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“Mission Creep”: Katrina vanden Heuvel on Ukraine’s Push to Join NATO & U.S. Plan to Send Cluster Bombs

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At today’s NATO summit in Lithuania, member countries are expected to debate Ukraine’s request to join the military alliance, which would provide additional military support for its war with Russia. Opponents to Ukrainian membership, however, warn that such a move would needlessly escalate what Russia sees as a proxy war with the United States against NATO encroachment on its western border. For more, we speak to journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel, whose recent piece for The Guardian, co-authored with James Carden, is headlined “Now is not the time for Ukraine to join NATO.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who’s expected to attend the NATO summit, where he’s scheduled to meet with President Biden Wednesday. Ahead of the meeting, Zelensky accused NATO members of ignoring Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, writing, “It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. … It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” he wrote today. Well, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg addressed the issue earlier today.

JENS STOLTENBERG: On the membership issue, I also expect that allies will send a clear and positive message on the path forward towards membership for Ukraine. I have proposed a package of three elements with more practical support, with a multiyear program to ensure full interoperability between the Ukrainian forces and the NATO forces. This will move Ukraine closer to NATO.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Katrina vanden Heuvel. She’s publisher of The Nation magazine and a columnist for The Washington Post. Her recent piece for The Guardian, co-authored with James Carden, is headlined “Now is not the time for Ukraine to join NATO.”

Well, if you can comment on all of these fast-breaking developments, from the way being cleared for Sweden to join the military alliance, NATO, to Ukraine demanding to be let in now, and the response of the NATO alliance?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan.

I just wanted to speak briefly about someone who should be remembered, the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. I’m sure your listeners, your viewers remember. He was a true internationalist. He was against imperialism of all kinds — American, Soviet. And he was someone who understood that true security didn’t come through the barrel of a gun or a bomb.

So, there’s a lot of horse trading. I think the F-16s to Turkey played a huge role in smoothing the way for Erdoğan to go ahead and acknowledge Sweden’s role in NATO, to accept membership.

I do think that Zelensky, as resilient as he’s been, as effective in leading his country’s image in the world, knows full well, I would think, that the articles, the principles, the very principles of NATO, contravene the possibility of Ukraine joining at this point. They would include ethnic disputes, extraterritorial disputes. And I think those need to be resolved before Ukraine is even considered for accession.

In terms of Stoltenberg, he has extended his tenure by a year. He is probably one of the — I mean, he talks in weapons. That’s his language, as you could hear now. So the militarization of a military institution is something we’re witnessing. And it’s really, all these meetings, with some exceptions, have been about weapons. Weapons.

So, one seeks, even at a military alliance, which NATO is — it’s not a coffee klatsch. In so many ways, it should have disappeared after the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union’s military alliance, collapsed. But it proceeds. But in the — President Biden, who has not been clear in so many ways and has shifted goalposts in terms of which weapons may go to Ukraine, was very clear in his interview with Fareed Zakaria on Sunday that Ukraine was not going to receive membership at this NATO summit.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Katrina, I wanted to ask you, President Biden said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria that the U.S. would provide security assistance to Ukraine comparable to what Israel receives. How do you interpret that, and what would that mean in practice?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: You know, they are in closed doors right now in Vilnius, Juan, trying to hammer out what that means, what President Biden said. I think there’s such pressure to find a way to include Ukraine, but not fully include Ukraine.

What I think — you know, there was a conference at the beginning of June in London about reconstruction of Ukraine. One would hope that at this gathering there would be some attention paid to what may mean a trillion dollars for the world community. And what was ponied up in London was something like $15 billion. There are reports now that Zelensky has set up an office in Kyiv for economic development, which BlackRock has played a major role in. So, I, you know, fear that as we witness the militarization and the war proceeding, the future of Ukraine is being negotiated in other places.

And I do think one wishes that NATO would focus on a more inclusive — but it’s not its role, but that there was a more inclusive security architecture that was on possibility, a possibility in this moment, because it’s — you know, we were talking — or, you were talking earlier about the nuclear dangers. These are serious. The environmental dangers. We talked recently about the dam in Ukraine. I mean, this is ravaged territory, not just the thousands of those maimed and wounded and killed by Russian forces and Ukraine versus Russia. So, how one begins to find a diplomatic exit is an interesting — and beginning, I think, to be discussed in back channels, which is often where things begin.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and specifically about those back channels, given the fact that right now in this summit the elephant in the room is likely not to be addressed, that sanctions haven’t worked, that all the military aid given to Ukraine have not been able to push the Russians back, and that the offensive, the much touted offensive, that was supposed to be in the spring, then came in the summer, has gone nowhere, but the NATO ministers are unlikely to, frankly, discuss the lack of progress of their alliance in this war.

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: There is no self-scrutiny [inaudible] —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about these back-channel discussions?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Yeah, there is no scrutiny. There’s no self-accountability, Juan.

I mean, the back channels are interesting. I know you’ve had my colleague on over the years, Peter Kornbluh, talking about the history of back channels. It turns out that in April, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass, former Biden official Charles Kupchan, and Tom Graham, another Soviet Russianologist, met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New York, and they have had a series of meetings. The White House knew about it, did not sanction it, has been debriefed about it. And it is really the idea of moving from the battlefield to the diplomacy and to the negotiating table. I think that’s hopeful. It’s one track. It’s citizen — you know, track two, track — citizen diplomacy.

But, you know, part of the problem, Juan and Amy, the reason one of the moves toward cluster bombs is that Ukraine has been going through artillery shells — I believe 2 million — and there are none in the pipeline. And the same issue has arisen with President Biden now possibly renewing these long — Army long missile attack — the missiles, which Jake Sullivan a year ago said if the United States used, it would lead to World War III. So there’s a mission creep that I think we need to pay attention to. When Jens Stoltenberg spoke just recently — you played the tape — of interoperability, what that means in normal peacespeak is more weapons, more and more weapons, that the arms manufacturers will make out like bandits, because NATO countries will have to be in sync, and “in sync” often means buying U.S. weapons.

You know, the militarization of our mindsets, of our approach to security dangers and horrors, is a failure. It’s just — it’s been a failure. And the new challenges, as Amy read out the climate issues and all of that, the nuclear issues, these are not going to be won by horrific, grinding wars of attrition. So, we are in a kind of World War I situation with 21st century missiles, ignoring some of the key challenges we really should face.

And I’ll say one last thing, I mean, in terms of President Biden lecturing Ukraine. I mean, the resiliency of Ukrainians has been extraordinary. But for President Biden to say they’re not — it’s premature, they’re not prepared, they have to deal with their corruption, their problems, we would do well to get our own house in order before going abroad. And that’s not isolationism, but it’s just reality check that we would do well to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Katrina, before we go, I want to have you make clear the distinction that Biden is making clear between pathway to NATO and actual invitation to join. I mean, it seems Biden clearly understands — right? The U.S. is the lead one right now in resisting Ukraine becoming a member of NATO during the war with Russia, because he understands then it means that all of these 32 — and if Ukraine joins, 33 — countries have any obligation to fight Russia. But all of the benchmarks have changed over time, have fallen away, including, what, Biden just approving cluster bombs. So, talk about what that means. And if they say that they won’t let Ukraine join until after the war, doesn’t that push Putin to continue the war?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I do think that President Biden is deeply concerned about looking like it looks like the United States is at war with Russia, which on some days it does. I mean, it’s a proxy war. So, you also have not only the principles I mentioned earlier, Amy, which really do not permit Ukraine to join under NATO’s own principles, but you have something called Article 5, which is an attack on one NATO country is, you know, everyone mobilizes. And I think President Biden is aware of that. So, you know, it’s a bind, but there are — you know, they are probably hammering out, as Juan alluded to, this idea that it would be akin to security guarantees offered to Israel. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if they know what that means. But they’re hammering out something for a face-saving presentation at the end of the summit or tomorrow, when Zelensky meets with Biden. But, you know, it’s going to be a long way, I think, for Ukraine. I may be wrong, though. It may be fast-tracked.

In addition, if I could just say, another thing that’s emerged is you do have some signs, small signs, that in Congress, you’ve had 19 representatives, led by Barbara Lee and Ilhan Omar and Sara Jacobs, issuing a resolution, not protesting the war as much as the cluster bombs. But it’s a sign of life in the body politic of some awareness of how grinding and possibly insecurity-producing this war is. And I think that’s an important signal, and one that the administration may not wish to pay attention to, but, I think, needs to, as we enter the election season.

AMY GOODMAN: Katrina vanden Heuvel, I want to thank you for being with us, publisher of The Nation magazine, columnist for The Washington Post. And we’ll link to your piece in The Guardian, that piece headlined “Now is not the time for Ukraine to join NATO.”

Next up, as the heat dome in Texas arrives, where migrants at the border face deadly conditions, and the Republican governor of Texas, Abbott, has just signed a law that went into effect eliminating water breaks for construction workers in Texas. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Faal” by the Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi. On Monday, a court in Iran sentenced Salehi to six years and three months in prison for joining anti-government protests last year. Salehi had been facing a possible death sentence. He was prosecuted over lyrics in widely circulated songs and music videos that criticized Iran’s government following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after she was arrested for not wearing her hijab properly.

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