By David Barsamian / Alternative Radio
The Russian invasion of Ukraine with its horrific atrocities and massive refugee crisis has turned the world upside down. The war will have a huge impact on global food security as both countries are major exporters of wheat, barley and other grains. As usual, the media provide very little context and background. We are told ad nauseum that the Russian invasion was unprovoked. A careful look at history reveals a slightly more nuanced picture. To explain is not to excuse Moscow’s criminal attack. Meanwhile, as two-time legendary Medal of Honor winner Marine Corps General Smedley Butler reminds us, “War is a racket.” U.S. weapons corporations are lining up to feed at the trough. Before the war is over many Ukrainians and Russians will die while Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman will make money hand over fist.
DB: Welcome to the program.
KVH: Thank you, David.
DB: Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine dominates the media pundits and the politicos in Washington, Moscow and throughout Europe. But before we get into the actual war itself, talk about the history of these two nations, Russia and Ukraine, and how they’ve been intertwined. Not just geographically, but culturally. Their languages Russian, and Ukrainian are close, somewhat akin to Spanish and Portuguese. You’re a Russian speaker. Talk about that background between the two countries.
KVH: Thank you for beginning with history. I followed Russia over 40-plus years and the U.S Russian relationship. In terms of Ukraine, what I do know is that every Russian I have known over these last years has a relative of some kind in Ukraine, the intertwining of families, of relationships, and to some extent, culture has been deep. And there’s a sense of a Slavic brother, Russia, Ukraine, to some extent, Belarus. Part of the conflict that we witness has such deep history, we can talk about that. But there is a sense without demeaning Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty of a civil war inside Ukraine. That had to do with linguistic rights. One of the first things that happened in 2014 was the abolition of Russian language use in the eastern part. So, there has been a kind of civil war between the East and the West over the years, that has become a proxy war in some measure, because I don’t think you can talk about the Ukraine crisis right now, without calling it a Ukraine, Russia, U.S., NATO crisis. Ukraine has a deep and complicated history. So much of that terrain has been defined by World War Two, that killed 27 million people Soviets, which we know so little about. The East West confrontation over Ukraine is now the epicenter of a not a new Cold War anymore, it’s a hot war.
DB: Just to back up even a little bit before World War Two, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and wreaked tremendous death and destruction in Ukraine, prior to that in the early 1930s, there was a great famine in Ukraine in which millions of Ukrainians died. It’s known by them as the Holodomor, murder by hunger, and according to The Guardian Weekly, “was consistently referred to as a deliberate act by Stalin to destroy the Ukrainian nation.”
KVH: There’s a lot of discussion and debate in the scholarly community about whether it was targeted at Ukraine or whether it was simply part of Stalin’s brutal campaign to attack the kulaks, (peasants who owned land). And the killing of Russians and Ukrainians was sometimes seen as there was an equivalent. There were so many killed by Stalin. Steve Cohen, my late husband wrote a book called The Victims Return. And we have been involved with a Gulag Museum in Moscow, which marks the Ukrainian famine, but what it does is bring different points of view to bear. And it’s interesting, this is a digression but prior to other controversies in the media, about two decades ago, The New York Times brought on a group of American Ukrainian experts to study Walter Duranty, the famous New York Times correspondent to see if he should be stripped of his Pulitzer, because he, just without any question accepted that there was no targeting of Ukraine by Stalin. His reporting came under fire from Ukrainian groups. But the Stalin gulag, and the issue of how many Stalin killed is a broad question the question of whether it was targeting. The collectivization, which was part of his policy was brutal unto itself.
DB: Let’s fast forward to February 1989. The last Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan. November 9 of that same year the Berlin Wall falls. Two years later, the USSR dissolves. The country’s leader Gorbachev and his foreign minister Shevardnadze negotiated with the then H.W. Bush administration and its Secretary of State James Baker. It is during these negotiations that an offer was made to Moscow because of its security concerns that NATO would not move, I’m quoting here, “one inch to the east.” You have looked at the veracity of this comment. Is it documented?
KVH: It is documented. It is documented in the National Security Archive, a nonprofit group in Washington, DC, which received the files and documents from those who were around Gorbachev, including Gorbachev’s files, but a man named Chernyaev, and others. Several books have been written with documentation, primary documents. What’s so tragic is if one believes in alternatives that could have brought more security. The opportunity at the end of the Cold War, at the end of the Soviet Union, to have a non-military alliance in Europe was a real possibility. The Soviet Union ended. Its counterpart to NATO, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. And instead of a vision Gorbachev had of a kind of trans-Atlantic European home stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon, we got NATO. NATO was at first a few countries, but then it moved quickly, particularly in 2008, when Ukraine and Georgia were offered fast track. But this is one of the most tragic, perilous alternative steps that did not need to be taken. And for a brief moment, people were signed on to an alternative. I think James Baker needs much more scrutiny because he seems to have played a central role.
There’s the famous article by the esteemed diplomat George Kennan in 1997, who said this will be one of the grave mistakes, it will lead to a new cold war to a relationship between Russia and the United States fraught with militarization. And it has come to pass, and one takes no joy in feeling that one saw the possibility of this. So, decades later, you had NATO on Russia’s borders. It was not one inch to the east. Quite the opposite. I also think people forget how significant it was. You mentioned Afghanistan. Steve and I were in the Soviet Union when the troops came home. That was a very contested decision inside the Soviet government. So, you have that. And then you have a sense of betrayal on the part of the Soviet government, then you had the NATO expansion later. Gorbachev who is 91, is in Moscow, in a clinic. He was one of the great visionary leaders. He is more respected at home today than he has been. The sadness is he’s linked with Yeltsin. And that history hasn’t gone that well.
DB: In your view, a great opportunity, a rapprochement was missed.
KVH: More than a rapprochement, a different approach to the world. You have militarization. You have a militarism of foreign relations today across the globe. Forty, fifty years ago, you remember Olaf Palme, you remember Willie Brandt. The idea that human security which today seems very relevant, climate, pandemic nuclear proliferation, global inequality, poverty, these are the challenges and crises of our time, which military might is not well suited to deal with, and so on offer was an alternative way of engaging and shaping a world. It now seems so far away. And we’ve seen the costs of NATO expansion quite brutally. Because I do think though there are other factors that NATO has played a role in what we see in the brutality in Ukraine.
DB: You mentioned George Kennan, the much revered and venerated State Department diplomat. In that same 1997 article, he said, expanding NATO, and I’m quoting here, “Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy, in directions decidedly not to our liking.” And that indeed has come to pass. And it’s not like Kennan was some radical thinker. He was a seasoned diplomat.
KVH: He was Mr. X, who had written the famous article about the need to contain the Soviet Union. He was quite sober. He was considered a realist.
DB: Then you also have Clinton’s defense secretary weighing in on NATO expansion, again, not a radical leftist, by any means, Bill Perry. In 2016. he said, “In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years, I have to say the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations. Russia was very uncomfortable about having NATO right up to their border. And they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”
KVH: There were many appeals repudiated. I have to say, when I think of Bill Perry, you’re right, no radical, but there’s an expression in Russia, when you go on pension, you become a dissident. He’s kind of in that mode. And not only is he quite prescient in terms of his understanding of the danger of NATO expansion, but he’s also been very wise about nuclear issues, which again, needs to be brought into this discussion. But he’s really continued prior to an awareness, it seems to me of nuclear peril in these last years is to, to sound the alarm. There’s also someone else no radical, the head of the CIA, William Burns. He very clearly came back to Washington. I think he was then the ambassador to Russia in 2008, and warned the Washington establishment, that NATO expansion was not simply a Putin obsession, but across the political spectrum in Russia, it was very dangerous to expand. So, there were many warnings about the possibility and the need to define a different policy.
But you know when policies get invested and vested in Washington, it’s not simply the president, nor is it his advisers. Ray McGovern coined the term MICIMATT, the Military-Industrial-Congressional-Intelligence-Media-Academia-ThinkTank. I don’t believe it’s simply the military industrial complex, but you also have the media, you have Congress, you have think tanks, you have a whole array invested in this policy. So, it becomes very difficult to turn it around. It was easier at a different point, but the warnings were there. I will say, however, and I don’t want to jump ahead, but February 24. Steve, no longer here. But I’ve worked with many people who’ve studied the Soviet Union and Russia for 50 years, in shock that Russia went into Ukraine. And I think there was even among those who advocated for an alternative policy. There was not a sense of how far it had gone.
Could I just say one thing? There was shock and there’s more than legitimate shock because we have not had a debate in this country in the last decade. It’s been one hand clapping. I mean, I’m not saying people have to agree with me but you do need to have a range of views or certainly a debate. And that to some extent has been shut down. Your program, The Nation, there are different points of view. But the dominant narrative has been anti-Russian, Russophobia and a misunderstanding that a country is not just one leader.
DB: Talk about what is talked about in the media quite a bit is Russia annexing Crimea in 2014, reversing a 1954 Khrushchev decision to transfer Crimea, which was part of Russia, to Ukraine. And of course, Putin has reversed that and has annexed Crimea. What’s going on there? And in the Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk. This large region with these two sub-regions within it Luhansk and Donetsk.
KVH: Donbas is the region. And Russia has had people in there fighting. The eastern part of Ukraine has traditionally been Russian speaking. It’s been the heavy manufacturing, it’s the factories, it’s the miners. So, when the Maidan protests started there was a new leader in Kyiv. They began to fight in the Donbas. Ukrainians mounted an anti-terrorist operation in 2014, which wasn’t conducive to any negotiated settlement of the two regions. You did have the Minsk Accord, which has been the primary settlement document. But this is still contested, there will have to be if there is and there needs to be a settlement at some point, a way of resolving independence and sovereignty for Ukraine, but also linguistic rights and other things for the Donbas.
Crimea, as you said, was gifted by Khrushchev in 1954. It was part of the protests again in 2014. When you listen to the Russians, they were fearful NATO was going to go into Crimea. Putin seized Crimea, annexed it. And that is interestingly not on the table right now. Even in the Minsk agreements, Crimea has sort of been shelved for future work, because there are other annexation issues in Yugoslavia, Western Sahara, and others that some people like the scholar Anatol Lievan believe should be part of a global kind of referendum monitored through the UN. That may be a fantasy. But at the moment, some of the fighting going on by the Russians in the east is designed to build a land bridge to Crimea and water. Because one of the issues in Crimea, as far as I follow it, is the water shortages, because Ukraine has had access and cut off water. Where that is resolved right now is not central, it seems in the negotiations such as they are and there have been, gets harder and harder as you can imagine as the brutality, the war crimes continue, but there are negotiations underway. And the longer the war goes on, the more dangerous the escalation, the more lives lost. But there are lot of weapons coming in.
DB: Edward Said, the great Middle Eastern expert and scholar and long-time contributor to The Nation talked about “unresolved geographies,” in reference to Palestine.
KVH: There’s the expression frozen conflicts. There are quite a few frozen conflicts like Abkhazia.
DB: You have warfare between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh one of the unresolved geographical ethnic issues, when a great Empire collapses, there’s all this detritus around that is unsettled and unsettling.
KVH: The issue of empire is interesting. I will post it but Steve did a very scholarly project about 10 years ago on how the Soviet Union ended, and he went through 10 theories. And it ended with something he never liked, which was that men make history that Yeltsin had a will to power. Gorbachev had a will to reform and they clashed on the scene. Anyway, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia went into the Bialowieza Forest and signed a treaty ending the Soviet Union.
I was going to say I’ve covered Russia for 40 years. You can’t cover a country by focusing on one person. Putin is Russia, but so is the Russian Orthodox Church. So are the regions. So are the regional governors. So is the, you know, right wing. So is there a tiny left wing but the idea of covering a country as if Putin was the only person.
Though I think if he’s ousted, you will see a military security troika. You will not see Alexei Navalny in power, and that’s a measure of the nationalism that arises in times of war. And the militarization.
DB: And, of course, what happens in 2014, not just the annexation of Crimea, as you alluded to, but the Maidan uprising, and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych, who was close to Moscow. It’s been described as a coup. What exactly happened?
KVH: Viktor Yanukovych. By the way, Ukraine is deeply corrupt, deeply corrupt. So, you get this offer to Ukraine and Yanukovych of joining the European Union. And in that offer is a small, tiny language about also becoming part of a military union. The Russians put on offer a Eurasian Union. And at one moment, there was discussion of Yanukovych and Ukraine joining both, so that it would be a bridge between East and West and not one or the other. Then you have the protests. Yanukovych was essentially ousted. There is an agreement briefly Germany, France, the U.S. to have elections or emergency elections a few months out. That is essentially moot when Yanukovych is pushed out by street action. He flees to Moscow. And then you have Maidan. Maidan was a mix of pro-democracy protesters seeking an end primarily to corruption of the elite. But there were also snipers. There were right wing forces. There were nationalist forces, the Azov Battalion. These are neo-Nazi extremist forces, which should not be denied simply because Russia talks about them. They exist, but so did protesters seeking an end to corruption.
But the United States got quite involved. The U.S. ambassador in Ukraine was involved. Victoria Nuland, who is in the Biden administration was then in the Obama administration was famously shown handing out cookies to the protesters. But more important than that, she was taped, maybe it was a surveillance call, essentially telling the U.S. ambassador, excuse my language, F–k the EU, because we want this person, Yatsenyuk. They wanted who they wanted and it worked out that way. And then the first real prime minister leader was a chocolate oligarch. So. the corruption continued and then you get Zelensky.
What’s interesting about Zelensky is he ran on a peace platform. In the last weeks before the war broke out, because of the difficult circumstances in Ukraine his ratings dropped precipitously. He was not in a good place in the next election. That has changed. He has become the hero of our times He has risen as many do or some do to the moment. And he has a very interesting background. I think his independence is probably limited by the right wing. I think he’s also limited by the U.S. It’s interesting one day he wants negotiations and the next day he seeks more weapons. The U.S. is in there and has been in there with billions of dollars of weapons and if you send more sophisticated weapons, as we are, you need more advisors.
DB: You mentioned how we should not focus on Russia simply through the prism of Putin. Nevertheless, he is a very easy target, former KGB agent. It was very much like what the U.S. and its media did with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He was Iraq, everything defined as Iraqi was stemming from Saddam Hussein. So that’s a pretty steady trope in U.S. policy.
KVH: I think our politics are so often seen through the prism of personalities, that we apply that globally. And at the risk of losing sight of some seminal issues.
But there’s no question that Putin seems isolated as he’s made this horrific miscalculation. He seems at war with his security team. The repression of the media and other nonprofit groups is moving in a horrific precipitous way because they existed. I mean, they had they’ve been slowly over these last few years, the issues of registration of foreign agents. But many of these newspapers have been repressed in the last few weeks. So that’s a new wave, very dangerous, and reminds us that cold wars are pretty lousy for those who seek independence, who seek a dissenting voice.
I’ve been very close to Dmitry Muratov one of the leading independent newspaper editors. He founded Novaya Gazeta, which is one of the muckraking independent newspapers, anti-corruption. It participated remember in the International Consortium Project, about offshore money, The Pandora Papers, so he won a Nobel Peace Prize at the end of last year along with a Filipina journalist, which has not protected him. His paper was suspended a few weeks ago. We at The Nation are publishing some of the articles that this paper could not publish. We’ve had them translated, reporting from different cities in Ukraine. He was splashed with red paint the other day on a train. It’s not clear, he has security, but these are people trying to continue to work courageously in a climate which, Ukrainian independent papers are probably having a hard time too. Independence is hard to maintain.
DB: Speaking of independence and courage, you have the example of Marina Ovsyannikova on Russian state TV, holding up a sign behind the anchor, saying No War. And she says later, it was meant for the Russians, “I wanted to show them you’re zombified. by Kremlin propaganda. Stop believing it.” She was fined several 100 euros. But beyond that, nothing happened to her.
KVH: She’s courageous. But there’s also the reporters who are continuing to report day in day out. And that’s life. That’s also, you know, very dangerous and courageous. There have been about 15,000 people arrested or detained across the country. Most of them have been detained and released. It has sent enough of a chill though. And there’s an expression that there’s the party of the internet and the party of TV. State TV, being very controlled. It breaks down generationally. But it also breaks down as it does in many countries, the more rural traditional parts of a country are more willing, in some ways, said with humility to rally around the leader. And those who have access to the internet more to the world, in cities are more in the protest mode. So that that’s also part of Russia.
DB: Part of the corporate media landscape here in the U.S, a parade of generals that go up to the microphone and cameras.
KVH: I cannot tell you, I’m not someone to throw tomatoes at TV sets. But I mean, it’s not new. But if I get to see more of John Brennan or James Clapper. Clapper! He perjured himself. These are people who come on MSNBC and are treated like arbiters of truth and integrity. And you know what’s scary? I’m going sound like an old person, but the younger generation in the last few years has come to admire, like the head of the FBI as a truth teller.
You need skepticism. You need to seek other voices. That’s what I was saying about particularly on all issues. But on Russia, it’s been a stream of one note ponies. And that’s not a good sign. And by the way, I do think there’s something about those who are in the Biden administration that they’ve grown up in a unipolar world. And that’s what they kind of treat as normal. So, there is this running through it the triumphalism and indispensable nation continues even as the world changes. And that’s also difficult to watch.
DB: Among those retired generals that go up to the microphone are Wesley Clark and David Petraeus.
KVH: Wesley Clark is discredited. He nearly started World War III. This was in Bosnia in Yugoslavia, a British General had to restrain Wesley Clark, from starting a NATO related World War Three. Sometimes it’s like George Carlin, the comedian, like nuclear war after the sports. I don’t mean to make light of it.
There was a serious story the other day, the networks covered the war in Ukraine, more than the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This is a broader story, because I think it’s important, I’m not going to downplay or say something negative about the coverage of Ukraine. But I think it should be a spur to cover more wars. And we haven’t seen war. I mean, it’s been a drone video situation for many people. And I think in seeing the barbarism of war, block by block, destruction, civilians, it has made people aware of the barbarity of war, but it shouldn’t be limited. It should not be one country. Maybe we could end war.
DB: Talk about the refugee crisis which has ensued from the Russian invasion, something like eleven million and climbing Ukrainians. But I’d like you to talk about the contrast between the reception they have received in neighboring countries and the reception, let’s say Bangladeshis or Afghans, or Pakistanis, or Iraqis have received from those very same countries.
KVH: We’ve seen hypocrisy before. And we’ve seen it in our refugee policy, and one wants displaced people and refugees from all countries to be treated with dignity. But this is not new. I just came back from a Nation trip to Havana. And the treatment of Cubans versus others in the region has been different for 60 years. I think that we have to be aware and continue to hold accountable this hypocrisy. But I think the key thing now is to find ways to support this, to fund it, I was thinking I received a proposal from two Ukrainians yesterday about debt relief, relief for the debt of Ukraine. Well, I thought this is good, it could go to help reconstruction and refugees. And then I thought, but it should be something global, because the food shortages and the other catastrophes, which are going to come out of this war should be treated. But take Afghanistan for a minute. We spent $6.5 trillion over 20 years. We can pony up $5 billion to take care of displaced people. We need to think hard about the humanitarian crisis. But again, this is about what is true security. Security is not going to be benefited from people displaced and homeless in in refugee camps. And this is not Ukraine only, it’s Syria. It’s millions of displaced people. We need to find ways to really address that crisis, because it’s going to be very dangerous and also lacking in humanitarian will.
DB: Speaking of refugees, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent, one chapter is called “Worthy and Unworthy Victims.” So, we have a worthy victims and they are the Ukrainians suffering now, but then you have unworthy victims who are not receiving our solace or admiration. Palestinians for example.
KVH: I studied McCarthyism, the suppression of dissent in this country. There’s a neo-McCarthyism, and in that spirit, I would simply say some of this is constituent politics. You remember Captive Nations Week? There is a strong community which lobbies for its needs. I’m thinking of Poland and also Cuba. Cuba’s determining our politics in fundamental ways. One has to be aware of this. I think, again, one doesn’t need to agree with Noam Chomsky. I do in most of my politics and spirit, but at least you need a debate. People need to know. A lot of people don’t know and this is part of Ed Herman and Chomsky’s manufactured consent. You are given news often, which is not consistent with a politics of humanity.
DB: Not consistent with the facts, as well.
KVH: Absolutely. The old line is you have a right to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. Then, you have, alternative facts. We need media literacy. I do worry though with all the money pouring into disinformation work and they’re reviving USAID, which had some good moments, but I’ve covered Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty and Voice of America over the years. We’re replacing one state thing with another, and it’s not, in my mind, leading to a blossoming of independent thinking and factual-based thinking.
DB: Do you see, for example, BBC Radio and TV? Is it any better in its coverage?
KVH: Here’s where I think it’s better. For example, but just as we’re two months into the Ukraine War, there’s like a coup in Pakistan. A friend of me said the other day, “Why is it? This is a country that should be covered more.” BBC led with Pakistan, I think, the other day. Now, how they covered it, I didn’t watch it carefully enough. But the seriousness of topic, you’re not getting it on much of our screens. Now, there’s a new world, you can go on the computer, this and that, but people are working two or three jobs.
Our work is also, the media is trying to tell truthful, fact-based counter narrative to some of the news we get. But people don’t have as much time to find those news sources. Listen, I hired Chris Hayes when he was 26, to be Washington editor of The Nation. He used to do a wonderful graduate student seminar on Saturdays and Sundays, but he doesn’t have the ability to break out of the cycle. He can do little things, but it is a cycle and it’s the National Entertainment State. In 1996, we did the first centerfold for The Nation, and news was a cog, a small cog in profit-making companies. One doesn’t want to be too reductive, but it is that. They faced regulation in Washington. The FCC is looking at a new commissioner. These are real issues.
DB: It’s said that truth is the first casualty of war. We’ve seen that play out time and time again. Iraq being the most grotesque, blatant and irrefutable example of that.
KVH: I agree. But it’s broader than just war. The fog of war is critical to focus on, but there are other kinds of wars these days.
DB: But when you don’t have a media and an educational system, I will add, that provides context and background and history and countervailing voices to get a broader understanding and you just don’t have that. Someone that you’ve featured in the magazine the late Gore Vidal, used to talk about the USA, the United States of Amnesia.
KVH: He was one of my favorites.
DB: There’s no memory of the past.
KVH: But here’s what’s happened, I think, which is the militarization of our culture, and I don’t want to be too heavy about it, but I do think that that is the first way people approach some of the problems of today. When you talk about bringing peace, there are too many people in our country who associate that with appeasement, capitulation, and this belief to be tough, to be hardheaded. I’ve always felt that meant nothing got through. It’s interesting because I work with a younger generation, many of them, very, very smart, but Iraq is a feudal war, feudal history. And Vietnam for a whole generation, is the war.
For another generation, it’s Yugoslavia. But I agree with you, how George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been rehabilitated. Dick Cheney on the floor of the Congress, one Cheney’s enough, but you remember, they all kissed his ring. I’m just venting.
I agree with you. Iraq was the most destabilizing project in modern contemporary history, and I think we still haven’t recovered. I think of the offshoots of what we see even today.
DB: There’s a lot of talk, obviously, about war crimes and war criminals. We had recently the spectacle of Condoleezza Rice and John Negroponte, pontificating on what was going on in Russia. They are two former government officials who could be charged with war crimes if we had such a tribunal in this country.
KVH: I was in touch with two very wise people about this, Richard Falk and Peter Weiss. We’ve never ratified the treaty, but Peter made the case that one should proceed, in any case, with a broader gauged process. Now, Rumsfeld, I think there were attempts to serve him in Munich. Then, of course, you had Pinochet, so there have been attempts but I think if we’re going to talk war crimes, again, you can’t be hypocritical. War crimes have occurred and those responsible need to be brought to account. There is none, if you see Conde Rice or Dick Cheney or Negroponte pontificating about war crimes.
DB: You have the case of Julian Assange who Chris Hedges calls, arguably one of the most important publishers of this epoch releasing documents, actual footage of U.S. helicopter pilots shooting up Iraqis and chortling in the background. Assange has been persecuted and prosecuted and is languishing in a jail in Britain right now, waiting perhaps for extradition to the United States and imprisonment. What do you think about the Assange case?
KVH: Let’s talk briefly about Chris Hedges. Chris Hedges is a prophet unarmed, disarmed, forearmed. You know this story. Didn’t YouTube delete six years of his RT program?
DB: Yes. His program was called On Contact.
KVH: We can look at Assange, and I agree, the persecution of Assange is a major story. But Chris Hedges, what’s happening, to a certain extent, he’s not imprisoned, but this is not healthy for our country. People are very fearful of calling it out. I think of Edward Snowden. Steve and I did a four interview with Snowden in Moscow. He doesn’t want to be there, but the United States is, again taking on the truth tellers.
I think we need organized groups. I do think some of the NGOs who do press freedom are not bold enough and they do more abroad sometimes, than bringing it to the United States. There are banned books now, freedom of speech issues, but I think Assange is a measure of how corrupt our approach is to independent dissenting media.
DB: In an article you wrote for The Washington Post“How to avoid a new Cold War and focus on what America really needs,” you say, “In the United States, the hawks are in full voice, gearing up for a two-front Cold War against both Russia and China.” Then, you name Kurt Campbell, who is he? He’s not a household name.
KVH: He is scholar. He’s not the worst. There are others who are more hawkish. There’s this national security strategy and nuclear posture review but the national security strategy of about a year ago now, I think, names Russia and China as the key revanchist adversaries of America and that we’re downgrading the counterinsurgency wars. That is open and it’s spoken of. In Washington, there’s surprise that China hasn’t moved more quickly with Taiwan but that’s up next. The relationship with China and Russia will be interesting to watch. It’s not clear. Russia has 10 times more trade with the EU. It’s not a natural relationship with China. But I’ll tell you, China is all over Latin America, South America, with its Belt and Road Initiative. It was sending wheat to Cuba. It’s stepping back as the United States enters war. China has done that before, but it seems folly. Taking on China is a different measure than Russia in some ways
DB: Looming in the background, of course, is climate chaos. Ralph Nader told me, “Never use the term climate change, call it climate chaos.”
KVH: It’s so true. It should be climate crisis, climate emergency because how we use words often affects the way people think about it. Global warming, it’s kind of moving along.
DB: The invasion of Ukraine was on February 24th, just four days later, the IPCC, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its report using the most dire language. You know who’s really been out in front with this? To his credit, I think, is the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
KVH: That’s good because people lament sometimes he’s not, but he has been very persistent.
DB: He’s described the climate crisis as “code red” and warned “The clock is ticking.” He’s using the most graphic language. But all the attention is on the war. It’s so exciting. There you have Lyse Doucet on the BBC with a burning building in the background. That’s a lot more exciting than the rising sea levels.
KVH: I think you’ve had more attention than in the past, but never sufficient attention. You can’t give enough attention. This is the existential crisis. How it’s framed. I’m a little bit of a heretic on this because I think you need to link it to jobs, green jobs and really build that out but it’s an existential crisis.
The French elections, by the way, one of the Yellow Vests was told the other day, “The climate crisis is an existential crisis.” The Yellow Vest person responded, “My crisis is to get to the end of the week and survive.” In there, one has to find a mutual crisis of resolve and resolution.
I’m involved with a group called the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord and on it is a woman who studies neoliberalism and does it with history. The rise of the right is real and in this country too.
I do think we’re suffering from a time where there’s the neo-con and the neo-liberal. The neo-liberal, to quote Gramsci, “the old is dying” the new order is not yet “born” and in that twilight.
DB: A lot of “morbid symptoms appear” in that “interregnum,” as he said. Let’s talk again about the war and what’s going on. The conventional narrative is that Putin way overestimated the ability of his armed forces and way underestimated the ability and the will of the Ukrainians to resist the invasion. Does that sound pretty accurate?
KVH: Yes. He underestimated the unity and nationalism of Ukraine. I think he thought Eastern Ukraine would rise up in support of Russia. I also think he thought there might be a blitzkrieg. I hate that term, but it might be very quick, like Crimea was. I don’t think he’s listening to a range of views. I don’t know about information, but I think there has been miscalculation. On the other hand, it seems that Russia is now consolidating and negotiations are possible.
I mentioned Anatol Lieven, and this is at thenation.com, he says, “90% of the agreements are there. Now, that lacks 10%, but it’s there, it’s the neutrality, language rights, independent sovereign, security guarantees, non-aligned neutral.”
DB: But can Zelensky deliver the goods?
KVH: He’s a war leader, but I do think the constellation of forces inside the power centers of Ukraine are extremist nationalist. There are others, but I think that contingent has little interest in resolving a negotiation. You could say the same about Russia, but I think there’s more interest at this stage. But 90% is a lot, but 10% is a lot, too, before you get to any agreement. The longer it goes on, the more Ukrainians will be fighting Russians, and the more of a peril of, and I don’t make light of this, use of tactical nuclear weapons, deeper weapons.
I think that is what we’re witnessing with the shipping of heavy weapons. Now, people will say, “Well, the Ukrainians want those weapons.” But on the other hand, the Ukrainian country is going to be ravaged, people ravaged with more weapons and who’s going to rebuild? I do think the oligarchs, we should impound their yachts. That’s a very interesting part of the story, all the oligarchs and what they’re doing. One of them is working with Zelenskyy, a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. Zelenskyy asked Biden not to sanction this particular oligarch because he was helpful in peace negotiations. I’m not sure where that stands.
DB: Russian oligarch is now one word in the corporate media. You cannot have oligarch without the prefix Russian. Speaking of language and Chomsky and Herman again, superrich Russians are called oligarchs, but our people are called entrepreneurs.
KVH: Ours are called billionaires. That’s important. It’s so true. Language matters. The demonization, legitimate or not, makes it difficult to work out an arrangement or negotiate. Demonization is a tool. I want to just say one thing I think is very dangerous. I think about younger scholars and writers. There are people who have tenure and things like that, they can say more controversial things and be smeared, slurred, but a younger generation takes note.
It’s the whole Putin puppet, Putin apologist. If you’re skeptical of official language or official news, it becomes harder and harder to stick your neck out and say something of value.
DB: Who supports Putin at this point? As the body bags come back to Russia, as the reports come through.
KVH: That’s very critical. There’s a movement that started many, many decades ago of mothers. Mothers of Afghanistan, mothers of those who were in Chechnya. The body bags played a critical role in Afghanistan. Who supports him? There’s a Russian term siloviki, meaning the strong security forces. It’s not necessarily the army. It’s a fusion of intelligence and security. They’re probably a strong group. But I’ll tell you, what’s happened over the last 20 years is anyone who really felt strongly about better U.S.-Russian relations has been kneecapped. You can see that happen in different places. It’s a diminishing group.
On the other hand, there was a poll the other day, as I mentioned. There has been some rallying around the power centers because you start doing World War II parallels, which are not hard to do in a country which lost 27 million, certainly in the older generation, that resonates. Then, the TV and the repression of media. We don’t need repression. You can just suppress a lot of news.
DB: The Russian military is repositioning itself from the Kyiv area to the southeast, to the Donbas area, where there are these two I would call them statelets, Luhansk and Donetsk
KVH: They call them republics, little mini-statelets within this larger region.
DB: Can you speculate on what’s going to happen there? There’s been commentary that Putin wants to get his hands on Odessa because it’s a strategic port.
KVH: I think Mariupol became that as well. I’m not sure what’s going to happen with Odessa. But with the two statelets, Eastern Ukraine is a complicated region, which has subverted previous negotiations as far back as 2014 and 2015. The status of those republics in Donbas, the larger region, but those have to go back to Ukraine. This sounds trivial, but one of the first acts Poroshenko, the chocolate oligarch took, was to ban the use of Russian in schools, in textbooks. The return of linguistic rights would be a big thing.
Mariupol is, as I mentioned earlier, important for water and for connection to Crimea. But those problems, I think, are resolvable. It’s the neutrality issue. And NATO, which Zelensky has many times said, “We don’t need to be in NATO.” Understanding that this was always a jujitsu strangeness. They couldn’t even join NATO if they were invited to join NATO right now because of the territorial difficulties inside Ukraine. Article 5 in the NATO Charter could not be invoked because you have to meet certain barriers. There’s an element of surreal politics here.
DB: But in your Washington Post piece, you say that “a new Cold War appears inevitable.”
KVH: We’re in it. We’re not even in a Cold War, we’re in a hot war. There have been a lot of debates over the last 20 years, are we in a new Cold War? You can argue it’s not ideological. It wasn’t like communism versus capitalism. Though, Russia’s capitalistic in ways. What we should aspire to, it seems to me, is a cold peace. No one’s going to become best friends, but there are areas we need to work on. The Iran nuclear deal is already in peril, partly because of the fallout from Ukraine. Climate. These issues require some global actors, not friendship, but mutual security.
DB: Also, food security is going to be a critical issue with-
KVH: There are food shortages already. Ukraine and Russia are the wheat basket of the world and that is imperiled in just a few weeks of war. There has to be, I think, some strength and respect for those who’ve borne the brutality and barbarism of this war, but is it more war and more killing, more weapons, or is there a way to provide security and a way forward that respects independence, sovereignty, and takes a measure of war crimes. But I think it becomes a broader frame, if it’s honest.
DB: Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Russia and other countries are subject to sanctions.
KVH: The sanctions piece. If you want to see the impact of sanctions, and 60 years of blockade, go to Cuba.
DB: Describe what you saw there.
KVH: Mass migration. More and more people, young people, are leaving. Cuba opened a transit point to Nicaragua. People can fly. It’s very expensive. The impact of COVID, the impact of peso devaluation, the impact of sanctions have really hurt Cuba and there’s a cruelty. There are food shortages. There’s rationing. There are people within the party thinking hard about what I think is not heretical, it’s a market socialist system for the lower heights, commanding heights controlled by the state.
There are a lot of young entrepreneurs, but then there are young people inside and outside the party, trying to be critical of the revolution thinking anew. It’s very much a post-Fidel Cuba. A country ravaged by sanctions of 60 years and made worse, by the way, by Biden. Not only have they not been lifted or any element of it, but there’s no motion. He can’t do much, but he could do executive actions. Obviously, Miami and Jersey City influence domestic politics.
One interesting thing you should do is a program on the region, Cuba is respected in the region, but you now have Chile. You have a leftist president who, by the way, received the Letelier-Moffitt Award a few years ago. You have Allende’s granddaughter as defense secretary. You have in Colombia, likely a leftist, who participated in the rebel negotiations. In Honduras, Xiomara Castro, the wife of the ousted leader Manuel Zelaya was recently elected president. Lula may well come back in Brazil. It’s a very interesting moment in the region.
DB: I’m hearing all of these things about the war in Ukraine, the tragedy of it and the epic suffering and the refugee crisis, but I’m sitting in the United States. What can I do? What can an individual do to affect this situation?
KVH: Well, short of going and serving and volunteering in refugee camps, I think as much as you can do in your community to get people to understand what’s happening in different ways. Divestment from nukes, divestment from weapons. But also, to communicate, not simply to your congressperson, but to all levels of those who have some power, that war is not the answer. I know that sounds simple, but that we have a lot of work to do in this country to rebuild. We’re not isolationists. We want to be part of the climate crisis treaty and all of that, but we need to step back and rethink how we engage the world.
Restraint, dialogue, and not through militarization, not through weapons, not through war. It sounds goody two-shoes, but I did a briefing for the Progressive Caucus with two other people. It was surprising how little they had really come to understand. You need to give some briefings if you have the opportunity, but we are privileged. We’re sitting here, but we need to use the tools each and every one of us has. I’ve been doing a lot of work with women’s groups and with those in the region. I know Russian and Ukrainian women’s groups, to bring their voices into the discussion.
DB: How can people access you work?
Follow me on TWITTER @KatrinaNation
DB: Thanks very much for your time, Katrina.
KVH: Thank you.
(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)