Dr. Benjamin Abelow’s clear, concise account of the United States and NATO’s largely unreported role in escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine is an outlier in our discourse about the current conflict. The war is, to put it lightly, an incredibly polarizing topic. Something of a third rail, even, depending on who you’re talking to. But Abelow’s book, “How the West Brought War to Ukraine,” transcends the intense ideological debates surrounding the topic. He is able to pull off a rather neat trick: criticizing the West’s role in inciting the war without straying into pro-Russian apologia.
It’s also an outlier among books in that it really isn’t one. Rather it’s a 60-page political pamphlet, although its only real ideology is being against unnecessary bloodshed. Harkening back to the days when people with strong opinions would simply print them and hand them out to as many people as possible, “How the West Brought War to Ukraine” is designed to be short, approachable and very much to the point. Prudent, given that it’s just a little bit too long for even the most dedicated online reader and just a little bit too short to be considered a proper work of political nonfiction. That said, it still earned a cover blurb from none other than Noam Chomsky.
What is Abelow’s point? It’s neatly summed up by the title, but he supports that argument with a number of military facts that were, prior to reading his book, unknown to me. For starters, the fact that NATO has deployed nuclear-capable weapons systems within range of Russia’s capital was a bit of a shock. As Abelow argues, a foreign power deploying such systems anywhere near the United States border — whether or not they were armed with nuclear warheads — would be considered an unacceptable threat by our military and political leaders. I won’t lay out his entire case here because the book is short enough and worthwhile enough to read regardless of your position on the conflict, but I will share what I think is the most compelling part of it: The West needs to set up and participate in peace talks immediately.
Abelow agreed to chat briefly with Real Change, touching on how he avoided the touchier sides of the subject, how the American public has been misled about the war and why it’s important that the conflict comes to a conclusion as quickly and safely as possible.
Real Change: I wanted to start by asking who you are, what kind of work you do and how you came to be interested in the subject.
Benjamin Abelow: I guess the most basic point is I’m an American citizen who is very concerned about the direction of U.S. policy with respect to Ukraine. I feel it’s ... leading in a very bad direction that is dangerous and harmful, not only for the United States and Europe, but perhaps especially for Ukraine itself, for Russia and for the rest of the world in terms of risk of nuclear war. And my background is I have an undergraduate degree in European History from the University of Pennsylvania. I have a medical degree — an MD degree — from the Yale University School of Medicine, and years ago I worked in Washington, D.C., for a number of years working on issues connected with nuclear arms control. At that time I
was ... lecturing, lobbying Congress and writing about nuclear arms policy. So I have some experience and background with that aspect of this issue. Finally, I have an interest in the study of trauma, including war trauma.
Would you describe yourself as kind of like an anti-war activist, or how would you characterize your views there?
No, I don’t really think of myself as falling into any particular category. I think I would say that I think of myself — at this particular moment — mostly as a kind of concerned American citizen, and I don’t think necessarily in these terms, but let’s call it a concerned citizen of the world. I think that’s how I would frame it. And my goal really is — to the extent that I can — to influence people’s thinking by trying to explain the issues as I understand them and to thereby, hopefully, affect policies.
Do you think that there is a lack of clarity in the way that the war has been explained to the American public?
Yeah, I would say both a lack of clarity and a lack of honesty. If one wanted to use a loaded term, I could say there’s an awful lot of propaganda, wherein the mainstream media is functioning to a good extent as a propaganda wing of the Washington foreign policy elite.
I thought that the case that you made was very clear and obvious, especially stuff about how we have nuclear-capable weapons systems within range of Moscow. I was like, “Oh, of course, that’s an act of provocation.” I guess the question I was left with was: “Why?” Who’s benefiting and who would benefit from all this propaganda, making it look like they weren’t involved in [the provocation]? Not to get too conspiratorial.
Yeah. No, I think it’s multilayered, and I think it ranges all the way from people who are very well-intentioned and, in fact, sometimes knowledgeable and have deep beliefs about the evil and the danger of the Russians. I think those views are wrong, but I think there are people who are well-intentioned and, as I said, in some cases very knowledgeable. I think there are others, going on the far end of things, where the manufacturers of military hardware are very deeply and in a very immediate sense shaped by monetary influences — that there’s a great deal of money to be made and that is being made through the prosecution of this war. Hundreds of billions of dollars will be made by arms manufacturers if this war is protracted.
There are a range of actors at different places in the middle. There are people in the military, for instance, some of whom I think are very clearheaded and see the dangers of escalation. Like Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made statements that we really need to move towards negotiation. There are also people in the military, I think, [where] their power and prestige is amplified when the country is at war like this or actively involved in a war. And then there’s people in the State Department and the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies, and I think there’s, again, a lot of variation there that ranges from people who are smart, knowledgeable, well-intentioned, but have what I perceive to be the wrong kind of understanding and framework for what is happening. There are people who are just — in some sense you could call them warmongers. There are some who are probably focused on their own personal career advancement.
There are a lot of people who, as individuals, are benefiting from this, but I think they’re doing it at the expense of the country as a whole. I don’t think they’re necessarily thinking they’re doing it at the expense of the country as a whole. I think some of them certainly believe they’re doing it for the good of the country as well as their own good. But I think the actual result is it’s very harmful for the country and that it really amounts to a transfer of wealth and safety and all kinds of things from the many to the few.
The onslaught of information that suggested that Russians were like vicious demons committing war crimes — it was so fast — and it felt like overnight all this content was flooding people. Can you describe how anyone who doesn’t have much media literacy could be expected to understand that?
That’s a good question.
Like, I’m looking at the Seattle Times Daily Update email about [Ukranian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s visit to the U.S., and the last sentence is “follow updates on this visit, which comes amid news that Russians have been hunting down, torturing and killing Ukrainians whose names are on lists.” It certainly could be true, but it feels journalistically irresponsible to present it as so without any supporting facts. Like, they didn’t even bother to say “reports’’ instead of “news”! Being bombarded with that kind of information, how should people process that?
I think the first step is simply to realize there’s a problem and to accept that one is in a state of where much of what one considers to be the correct knowledge may not be correct, to at least contemplate that possibility and in some sense to commit oneself to truth. That truth may turn out to be exactly what one already believes or it may turn out to be something quite different.
On the theme of truth, assuming that if we take the case that you make in the book as truth, what does it matter who got us here if we’re here? This is a hard one to formulate, because it sounds like I’m saying, “Oh, who cares?” But what I’m trying to ask is what is the importance of knowing how we got here to getting out of it or to coming to a better resolution than we’re heading towards?
I think I see where you’re going, and I think it’s an important question. Here’s what my response would be: When one has a certain understanding of a situation about what is going on or how one got there, it has very direct consequences for what steps one should be taking and what steps one thinks one should be taking in the future. So in my book I discuss how narratives shape policies. That if, for instance, if one believes that this war was started as an unprovoked land grab by a new Hitler or a new Stalin who is trying to rebuild the Russian empire or the Soviet empire in some way, and that that person is basically an unhinged madman who understands nothing but sheer military power, and that that person cannot be constrained in any rational way, and that that person is not acting out of any valid security concerns, however dangerous and misguided their actions might be, that leads to certain consequences. It means that any form of negotiation and compromise gets automatically understood as appeasement, just like Chamberlain in Munich when he negotiated with Hitler.
So if you think you’re negotiating with Hitler, any compromise is going to be understood to be appeasement. In contrast, if you come to, by an act of let’s call it “strategic empathy,” place yourself in the other side’s shoes and try to understand what valid security concerns they might be trying to address, even if their method of addressing it is dangerous and harmful and destructive and violent, then it leads to different conclusions.
What responsibility does Russia bear here, and what responsibility does Putin himself bear for perpetrating this war?
Almost any war is going to kill a lot of civilians. It just happens. And even if it’s not a deliberate attempt, like to fire bomb the German cities, or to fire bomb the Japanese cities, to say nothing of the atomic bomb, there’s a lot of innocent casualties involved. And there we’re dealing with a general question of: What is a “just war’’? Are any wars ever just? So one response might be that if the U.S. really placed Russia in an untenable situation, then this could be considered, in a theoretical sense, a just war. That’s one way of looking at it.
Now, another way would be that nobody has the right to kill innocents, no matter what the hell is going on and no matter what kind of bind they’ve been placed in. And I think that’s also a very important perspective to have. To be honest, I in some way generally opt out of the question by saying things like I did in the book, which is that my goal is not to exonerate Putin. My goal is to understand why he acted the way he did.
I would like to talk about how emotionally charged this debate is. I almost feel guilty for even talking about the fate of another country, like I don’t have the right to. But what I really enjoyed about your book is it’s not about partisan opinions; it’s about having a clear understanding of it. Can you talk about why it’s so charged, this debate?
Yeah. Before I do that, let me try to just respond briefly to something you just said, which is I think it can feel difficult to take a position from afar anytime we’re thousands of miles away. We don’t really have — well, if there’s a nuclear war, we have skin in the game. If our tax dollars go to it, that’s money that we could have spent for other things. So we do have skin in the game, but not as directly as the Ukrainians do. So to some extent, it could be natural to feel like one should keep one’s mouth shut. I’m not a party to this, a direct party.
I think that’s not the correct attitude for a couple of reasons. I believe that our true interest as Americans are actually closely aligned with the true interests of the Ukrainians. Now, our interest is to not send American citizens to get killed, to not spend our tax dollars on a futile war, to not risk nuclear war. What’re the Ukrainians’ interests? The Ukrainians’ interests are to have as intact a country as they can, as stable an internal political life as they can and to not have to get pulled off the street to fight a war and get killed. I think that what the U.S. is doing right now is harming both the U.S. and Ukraine.
What do we need to do to move towards peace as quickly as possible?
I think the first and most important step is for people to try to educate themselves beyond what they’re hearing in the mainstream media and beyond the kind of glib statements of their “political leaders” who, as I said before, have a particular viewpoint. And the media has a particular viewpoint that is, I think, inaccurate and destructive. So I think some degree of self-education is important, some degree of critical questioning of the sources that one is relying on, and then, ultimately, when one feels one has a better understanding of what’s going on, to try to take political action to influence policies.
Yeah, as best we can.
Yeah, as best we can. Right! I mean there are certainly moments where it’s easy to be not too optimistic. We’re up against a lot in terms of financial interest, in terms of power interest, in terms of political interest.
Read more of the Jan. 4-10, 2023 issue.