of that is possible.

And I think that, looking at the question of the new, looming Ukrainian offensive — there’s been talk also of a Russian offensive in the spring, although that isn’t as clear as the possibility of a Ukrainian offensive — the real issue is: For how long is this war going to end? And what should be the position of our movements, movements of progressives, of antiwar forces, of anti-empire forces, those who support Ukraine’s right of self-determination and yet see the consequences of this war going forward? If our goal, as I think it should be, is to end the war, not to extend it indefinitely — as long as it takes, as President Biden describes it, by providing all the weapons that Ukraine might ask for, all of the weapons of any sort between the U.S. and its allies — this is going to make things worse and not better. It’s going to extend the war and not lead towards a way of ending the war, which I think has to be our goal.

AMY GOODMAN: What nations do you believe could play a role in negotiations?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think, first, there has to be a coming together of a number of nations to call for a ceasefire. A ceasefire is the immediate demand. It won’t lead to justice by itself, but if the end of the shooting can happen, if the end of the bombing can happen, if people are no longer being killed, there is a much better chance that serious negotiations could get underway.

I think there are number of countries that could play a role in a positive way. The Chinese 12-point program that was submitted some time ago, I think, by itself, is not sufficient. It didn’t, for example, say that the Russian troops must be withdrawn. It didn’t acknowledge the illegality of the Russian invasion. That’s a serious problem. But it did include a number of components, which even the Ukrainian leadership has said they could accept.

At the level of who’s moving around the world trying to put forward a new call for negotiations, the initiative taken by Brazilian President Lula, I think, is one of the most important. Partnered potentially with the South African president, President Ramaphosa and President Lula together, would be a very formidable team. They both have relations with both Russia and Ukraine. They both are part of the BRICS alliance, but they’re the only one of the BRICS who are not either fighting or providing weapons or trying to provide weapons to one or both sides. So they’re in a particularly useful position in terms of being able to negotiate, being able to engage with both sides, to act as an interlocutor. We have not yet heard that there’s a team in formation, if you will, between Lula and Ramaphosa, but I think President Lula, in particular, has been very visible in moving around the world calling for this. He’s someone with a long history of engagement on international issues beyond Brazil’s own borders. And South Africa has made very clear their both opposition to the Russian invasion but refusing to accept the U.S.-led calls for sanctions and other punishments, that are known to not work to end wars. So I think there is a great potential there for those two leaders to play a major role.

AMY GOODMAN: Would Ukraine accept South Africa, which hasn’t condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it is conducting naval exercises with the Russian and Chinese navies in the Indian Ocean? And would they accept Brazil, which claimed that the U.S. is stimulating the fighting — and would you agree with that — and said that both Ukraine and Russia had decided to go to war?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think that there’s no question that the U.S. provision of military equipment, of arms, of tanks, of support of all kinds, and U.S. allies providing the rest, potentially even including long-range missiles, we’re hearing today — something the U.S. has refused to do but now Britain is talking about that as a possibility — there’s no question that that has extended the war.

I think that there is a mistaking — a mistaken view out there that says that South Africa has never condemned the war. There has been a criticism of the war. What South Africa has not been prepared to do is vote for the condemnations in the Security Council that came along with calls for specific sanctions, etc., against Russia, which they were not prepared to do.

I think that there is a good chance that the Ukrainian leadership would accept almost any serious negotiations at this point. One of the issues is: Will their key military backers, particularly the United States, pull back from their earlier positions of telling the Ukrainians, essentially, “We don’t want a ceasefire yet. We’re not pushing you to negotiate”? There was a period last April, more than a year ago, in April of 2022, when there were negotiations that were — seemed to be pending. There were discussions about talks — talks about talks, if you will. And at that point, with U.S. involvement, the then-prime minister of the U.K.,, Boris Johnson, went to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky, with President Zelensky, and all the reports indicated that his message was “Don’t start negotiating yet. We will provide you with whatever you need. Keep the fight. Keep the fight going.” And that was indeed what the Ukrainians chose to do. That has not made it better, in terms of the potential for future negotiations.

And, of course, we are also facing a serious challenge with our movement in the differences between those who support one set of legitimate rights of Ukraine as the most important aspects and others who support other rights of Ukraine and the world as the more important. And there’s been such tension within that movement that it’s been almost impossible to build a unified effort to end this war. So we’re facing a very challenging moment, when the urgency for a ceasefire, the urgency for moving towards negotiations is crucial, and yet there’s problems of a stall in our movement level. There’s a stall at the diplomatic level. The only thing that’s not being stalled is sending more weapons.

And I think that’s a very serious problem, because what we’re looking at, Amy, one of the challenges that we face is this enormous contradiction of this period of history, where it’s not only complicated because this is no longer the Cold War, where there was U.S. imperialism attacking countries, undermining the self-determination of countries around the world, and much of the rest of the world mobilized against that, and political movements mobilized on the same side — not necessarily agreeing with what the Soviet Union at that time was doing or saying, or what China at that time was doing or saying, but clear in our opposition to what the U.S. was doing around the world. What we’re seeing now is that illegitimate actions, illegal actions, violations of international law are coming not only from the U.S.; in this case, they’re coming from Russia, as well.

We also have to understand, I think, that there are two separate wars being waged in Ukraine, one of which has been waged for decades now, led by the United States and NATO as a geopolitical war against Russian influence in the post-Cold War era, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. That included things like the movement of NATO into countries much closer to Russia, despite promises not to do so. It includes the positioning of weapons across Europe, including strategic weapons and even nuclear weapons in parts of Europe. So, all of that has been one kind of geopolitical war. As of last year, and beginning, in some ways, in 2014 with the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea, you have a Russian-led war on the ground. And it’s that ground war right now that so urgently needs to be stopped, because that’s where we’re seeing the deaths of just too many people. Too many Ukrainian civilians, elders and children and babies, everyone, is at risk of being killed or injured in this war.

So there’s a desperate, urgent need to stop that war, but we can’t put aside the fact that there’s been this other geopolitical war led by the United States and NATO, which is still going on. So we can’t simply wish that away and say, by concentrating on the ground war, which I believe needs to be our priority, a war in which Russia was clearly the aggressor — we need to focus on that, but keeping in mind the other part of this very complicated set of wars that are underway. So, I think the call for an immediate ceasefire and the call for serious negotiations that first will lead to a peace with justice in the medium and long term after an immediate ceasefire — we can’t afford, I’m afraid, to say we can put off a ceasefire until a fully realized peace with justice is on the way —

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say, Phyllis —

PHYLLIS BENNIS: — because what that leaves —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say, Phyllis, to those who say a ceasefire serves Russia, because they get to keep their land that they have occupied, from Donbas to Crimea?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: A ceasefire is only step one. A ceasefire is only the prelude to negotiations, which should lead to Russian troops being pulled out. That’s a goal. But in almost every case — there are exceptions in history. The U.S. negotiated with Vietnam for five years, while the worst of the fighting continued, between 1968 in 1973. But that’s a rarity in history. In almost every situation, serious negotiations don’t take place until there’s a ceasefire. We’re not talking about Russia being allowed somehow to keep territory it has claimed. That’s a clear violation of international law in a whole host of ways. But it’s a step. It’s a necessary step. We can’t leave out that it’s only step one, that the next step has to be moving towards serious negotiations.

There also need to be separate negotiations, in which — the United States, first of all, has no right to tell the Ukrainians what they should do in the negotiations. But as its main supplier of arms, of money, of all kinds of support, it has, in my view, not only the right, but the obligation, to push Ukraine towards negotiations, as at the same time that the world is pushing the Russians towards negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Phyllis, on the issue —

PHYLLIS BENNIS: There needs to be negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of debate within countries, you travel around the world. How does that debate in Europe — do you see it more robust and open than in the United States? You work with many congressmembers. The issue of negotiation and ceasefire is rarely publicly raised here, unless we’re talking about protesters on the ground getting arrested.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: I think it’s a very complicated question. I have not been traveling around since COVID, although that’s about to change. But in my talk, by phone and by Skype, with colleagues in antiwar forces and progressive people of all kinds across Europe and elsewhere, there is debate and discussion, but I think that the levels of support for arming Ukraine in an almost unlimited way is as great or greater across Europe than it is here. There is an active and vibrant peace mobilization in Europe, and yet the public polls indicate great support for further arming, further weapons being sent, the expansion of NATO in the new countries of — that are moving into NATO, Finland and Sweden, where the populations for decades prided themselves on their nonalignment with warmaking forces around the world, including the United States. In that context, we’re now seeing a complete reversal, where the government decisions to join NATO in both Finland and Sweden, which is now in process, has enormously high levels of public support.

So, I think that we’re in a similar situation here, where there is a great deal of support for Ukraine, a level of support that I think is appropriate in terms of supporting a population that has been attacked and occupied by an outside aggressive force — that being Russia — but at the same time we’re seeing — we’re not seeing that same level of support for sending the amount of money — it’s over $66 billion just on the military side so far, and it’s about to be $67 billion, another $50 billion or so in economic aid. There’s a lot of opposition to that in this country. And I think that we have to be willing to challenge those who are saying that somehow a permanent provision of a weapons pipeline is not going to end this war. We have to be very clear of the danger. This war threatens the possibility of a nuclear escalation in a way that no war, no situation since the Cuban missile crisis threatened.

AMY GOODMAN: Phyllis —

PHYLLIS BENNIS: It was not true in Iraq, Afghanistan or the others. It is a threat here. And for that reason, the global consequences, and the regional consequences, of militarization and famine and the environmental cost, all of that, the top of that pyramid of costs is the nuclear threat. And that’s why we need to end this war as rapidly as possible.

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