The White House claimed on Friday, Feb. 11 that attacks on Ukraine by Russian troops may be imminent, though Russian officials have denied these claims and denounced them as “dangerous lies.” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, has beseeched the US and NATO powers to not cause panic and further inflame tensions with Russia. With every passing hour, the world watches with trepidation as preparations for military conflict in Ukraine are made and Western media outlets loudly beat the drums of war. But it is not too late to avoid needless bloodshed—there is still time to avoid a catastrophic war with Russia in Ukraine.
More than 100 national and regional US organizations released a joint statement on Feb. 1 urging President Biden “to end the US role in escalating the extremely dangerous tensions with Russia over Ukraine.” Following the release of that statement, RootsAction.org and Code Pink cosponsored a news conference on Feb. 2, during which speakers examined the crisis in Ukraine and forcefully articulated the need for the US to commit to diplomatic means for de-escalating the threat of war. With permission from the event organizers, The Real News Network is publishing the video of this news conference for our audience.
Speakers include: Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction.org; Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink; Jack F. Matlock Jr., former US Ambassador to Moscow; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director for The Nation and president of the American Committee for US-Russia Accord; Martin Fleck, program director for the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program, speaking as a representative for Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Pieces marked as Opinion may contain views that do not necessarily reflect or align with those of The Real News Network; they also may contain claims that could not be fully corroborated by TRNN’s editorial team.
Medea Benjamin: Hello. My name is Medea Benjamin with the group CODEPINK, and I will be co-hosting this with Norman Solomon from RootsAction. Norman, director of rootsaction.org and author of many books including War Made Easy. We came together out of terrific concern about what is going on in the conflict in Ukraine and US escalation, and wrote a statement that we asked other organizations to sign onto.
It’s a very brief statement. So I wanted to read it now. We say, “as organizations representing millions of people in the United States, we call upon the Biden administration to end the US role in escalating the extremely dangerous tensions with Russia over Ukraine. It is gravely irresponsible for the president to participate in brinkmanship between two nations that possess 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
For the United States and Russia, the only sane course of action now is a commitment to genuine diplomacy with serious negotiations, not military escalation, which could easily spiral out of control to the point of pushing the world to the precipice of nuclear war.
While both sides are to blame for causing this crisis, its roots are entangled in the failure of the US government to live up to its promise made in 1990 by then Secretary of State James Baker that NATO would not expand ‘one inch to the East.’ Since 1999, NATO has expanded to include numerous countries including some that border Russia. Rather than dismissing out of hand the Russian government’s current insistence on a written guarantee that Ukraine would not become part of NATO, the US government should agree to a long-term moratorium on any NATO expansion.”
And this letter was signed by all kinds of organizations that include peace groups, faith-based organizations, veterans groups, women’s groups, environmental groups. And I think it shows the breadth of people in the United States that are extremely concerned about this buildup. And we have this press conference at a moment when the Pentagon just announced that it would be sending 3,000 troops to the area as well as the 8,500 troops in the US that are still on high alert.
And so, we are at a moment where this escalation is even more grave and that is why it’s so important to have this call today and listen to some of the saner voices that are speaking out against war with Russia.
And so, I want to turn this to my co-host Norman Solomon who has been on the forefront of trying to stop other wars in the past, unsuccessfully, where we see the result of those like the horrific war in Iraq or 20 years of US involvement in a war in Afghanistan that has only led to a catastrophic result for the Afghan people. So thank you Norman for your work in the past and for organizing this today.
Norman Solomon: Thanks so much, Medea. And I want to flag for people the polling that has been done in the last few days by Data For Progress and several other polling organizations finding that strong majorities of the US public want compromise in this conflict over Ukraine with Russia. The numbers are not even close to 50/50. And yet, we’re seeing a tremendous gap between there and what we’re getting from the policy makers in Washington, gap between the public and official members of the upper reaches of the administration and Congress in DC.
We’re going to hear from several speakers who are going to talk briefly, and then we’re looking forward to your questions. And thanks again for participating today. You’ll see at the bottom of your screen Q&A. And while some information will be provided in the chat category to you, please type in any questions you have through Q&A, and we’re glad to have the speakers hear all of the questions and then address them.
Our first speaker today is Katrina vanden Heuvel, who is editorial director and publisher of The Nation magazine. She’s also president of the American Committee for US-Russia Accord. She has been studying closely and often visiting the Soviet Union and Russia for 40 years now, and is really one of our top experts in terms of US-Russian relations. So I’m going to turn this over now to Katrina vanden Heuvel.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you, Norman. I’m honored to be with ambassador Matlock and Medea Benjamin and Martin Fleck of PSR, and you. At this moment, US-Russian confrontation may be as dangerous as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We have two nuclear armed countries on the precipice of military action. But I think today we want to talk about what we can do to diffuse this crisis.
Medea spoke of the troops being sent. I’ve also been following the flurry of diplomacy. Macron, the French president, is scheduled to meet with Putin. Lavrov has been on the phone several times with Blinken. The Finnish president is playing an interesting role, having had a conversation with Putin on the 21st where they spoke about the Minsk Accord very seriously.
I think there’s a delusional quality to this conversation because the US has no significant national security interest in Ukraine and a civil war, which Ambassador Matlock knows full well about, has been internationalized into a geopolitical struggle, a proxy war between US, NATO and Russia. And NATO’s provisions, its own charter on territorial integrity and the economy would not even permit Ukraine to join the organization at this stage. Just briefly, Medea alluded to this and I think Ambassador Matlock would speak carefully to this, the escalating grave, original sin was NATO expansion in 1997.
But before that, in Malta when the Cold War was declared over, the presidents Gorbachev and George HW both said, no one had won the Cold War. But the triumphalism that followed with Russia on its knees in different ways led to this kind of sense of America as the indispensable nation unipolar power. And I think in that context, we saw NATO expand even further. 2008 was when Ukraine and Georgia were fast tracked. But the triumphalism led to a politics that has now emerged in the danger of a war. And it is very true, this idea of the promise to Gorbachev was violated. I’m not sure written agreements would’ve meant much.
But certainly in the establishment inside Moscow, which exists, the idea that Putin is the sole authoritarian leader. He is a soft authoritarian. But he has a blob of his own. And there are those who would’ve gone into Donbas a few years ago, but there’s a check.
But in terms of the possibilities on offer at this stage. And I think the troops being sent to neighboring countries is enormously, exceedingly dangerous. But even more dangerous, I think, are the “lethal.” What are these lethal… I’ve never heard of a not-lethal weapon. But they’re sending these weapons and advisors. And our media, there’s good media. But there’s also a media that offers no context, no history. We’ve been shipping weapons for years. And there have been advisors in Ukraine. But the escalation is very dangerous and particularly dangerous because it could be a trip-wire. The accidental nature of military conflict is something we’ve seen over the decades.
And it’s been underreported that US bomber flights have been flying 12 miles close to the Russian border, that there are provocations on both sides in the Black Sea. And that’s very, very dangerous. At the moment, the possibility of compromise rests on several options.
One is a moratorium on NATO expansion, considering that Ukraine couldn’t even join at this stage according to [inaudible] 10, 20 years. The other is the Minsk-2 compromise, which was accepted in 2015. It was the US, the UN, and EU. This consists of Germany, France – Which have not been as belligerent bellicose either in terms of leadership statements or the media – And Ukraine and Russia.
And I think it’s interesting. I don’t know what ambassador Matlock thinks. But no longer have Poroshenko as the Ukrainian representative. I mean, you have someone who came to power, Zelensky, as an anti-war candidate and, of course, was not his own person, as there many [inaudible] But it would really be an autonomous Donbas region with Ukraine’s borders, recognized, protected. And Russia would have to agree to Ukrainian independence and give up any effort to make the country part of any Russian-dominated alliance. Ukraine becomes part of the East and West, a bridge. Now, say it’s utopian, but there is an offer, and there are meetings going on.
And I think the danger of a war is really unimaginable. I mean, you think of the refugees, the destabilization, not simply of that region, but Europe. Instead what could come out – And this is not utopian because it was on offer before NATO expansion – Is a new security architecture in Europe. Which people have alluded to, including the president of France.
But I think for all the hysteria about imminent war, there is a possibility that you could see a new round of Minsk talks produce some compromise that could be built on. In terms of sanctions, I would simply add I think this country has overused sanctions to a large degree. There have been humanitarian catastrophes in different countries. What is difficult to watch is that there is bipartisan compromise on sanctions. The really only difference between Democrats and Republicans at the moment is, should there be pre-sanctions? Should they sanction now before there is the possibility of any skirmish or incursion?
I just don’t see those working at this stage, and they’ve been overused. I think that if we continue to lay out what the alternative is, instead of just enunciation, there is a possibility of moving forward. And Ambassador Matlock has seen at different stages that possibility. I’d end by saying that the demonization of Russia over [these last years], most exceptionally Putin – He is a soft authoritarian, no [brief] – But he is someone who faces forces in his own country. He is not a sole operator. So I think that’s important to understand at this moment.
And the last thing is Cold Wars. As Medea, we all know, Cold Wars close the space. They’re lousy for progressives and all kinds of people. And they close the space for debate, discussion, dissent, and alternatives.
So I think we have to fight against this possibility of military conflict, war for the sake of a country that needs to really take care of its own issues. Think about what we’re going to waste in terms of efforts on the climate crisis, on inequality, on racial divisions. And getting our own house in order and being more restrained and being a better member of the international community seems to me an important task ahead. Thank you.
Norman Solomon: Thank you, Katrina. We just heard from Katrina vanden Heuvel. And I want to call everyone’s attention to the piece she wrote yesterday published by The Washington Post yesterday morning, outlining possible constructive steps through Minsk-2 and so forth to get out of the current dangerous situation. We’re now going to hear from Jack Matlock Jr. who is a career diplomat. He was US ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991. Before that he was senior director for European and Soviet Affairs in President Reagan’s National Security Council staff. Ambassador Matlock.
Jack F. Matlock Jr.: First of all, I agree with everything Katrina has said. There are so many aspects to this that one could talk for hours. And I think so much of what we are seeing today simply reflects, I would say, almost a willful determination not to learn from history. Because our policies now remind me very much of the policies of the European powers in 1914 competing over territory, the result of which was catastrophic for all.
Now, let’s look at the various issues that arise here. President Putin has paid particular attention to NATO expansion. And saying that while there had been a promise, actually, I think that NATO expansion was a bad decision whether or not there was a promise. And I think that’s the basic plan. Because one can debate what was said, what was not said, what was put in writing, what was not. But the fact is that the way the expansion occurred, I think, was something which has contributed to the situation today.
In 1997, Oct. 1997, I was asked to testify before the US Senate regarding the proposal that we accept new members into NATO, and I’ll read from the first paragraph of my statement: “I consider the administration’s recommendation to take new members into NATO at this time misguided. If it should be approved by the United States Senate, it may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War. Far from improving the security of the United States, its allies and the nations that wish to enter the Alliance that could well encourage a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat to this nation since the Soviet Union collapsed.”
I think we are, unfortunately, seeing that happen. But the first point I would make is it’s not just NATO expansion. We mustn’t forget that as from the late ’90s we started expanding NATO. Starting in the George W. Bush administration, we started withdrawing from the major arms control negotiations that had been negotiated by presidents of both parties, ratified by the Senate with support from both parties. We walked out of the ABM Treaty, which was the very basis of other arms control treaties. And eventually, we began to walk out of others. Every one of these steps were not in the interest of the United States.
Now, let me go back to an earlier stage in my career. I was at the American Embassy in Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now, what we’re saying now is we have to, in effect, try to prevent Russia from somehow interfering in its neighbor’s politics. But let’s not forget that Russia is a nuclear power. I was in Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis and I saw our reaction to Russia placing nuclear weapons in Cuba.
Now, we talk a lot about international law, violation of international law. Let’s think back. The Soviet Union did not violate international law in placing missiles on Cuba. After all, we had tried to invade Cuba at one point, the whole Bay of Pigs, and it failed. And the Cuban government had asked for it. How did we react? Of course we reacted: They have to be removed. And in fact, the joint chiefs recommended that we bomb the sites. Fortunately, Kennedy decided on a different course. I was in Moscow and I translated some of the messages from Khrushchev to Kennedy.
We in Moscow were totally confident. But since we had complete control of the Caribbean, we could take out these missiles anyway we wanted to. We thought Kennedy came to an agreement. Part of it was secret because the US had actually stationed nuclear weapons in Turkey that could reach the Soviet Union. So the agreement was that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles from Cuba, the US would guarantee that it would not invade Cuba again. And, though it was kept secret, Kennedy agreed that he would, in due course, remove the missiles from Turkey. That was an agreement which was not written. But it worked.
And we have learned since how close we came to a nuclear exchange. If, in fact, Kennedy had followed the advice of the joint chiefs of staff and bombed those missiles, we’ve learned since the commander in charge could have launched them. We could have lost Miami. We came very near having a nuclear torpedo fired at a destroyer. Who knows what would’ve happened then?
Now, I recount this because at the time I would say everybody involved on the American side, including those of us sitting in Moscow, thought the only thing important was to get those missiles out and whatever we did to do it would be permissible. Now, I think we have to remember that now. Neither side is going to launch weapons purposely. But there are all sorts of things that can go wrong. And one of the things with the way we’re handling this issue now, it can initiate another nuclear arms race. You keep putting pressure on Russia by bringing forces close to the borders of the former Soviet Union.
And what’s going to be their reaction? Are they going to put nuclear missiles on Canadian ground? We ourselves walked out of the INF, the intermediate missile agreement. I cannot imagine the rationale for doing this. Also, we have followed, I would say, deployments of missiles, particularly ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe, which with some change of the software could be used against Russia. We seem to have totally forgotten how countries react to what they consider such threats.
Now, there are many other issues here, particularly the claim that somehow they are belligerent. Ukraine’s problems are internal. And I find it ironic that we are asking the American people to somehow defend borders which were created by Joseph Stalin. Because it was Stalin, as recently as the end of the Second World War, that brought what had been Eastern Poland, that is Galicia, an area which had never been in Russia. It had been in the Austria-Hungarian Empire, then Poland. And this was the center of, I would say, Ukrainian nationalism. When Ukraine became independent under the borders, most created by Stalin and then the Crimea was added by Khrushchev, one of the things that I think was not taken care of when the Soviet Union broke up was that a number of these areas, not only Ukraine, there were minority areas which had been formally – Though not always practically – But formally autonomous.
The successor states tended to forget about that. And this is the problem in Georgia. This was the problem in Moldavia with the Transnistria and these other things you hear about. In effect, the new government began to discriminate against its own minorities. I could go on a long time about these problems, but let me get back to the basic one. And that is, if you look at the map and you know anything about history, the relationship of Russia to Ukraine, and to Georgia for that matter, is one of a long history of many very emotional issues. Just as emotional as the US’s desire to keep enemies out of the Caribbean or Central America or even South America.
It is ironic for me that Americans who are smart, educated, one would think know some knowledge of history, would recognize that no country has been more determined to enforce a sphere of influence in terms of keeping out potential enemies than the United States. Now, why we can’t understand Putin’s problem I really don’t know. He began explaining in Munich in, what, 2007 I believe, what his problem was. And every one of the things he criticized were things the United States did not have to do.
Now, I’m not a defender in the way he rules his country. But I would say that things like the sanctions we are doing are not achieving any end. Basically, you can’t use economic sanctions to bring about solutions that seem to the other side to affect their security. “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” was one of the slogans that goes back to the beginning of our history of the United States. And no country has been more determined than the United States, whether it is consistent with international law or not. And those who call Russia belligerent, I would say, look, the United States illegally invaded Iraq. Who are we to put ourselves up as those who should be enforcing rules that we ourselves violate when we feel we need to?
All right, we are where we are. And if the present negotiations lead to an understanding that will comfort the Russian leadership, that there will be no further, say, military pressure on countries that are immediately close to them. I would remind people that Russia accepted the independence of the three Baltic states. They’ve always been considered separate from the others. And they’re not bringing any military pressure to bear against them today. And while we talk about nuclear weapons we also should remember that Russia, and mayhaps other countries, have, undoubtedly, capabilities for cyber warfare, for all sorts of, you might say, intermediate things from which it is very difficult to defend.
And a final point. The most serious dangers face cannot be solved if we try to divide up the world between enemies and friends. We’re facing a continual pandemic, and none of our governments are doing a very good job of dealing with it. If you add to that pressures of some, usually not governments, but others, to get involved in biological warfare were going to be [much off]. We’re facing climate change that can be catastrophic. We are facing some of the most difficult movements of population because of failed states. And I would say parenthetically that Ukraine is very close to a failed state when you really look at what’s going on internally. We really have to stop this sort of maneuvering that brought two world wars in the 20th century.
And I think that we did have in the ’90s a chance to create a Europe whole and free by leading them into a security arrangement that includes Russia. That is the test today. And if the current negotiations lead to something like that, I would be encouraged. But there are real dangers in the way that we’re carrying it out and I think it’s high time we began to pull back to spend a good bit more time dealing with our internal problems, which are serious. And I think we must not ignore the influence of what I would call the military-industrial congressional complex. The current administration is actually increasing the defense budget. They approved more than even the defense department asked for. We are still involved in country after country including in Syria where we were trying to overthrow a government we recognized. I really feel that it’s time to wake up. But as Katrina has noted, unfortunately, we have the leadership of both of our political parties that seem to ignore these lessons of the past. Thank you.
Medea Benjamin: Thank you so much, Ambassador Matlock. Our last speaker is Martin Fleck. He’s the director of the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program with the Physicians for Social Responsibility, one of the groups that has signed onto this statement. Thank you for joining us, Martin
Martin Fleck: Thank you, Medea. Thanks to these two esteemed panelists that preceded me. Can everybody hear me all right? That a yes? Good. And I want to say thanks to RootsAction and CODEPINK for putting this together today. I want to reiterate that a hundred organizations signed onto this statement supporting diplomatic solutions, and I can’t possibly pretend that I speak for all of them.
Now, you’ve heard from the experts and I’ll just add a few words here more from an activist perspective. In my role at Physicians for Social Responsibility, I’ve been working with young health professionals and medical students. These are young folks. And they are demanding a change to the status quo. They say it’s time to rethink security with health in mind. The world needs to get cracking and address some very important challenges right now, which we just heard from Ambassador Matlock also. What the world does not need is a whole new Cold War among nuclear armed countries all over again. Folks, this is the 21st century. In a situation like Ukraine, PSR’s central message is very similar to what you’ve been hearing. A misunderstanding or a screw up by someone could escalate and ultimately nuclear weapons could come into play. To err is human.
You just heard Ambassador Matlock telling some chilling eyewitness stories about the Cuban Missile Crisis. In times like this, cool heads need to prevail. The Ukraine situation is serious. But when you step back and look at it, it feels to me like Putin and Biden are like two school kids and they’re having a squabble in the school yard. And what they’re not paying attention to is the whole neighborhood is burning down around them. It’s like they didn’t get the memo. We need our world leaders to settle their differences like adults, respect national boundaries, abide by international agreements. As leaders of the two most powerful nations on earth, Putin and Biden have important work to do. There are massive challenges that are unmet.
For example, we have two humanitarian catastrophes that are underway right now, and another one looms. Humanitarian catastrophe number one: the pandemic. According to a memo that I got in my email box from Johns Hopkins, 54,000 people a day are dying around the world from COVID. And 39% of the world’s population has not yet received its first dose of a vaccination. We need a worldwide vaccination effort.
Humanitarian catastrophe number two: climate change. We’re having record warm years. 2016, 2019, and 2020. Those were the top three warmest years ever on record for our planet. 2021 was in the top seven. I mean, can we get the message that there’s an issue here? We need to get beyond the Glasgow Agreements globally, and we need to get serious about reducing fossil fuel use, and that includes fossil fuel use by the world’s militaries.
The third humanitarian catastrophe, the one that is looming, is nuclear weapons. And that’s the issue that PSR was founded on back in 1961. And you know, the doomsday clock is stuck at 100 seconds to midnight. I mean, what message could possibly be clearer? Total world arsenals right now are 13,000 nuclear weapons, 90% of them owned by the US and Russia. Between those two countries we have 3,400 deployed operational nuclear weapons ready to go. I hate to say it. But these weapons are, almost all of them, are much, much larger than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Climate studies tell us, and this is something that PSR has been trying to alert the world about, and so has the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and so has the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. We’ve been trying to warn the world that climate studies are telling us that if just 3% of the weapons that are in the US and Russian arsenals were used to destroy cities, the soot in the stratosphere would ruin agriculture and it would put two billion people at risk of starvation. We simply can’t afford to keep going like this. Now, at any given moment, thank goodness, it’s unlikely that a nuclear war is going to break out. Absolutely, that’s true. However, the laws of probability tell us that as time drags on and on, the chances of an unlikely event happening approach certainty. This is one reason why the Ukraine situation is making us all so nervous.
In the year 2022, we can no longer tolerate countries basing their so-called security on the threat to blow up the whole planet. We need for all of the nine nuclear armed countries to negotiate for total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. That would be the adult route to take.
By the way, the P5 are already obligated to do that under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The rest of the world is showing the way with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 86 countries have signed them, have signed that treaty. 59 of them have ratified it. This is making nuclear weapons illegal under international law. Which, of course, they should be. Biological weapons are. Chemical weapons are. Of course nuclear weapons should be illegal. More countries are ratifying all the time. The nuclear ban treaty is showing us the responsible path into the future. We really do owe it to the next generation to give them a fighting chance. Thanks.
Medea Benjamin: Thank you so much, Martin. That was great. And Norman now is going to lead us in the Q&A section.
Norman Solomon: Yeah. Thanks to everybody who’s spoken. We have a number of questions. I’m going to read off the first one here. It says, “Multiple speakers have referenced the lessons learned from the buildup to World War I in Europe. But what about the lessons learned from the buildup to World War II when European powers first elected to accept and accommodate Hitler’s demands for more territories such as Sudetenland, Austria, Czechoslovakia? How do you reconcile the different lessons learned from World War I and World War II and the outbreak of war in both cases?”
And Ambassador Matlock, I know among your other posts was, I believe you were ambassador to Czechoslovakia. And perhaps you could just address this question in terms of lessons learned from the two World Wars as you see it. The use of what we call the Munich analogy, which led us into Vietnam thinking we had to stop this expansion of a world war communist empire was simply mistaken. And I think what we’re facing today is an entirely different situation from the one in 1938, ’39.
Jack F. Matlock Jr.: The fact is, all of this talk about, Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, et cetera, et cetera, I think that is absolutely mistaken. What he wants is a Russia which is respected, and a Russia which is secure in its borders, and particularly one which is capable of protecting the interests of ethnic Russians who turned up to be outside the Soviet Union when the Soviet Union broke up peacefully and not as a result of Western pressure. This is something else I think we have to bear in mind is that the idea that we won the Cold War, that the Soviet Union, and therefore Russia, lost is wrong. It’s absolutely the opposite of what happened. We negotiated an end to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And actually, the first president Bush advised the Ukrainians in a speech to, they were called [inaudible], to adhere to Gorbachev’s Union Treaty when he was proposing a confederation of the various republics.
The US then supported that, minus of course the three Baltic states which we never recognized as part of the Soviet Union. So the idea that somehow we brought down the Soviet Union and that this was a victory for democracy gets it quite wrong. The fact was that in those last couple of years of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev was supporting democratic elements in every one of the republics. And when it broke up, almost all of these were arrested and taken out of them. So, the idea that Putin is trying to reconstruct the Soviet Union also has no sense because the Soviet Union was a communist empire. It was based on ideology. It was not a Russian empire sort of based on ethnicity.
And I think that Putin is simply acting. And, of course, we have seen over the past 20 years almost a concerted effort, particularly of the Western press and with the cooperation of the governments to vilify and demonize Vladimir Putin. I don’t think that everything he does is in Russia’s interest and I wish some of his decisions had been different, but I understand why he made them. And he didn’t make them reconstitute the Soviet Union, which, first of all, is impossible. Now, he has been quoted several times as saying that it was a great tragedy, one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century to have the Soviet Union break up. He also used to add when he said that, well, he would say nobody with a heart would welcome the breakup of the Soviet Union, and he would add, nobody with a brain would try to reconstitute it.
I think he does feel and, I think rightly so, that when Russia actually tried to become part of Europe, and that was his goal when he first became president. He also took Russia out of total bankruptcy. He was able to survive the financial crisis that the United States brought about to the world around 2008, 2009. And now, of course, he is beginning to develop an economy which is not so dependent on the rest as a result of our sanctions, which are not achieving any of the political goals that were supposed to do. And then, he has seen an increasing effort to picture Russia along with China as basically enemies. But there’s no basic reason for that. And so, I think that this idea that the US has to get involved in every local dispute is wrong.
I would also point out that in at least three instances the United States has approved the separation of states when the people in the area wanted a separation. We did it in regard to Eritrea. We did it in regard to several other instances. And nobody seems to recognize that, for example, the great majority of the people in Crimea really want to be in Russia.
What happened to the principle, that has been an American principle since the first World War, that there should be consideration of self-determination in these things? I could go on and on with some of the problems that this indicates. But basically what we have is an American policy which is very similar to what we call the Brezhnev Doctrine. The world was destined, according to Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, to be socialist. And if a country was socialist, it was the duty of the Soviet Union to support them. That’s why, for example, the invasion of Hungary, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and it was to… Now, there were several things wrong with that. First of all, being socialist didn’t mean that they were going to be, necessarily, friends or tools of Moscow. We saw that first Yugoslavia with Tito pulled away, then Mao and China pulled away. So the whole idea that you had to stop that was wrong.
Actually, nationalists in each of these countries and nationalist sentiment tended to break it up. So it is proven out that the same form of government does not mean that they’re going to be friends. And yet, that seems to be the basis of our attempt to spread democracy. Now, of course, we want democracy. And it’s very much, I would say, under threat in the United States itself today. But number one, there’s no way that an outsider can create democracy in another country. Certainly not by military pressure. This is a point that Senator Fulbright made also in respect to Vietnam. And he was probably the only leader then from the very beginning who understood that that war was not only unnecessary but was not going to be able to do what it said it would.
The second. so, the idea that we can create democracy abroad, that this is the future, there’s no evidence for that. We don’t even define democracy. I mean, we have had two presidents elected who received substantially fewer votes than the others, and would anybody describe the American Senate as a democratic institution? So, what are we talking about? We’re simply putting labels. We have Turkey in NATO. Is it really more democratic than Russia? All right. I could go on. But I’m saying putting these labels on without examination of what they mean, I think, is very dangerous.
Norman Solomon: Thank you, Ambassador Matlock. And I want to remind the listeners, as I remind myself, that as we talk about the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia, we just heard Jack Matlock was the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union during those years, 1987 to 1991. The next question we have is about constructive steps. One of the journalists in the Q&A asks, “Given where we are now, what are the best pathways forward in a constructive way?” And as I noted, Katrina vanden Heuvel had a piece yesterday on that topic for the Washington Post. So Katrina, hopefully you would address that now.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: The column yesterday was really about constructive steps around the Ukraine crisis. But I’m also thinking of smaller steps that people can take. First of all, I’m convinced that what goes on inside DC and the blob is not representative as, I think you noted, Norman, with the poll of what people around this country are thinking or seeking.
I don’t think it’s isolationist. But I think it’s more an end to endless war and a way of stability. I do think, and at the American committee for US-Russia Accord which Ambassador Matlock is part of and I’m involved with, one thing that we should focus on is how to reopen the embassies. Ambassador Matlock was able to do much of what he did because the Moscow embassy was open, the other embassies in Russia. It is a lockdown. If you want to go and do some research, you’ll see that the embassy in Washington, the embassy in Moscow are virtually in lockdown and closed and not issuing visas. And most of that is political. Some of that has to do with Russia not permitting Russians to work in the embassy. So the Americans are not ponying up for any funding.
But I was on a call yesterday with Russian women and to independent women finding ways to protest both in Russia and in Ukraine and in this country. And there were women on the Russian call who are in Siberia, who are in regions. And I think it’s important to engage around the country, Zoom, speak to people, and try, in an amateur way, to give some history as ambassador Matlock did, to explain what’s happening, but also to urge them to connect with their counterparts. I mean, the former president of Russia, Medvedev, the other day said, “One of the central problems in Russia today is poverty.”
I mean, you could bring together experts on it, different issues, and it would break through that it’s all high foreign policy. It’s just people. And for many years I worked with feminists in Moscow. There’s a media. There is an independent media. It’s under stress. But there’s also a role for trying to connect. And I just think that those are issues that people could get more involved in. And at the American committee, we’re going to put up lists of different groups doing that kind of work.
So I think the ability to see clearly is so important to those who have opposed wars. And ambassador Matlock spoke of the idea of thinking of world leaders… Well, the other piece I would say is write to your media. I mean write letters to the editor if you have local media. But the media, much of it in this country, has been so bellicose. It is as if it’s seeking war as opposed to covering what could be a resolution. And I do think monitoring and paying attention could make some changes. But there are other steps people… So, I think those steps are valuable for “ordinary, better, and wiser people,” than those in our state department at the moment, with all due respect to Ambassador Matlock, who is an unusual diplomat.
Norman Solomon: There’s a question about congressional responses to this crisis. And I don’t know who would want to weigh in on that.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Could I say one thing? What’s good news is that the progressive caucus, which is difficult on the foreign policy issues, Barbara Lee and Pramila Jayapal released a piece, which, a statement. But they are doing a briefing later today with Phyllis Bennis, with a few people and trying to understand what they could do and not do, what they could do that’s constructive. But you would think, and I’ll stop here, that if the caucus wants to address the critical issues here at home, you are at risk of looting the energy from those issues if you are focused on sanctions and war. As Ambassador Matlock said, there is much to do in this country to rebuild our democracy before we go abroad in search of demons.
Norman Solomon: Any other comments about the congressional response to this crisis?
Martin Fleck: Add congressional response to this crisis.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Yeah.
Martin Fleck: I can’t say I know all the details, but I know that there is a HR 6470, that should be opposed. And on the good side there, I want to make sure that people are aware that Representatives Beyer and Garamendi and Senators Merkley and Markey have a nuclear weapons and arms control working group within Congress. Lee and Jayapal are also involved in a cut military spending caucus in Congress. So there are some people trying. And they have introduced a progressive foreign policy bill which would help. So yes, that is something with regards to moving forward and local activity. You can talk to your local elected [representatives]
Katrina vanden Heuvel: And I think as much research on the defense companies. We’re going to get a nuclear posture review any day, and the National Security Strategy was downgraded. Counterinsurgency wasn’t making money for these companies. So it became the new “enemies” were Russian and China. And I think one respects Mark Pocan and Barbara Lee, they have the defense budget cut caucus. But up against the missiliers, the money in the system, and the jobs, these are issues which need addressing so that you can begin to have a defense budget. Which, shamefully, as Ambassador said and I think you said, Medea, is more than it was during the height-height of other Cold Wars. This should be a moment of beginning to reduce.
Medea Benjamin: Norman, can I add one thing on the congressional level?
Norman Solomon: Please.
Medea Benjamin: Martin, you brought up the Minsk Bill in the House, which is called Defending Ukraine 6470. There’s its equivalent on the Democratic side in the Senate introduced by Menendez that already has 41 co-sponsors. And that’s all Democrats. And it’s just as bad, the Republicans have their own bills, one called Guaranteeing Ukraine Autonomy that McCaul introduced on the House side and that Senator Risch introduced on the Senate side.
One quite comical difference is that the Republicans call for $450 million in expedited lethal aid. And the Democrats have upped it to be $500 million. There are some differences, as Katrina said, in terms of when sanctions should be implemented. But all four of them are terrible bills. And there are people that are part of the progressive caucus that have signed onto these bills. So we have a lot of work to do to get people in Congress to recognize what the American people want.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: 6470, Medea, on the –
Medea Benjamin: 6470 is the Minsk. On the Senate side is 3488. And then, there are two on the Republican side, HR 6367 and a companion bill on the Senate side.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you. Will you forgive me? This was an important gathering and important voices and input. I just have to go and do a radio [crosstalk]
Norman Solomon: And we’ll be wrapping up. Thank you so much. And we’ll be wrapping up soon.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you. Thank you [crosstalk].
Medea Benjamin: Thank you, Katrina.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: And thank you, [crosstalk]. Thank you, Ambassador Matlock.
Norman Solomon: Thanks so much, Katrina. And we have just a couple more questions for those who can stay on. I just want to interject addressing the journalists here. There are dissenting voices in Congress, but there are very few. And I skipped high school, long ago, to go to a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and heard Senator Wayne Morse. And at the time, the journalists in 1967 when I heard him speak, they were still dismissive of dissenters on Capitol Hill. They were few and far between. The Vietnam War was the conventional wisdom just as the current conventional wisdom is that we have to so-called stand up to Putin. And I would urge journalists to keep in mind your own historic role so that you do not repeat the mistakes of the journalistic establishment back during the escalation of the Vietnam War. And just don’t conform. Just do your journalistic due diligence and have other voices come through as well.
We have two more questions I’d like to bring up here. One is a question, I guess it would be for Ambassador Matlock, what do you think the response from Vladimir Putin is likely to be at this stage in terms of the latest moves, the military moves now ordered that we’ve heard just today from the United States? How do you think Russia will see and respond to today’s Pentagon announcement?
Jack F. Matlock Jr.: Well, I don’t know. I very much doubt that Putin intends to invade Ukraine in a big way. And it does seem to me that there’s an element here – I have to ask myself – Is President Biden, who is under such pressure domestically, whose ratings are falling, I think, dangerously. I voted for him. I certainly don’t want a return of Trump or anything like that. But I have to ask myself, does he think that by hyping the threat and standing up to it, it’s going to bring him a victory in the polls? I’m asking that. I don’t know. But I do think that we have majorities in both Houses of Congress that are essentially Russophobic. They’re looking for ways, so-called, to punish Russia. And yet, they’re doing things that don’t help one bit to solve these problems. And I think that there are a number of political forces forcing this.
You have what is still, I think, a totally unfounded Russia gate, the idea that there was interference in our elections. And I think that has been thoroughly debunked. And yet, I think many Democrats feel that somehow you’re supporting Trump when you say that. Well, no. We should really look for the truth and not measure everything as if it’s going to support one candidate or the other. And the only way to get out of that is to stop getting ourselves involved in what is essentially internal disputes.
Now, in Ukraine, that is essentially the problem of a divided country, which however is of vital importance to its neighbor and has a history of being part of its neighbor. And being the fiddle with that, as if somehow we are serving our interests to introduce more arms and get more people killed there, simply beggars the imagination. I think we have become, at home, so blinded by domestic politics. On most issues [we] are so divided that it is ironic. The one issue that seems to you and I, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, is to go after Russia or go after China. And both of them, I think, are fundamentally disturbing and very dangerous.
Norman Solomon: Thank you. Ambassador Matlock, thank you for that. We have one more question that I’m going to bring up. But I do want to mention that if you have follow-up questions, any journalists on this call today, that we haven’t been able to get to, I’d be glad to share them with all three of our speakers. You can email those questions to me. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s N-O-R-M-A-N@rootsaction.O-R-G.
And the last question has to do with the importance of the pipeline. We hear the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Either of the panelists here would like to address that. It’s come up in the news media, Germany’s need for energy and so forth. How might this play out? And how is that important in terms of US policy?
Martin Fleck: If I could jump in. We’re in an interconnected world now and our economies are interconnected in ways. Once again, an adult approach would be to move towards more interconnection between nations. But we should recognize that there’s economic dependencies that did not exist in the original Cold War. That’s a great argument to not have another Cold War.
Jack F. Matlock Jr.: Well, it seems to me that we are making a big mistake to get involved in that. After all, in my day, we were encouraging the Soviet Union to dump its communism, its socialism, and join the world as a capitalist power. Now, it makes a lot of sense, given Germany’s and West Europe’s need for gas, to build that pipeline. Let’s face it, the one that goes through Ukraine can’t carry enough that Western Europe needs, first of all.
Second, the Ukrainians have been involved in the past in the most outrageous way: not paying for the gas they take. And then when the Russians cut down the amount, they keep stealing it and not sending it to Western Europe. This happened in the past. And yet, people blame Russia for playing politics, actually. And it’s quite reasonable that Germany and Russia would want a direct tie. And it doesn’t even mean that there’s going to be less coming through the Ukrainian pipeline, that made assurances of that. They’ll continue to be getting gas from Ukraine. Why in the world do we oppose that? It doesn’t involve us. I mean, some people who say, oh, they should be buying the gas from us. But does that make economic sense?
And so, I think that too much of our policy, including our use of our control of the financial system to achieve political ends, is mistaken. And I think that, first of all, I think that we are trying to achieve a monopoly control of security throughout the world and making ourselves the law giver, the judge, the jury, the executioner. That’s not going to work. And I think that the pushback in the long run is not going to be in the interest of the United States. But I think there’s still an attitude in Europe. Well, you’ve got to have the Americans in. And yet increasingly, I think Europeans are going to say that some of these things we’re pushing them to do, it’s really not in their interest. And they’re not really being threatened militarily by Russia. So why do we keep pouring arms into there and encouraging the use of military force when it isn’t going to solve any of these problems?
Norman Solomon: Thank you, Ambassador Matlock. And to sort of sum up a couple of points worth emphasizing, first, thank you very much to all three of our speakers. The gap between the polling around this country, which is clearly much more enthusiastic about compromise and unenthusiastic about the confrontational stance being taken from Washington, that gap is going to be manifested politically in the days and weeks ahead. Because the bubble that policy makers in Capitol Hill are in will have to encounter public opinion.
And on that note, at rootsaction.org we’ve already, in recent days, generated several thousand individual constituent emails to members of the House and Senate. That number’s going to go up into tens of thousands in the next few days. And that’s a lot of our work, is to generate the way to pierce the bubble in DC and bring public opinion more to bear on what is being done and said on Capitol Hill. Also, I want to reintroduce Medea Benjamin, who’s one of the leaders of the anti-war movement in this country, co-founder of CODEPINK. And she can wrap up by telling us about what the plans are in the days ahead for national protests.
Medea Benjamin: Well, thank you so much to all the speakers and for Norman and RootsAction for organizing this. There is that terrible saying that the way that Americans learn geography is by war. And I think that probably 95% of Americans have no idea, could not find Ukraine on a map.
And the same is true for NATO. I think the majority of Americans don’t even know, or didn’t until recently, that NATO exists. It’s not talked about very much in this country. And if there is one silver lining in this terrible crisis it’s that more people are getting to learn about NATO. And I think it’s our job to teach people that NATO is an aggressive force, not only around Russia, but there was a question that Tim O’Connor from Newsweek had asked that, given a more multipolar world, shouldn’t the US be more careful and balance its ties with Russia and China? And I would definitely say so. And NATO there is an impediment to that. It has called China a threat to its alliance. This is the North American Treaty Organization calling China in the Pacific a threat to it.
So we really should do more to say that not only should Ukraine stay out of NATO, but we should question the very existence and the need for NATO in this day and age. And I want to wrap up by saying that there will be protests ongoing starting this Saturday throughout the country. You can go to codepink.org and see a list of places around the country where people are setting up their rallies and part of this whole coalition to prevent a war with Russia. This will be ongoing.
And I do agree so much with Normal. We are once again seeing the terrible disconnect between the bubble in Washington where, somehow, members that are elected to serve the people think that serving the military-industrial complex is in our interest when it’s not. And so, this is a time that we are really bombarding the switchboard and the emails of our congressional representatives in both the House, the Senate, and the White House to give the real opinion of the American people, which is we want deescalation and negotiations, not escalation and war. Thank you.
Norman Solomon: Thanks, everybody. Thanks for being with us today.
Medea Benjamin: Bye-bye. Thank you, everybody.
Martin Fleck: Bye-bye.