Chomsky: US Approach to Ukraine and Russia Has “Left the Domain of
he Russia-Ukraine crisis continues unabated as the United States
ignores all of Russian President Vladmir Putin’s security demands and
spreads a frenzy of fear by claiming that a Russian invasion of
Ukraine is imminent.
In a new exclusive interview for Truthout on the ongoing
Russia-Ukraine crisis, world-renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky
outlines the deadly dangers of U.S. intransigence over Ukrainian
membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) even when
key Western allies have already vetoed earlier U.S. efforts in that
direction. He also seeks to shed some light on the reasons why
Republicans today seem to be divided on Russia.
Chomsky — whose intellectual contributions have been compared to those
of Galileo, Newton and Descartes — has had tremendous influence on a
variety of areas of scholarly and scientific inquiry, including
linguistics, logic and mathematics, computer science, psychology,
media studies, philosophy, politics and international affairs. He is
the author of some 150 books and recipient of scores of highly
prestigious awards including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto
Prize (Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize), as well as dozens of
honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned
universities. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and currently Laureate Professor
at the University of Arizona.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and
C.J. Polychroniou: Tensions continue to escalate between Russia and
Ukraine, and there is little room for optimism since the U.S. offer
for de-escalation fails to meet any of Russia’s security demands. As
such, wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the Russia-Ukraine
border crisis stems in reality from the U.S.’s intransigent position
over Ukrainian membership in NATO? In the same context, is it hard to
imagine what might have been Washington’s response to the hypothetical
event that Mexico wanted to join a Moscow-driven military alliance?
Noam Chomsky: We hardly need to linger on the latter question. No
country would dare to make such a move in what former President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of War Henry Stimson called “Our little region over here,” when he was condemning all spheres of
influence (except for our own — which in reality, is hardly limited to
the Western hemisphere). Secretary of State Antony Blinken is no less
adamant today in condemning Russia’s claim to a “sphere of influence,”
a concept we firmly reject (with the same reservation).
There was of course one famous case when a country in our little
region came close to a military alliance with Russia, the 1962 missile
crisis. The circumstances, however, were quite unlike Ukraine.
President John F. Kennedy was escalating his terrorist war against
Cuba to a threat of invasion; Ukraine, in sharp contrast, faces
threats as a result of its potentially joining a hostile military
alliance. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s reckless decision to
provide Cuba with missiles was also an effort to slightly rectify the
enormous U.S. preponderance of military force after JFK had responded
to Khrushchev’s offer of mutual reduction of offensive weapons with
the largest military buildup in peacetime history, though the U.S. was
already far ahead. We know what that led to.
The tensions over Ukraine are extremely severe, with Russia’s
concentration of military forces at Ukraine’s borders. The Russian
position has been quite explicit for some time. It was stated clearly
by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at his press conference at the
United Nations: “The main issue is our clear position on the
inadmissibility of further expansion of NATO to the East and the
deployment of strike weapons that could threaten the territory of the
Russian Federation.” Much the same was reiterated shortly after by
Putin, as he had often said before.
Historian Richard Sakwa … observed that “NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage threats provoked by its enlargement” —
a plausible judgment.
There is a simple way to deal with deployment of weapons: Don’t deploy
them. There is no justification for doing so. The U.S. may claim that
they are defensive, but Russia surely doesn’t see it that way, and
The question of further expansion is more complex. The issue goes back
over 30 years, to when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was
collapsing. There were extensive negotiations among Russia, the U.S.
and Germany. (The core issue was German unification.) Two visions were presented. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a Eurasian
security system from Lisbon to Vladivostok with no military blocs. The
U.S. rejected it: NATO stays, Russia’s Warsaw Pact disappears.
For obvious reasons, German reunification within a hostile military
alliance is no small matter for Russia. Nevertheless, Gorbachev agreed
to it, with a quid pro quo: No expansion to the East. President George
H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker agreed. In their words to Gorbachev: “Not only for the Soviet Union but for other European
countries as well, it is important to have guarantees that if the
United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of
NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread
in an eastern direction.”
“East” meant East Germany. No one had a thought about anything beyond,
at least in public. That’s agreed on all sides. German leaders were
even more explicit about it. They were overjoyed just to have Russian
agreement to unification, and the last thing they wanted was new
There is extensive scholarship on the matter — Mary Sarotte, Joshua Shifrinson, and others, debating exactly who said what, what they
meant, what’s its status, and so on. It is interesting and
illuminating work, but what it comes down to, when the dust settles,
is what I quoted from the declassified record.
President H.W. Bush pretty much lived up to these commitments. So did
President Bill Clinton at first, until 1999, the 50th anniversary of
NATO; with an eye on the Polish vote in the upcoming election, some
have speculated. He admitted Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to
NATO. President George W. Bush — the lovable goofy grandpa who was
celebrated in the press on the 20th anniversary of his invasion of
Afghanistan — let down all the bars. He brought in the Baltic states
and others. In 2008, he invited Ukraine to join NATO, poking the bear
in the eye. Ukraine is Russia’s geostrategic heartland, apart from
intimate historic relations and a large Russia-oriented population.
Germany and France vetoed Bush’s reckless invitation, but it’s still
on the table. No Russian leader would accept that, surely not
Gorbachev, as he made clear.
As in the case of deployment of offensive weapons on the Russian
border, there is a straightforward answer. Ukraine can have the same
status as Austria and two Nordic countries throughout the whole Cold
War: neutral, but tightly linked to the West and quite secure, part of
the European Union to the extent they chose to be.
The U.S. adamantly rejects this outcome, loftily proclaiming its
passionate dedication to the sovereignty of nations, which cannot be
infringed: Ukraine’s right to join NATO must be honored. This
principled stand may be lauded in the U.S., but it surely is eliciting
loud guffaws in much of the world, including the Kremlin. The world is
hardly unaware of our inspiring dedication to sovereignty, notably in
the three cases that particularly enraged Russia: Iraq, Libya and Kosovo-Serbia.
Iraq need not be discussed: U.S. aggression enraged almost everyone.
The NATO assaults on Libya and Serbia, both a slap in Russia’s face
during its sharp decline in the ‘90s, is clothed in righteous
humanitarian terms in U.S. propaganda. It all quickly dissolves under
scrutiny, as amply documented elsewhere. And the richer record of U.S. reverence for the sovereignty of nations needs no review.
It is sometimes claimed that NATO membership increases security for
Poland and others. A much stronger case can be made that NATO
membership threatens their security by heightening tensions. Historian
Richard Sakwa, a specialist on East Europe, observed that “NATO’s
existence became justified by the need to manage threats provoked by
its enlargement” — a plausible judgment.
The U.S. is vigorously fanning the flames while Ukraine is asking it
to tone down the rhetoric.
There is much more to say about Ukraine and how to deal with the very
dangerous and mounting crisis there, but perhaps this is enough to
suggest that there is no need to inflame the situation and to move on
to what might well turn out to be a catastrophic war.
There is, in fact, a surreal quality to the U.S. rejection of
Austrian-style neutrality for Ukraine. U.S. policy makers know
perfectly well that admission of Ukraine to NATO is not an option for
the foreseeable future. We can, of course, put aside the ridiculous
posturing about the sanctity of sovereignty. So, for the sake of a
principle in which they do not believe for a moment, and in pursuit of
an objective that they know is out of reach, the U.S. is risking what
may turn into a shocking catastrophe. On the surface, it seems incomprehensible, but there are plausible imperial calculations.
We might ask why Putin has taken such a belligerent stance on the
ground. There is a cottage industry seeking to solve this mystery: Is
he a madman? Is he planning to force Europe to become a Russian
satellite? What is he up to?
One way to find out is to listen to what he says: For years, Putin has
tried to induce the U.S. to pay some attention to the requests that he
and Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated, in vain. One possibility is that
the show of force is a way to achieve this objective. That has been
suggested by well-informed analysts. If so, it seems to have
succeeded, at least in a limited way.
Germany and France have already vetoed earlier U.S. efforts to offer
membership to Ukraine. So why is the U.S. so keen on NATO expansion
eastward to the point of treating a Russian invasion of Ukraine as
imminent, even when Ukrainian leaders themselves don’t seem to think
so? And since when did Ukraine come to represent a beacon of
It is indeed curious to watch what is unfolding. The U.S. is
vigorously fanning the flames while Ukraine is asking it to tone down
the rhetoric. While there is much turmoil about why the demon Putin is
acting as he is, U.S. motives are rarely subject to scrutiny. The
reason is familiar: By definition, U.S. motives are noble, even if its
efforts to implement them are perhaps misguided.
Nevertheless, the question might merit some thought, at least by “the
wild men in the wings,” to borrow former National Security Advisor
McGeorge Bundy’s phrase, referring to those incorrigible figures who
dare to subject Washington to the standards applied elsewhere.
A possible answer is suggested by a famous slogan about the purpose of
NATO: to keep Russia out, to keep Germany down and to keep the U.S.
in. Russia is out, far out. Germany is down. What remains is the
question whether the U.S. will be in Europe — more accurately, should
be in charge. Not all have quietly accepted this principle of world
affairs, among them: Charles de Gaulle, who advanced his concept of
Europe from the Atlantic to the Ural’s; former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik; and French President Emmanuel Macron, with his
current diplomatic initiatives that are causing much displeasure in
If the Ukraine crisis is resolved peacefully, it will be a European
affair, breaking from the post-World War II “Atlanticist” conception
that places the U.S. firmly in the driver’s seat. It might even be a precedent for further moves toward European independence, maybe even
moving toward Gorbachev’s vision. With China’s Belt-and-Road
initiative encroaching from the East, much larger issues of global
As virtually always in the past when it comes to foreign affairs, we
see a bipartisan frenzy over Ukraine. However, while Republicans in
Congress are urging President Joe Biden to adopt a more aggressive
stance toward Russia, the proto-fascist base is questioning the party
line. Why, and what does the split among Republicans over Ukraine tell
us about what is happening to the Republicans?
One cannot easily speak of today’s Republican Party as if it were a
genuine political party participating in a functioning democracy. More
apt is the description of the organization as “a radical insurgency — ideologically extreme, scornful of facts and compromise, and
dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” This characterization by political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein
of the American Enterprise is from a decade ago, pre-Donald Trump. By
now it’s far out of date. In the acronym “GOP,” what remains is “O.”
I don’t know whether the popular base that Trump has whipped up into a worshipful cult is questioning the aggressive stance of Republican
leaders, or if they even care. Evidence is skimpy. Leading right-wing
figures closely associated with the GOP are moving well to the right
of European opinion, and of the stance of those who hope to retain
some semblance of democracy in the U.S. They are going even beyond
Trump in their enthusiastic support for Hungarian President Viktor
Orban’s “illiberal democracy,” extolling it for saving Western civilization, no less.
This effusive welcome for Orban’s dismantling of democracy might bring
to mind the praise for Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini for
having “saved European civilization [so that] the merit that Fascism
has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history”; the
thoughts of the revered founder of the neoliberal movement that has
reigned for the past 40 years, Ludwig von Mises, in his 1927 classic Liberalism.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson has been the most outspoken of the enthusiasts. Many Republican senators either go along with him or
claim ignorance of what Orban is doing, a remarkable confession of
illiteracy at the peak of global power. The highly regarded senior
Sen. Charles Grassley reports that he knows about Hungary only from
Carlson’s TV expositions, and approves. Such performances tell us a
good deal about the radical insurgency. On Ukraine, breaking with the
GOP leadership, Carlson asks why we should take any position on a
quarrel between “foreign countries that don’t care anything about the United States.”
Whatever one’s views on international affairs, it’s clear that we’ve
left the domain of rational discourse far behind, and are moving into
territory with an unattractive history, to put it mildly.