The Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed untold devastation on Ukraine and the world. Thousands have been killed and millions displaced. Responding to the crisis, peace activists, such as CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, have criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance, which is led by the U.S., for its role in escalating the conflict. Benjamin has instead called on the U.S. to support peace talks and a de-escalation of tensions between Russia and the West.
Together with CODEPINK researcher Nicolas J. S. Davies, Benjamin recently published the new book, “War In Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict.” The book focuses on the war itself and its historical context, including the history of NATO intervention in the Middle East, the 2014 Maidan protests (which led to the ousting of the Ukrainian president at the time) and the war in the Donbas between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces. Benjamin, who became a peace activist while in high school after witnessing the impact of the Vietnam War on people she knew, hopes the book will help inform local communities on how they can better advocate for peace. Benjamin is currently on a North American book tour, with a talk scheduled for Nov. 16 in Portland, Oregon.
Real Change: Would you be able to give a brief summary about the new book you wrote with Nicolas Davies? Were you able to make any sense of this senseless conflict?
Medea Benjamin: We have a very detailed — but easy-to-read — history of what set the stage for that 2014 upheaval. What was the Minsk 2 peace agreement and why didn’t it succeed? We go through the invasion of Ukraine itself from the first point of Feb. 24 until very recently. We also look at NATO — the idea that NATO is a defensive alliance. We really go into that and say it’s no longer a defensive alliance. It is an offensive alliance, not defensive. And we look at NATO’s involvement in the bombing of Kosovo, in the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, NATO’s involvement in the invasion of Libya and NATO support for the U.S. and its occupation of Iraq as examples of the offensive nature of NATO. And then, we also look at the way that NATO has been surrounding the Russians with new members — despite having given its pledge that it would not do so — and how that is so provocative for the Russians to have a hostile military alliance right on its borders.
And then we look at what we call the “information warfare” in all countries — in Russia and Ukraine and the U.S.: the lack of free speech once the war began, the way that this is being portrayed in such propagandistic ways in each of the countries. And we also look at the sanctions that have actually backfired and hurt Europeans and people who are dependent upon Russian fertilizer [or] grain from Ukraine, such as in Africa and the Middle East. How it’s affected them more than it has hurt the Russians, so far. And finally, we look at the issue of nuclear war. What are the treaties that the U.S. and Russia used to be a party to, what happened to those and how can we get back on track to move towards a real ban on nuclear weapons?
For readers here in the U.S., what has its role been so far in this conflict?
In the book, we trace the U.S. role, especially in the lead up to the 2014 uprising. We talk about how individuals like the Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, [who] was so involved that she actually handpicked who is going to be the next president after the president in power, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown with the help of the United States. We talk about how the U.S. began training Ukrainian forces, how they began arming them not with just defensive weapons, but offensive weapons, and how they really set the stage for the Ukrainians not agreeing to the peace plan, never pushing the governments of Ukraine to adhere to the political parts of that peace plan that was supposed to give autonomy to the Donbas region. And so those are some of the ways that we track the U.S. involvement.
And of course, after the invasion, which we condemn vociferously, we talk about the U.S. and the Western role in supplying an enormous amount of weapons; in providing intelligence that led to the killing of some key Russian generals and also helps the Ukrainians with targets; and how the U.S. and NATO are training Ukrainians inside Ukraine. So, our conclusion is that while Ukraine might not be formally a member of NATO, it is a de-facto member of NATO because of the tremendous involvement of both the U.S. and Western Europe.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about what you see as the justifications [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has put forward. I know he’s mentioned NATO a lot, but he also mentioned this idea of denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine. Do you think there’s any sort of logic behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine? Do you think it’s been a miscalculation on his part or is he just acting as an evil, crazy dictator?
I certainly think it was a tremendous miscalculation on his part. It’s hard to think of what he was planning when his troops came in not just to defend Donbas, but in three different parts of the country, including the capital. Perhaps he thought that they would be welcomed as liberators and could easily exchange the government in Kyiv for a pro-Russian one. Certainly that was not the case, and it’s still hard to figure out what is the endgame for the Russians. In terms of Putin himself, I think that there is a tendency to over-personalize this invasion, because I think there are a lot of other people in the Russian military and among the Russian public — but, of course, they have a very censored press right now — but there is a lot of support for protecting the Russian-speaking people who live in the Donbas, for keeping Crimea as part of Russia. Many Russians see Crimea as an integral part of their country. So this goes beyond just one person, but yes, it was a tremendous miscalculation.
I am also curious about the Ukrainian perspective, because in a lot of ways their agency has been underplayed in this conflict. [Ukrainian President] Volodymyr Zelensky actually ran on a platform where he would engage in more talks around Minsk and try to find dialogue with the Russian Federation around issues in the Donbas.
Yes, that’s what he ran on, and he won overwhelming support from the population on that. And let’s also say that he himself is Russian-speaking. So as soon as he was elected and started to make moves to meet with the people in the breakaway republics — implement those political parts of the Minsk agreements, like providing autonomy to those regions — he was attacked by the right in his country, who said, no, no, no, we’re gonna fight for every inch, we’re not giving up any part of Ukraine. And they even threatened to hang him by a tree if he continued with his peace initiatives.
So, we see Zelensky moving in a totally different direction than the one he campaigned on. It’s also a different direction than the one he had early on in the war, when there were talks that were mediated by Turkey happening at the end of March, beginning of April. The Russians put forward a 12-point plan that was moving forward, and there was a tentative agreement with Zelensky. And Zelensky went on the national TV and talked about how his mission was to bring peace to the region, how he knew that they had a dream of joining NATO, but that dream had to remain only a dream because Ukraine would have to be a neutral country with guarantees by powerful outside forces to ensure that it wouldn’t be invaded again. And he went from that position to a much more hardline position of saying we don’t want to talk at all, we want to recover every inch of territory.
I feel that that is because he was pushed by some of the Western countries and particularly the United States and the U.K. We know that Boris Johnson went to meet with him right as the talks were being negotiated and basically said the “Collective West” does not want to negotiate with Russia and that we’re willing to provide you with the weapons you need to fight until victory. This, then, was accompanied by a message that the U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave when he visited Zelensky and said that they had to weaken Russia. So this really put a kibosh on the talks, and we unfortunately continue to see that the U.S. Biden administration will not talk to Putin, will not talk to [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov], who is the counterpart to Antony Blinken. The government of Ukraine is now saying the same thing, that they won’t talk. So that’s why we think it’s so important that we, as citizens, start getting out there and agitating more, that we want to see a negotiated settlement, we want the Democrats to be advocating for peace talks.
Can you talk about the role of the media in this war — both on the U.S., Western and Ukrainian sides, as well as on the Russian side — their role in polarization and beating the war drums for this conflict?
On the Russian side, it is quite remarkable that people and the press were not even allowed to talk about this as a war. It had to be a “special military operation.” There was just tremendous propaganda from the side of the Russians — that this was a fight for the existential future of Russia, and that anybody who cared about the motherland would have to get behind this struggle. And then on the Ukrainian part, of course, it was, righteously, that they were a country whose borders had been violated by a foreign force. They did censor any press that was questioning some of the pronouncements of the government. There were also a number of Ukrainians who didn’t want to fight, who were beaten or put in prison. Even more so in the case of Russia, where there are so many young men who do not want to fight.
But in terms of the press, I want to say something about the United States, because I have a hard time watching the mainstream media now because it is so one-sided. You never get a perspective from the Russian side; you never get a perspective from the peacemaker side. While we might be a minority in this country because of the media, we do represent the global majority who are saying, yes, we condemn the Russian invasion, but the Ukrainians also have to realize that this is going to be settled at the peace table, not with more and more weapons flooding their country. And so that’s why we feel that the American people are not given a very objective view of what’s happening in Ukraine. They keep being told that the Ukrainians are winning.
I’m old enough to have heard this so many times, going back to the Vietnam days, but more recently in Afghanistan. If we only send in 10,000 more troops, if we only commit X billion dollars more, victory is around the corner. And the same thing we heard in Iraq, and the same thing we heard in Libya. It’s always that we’re just about to get victory, and then it quite never happens. So I think that Americans are being fed this myth that there is a possibility — and a good possibility — that with the right support from the West, the Ukrainians will be able to recover every inch of territory, that they will win the final victory. Russia will be vanquished. I think it’s a myth, and it’s one, unfortunately, that the media perpetuates.
I wanted to also ask you about the military aid that’s been given to Ukraine from the West. What do you think would be the long term consequences of having so many more weapons in circulation? Could you see some of these weapons fall into the wrong hands, like we saw the Mujahideen obtain so many weapons and then that led to the rise of the Taliban?
Oh, absolutely. There was a CBS documentary that speculated that only 30 percent of the weapons was actually getting to their intended fighters, that so much of it was siphoned off into the black market and into the extreme rightwing neo-Nazi groups, and this is a real concern. You mentioned the Mujahideen — there’s also what happened with all the weapons the U.S. poured into Iraq and then in Syria and the rise of ISIS. I think that there’s a real concern that these kinds of terrorist groups, as well as the neo-Nazis, are going to end up with so many weapons, and this is just going to fuel another conflict and another conflict.
When Congress was about to pass a $40 billion package for Ukraine, about $19 billion of which was military, the senator from Kentucky, Republican Rand Paul, started questioning, well, where’s the oversight of this? How do we know where these weapons are gonna go? And he was just pushed aside by his own party as well as the Democrats. But I think what he was saying was exactly true there. There’s no agency set up to try to hold accountable where these weapons are ending up. And I think it will come back to bite the people of Western Europe and perhaps even those of us here at home.
In the last month, we saw the Russian Federation announce a number of measures that can be seen as a drastic escalation of the current war, including the annexation of four oblasts [administrative regions in Ukraine], [conscript] mobilization and more nuclear threats. What is the situation like in Russia, especially with the far right there and the pressure they’re putting on Putin, and what does that bode for the conflict and the world in general?
Yes, there are certainly people in the military in Russia who are saying that Putin has been too restrained in this war and that they have to be more aggressive. So we saw, as a response to the blowing up of the bridge leading to Crimea, these massive attacks in various parts of Ukraine. I think it is just disastrous that Putin is being pushed to the point where he’s willing to take more civilian casualties, attack more towns and residential neighborhoods. This comes as war progresses and the sides harden, and the only way to move that is to call for a ceasefire and call for negotiations. Otherwise, it’s just going to get worse for the people of Ukraine — many, many more of them dying. And we have to be concerned about the Ukrainian and the Russian soldiers who, I can imagine, don’t want to be fighting in this war. So out of concern for the lives of the people who are being lost every single day, we have to stop Putin from becoming more aggressive in the way he’s waging this war.
Is there anything else you’d like readers and local communities to know about this conflict or what they can do?
Yes, I would like to invite people to go to two websites. One is my organization, codepink.org. We have the book there available for sale, as well as a 20-minute video that we did that gives a very good overview of the situation. And there’s also a new coalition that’s formed called Peace in Ukraine that has a lot of different organizations as part of it and calls for days and weeks of action that people can participate in. So you can go to peaceinukraine.org.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Nov. 2-8, 2022 issue.