Russia’s invasion (illegal) of Ukraine has generated debate regarding how to end the war. It comes as no surprise that arguably the United States’ leading ant-war activist, Professor Noam Chomsky, has given extensive comment on this conflict. Committed already as a boy to opposing state aggression, now at age 93, Noam Chomsky likely is the world’s oldest living person active in anti-war struggles who is on record in print (school newspaper) at the time in opposing the 1938 Munich Agreement, which has become synonymous with appeasement of states engaging in military adventures.
In May of this year, four economists from Ukraine (Bohdan Kukharskyy, Anastassia Fedyk, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Ilona Sologoub) working in the United States took umbrage with Chomsky’s comments on the war, or at least what they assumed were the ideas (and “patterns”) he expressed. They held some of his statements to be either inaccurate, or even when true, irrelevant to the conflict and/or giving succor to Russia’s war effort. The Ukrainian economists invited Dr. Chomsky to respond. What follows at bottom are Noam’s responses to their assertions, their rejoinders to his answers, and his following comments.
In the ensuing exchange Professor Chomsky demonstrates several of the positions he was purported to hold by the economists, simply were never articulated by him. Provided with two chances to substantiate remarks attributed to Chomsky, the four economists often could not. Moreover, some points which the four economists asserted were either false or contested, Dr. Chomsky demonstrated were true, with any “contestation” of them chiefly evasions of inconvenient facts. Parts of their debate comes down to points of language and meaning, which the four economists at one point concede that Dr. Chomsky is more precise in his use of.
This then leaves another point: whether referencing contextual, or “background,” information, is relevant to discussion of the war? This point is more complicated, as Russia (or most any other state engaged in aggression) clearly will use such information, or anything else they can, in the service of propaganda. Yet, censorship is also dangerous as it removes capacities to critically engage arguments states use to justify aggression. In short, we can debate the merits of context and to what degree, if any, it plays in understanding a conflict. But, taking the next step to either dismiss out of hand as false, statements that are demonstrably true, or asserting that one is not allowed to provide context out of concern that it somehow supports Putin, goes too far. In short, what defines totalitarianism is the idea that some truths are inadmissible, given threats they pose to some larger cause. A cautionary note must be tendered against those, well intentioned or not, that would take us down this road. Our economists do not go this far in their exchange, fortunately, but others, as we know, will cross that line, as has been done before.
What seems at core in this debate is whether Ukraine is best positioned to continue fighting in order to achieve military victory, or at least improve their negotiating position, against Russia? Or, is this conflict in part a proxy war (with ghastly human costs for Ukrainians) in which the US seeks to fight Russia “to the last Ukrainian”? The last quote characterizing this war is from retired US Diplomat Chas Freeman (former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs), but has been wrongly attributed to Dr. Chomsky. Of course, the messy reality is that there are elements of both positions in play. Thus, the differences in perspectives on the war and the resulting debate.
But, here is the text of the exchange between Noam Chomsky and our four economists. Complaints surely will be registered regarding “readability” of the file. There is a somewhat complicated organizational scheme of the text done by the authors themselves with different colors, italics, bold font etc., with a “key” at the outset of the document indicating author attribution of each comment done by them (Chomsky and Economists). Re-organizing and re-formatting for readability would have created extra rounds of approval from the authors. Therefore, it is submitted here as they themselves created it.
Readers can assess for themselves the veracity of claims and quality of arguments made by Bohdan Kukharskyy, Anastassia Fedyk, Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and Ilona Sologoub against Chomsky on both points of objective fact and on whether points of context (“background) are appropriate in discussion of this war. My own view is that all of them wish this war to end as quickly as possible. However, I also fear that a quick stop to this aggression is not a goal shared by all.
–Jeffrey Sommers is a Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
A Response to Yuriy Gorodnichenko, Bohdan Kukharskyy, Anastassia Fedyk and Ilona Sologoub Regarding Their Critique of Noam Chomsky on the Russia-Ukraine War
by Jonathan M. Feldman
On May 19, 2022, Yuriy Gorodnichenko (a visiting scholar with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco), Bohdan Kukharskyy (City University of New York), Anastassia Fedyk (UC Berkeley) and Illona Sologoub (VoxUkraine) wrote an open letter challenging Noam Chomsky and others for their views on the Ukraine War and conflict. The letter was supported by various Twitter users and circulated widely in social media.
This essay constitutes my response. I will address the seven claims they make against Chomsky. I won’t cover all of their arguments, but provide enough data to suggest that their arguments are filled with holes. My view is that Russia is engaged in a horrible, horrific attack on Ukraine, although the pre-history of this conflict illustrates that there are additional factors to consider when assessing the current Ukrainian government’s actions. There have been various arguments made to simplify this conflict or distort its understanding involving various intellectuals or analysts. The Gorodnichenko and company letter simply continues with this trend.
Claim 1: Chomsky has Denied Ukraine’s “sovereign integrity”
The authors quote Chomsky as follows: “The fact of the matter is Crimea is off the table. We may not like it. Crimeans apparently do like it.” The authors then attempt to refute Chomsky further by arguing that “first, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has violated the Budapest memorandum.”
The first problem with the critique we see here is that Chomsky does not deny or even assess Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea when he makes an analysis of what the Russians are likely to give up or not. A diagnosis of Russian intentions does not equate to an assessment of what is desirable or not. Furthermore, Chomsky’s assessments of what people living in Crimea may like is not an endorsement of Russian actions. Therefore, analysis of the Budapest memorandum is irrelevant to Chomsky’s analysis. It may be desirable for the Ukrainian government to make concessions, but the relative desirability of diplomacy is not an absolute statement of what one prefers to be preferable.
On March 18, 2014, the Center for Strategic International Studies explained why the Russians had a motivation to control Crimea. They wrote: “Most importantly, control of Crimea gives Moscow continuing access to the naval base at Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Sevastopol’s warm water port, natural harbor and extensive infrastructure make it among the best naval bases in the Black Sea. While Russia’s current lease of Sevastopol runs through 2042, due to recent events Russia had become increasingly concerned that its future access might be compromised. Operating from Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with the ability to project power in an around the Black Sea, while also serving as a potent symbol of Russian power.” In sum, Chomsky’s analysis is consistent with CSIS’s analysis of Russia’s motivations.
The authors continue: “if by ‘liking’ you refer to the outcome of the Crimean ‘referendum’ on March 16, 2014, please note that this ‘referendum’ was held at gunpoint and declared invalid by the General Assembly of the United Nations. At the same time, the majority of voters in Crimea supported Ukraine’s independence in 1991.” This is a red-herring argument. First, Crimeans “liking” is not necessarily a statement of majorities, but could mean liking by some. I will address both senses of the word “like” here. Turning to the word “like” as a preference by some, a report by National Public Radio (NPR) identified individuals liking and not liking the annexation.
The Brookings Institution offered another more thorough account in 2020. They argued: “The conduct of the referendum proved chaotic and took place absent any credible international observers. Local authorities reported a turnout of 83 percent, with 96.7 percent voting to join Russia. The numbers seemed implausible, given that ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars accounted for almost 40 percent of the peninsula’s population. (Two months later, a leaked report from the Russian president’s Human Rights Council put turnout at only 30 percent, with about half of those voting to join Russia.)” The report continues: “A large number of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars — some put the total at 140,000 — have left the peninsula since 2014.” Yet, this number was only a fraction of the 2.28 million inhabitants. By my rough estimate only 6.13% of such ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars emigrated out. Therefore, even if the referendum were invalid, the minimal migration does point to some level of consensus.
Conclusion on Claim 1: The authors introduce a strawman argument about what Chomsky said, with the only potentially valid claim something about Crimean preferences. Yet, Chomsky never made claims about majorities or specifics about how many liked it. As I shall show, even if he meant “majorities” there is evidence to support that interpretation as well. The limits to the outmigrations does substantiate if not lend support for the view that some or even many have “liked” the Russian presence. The problem, however, for Gorodnichenko and colleagues is that Foreign Affairs, a rather mainstream publication, published a detailed analysis of preferences on April 3, 2020, by John O’Loughlin, Gerald Toal, and Kristin M. Bakke. These authors reported the following: “From our survey data, it is possible to compare how Crimeans saw their future in December 2014 and how they perceived it five years later. Interviewees were asked if they expected to be better off after two years. Russians in Crimea harbored high hopes in 2014 (93 percent expected to be better off in two years), but they were somewhat less hopeful in 2019 (down to 71 percent). The proportion of Tatars who indicated that they thought being part of Russia would make them better off rose from 50 percent in 2014 to 81 percent in 2019. Ukrainians in Crimea remained generally optimistic: 75 percent indicated they expected to be better off in 2014, close to the 72 percent who did so in 2019. These generally high levels of optimism across ethnic groups suggest that most Crimeans are pleased to have left Ukraine for Russia, a richer country.” O’Loughlin and colleagues considered the critique of the original referendum in their analysis.
Please note: Neither I nor Chomsky endorse the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea.
Claim 2: Chomsky has treated Ukraine as an American pawn on a geo-political chessboard
Gorodnichenko and colleagues write that Chomsky’s “interviews insinuate that Ukrainians are fighting with Russians because the U.S. instigated them to do so, that Euromaidan happened because the U.S. tried to detach Ukraine from the Russian sphere of influence, etc. Such an attitude denies the agency of Ukraine and is a slap in the face to millions of Ukrainians who are risking their lives for the desire to live in a free country. Simply put, have you considered the possibility that Ukrainians would like to detach from the Russian sphere of influence due to a history of genocide, cultural oppression, and constant denial of the right to self-determination?”
This critique has several problems. First, it assumes that Chomsky is unaware of Russian militarism and brutality in Ukraine. Here is one of Chomsky’s statements about Russia related to the coalition led by the U.S. to intervene in Afghanistan: “Russia is happily joining the international coalition because it is delighted to have U.S. support for the horrendous atrocities it is carrying out in its war against Chechnya. It describes that as an anti-terrorist war. In fact it is a murderous terrorist war itself. They’d love to have the United States support it.” He also stated: “The Russians invaded Chechnya, destroyed Grozny, carried out massacres, terror.” These statements were easy to find, further evidence that the Chomsky critics are encouraging a false, misleading and superficial understanding of Chomsky’s views. They could have simply googled: “Chomsky’s critique of Russia” as I did.
Let us turn to Chomsky’s interview on April 14 with Jeremy Scahill in The Intercept which the authors make much of. There Chomsky stated: “I think that support for Ukraine’s effort to defend itself is legitimate. If it is, of course, it has to be carefully scaled, so that it actually improves their situation and doesn’t escalate the conflict, to lead to destruction of Ukraine and possibly beyond sanctions against the aggressor, or appropriate just as sanctions against Washington would have been appropriate when it invaded Iraq, or Afghanistan, or many other cases.” Here Chomsky supports the agency of Ukrainians in contrast to the impression left by Kurharskyy and colleagues.
Even if Chomsky does support Ukrainian agency (or parts of its claims to sovereignty), this does not mean that Ukrainians’ ability and capacity to do things has nothing to do with U.S. support. Chomsky never has said that it is undesirable for most of Ukraine to be independent from Russia. Rather, Chomsky has argued that the U.S. has complicated if not blocked an authentic negotiation process (and he raises questions about what may be the relative preference in diplomacy compared to continuing the war).
The New York Times recently stated in an editorial (May 19, 2022): “Is the United States, for example, trying to help bring an end to this conflict, through a settlement that would allow for a sovereign Ukraine and some kind of relationship between the United States and Russia? Or is the United States now trying to weaken Russia permanently? Has the administration’s goal shifted to destabilizing Vladimir Putin or having him removed? Does the United States intend to hold Mr. Putin accountable as a war criminal? Or is the goal to try to avoid a wider war — and if so, how does crowing about providing U.S. intelligence to kill Russians and sink one of their ships achieve this? Without clarity on these questions, the White House not only risks losing Americans’ interest in supporting Ukrainians — who continue to suffer the loss of lives and livelihoods — but also jeopardizes long-term peace and security on the European continent.”
In any case, the Ukrainian government may have all the “agency” in the world regarding their willingness to detach from Russia’s sphere of influence, but they could not attempt to do so in the matter they have done so (to date) without the U.S.’s influence and encouragement. Any argument to the contrary is patently absurd. And if Ukraine has the right to be independent, they are still a pawn in a U.S. government gambit aimed at Russia. I have analyzed the limits to Ukrainian sovereignty, agency or autonomy in various places, including an earlier essay related to arguments by Gilbert Achcar and Daniel Marwecki. These arguments relate to how Ukraine’s ability to act can’t be clearly separated by actions made by other states, e.g. in arm sales, or how parts of the Ukraine conflict have elements of a civil war. Despite all this neither Chomsky nor I argue that Ukraine does not have the right to defend itself. Rather, the larger consideration is factors that might motivate certain parties to act in certain ways, with these ways having consequences for negotiations or the course of the war itself.
In a guest essay for The New York Times (May 11, 2022), Tom Stevenson wrote: “the United States and its allies have also shifted their position. At first, the Western support for Ukraine was mainly designed to defend against the invasion. It is now set on a far grander ambition: to weaken Russia itself. Presented as a common-sense response to Russian aggression, the shift, in fact, amounts to a significant escalation. By expanding support to Ukraine across the board and shelving any diplomatic effort to stop the fighting, the United States and its allies have greatly increased the danger of an even larger conflict. They are taking a risk far out of step with any realistic strategic gain.” Stevenson’s arguments (and statements by Biden officials if not Biden himself) lead to the impression that Ukraine has become a pawn of U.S. military expansionist interests. More precisely, (a) Ukraine is fighting for independence, (b) is part of a civil war in Donbass, and (c) it gains support from the United States government but this support is tied to objectives other than simply defending Ukraine. These three things can occur simultaneously but Gorodnichenko and colleagues think if you assert (b) or (c), you negate (a). The real story is far more complicated. Ukraine is not simply a pawn of U.S. interests and neither Chomsky nor I assert that.
Conclusions on Claim 2: The critics appear to conflate the rights of Ukraine and a rebuttal about whether the country is simply a free agent independent of U.S. designs. It is hard to see how Ukraine could be entirely autonomous from the preferences of its largest benefactor and it is clear that the U.S. is using the conflict in Ukraine for goals other than simply protecting Ukraine or bringing the conflict to a quicker end. Negotiations without the U.S.’s active and constructive input are unlikely to lead anywhere. Such constructive input requires concessions. All diplomacy requires concessions and peace often requires sacrifice. In contrast, keeping your autonomy going at all costs is another way to keep a war going despite its costs. Some even argue that right-wing nationalist forces in Ukraine aligned with the U.S. help constrain diplomatic solutions. Here is what Andrew E. Kramer wrote in The New York Times on February 10, 2022 in an article entitled, “Armed Nationalists in Ukraine Pose a Threat Not Just to Russia”: “Kyiv is encouraging the arming of nationalist paramilitary groups to thwart a Russian invasion. But they could also destabilize the government if it agrees to a peace deal they reject.”
Claim 3: Chomsky claims that Russia was threatened by NATO
The critics write: “In your interviews, you are eager to bring up the alleged promise by [US Secretary of State] James Baker and President George H.W. Bush to Gorbachev that, if he agreed to allow a unified Germany to rejoin NATO, the U.S. would ensure that NATO would move ‘not one inch eastward.’ First, please note that the historicity of this promise is highly contested among scholars, although Russia has been active in promoting it. The premise is that NATO’s eastward expansion left Putin with no other choice but to attack.”
In contrast to the frame of these critics, Chomsky argues that NATO expansion may have motivated Putin or the escalation of violence, but he never argues that Putin did not have other choices. Chomsky’s views differ from those of John Joseph Mearsheimer whose arguments center more on NATO expansion than Russia’s independent role in projecting war and violence. While Mearsheimer could be used to deny Putin’s responsibility and the agency of the Russian warfare state, downplaying NATO agency in provoking Russia is a similarly flawed position. NATO expansion at the very least can be deployed to legitimate Putin’s actions among various Russian elite actors (even if there is a dissenting movement and even if the action is not legitimate in moral terms). One has to distinguish between sociological (public support) and philosophical (justifiable according to ethical considerations) legitimacy. Uriel Abuhoff in The British Journal of Sociology (Vol. 67, 2016: 371-39) explains that: “Political philosophy regards legitimacy as principled justification, sociology regards legitimacy as public support.”
Gorodnichenko and colleagues imply, however, that NATO expansion is irrelevant to Putin’s considerations. Let us consider that there are various claims made by scholars. For example, Mark Kramer and Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson wrote separate commentaries in the series, “NATO Enlargement–Was There a Promise?,” in International Affairs, Vol. 42, Issue 1, 2017: 186–192.
In this exchange, Kramer referred to his earlier research: “In an article published in April 2009, I set out to determine whether it was true that, at some point during the 1990 negotiations on Germany, Soviet leaders received a promise that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not eventually grant membership to countries beyond the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In the latter half of the 1990s, I frequently heard from Russian officials and from some Western observers that NATO leaders in 1990 had secretly offered ‘categorical assurances,’ ‘solemn pledges,’ and ‘binding commitments’ that no former Warsaw Pact countries (aside from the former GDR) would be brought into NATO. Those allegations continue to be voiced in Russia to this day. Archival documents bearing on those claims were declassified in Germany in the 1990s, but it took much longer for relevant Soviet documents to be released. However, after crucial Soviet materials…became available in the late 2000s, including detailed notes from the negotiations, I sought to determine whether the Russian allegations are well founded. I concluded that they are not. The declassified negotiating records reveal that no such assurances or pledges were ever offered.”
Shrifrinson questions Kramer’s views in his accompanying essay. He writes: “the fact that U.S. and West German leaders discussed in January 1990 how the Soviet Union needed assurances against NATO expansion into East Germany or ‘anywhere else in Eastern Europe,’ before offering Soviet leaders terms in February 1990 premised on this broad non-expansion conception, shows that policymakers were aware of the broader geographic and strategic impact of the 1990 negotiations. Likewise, Kramer argues that the absence of subsequent East-West negotiations on NATO’s future in Eastern Europe demonstrates that policymakers were focused narrowly on the future of Germany. Internal documents suggest, however, that U.S. silence was part of a gambit to let the Soviets believe that prior non-expansion assurances remained in effect while Washington moved to incorporate an U.S.-dominated post–Cold War order.”
Shrifrinson’s approach is backed up by Spiegel International in an essay published in February 2022: “Luckily, there are plenty of documents available from the various countries that took part in the talks, including memos from conversations, negotiation transcripts and reports. According to those documents, the U.S., the UK and Germany signaled to the Kremlin that a NATO membership of countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic was out of the question. In March 1991, British Prime Minister John Major promised during a visit to Moscow that ‘nothing of the sort will happen.’ Yeltsin expressed significant displeasure when the step was ultimately taken. He gave his approval for NATO’s eastward expansion in 1997, but complained that he was only doing so because the West had forced him to.”
The National Security Archive has also weighed in on the matter, backing Shrifrinson’s approach as well: “U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous ‘not one inch eastward’ assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents posted…by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. The documents show that multiple national leaders were considering and rejecting Central and Eastern European membership in NATO as of early 1990 and through 1991, that discussions of NATO in the context of German unification negotiations in 1990 were not at all narrowly limited to the status of East German territory, and that subsequent Soviet and Russian complaints about being misled about NATO expansion were founded in written contemporaneous memcons and telcons at the highest levels.”
In the National Security Archive document, “Record of conversation between Mikhail Gorbachev and James Baker in Moscow,” dated February 9, 1990, Baker tells his Soviet hosts: “NATO is the mechanism for securing the U.S. presence in Europe. If NATO is liquidated, there will be no such mechanism in Europe. We understand that 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. We believe that consultations and discussions within the framework of the ‘two + four’ mechanism should guarantee that Germany’s unification will not lead to NATO’s military organization spreading to the east.”
In “The United States and the NATO Non-extension Assurances of 1990: New Light on an Old Problem?,” published in International Security, 45(3), 2021: 162–203, Marc Trachtenberg writes: “The Russian government has claimed that the Western powers promised at the end of the Cold War not to expand NATO, but later reneged on that promise…An examination of the debate in light of the evidence—especially evidence that the participants themselves have presented—leads to the conclusion that the Russian allegations are by no means baseless, which affects how the U.S.-Russian relationship today is to be understood.”
In NATO’s account of its relationship to Ukraine, we find that: (a) Ukraine has “actively” contributed “to NATO-led operations and missions”; (b) “In June 2017, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted legislation reinstating membership in NATO as a strategic foreign and security policy objective,” with “a corresponding amendment to Ukraine’s Constitution” entering “into force” in 2019; and (c) “President Volodymyr Zelensky approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy,” which provided “for the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of membership in NATO” in September 2020.
Conclusions on Claim 3: Gorodnichenko and colleagues appear to have sided with the weaker side in an academic dispute, yet cover for this by noting that not all agree. Of course, there are always those with weaker arguments who don’t agree with those with stronger arguments. The critics conflate sociological legitimacy (how Putin could utilize NATO expansion as part of his realist if not militarist project) with philosophical legitimacy (whether it is morally justifiable to attack another state when fearing NATO expansion). Some will argue that NATO expansion or Ukraine’s actions in Donbass justify Russia’s actions. Chomsky has not made that argument. A key problem, however, is that a party to a conflict may be a victim of unwarranted aggression but still take specific actions that increase the probability that they will be a victim of such aggression. One can argue against the wisdom or virtue of these specific actions without justifying the aggression.
One of the supporters of the original letter (from Twitter, May 27, 2022)
Claim 4: Chomsky States that the U.S. isn’t any better than Russia
Here the authors write that even if Chomsky described the “Russian invasion of Ukraine a ‘war crime,’” it appeared to them that one could not “do so without naming in the same breath all of the past atrocities committed by the U.S. abroad (e.g., in Iraq or Afghanistan) and, ultimately,” Chomsky was described as spending “most” of his time “discussing the latter.” They go on to say that “not bringing Putin up on war crime charges at the International Criminal Court in the Hague just because some past leader did not receive similar treatment would be the wrong conclusion to draw from any historical analogy.” They see great advantage in “prosecuting Putin for the war crimes that are being deliberately committed in Ukraine” as that “would set an international precedent for the world leaders attempting to do the same in the future.”
There are several problems with this line of argument. First, there is often a tradeoff between what is required for diplomacy and negotiations on the one hand and what may be legally or morally justifiable on the other hand related to the treatment of a specific individual (this partially relates to the distinction made between different kinds of legitimacy). If the opportunity cost of failing to negotiate (assuming success is possible) is greater than the cost of letting a world leader off the hook, then prosecuting a single leader is potentially a limited symbolic gesture. To prosecute just Russian war criminals and not U.S. ones would reduce war crime prosecution to a political gesture as opposed to a moral (lesson advancing) gesture in my view. As a result, also or equally bringing up U.S. war criminals and crimes becomes highly relevant.
A second consideration is that Ukraine is being aided by a military system which historically been associated with committing war crimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Central America and elsewhere. Ukraine being aided by that system while trying to prosecute Putin is potentially hypocritical. This does not mean that Ukraine does not have the right to self-defense. This does not mean that Putin is not a war criminal. If Putin were to leave office after a regime not sympathetic to him took office, then there might be some consideration of prosecuting him. Yet, even if that were to happen, it would be probably far off in time (and thus would have less utility) from the period of immediate gains from a diplomatic engagement (which of course requires Putin’s involvement). Just prosecuting Putin and letting U.S. war criminals off the hook would help to further legitimate certain war criminals.
Some relevant considerations to these points can be found in the statements of Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School, in an interview with Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh on Democracy Now (May 19, 2022). She stated: “So I think the United States, it doesn’t seem to be interested, or at least I haven’t seen any interest in…[a]…negotiated position, because they do think Ukraine can win or should win, but also, as one of the anchors, American anchors, TV anchors, told me, is that: ‘How do we get rid of Putin?’ And my response was, ‘We may not, because it’s not a Hollywood movie.’ I mean, you know, not everything ends with a Marvel character victory. But it does seem that the United States thinks that Ukraine should be supported in its war effort, not its negotiation effort, until the very end, because the victories of Ukraine or not defeats of Ukraine are much greater than originally was expected.” So a unilateral prosecution of Putin could be leveraged as a propaganda victory to bolster the U.S. position of not supporting negotiations.
Conclusions on Claim 4: The prosecution of Putin while giving a pass to U.S. war criminals would be utter hypocrisy and would leverage the Ukraine tragedy as part of a whitewash of U.S. (or other nation’s) war crimes. This would potentially lead any criminalization of Putin to become part of a morally ambiguous enterprise at best. Of course the counterfactual argument is that Russia never wants to negotiate and will not negotiate. This claim is not true. The counter argument to the counterfactual is that the Russians won’t negotiate in good faith (or to the fullest extent possible towards reaching a solution) if the U.S. is not involved in an authentic way.
Claim 5: Chomsky is whitewashing Putin’s goals for invading Ukraine
Gorodnichenko and colleagues argue here that Chomsky goes “to great lengths to rationalize Putin’s goals of ‘demilitarization’ and ‘neutralization’ of Ukraine.” They continue: “‘Demilitarization’ and ‘neutralization’ imply the same goal – without weapons Ukraine will not be able to defend itself.”
My response to this argument is as follows. Putin may have multiple objectives (Gorodnichenko and colleagues also bring up the denazification argument) in Ukraine. One of these objectives would be for Ukraine to not align itself with NATO and not gain sophisticated or extensive weapons which could be used against Russia. If Putin has these objectives and Chomsky identifies these, then that does not mean that Chomsky believes that Ukraine should unilaterally disarm. Chomsky and others have discussed neutrality as part of a diplomatic solution to the conflict, with the potential gains of neutrality being an end to Russian attacks on Ukraine. Peace negotiations usually require concessions by both sides, not one side. Disarmament (and arms control) treaties are based on mutually sanctioned negotiations about military disengagement involving the various parties to the treaties. The authors have again distorted a diagnosis with other claims by falsely conflating an analysis of some of Putin’s considerations with sanctioning Putin’s actions. This ploy is disingenuous.
Gorodnichenko and colleagues may believe that Putin’s denazification arguments are a recipe for destroying Ukraine and Ukraine must defend itself from this destruction. They write: “As elaborated in the ‘denazification manual’ published by the Russian official press agency RIA Novosti, a ‘Nazi’ is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian, the establishment of a Ukrainian state thirty years ago was the ‘Nazification of Ukraine,’ and any attempt to build such a state has to be a ‘Nazi’ act.” There is no doubt that conflating all Ukrainians with Nazis is a tactic of Putin, although Ukraine does have a considerable Nazi presence. Others who may claim to be on the left term the Ukrainian government Nazi, but neither Chomsky nor I belong to that camp.
The underlying question here, however, is whether Putin will: a) hold out until he destroys all of Ukraine, b) is mostly concerned with Donbass or Eastern Ukraine where Ukrainian Nazis have been active, or c) would dispense with his concern for Nazis and Ukraine’s elimination if he got the settlement he wanted. Related to this last point, we can return to Nina Khrushcheva. She stated in the aforementioned interview: “when the negotiations were seemingly doing OK, the Russians withdrew from the areas of Kyiv. And that was — you know, for the Russians, they say it was the idea that they’re just going to help negotiations, but it was taken by the Ukrainian side and the American side as the Russian defeat, and then the more weapons went into Ukraine.” So, one scenario is that the Russians have considered negotiating, not simply destroying all of Ukraine. Nations like Italy, Austria, and Germany as well as Ukraine itself have made diplomatic proposals at various times during the conflict.
Conclusions on Claim 5: The authors don’t really offer any convincing evidence about Chomsky’s views about Putin’s intentions. Chomsky notes some of these intentions which the author’s conflate with Chomsky’s assessment of all of Putin’s intentions. The authors don’t seem to acknowledge how Ukraine’s complicated history of deepening its NATO cooperation undermined their own country’s security. The counter-argument that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proved the need for Ukraine to be in NATO makes little sense because various countries have been neutral and bordered Russia and were not attacked during the postwar settlement, i.e. Finland. I have argued elsewhere against the embrace of NATO as some kind of liberatory network.
The counterargument (against the Finnish example) is that Russia helped separatists in Donbass (and thus intervened militarily against Ukraine). The response to this counterargument is that the Ukrainian government and military themselves engaged in unjustified or greater than warranted militarist attacks against civilians in Donbass as others have explained (see: Renfrey Clarke in his essay, “The Donbass in 2014: Ultra-Right Threats, Working-Class Revolution, and Russian Policy Responses,” in the book Russia, Ukraine and Contemporary Imperialism, edited by Boris Kagarlitsky, Radhika Desai and Alan Freeman, Routledge, 2017 and 2019, some of which I have summarized elsewhere). In addition, one might argue that Ukrainian agreements with NATO differ from Finnish agreements with NATO, but even if that argument did not hold up, Finland’s internal dealings have not involved severe provocations of some of its Russian speaking population.
Finally, the Donbass war took place in 2014. Ukraine moved towards NATO far in advance of that date according to NATO: “Relations were strengthened with the signing of the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which established the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) to take cooperation forward.” Therefore, one can’t use the Donbass conflict as a reason for why Ukraine moved towards NATO. One would have to refer to Russian aggressions earlier than 2014, but then again parts of Ukrainian history also involve a checkered past.
Claim 6: Chomsky argues that Putin seeks a diplomatic solution
Gorodnichenko and colleagues make their clearest claims in this complaint. Let us quote from their original letter: “we find it preposterous how [Chomsky] repeatedly assign the blame for not reaching this settlement to Ukraine (for not offering Putin some ‘escape hatch’) or the U.S. (for supposedly insisting on the military rather than diplomatic solution) instead of the actual aggressor, who has repeatedly and intentionally bombed civilians, maternity wards, hospitals, and humanitarian corridors during those very ‘negotiations’. Given the escalatory rhetoric (cited above) of the Russian state media, Russia’s goal is erasure and subjugation of Ukraine, not a ‘diplomatic solution.’”
This statement suffers from a number of problems. First, Chomsky has argued that diplomacy should be tried, but offers no guarantees that such attempts will be successful. Second, the authors conflate the desire for diplomacy (something shared by multiple states including Ukraine) with somehow sanctioning Putin. This conflation is absurd.
Chomsky has stated (as quoted in The Daily Star, May 27, 2022: “One option is to pursue the policy we are now following…to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. And yes, we can pursue that policy with the possibility of nuclear war. Or we can face the reality that the only alternative is a diplomatic settlement, which will be ugly – it will give Putin and his narrow circle an escape hatch.”
We have several key parties to this conflict: Russia, the United States and Ukraine. If the latter two do not make attempts to reach a negotiated settlement, then Russia will continue using military means until it gets what it wants. The a priori conclusion idea that diplomacy will not change the calculus of what Russia wants is a very risky proposition. Chomsky argues that diplomacy must be tested (properly) because the risks of continuing the war are very high for various parties, none the least Ukraine itself. The United States has put a lot of pressure to motivate Putin through sanctions, but this means little if the United States and Ukraine don’t make reduction of sanctions and some concessions as part of their diplomatic moves to end the war.
Essentially a key question here is whether war should be continued as various states assess the benefits of gaining or regaining territory, i.e. will the future be decided on the battle field or in diplomatic solutions? As Nina Khrushcheva stated: “It’s not clear whether the negotiations will rise up again, because, for now, it seems to me that both sides appear to want to have more military victories, or small victories as they are…” Some in the Ukrainian government may think that the military route will benefit them, that Russia will not negotiate, and that the U.S. has no influence on Russia. The risks and costs of the conflict, in contrast, require good faith attempts at diplomacy. Right now Khrushcheva and others argue that the U.S. prefers regime change or weakening Russia. Ukraine’s preferences are not the only considerations that must be considered as I have argued elsewhere.
Conclusions on Claim 6: The authors are in denial about the Biden Administration’s real agenda in Ukraine. This agenda shapes Russian calculations. Therefore, the authors are in partial denial about Russia’s calculations. The authors underplay the opportunity cost of the war to Ukraine and other areas affected by this conflict. Their argument rests on the notion that Putin does not want diplomacy. This notion is belied by Russian participation in negotiations and begs the question about how authentic negotiations have been subverted by the United States, something that now seems to come close to the concerns of The New York Times. Finally, when the Trump Administration tried to hold up or delay weapons shipments to Ukraine, we saw clearly how Ukraine was manipulated by the United States for potential domestic gain of the U.S. leader. There is nothing new here. Even if Russia has failed to negotiate in good faith, so has the United States. To reach a diplomatic solution, which is always preferable to war, requires doing more than identifying who does not negotiate in good faith. Diplomatic agreements are supported by verification systems which are designed to see if parties cheat, lie or violate terms of an agreement.
Claim 7: Chomsky advocates that yielding to Russian demands is the way to avert a nuclear war
This argument rests on the idea that Russia wants to destroy Ukraine and that is their ultimate objective. In contrast, Russia’s strategy is to bombard Ukraine until it gets what it wants, part of that country’s brutal military approach to statecraft. There is a nuanced difference here which is significant. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are a means to an end, even if some military actions or senseless violence make violence in Ukraine by Russia an end in itself. Chomsky argues for negotiation which by definition involves concessions by both sides. The authors simply pick out one part of Chomsky’s understanding of diplomacy and throw out the other.
Conclusions on Claim 7: The general pattern of the authors is to take one part of an argument and displace or ignore the other part of an argument. Or the authors create axioms about Russian intentions which they don’t prove (or attempt to prove with partial evidence) and then deduce everything from the non-proven intentions, i.e. Russia simply wants to destroy Ukraine and has no other objectives. Chomsky, like others, tries to understand what might motivate Russia so as to promote a diplomatic solution. The risks of not pursuing such a solution might be ignored by the critics because the authors conveniently assume that diplomacy is impossible. Meanwhile we see that one default move is that Russia and Ukraine both try to resolve the conflict with weapons and territorial conquests.
The idea that the United States could not seriously change the rules of the game is absurd. Therefore, the authors prefer to argue (or perhaps seem to argue) that the United States should not try to change the rules of the game. Why would Russia negotiate when the country leading the sanctions movement does not want to make lifting them a key item in diplomatic engagement? I do not write this because I sympathize with Russia. I don’t sympathize with brutal military states. Rather, I try to understand how they operate and how they could be encouraged to take a less brutal path. That is my impression of Chomsky’s approach.
One has to consider many factors in this war: Ukrainian sovereignty, Russian militarist aggression, local regional preferences in areas once controlled by Ukraine, U.S. and NATO militarist expansion, the requirements of diplomacy, the risks of escalation, etc. By focusing solely on the first two factors, one can develop all kinds of indicators and arguments which beg the question about the other factors. Even if we were to assume that Putin is presently disinclined to negotiate (or negotiates in bad faith), what will Ukraine and Zelensky do after the United States decides to stop paying billions to keep the war going, growing tired of the costs of its militaristic solidarity?