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The fact that so many across the world did not believe that Vladimir Putin would order Russian troops to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a testament to the drastic rupture in the post-Cold War geopolitical arrangement that we are watching unfold in real time. For the people of Ukraine and the rest of the world, what will the immediate and long-term repercussions of this war be? TRNN contributor David Kattenburg speaks with Joseph Gerson about the path that led to the war in Ukraine and what the war will mean for the international security order in Europe and beyond.

Joseph Gerson is executive director of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security and vice president of the International Peace Bureau, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient organization. He is the author of numerous books, including Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World and The Sun Never Sets…Confronting the Network of U.S. Foreign Military Bases.

Pre-Production: David Kattenburg
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


David Kattenburg:    Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. I’m David Kattenburg. War has broken out in Europe. Early on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 24, Russian troops invaded Ukraine from the north and south, ostensibly in support of ethnic Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and to denazify the Ukrainian government. Kyiv, population three million, is now encircled with Russian troops poised to enter. There have been reported missile strikes on apartment buildings and at least one downed Russian aircraft. Hundreds have been reported killed and injured. A hundred thousand have been displaced inside Ukraine, and thousands have fled across its border to Hungary, Poland, and Romania. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has declared martial law and is calling on his people to resist. From Washington and Europe, economic sanctions against Russia and the dispatching of troops and aircraft to NATO’s eastern flank and ships to the Baltic and Mediterranean. Meanwhile, peace protests around the world, including in scores of Russian cities with almost 2,000 arrests.

Joining me to talk about Russia’s gathering and invasion of Ukraine, Joseph Gerson is president of the US-based Campaign for Peace, Disarmament, and Common Security and vice president of the International Peace Bureau. Among the books he has authored, The Sun Never Sets…: Confronting the Network of US Foreign Military Bases. Joseph Gerson joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hello, Joseph.

Joseph Gerson:       Well, thank you so much for having me.

David Kattenburg:      Joseph, tell me what your take is on the current situation and what you think Vladimir Putin’s objectives are.

Joseph Gerson:         Well, I think we’re moving into a very new era. The invasion marks, basically, an end of the post-Cold War period and the efforts to create a kind of common security framework in Europe. The US undermined that now for the last 30 years, and Putin has moved to basically renew or totally change the architecture of European security. It’s a very dynamic and fluid situation, which means there’s considerable dangers out there. And we have to be preparing for a new era.

David Kattenburg:       And the dangers are of course huge. I mean, things could move sideways or move south, whichever you prefer, really, really quickly. There have been reports of near misses between Soviet and US and NATO ships and aircraft, and apparently a missile. The Russians, I said the Soviets. The Russians have fired a missile inadvertently at a Turkish vessel, not a military vessel. So there’s huge potential for things to go really bad really quickly.

Joseph Gerson:        Right. I mean, a number of these dangerous near incidents have been going on for quite some time as the US and Russia have been sort of sparring to demonstrate shows of force, to demonstrate their power in the Baltic, in the Black Sea and along the Russian border. We’re in a situation where there’s the possibility of cyber attacks against Ukraine. And one of the fears is that it might not be controlled and could then impact Poland. In such a case, you then have the possibility of NATOs Article Five being brought in, and we’re into a NATO-Russia war. We’ve got that kind of danger. There’s the danger of incidents along the line. In the past you’ve had, for example, in the first Gulf War a mistaken nuclear launch order went to US forces in Okinawa, and there the commanding officer had the smarts to disregard it. But these kinds of things can happen.

And I think we also need to appreciate some of these long-term consequences. One of which is the impact on the climate, as you have these deepening divisions into a new Cold War, a new Iron Curtain between the United States, NATO, and Russia that greatly decreases the ability for international cooperation, the common security approaches needed to address climate change and also, obviously, pandemics.

David Kattenburg:    So getting back to Putin’s objectives, his aims. Do you think that his complaints, his arguments are legitimate? Like he says that Russia is threatened, that Russia feels great insecurity as the result of the positioning of the movement of NATO troops, the migration of NATO all the way to the eastern flank right on Russia’s borders. Do you think that he’s got legitimate complaints to make?

Joseph Gerson:        It’s clear that he has a number of legitimate concerns, but those don’t legitimize the invasion and the loss of life, the effort to overthrow the government in Ukraine. What we’ve seen was that, back at the end of the Cold War, there were pledges made by people in the first Bush administration to senior Russian officials to the effect that the US would not be pushing to move NATO an inch closer to Russia, back then the Soviet Union. And what we’ve seen beginning in 1994 with Bill Clinton has been pushing NATO right up to Russia’s borders. The Russian history is –

David Kattenburg:     Incorporation of all of the Baltic states and all of the countries that were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact that became independent states in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and all of them have joined NATO.

Joseph Gerson:        Yeah. Faulkner has said that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even passed. And for the Russians, they have the powerful memory of Napoleon’s invasion, the Kaiser’s invasion, and Hitler’s invasion all from the West, so they have obvious concerns. And while Ukraine was blocked by the French and the Germans from formally joining NATO, you did have increased US military presence and Russian fears that, even short of joining NATO, that the US could, and maybe some other NATO countries could face missiles and other weaponry in Ukraine. So there were legitimate concerns. But we had reached a point before the invasion when I think Putin could have essentially declared victory. With his threat he had tremendous leverage. There were discussions that track two levels and otherwise in terms of moving toward new comprehensive negotiations to restructure the European security architecture. Even Michael McFall, who was a very anti-Russian former US ambassador to Russia, was writing in foreign affairs about the need for a new Helsinki 2.0 series of negotiations and for a new grand bargain with Russia.

David Kattenburg:     Who was this person?

Joseph Gerson:        Michael McFall, not somebody I love. He’s the former ambassador from the Obama administration to Russia, extremely critical of Putin and was greeted in a rather cold way when Obama chose him to be the ambassador. And I think this also was reflective of the kind of arrogance that we’ve had consistently since the end of the Cold War, manifested in the expansion of NATO and real disregard for Russia. We did a webinar not so long ago with Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita Khrushchev’s great granddaughter. And what she said, it’s sort of in the traditional Khrushchev [earthy] language, she said that, with the total disregard that West has had for Russia and Putin over these 30 years, she said Putin was just really sick of being relegated to sitting by the toilet, and he’s risen up and moved to totally change the structure, the architecture of the global order.

And the other piece that we have to bear in mind here, and I think it’s not being thought through very well in Washington now, are the impacts of sanctions and other actions by the United States in terms of driving Russia even closer to China. So the whole world order, or disorder, is being restructured right now.

David Kattenburg:     And everybody’s talking about sanctions, everybody’s talking about turning the screws on Russia, and all the while doing what Putin claims to have been worried about from the start, which is consolidating NATO forces in the Baltic and all along Russia’s western flank. And so it’s kind of Putin’s worst fears coming true. So one wonders, why is it that the Europeans, one can understand the Americans, the Americans are so driven by this imperative to establish dominance and profit militarily, their arms industry. One wonders why Europeans, no one knows more than the Germans and the French about the cost of conflict.

Why wouldn’t they have redoubled their efforts to come up with an alternative approach to providing security in Europe, like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the OSCE, which operates on a completely different level. It’s 57 members, complete consensus, and its membership includes everybody all across the Northern Hemisphere from the United States to all the way, I think, well certainly Russia is a member. So why wouldn’t attempts have been made to achieve, to build an alternative security framework in Europe? And perhaps it’s still possible?

Joseph Gerson:      Yeah. So I think we do need to appreciate that Macron in France was really making this kind of effort and he was sort of left high and dry by the invasion. So you remember just before the invasion, he had had the discussions with Putin. They were looking to have the OSCE to negotiate a cease fire and to open the way for negotiations. So Putin has to own that one. And the Germans were clearly not eager for war. They’ve got their own divisions, obviously, with their government, but they didn’t want to lose the Nord Stream pipeline, but that’s now gone. So one has to hope, and I’m aware that there are some beginning discussions between elite figures in the US and Russia trying to reopen some channels of communication.

And one has to hope that Putin’s ambitions end with Ukraine, and that we can move to restore some form of negotiations. It’s going to take time, this is a profound action. Trust has been shattered. But currently going back to, if you go back to the OSCE Paris Charter, what was that, 1990, I guess, then you had the NATO Russia Founding Act. And these were very clear that no state would act for its security in a way that undermined or threatened the security of other nations. And all the NATO nations violated that in moving NATO to Russia’s borders. So in many ways we can understand that Putin had some legitimate security concerns. But, we have to remember the people at the center of this, right. Ukrainians are being killed.

They had a flawed democracy. And again, one of the places where the West failed was that it didn’t push the Zelenskyy government to implement the Minsk II Accords. And clearly, one of the ways we could move forward would be the creation of a neutral and federated Ukrainian state. One can hope that in negotiations that will happen, but we are going to have to push. And this program and others can be ways to encourage civil society around the world to be demanding ceasefire, common security negotiations, the creation of a neutral and federated Ukraine, and move toward negotiating a common security framework for Europe as a whole.

David Kattenburg:      What were the Minsk Accords, Joseph Gerson, exactly? We’ve heard a lot about them. What were they, and how exactly is it that the Zelenskyy government violated them?

Joseph Gerson:        Sure. So the Minsk Accords, two different sessions, but in 2014, you had this basic agreement, France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia. At the center of it was a commitment on the part of the Ukrainian government to revise its constitution to allow greater autonomy in the Donbas area. We’re dealing here, Ukraine is a very divided nation, and after the Maiden revolution, coup, whatever you want to call it, the more Western-oriented and Ukrainian speaking part of the population really ruled with little regard for those who are more oriented toward Russia. It’s a long, complicated history in Ukraine.

So on the one hand there was this commitment to basically restructure the Ukrainian government in a way that would be more inclusive. And the other part, it was that Russia would withdraw its forces from the Donbas area. And neither side fulfilled its part, but I think in large measure it was because of an absolute resistance of successive Ukrainian governments to move toward making the constitutional revisions that were needed to make the country more inclusive.

David Kattenburg:      Do you think that NATO and the Europeans, the Americans should simply say, Ukrainian membership in NATO is off the table?

Joseph Gerson:       Oh yeah.

David Kattenburg:      That would be a tough decision to make, but it would be a pretty kind of straightforward decision [crosstalk]. Ukraine can be and shall be, is, and shall continue to be a friend of the West, but it doesn’t need to join NATO.

Joseph Gerson:       Absolutely. And this is one area where I think we’ve suffered the arrogance of Biden and Blinken. The Russians were very clear that the possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO was just a fundamental red line for them. The reality is that the French and the Germans were blocking it. So it wasn’t going to happen. Biden could easily have said before the invasion in the period when there was diplomacy, look, we recognize that Ukraine is not about to be able to join NATO. We’re going to call for a moratorium on new NATO memberships, maybe we’ll hold for 15 years, which could be extended for after that period. And whether or not that was exactly accepted in those terms, it could have been the basis for negotiations. But Biden and Blinken didn’t do this and that provided an excuse for the Russians to invade. The reality is –

David Kattenburg:     The Germans and the French were in favor of taking NATO membership off the table?

Joseph Gerson:       They’ve resisted it from the beginning.

David Kattenburg:      NATO membership for Ukraine?

Joseph Gerson:        Yes, absolutely. And the reality is that I think Putin had other agendas here because it was clear that Ukraine was not about to join NATO, wouldn’t be allowed to. So the idea that his invasion blocked that is sort of a fiction. We do need to appreciate that there was an increasing presence of US and NATO forces in Ukraine, [inaudible] ways to do military cooperation short of formal military alliance, and that should have been the basis of negotiations.

David Kattenburg:     What role does the American arms industry, and I should say, there are plenty of European, British, French, German, Italian arms manufacturers making vast profits, but of course the Americans are the kingpins in this. So what role does the arms industry play in perpetuating all this? And I take note of the fact that the Americans have just signed to deal with Poland selling Poland $6 billion worth of the latest M1 Abrams tanks, which will be provided to Poland right on Russia’s borders. So to what extent does the arms industry perpetuate this and profit from this and really take responsibility for what’s going on today?

Joseph Gerson:       After World War I there was a kind of international rage against the arms manufacturers and their role in creating and fueling the first World War. So, in American culture, in our comics, there was Little Orphan Annie, and one of the figures in there was Daddy War Bucks. There were hearings, the Nye hearings, I want to say in the early ’30s, I could be wrong, but about then, which were really looking at the role of the arms industry impacting US policy. You know, we had Eisenhower’s departing warning about the power of the military-industrial complex. And now we’re 60 years on and it’s only gotten worse. So you have the reality where the arms manufacturers, being smart from their perspective, subcontract the constructions and weapons systems to many, many states across the country. Members of Congress are always seeking more money, more jobs for their district. And so you have a dynamic that pushes the fueling of now what’s 700, what, $770 billion military budget.

War is always good for the military industries. And certainly with the provision of more weapons to Ukraine now, to Poland and the rest, this is going to be a bonanza year, great profits for the arms industries. And the arms industries give a lot of money to congressional election campaigns here. With our really pathetic election laws, tremendous amounts of money can flow to different candidates. And so many of them will roll over, play dead, do whatever the arms industries want in terms of new contracts and approving new weapons systems. So we’re in a situation where, on the one hand, clearly, what we have in Russia with Putin is an autocracy, repression of human rights.

I had just the greatest respect for the 1,700 peace demonstrators who were arrested in Moscow for standing up against the invasion. They had to know that going out into the streets, they were going to be arrested. That was really great, great, great courage. But here in the United States, we have what is at best a deeply flawed democracy, if you could even call that. And even that is in jeopardy, as we saw with the Jan. 6 coup attempt here, and as we see the Trumpists trying to seize control of the election process for 2022 and 2024.

David Kattenburg:     And it’s amazing. You mentioned peace protests in Russia. I just saw a photo from perhaps last night, an image of thousands of Russian protesters gathered in St. Petersburg protesting. There have been protests in something like 50 or 60 cities across Russia. There have been thousands of arrests, and yet large numbers of people are gathering to protest. What role do you think these popular protests in Russia, of all places, could play, will play, and might play in resolving this conflict, bringing this to a close?

Joseph Gerson:        That’s an interesting question. That’s an interesting question. A friend of mine in St. Petersburg sent me the text of a petition calling for a cease fire, an end to the war, condemning the invasion and calling those responsible for the invasion war criminals who should be held accountable. That received 300,000 signatures in 12 hours. So the level of Russian popular support for this invasion, I think, is certainly questionable. And clearly Putin was concerned about domestic opposition, which is why he arrested so many peaceful protestors. War is an uncertain reality, it’s an uncertain dynamic. So it’ll be interesting to see if that’s an understatement, to see how it plays out. He has to be concerned about what the economic ramifications will be, whether he’s willing to fully embrace China when the reality is that Siberia, Eastern Russia, is very thinly populated, very poor. And the Chinese are a massive population, highly advanced. And once upon a time Vladivostok was Chinese. So Putin has to think about other factors as well as the ones that are immediately obvious.

David Kattenburg:     And what role do you think China could play in resolving this conflict? Putin’s only friend, Putin’s only ally are the Chinese who’ve declined to condemn him for his invasion of Ukraine. Do you see them playing a role that would be constructive?

Joseph Gerson:       Well, they have that potential. It’s interesting. Yesterday, I’m trying to remember which level official it was, but they’ve consistently argued for territorial integrity. They’ve declined approving the invasion and they are in a position to exercise some leverage and control over Putin. The Chinese are concerned about their European markets and the degree to which they want to alienate those markets. That’s an open question and that could play a role. The other possibility here is if you look at Putin’s ethno-nationalist speech he gave shortly before the invasion, the excuse that Ukraine was Russian from time immemorial and therefore also in the tradition of Slavic solidarity they had to go in and invade, well that has implications for Taiwan. The Taiwanese are Chinese people. The Chinese see this as a renegade province. We’ve had intense, provocative military exercises on all sides. So depending on how this plays out, this could have serious impacts on security across Asia Pacific, and even the possibility of inciting a US-Chinese war. So we have to be thinking globally in terms of the need for a common security architecture.

David Kattenburg:     And how do you see that common security architecture emerging over the course of the next, I mean, it’s not going to emerge in the course of the next couple of weeks, but the ball will somehow get rolling in the face of this huge crisis. How do you see that crystallizing over the course of the next several weeks, or beginning to crystallize?

Joseph Gerson:        Well, it’s an uphill struggle. I mean, I don’t know this is definitely going to happen and it’s going to be rather longer than weeks or even a year. Trust has been totally shattered and some of the dust is going to have to settle. We’re going to have to see what the world looks like on the other side of this, and that’s unclear. It’s important, I think, at this stage to reopen lines of communication, to build people-to-people contacts at all levels: the level of policy makers, advisors across those lines, military-to-military discussions, and at the popular level. And I’m aware that some of these lines are just beginning to open and we need to do what we can to keep them open and to have civil conversation.

It’s going to take time to build trust, to explore what are possible approaches. But clearly, before the invasion, at very senior track two level discussions there was talk about renewing the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement in Europe, banning missile deployments, basically, from the Atlantic to the Urals. There was talk of updating the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty and outlawing strike forces being deployed of all sorts. There was discussion about the need for more military-to-military contacts. So a wide range of things were on the table and they’ve been taken off for the short term, but they need to come back on. The other obvious thing here is the structure and commitments of the US government. We’re in, as Graham Allison wrote about, in a period of Thucydides trap. We’re caught in the classical tradition of tensions between rising and declining powers that have much too often led to catastrophic wars.

We have to avoid those. We need to be aware of the landscape that we’re in, the dangers we face, we need to take them absolutely seriously. That’s what contributed powerfully to the first and second World Wars. But there have been a few occasions when there’s been a transfer of hegemony or a condominium of interest, and we need to look to create that. I’m a pacifist. I don’t like great powers, but I also recognize that we have to try to move and manipulate those structures so that they don’t take lives as they’re doing in Ukraine and they don’t threaten human survival, as they do both with preparations for nuclear war and basically the refusal to deal with the existential threat of climate change.

David Kattenburg:      And last question, Joseph Gerson, do you have faith in the ability of ordinary people who are protesting all around the world now protesting for peace? Do you have faith in their ability to oblige great powers and powerful people to reach amicable agreements?

Joseph Gerson:      Well, I’m not going to predict that we’re going to be successful, but you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If we don’t try, we know what the future is going to be. It’s a disaster. And we do have histories, as Margaret Mead talked about, not to disregard the power and influence of small groups of people to make change. That’s the only way it has ever happened. I have to say I’m very encouraged that a few of us here in the United States with partners in the International Peace Bureau, particularly in Germany, began talking about the imperative of common security. There are demonstrations now being held in Germany. We’re essential to the demands as a common security order, a vision of a way in which we can coexist together. We have to talk about what’s possible. If we don’t, it’s going to be an absolute disaster.

David Kattenburg:     Joseph Gerson, thank you so much for joining me.

Joseph Gerson:         No, thank you for inviting me to talk with you, and I really appreciate the work that you do.

David Kattenburg:      Joseph Gerson is president of the US-based Campaign for Peace Disarmament and Common Security and vice president of the International Peace Bureau. Among the books he has authored, The Sun Never Sets…: Confronting the Network of US Foreign Military Bases. Joseph Gerson joined us today from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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David Kattenburg is a journalist, human rights advocate, and science educator based in Breda, Netherlands.