From Meduza, July 21, 2022, https://meduza.io/feature/2022/07/21/te-kto-dayut-oruzhie-ukraine-dolzhny-ponimat-na-konu-zhizni-ne-tolko-ukraintsev-no-i-vseh-ostalnyh. Condensed text:
Editors’ Note. – Noam Chomsky is an American scholar and the author of many academic works, as well as an entirely new discipline: generative linguistics. Chomsky is also known for his leftist views and his criticism of US foreign policy. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine [see Vol. 74, No. 8, pp. 9‑13], Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent Western intellectuals who, while condemning the war, are laying a share of responsibility for it on the West and calling for a “peaceful settlement of the conflict.” Meduza asked Chomsky what he means by that.
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Question. – In an interview with the TruthOut publication in early March 2022, the first week of the war, you said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is one of the worst war crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries, ranking alongside the US invasion of Iraq and the Hitler-Stalin partitioning of Poland in [September] 1939. Do you still think so?
Answer. – I do. What’s more, the longer this war goes on, the more convinced I am of that.
Q. – Judging by your other recent interviews, you believe that the invasion was “provoked” by the West, which refused to meet Moscow’s demands.
A. – You misunderstood me. Yes, I believe that the war was provoked, but this does not justify it.
However, the thing is that in American discourse, it is obligatory to refer to the situation in Ukraine as unprovoked aggression – but only on the part of Russia. This is being constantly repeated in the American media: “unprovoked aggression.” I looked it up on Google and found that almost no one is talking about the US invasion of Iraq in this context, unlike Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: There are hundreds of thousands of hits. Especially considering that there was absolutely no justification for the former.
Q. – Even assuming that Ukraine or someone else did provoke Russia, I don’t think a judge in any civil case would accept the argument from a defendant in a murder trial that he was provoked by his victim.
A. – You’re absolutely right. If you say something to me that I find unbearable and in response I take a gun and shoot you dead, I would certainly be guilty of murder even if I was provoked. This is precisely how international law works: The UN Charter enumerates cases where the use of force is justified, and that does not include provocation.
Q. – The problem is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin clearly does not think that international law applies to Ukraine. He has repeatedly said that he does not consider it an independent country that deserves the right to exist.
A. – Putin has said a lot of things. As for the immediate goals, both Putin himself and [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov have stated in no uncertain terms: They are the so-called denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, and the protection of the people of the Donetsk Basin. Some of his statements could be considered part of the dispute about Ukraine’s historical borders and the causes of the invasion, which in Russia is referred to as a “special military operation,” but that is a different story.
Q. – Putin has also talked a lot about the West’s promises not to expand NATO to the east. And he is not against NATO enlargement as such – for example, it appears that he has no problem with Sweden or Finland [joining NATO; see Vol. 74, No. 15, pp. 18‑19 – Trans.]. But what is happening in the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine seems to have little to do with Ukraine’s NATO status: Ukrainian [school] textbooks are being removed and street signs, flags and so on are being replaced with Russian ones. What has that got to do with NATO?
A. – I’d like to remind you that besides Putin, other Russian leaders – [former Russian president Boris] Yeltsin, [former Soviet premier Mikhail] Gorbachev, [and former Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev – have said that Ukraine and Georgia should be surrounded with red flags for NATO. During the past 30 years, many officials at US foreign policy agencies (for example, former US ambassador to Russia William Burns, according to WikiLeaks archives) have been saying the same, including to US leaders – that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s admission to the alliance, which is hostile toward Russia, would be perceived as an act of aggression, unacceptable to Russia.
As for what is currently happening in territories that Russia intends to incorporate, over the past two to three years, Russia’s stance has boiled down to the formula of the second Minsk agreement, whereby Russia-oriented regions are granted considerable autonomy as part of a Ukrainian Federation [see Vol. 67, No. 7, pp. 3‑7]. Needless to say, the longer the war goes on, the more extreme the sides’ demands will become.
Q. – But it is up to the Ukrainians themselves, not Russia or anybody else, to decide whether to join NATO or any other military alliance, including a Russian one.
A. – Absolutely. Likewise, the Mexicans might decide to join a military alliance led by China, so that China could deploy its weapons along the southern US border. However, we all understand very well what such a decision might lead to. As you can see, it makes no sense to even discuss this scenario. . . .
Q. – Ukraine’s stance is precisely that the more modern weapons they get from the West, the sooner the war will end.
A. – If Ukraine asks for weapons to defend itself, it should be provided with them. But those supplying weapons to Ukraine should realize that Ukrainian lives aren’t the only ones at risk: Everyone’s life is on the line. The West should remember that the weapons it is supplying to Ukraine could place the entire world on the brink of a war that would destroy not only Ukraine, but the entire world.
We should respond positively to requests for weapons. But this brings up the question: Are we prepared to risk our own lives along with the lives of Ukrainians if Russia responds with the weapons it has? I personally am not prepared for such a high-stakes game.
Q. – In other words, nuclear blackmail works – this is the conclusion that Putin will apparently draw from this situation.
A. – Any sensible person has been drawing this conclusion for the past 75 years. You can dream about a different world, but when there is the threat of nuclear war, states back down. This is precisely why we are still alive.
Of course, one might say: Okay, the challenge has been accepted; the game is on. Russia might admit defeat and retreat, or it might use its weapons and destroy Ukraine, and this would take us to the next round of escalation. If you are happy with this choice, just say so. . . .
Q. – Is the US or any other country under a moral obligation to become involved in a conflict where it is crystal clear who the aggressor is and who the victim is?
A. – Of course, but only to protect the victim. It’s interesting that you raised this question. Then I have a counterquestion for you: Have you called on the world to unite and drive the US out of Iraq, and punish it with such tough sanctions that it would never again think of embarking on such reckless misadventures?
Q. – I suspected it would come to this argument. I believe that not a single person in Russia, even in the most liberal anti-Putin circles, would justify the US invasion of Iraq.
A. – But my question was different: Have you personally called for the US to be driven out of Iraq and to be punished with the toughest possible sanctions?
Q. – No, I haven’t, I admit it.
A. – Nobody has. So here’s this counterquestion: Why is the moral aspect never mentioned in the context of aggression on the part of the West? This question is being asked by all of the Global South. As you can see, most countries are choosing not to become involved in this conflict. They are saying: Yes, this is monstrous aggression on the part of Russia, but aren’t you constantly doing the same to us? So stop pretending to be moralists: You have no moral high ground.
Q. – But if neither the US nor any other developed Western country has the moral right to help Ukraine because of their reputation, forever spoiled by the invasion of Iraq, it turns out that it’s everyone for himself and Ukraine is doomed to cope with this aggression on its own?
A. – This is not only about Iraq – it’s just one of the numerous examples of Western countries invading other countries. Indeed, ethically, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in no way better than the US invasion of Iraq or any other crimes by the West.
But this has little to do with the current situation: This argument is only good for a moralistic position. So let’s stop moralizing and ask: What should we do right now? In the case of Ukraine, we have two options – diplomacy or no diplomacy. The nondiplomatic option means the continuation of the war with all the collateral destruction and damage in the hope that, first, Ukraine will endure and second, if it begins to get the upper hand, Russia will not resort to the extreme measures that it has in its arsenal.
The second option: Stop sabotaging a diplomatic solution and start working on a peace treaty whose terms and conditions are acceptable to both sides, even though they may not completely suit either side.
Q. – The most realistic scenario for such a diplomatic solution must necessarily include the acceptance of Russia’s occupation of territories that are home to millions. And as we already know from media reports, some of which were published in Meduza, nothing good is in store for these people.
A. – We don’t know whether that is what Russia will demand. Until March, the most realistic scenario for a diplomatic solution was a variation of the Minsk‑2 agreements whereby the Donetsk Basin receives broad autonomy as part of a Ukrainian Federation. But this opportunity has already been lost, because diplomacy is constantly giving in to escalation and the parties’ demands are becoming more extreme.
If Russia pushes to retain control over the territories it has seized by force, their population will surely face the same thing that happened in the rest of Ukraine after the maidan [Independence Square] uprising, when the authorities banned the publication of cultural products in Russian and so on. Nothing good will come of it. But this is in fact what the rejection of diplomacy has led to: Things will only get worse. . . .
Q. – You said in a recent interview that censorship in the US today is so overwhelming that the American public is completely denied access to alternative viewpoints. What did you mean by that with regard to Russia? What’s so important that the Americans don’t know about?
A. – I didn;t say that the American public does not have access to alternative viewpoints: We are a free country and everyone is at liberty to read whatever they like. I meant that it’s the Russian position that is being censored, since all Russian TV channels are blocked. If you want to know what Lavrov said, you will have to go to [Qatar’s] Al Jazeera [TV channel], the BBC or India’s state-run TV channel. This is very strict censorship: Even during the perestroika days in the USSR, people were able to listen to the BBC and Voice of America. What is now happening in the US is not only fundamentally wrong but factually ridiculous.
We need to hear Russian voices to have an opportunity to make balanced and informed decisions. Furthermore, the blocking of Russian TV channels has led to the loss of an entire archive of programs with the most well-known US commentators who had their own shows on RT. Even though RT’s viewership in the US is infinitesimally small, they did have such an opportunity, but now they don’t. Censorship in the US has reached a level beyond anything in my lifetime.
Q. – Now for a philosophical question: Does a state where censorship is far tougher than what you are describing, where absolutely all independent media outlets are blocked, where journalists are jailed and so on, have the right to be heard?
A. – Of course it does. Of course, we would prefer Russia to be a different country. But that’s the same as trying to stop the unprecedented heat wave that many countries are currently experiencing with the power of thought.
A sensible person will say: Yes, we realize that Russia is a brutal autocracy with an extreme censorship regime. But we need to act based on the real situation, not on our wishful thinking. So it’s not a question of philosophy, but of whether we want to live in an imaginary, ideal world or make decisions affecting all people based on actual circumstances. I believe the second option is the right one.