Chomsky: Our Priority on Ukraine Should Be Saving Lives, Not Punishing Russia

Noam Chomsky Interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou

April 20, 2022. Truthout.

Nearly two months into the war in Ukraine, and peace is nowhere in sight. In fact, the level of destruction has intensified and both sides seem to have little hope for a peaceful settlement anytime soon. Furthermore, the international situation is also heating up as some European neutral countries are thinking of joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a development that prompted the Kremlin to respond with threats of deploying nuclear weapons in the Baltic region should such a move take place.

In the interview that follows, world-renowned scholar and leading dissident Noam Chomsky addresses these developments in an exclusive interview for Truthout. He emphasizes that we must prioritize saving human lives — not punishing Russia — in determining next moves.

Chomsky is internationally recognized as one of the most important intellectuals alive. He is the author of some 150 books and the recipient of scores of highly prestigious awards, including the Sydney Peace Prize and the Kyoto Prize, and of dozens of honorary doctorate degrees from the world’s most renowned universities. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT and currently Laureate Professor at the University of Arizona.

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week at a joint press conference with ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that peace talks have reached a “dead end” and that the invasion is proceeding as planned. In fact, he vowed that the war would continue until all goals that were set at the start of the invasion are completed. Does Putin not want peace in Ukraine? Is he really at war with NATO and the U.S.? If so, particularly given how dangerous the West’s policy toward Russia has been so far, what can be done now to prevent an entire country from being potentially wiped off the map?

Noam Chomsky: Before proceeding with this discussion, I’d like to emphasize, once again, the most important point: Our prime concern should be to think through carefully what we can do to bring the criminal Russian invasion to a quick end and to save the Ukrainian victims from more horrors. There are, unfortunately, many who find heroic pronouncements to be more satisfying than this necessary task. Not a novelty in history, regrettably. As always, we should keep the prime issue clearly in mind, and act accordingly.

Turning to your comment, the final question is by far the most important one; I’ll return to the earlier ones.

There are, basically, two ways for this war to end: a negotiated diplomatic settlement or destruction of one or the other side, either quickly or in prolonged agony. It won’t be Russia that is destroyed. Uncontroversially, Russia has the capacity to obliterate Ukraine, and if Putin and his cohort are driven to the wall, in desperation they might use this capacity. That surely should be the expectation of those who portray Putin as a “madman” immersed in delusions of romantic nationalism and wild global aspirations.

That’s clearly an experiment that no one wants to undertake — at least no one who has the slightest concern for Ukrainians.

The qualification is unfortunately necessary. There are respected voices in the mainstream who simultaneously hold two views: (1) Putin is indeed a “deranged madman” who is capable of anything and might lash out wildly in revenge if backed to the wall; (2) “Ukraine must win. That is the only acceptable outcome.” We can help Ukraine defeat Russia, they say, by providing advanced military equipment and training, and backing Putin to the wall.

Those two positions can only be simultaneously held by people who care so little about the fate of Ukrainians that they are willing to try an experiment to see whether the “deranged madman” will slink away in defeat or will use the overwhelming force at his command to obliterate Ukraine. Either way, the advocates of these two views win. If Putin quietly accepts defeat, they win. If he obliterates Ukraine, they win: It will justify far harsher measures to punish Russia.

It is of no little interest that such willingness to play games with the lives and fate of Ukrainians receives high praise, and is even considered a noble and courageous stance. Perhaps other words might come to mind.

Putting aside the qualification — unfortunately necessary in this strange culture — the answer to the question posed seems clear enough: engage in serious diplomatic efforts to end the conflict. Of course, that’s not the response for those whose prime goal is to punish Russia — to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian, as Ambassador Chas Freeman describes current U.S. policy, matters we have discussed.

The basic framework for a diplomatic settlement has long been understood and has been reiterated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. First, neutralization of Ukraine, providing it with a status rather like Mexico or Austria. Second, putting off the matter of Crimea. Third, arrangements for a high level of autonomy for Donbass, perhaps within a federal arrangement, preferably to be settled in terms of an internationally run referendum.

Official U.S. policy continues to reject all of this. High administration officials don’t just concede that “prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the United States made no effort to address one of Vladimir Putin’s most often stated top security concerns — the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO.” They praise themselves for having taken this position, which may well have been a factor in impelling Putin to criminal aggression. And the U.S. continues to maintain this position now, thus standing in the way of a negotiated settlement along the lines Zelenskyy outlined, whatever the cost to Ukrainians.

Can a settlement along those general lines still be achieved, as seemed likely before the Russian invasion? There is only one way to find out: to try. Ambassador Freeman is far from alone among informed Western analysts in chastising the U.S. government for having “been absent [from diplomatic efforts] and, at worst, implicitly opposed” to them with its actions and rhetoric. That, he continues, is “the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy” and a bitter blow to Ukrainians by prolonging the conflict. Other respected analysts, such as Anatol Lieven, generally agree, recognizing that at the very least, “The U.S. has done nothing to facilitate diplomacy.”

Regrettably, rational voices, however respected, are at the margins of discussion, leaving the floor to those who want to punish Russia — to the last Ukrainian.

At the press conference, Putin did appear to be joining the U.S. in preferring “the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy,” though his remarks do not close off these options. If peace talks are now at a “dead end,” that doesn’t mean that they cannot be resumed, at best with committed participation of the great powers, China and the U.S.

China is rightly condemned for its unwillingness to facilitate “statecraft and diplomacy.” The U.S. as usual is exempt from criticism in U.S. mainstream media and journals (though not completely), except for not providing more weapons to prolong the conflict or using other measures to punish Russians, the dominant concern, it appears.

One measure the U.S. could use is proposed from the halls of Harvard Law School, at the supposed liberal extreme of opinion. Professor emeritus Laurence Tribe and law student Jeremy Lewin propose that President Joe Biden should follow the precedent set by George W. Bush in 2003, when he seized “Iraqi funds sitting in American banks, allocating the proceeds to aid the Iraqi people and to compensate victims of terrorism.”

Did President Bush do something else in 2003 “to aid the Iraqi people”? That annoying question would be raised only by those guilty of the sin of “whataboutism,” one of the recent devices designed to bar any attention to our own actions and their consequences for today.

The authors recognize that there are some problems in freezing funds that have been kept for security in New York banks. They bring up the freezing of Afghanistan’s funds by the Biden administration, which was “controversial, owing mostly to unsettled questions regarding court attachment of assets and allocating claims among dueling plaintiffs … suits filed by the relatives of those killed or wounded on 9/11.”

Unmentioned, perhaps not controversial, is the plight of Afghan mothers watching their children starve because they cannot access their bank accounts to buy food in the markets, and more generally the fate of millions of Afghans facing starvation.

Further comment bearing on President Bush’s 2003 efforts “to aid the Iraqi people” is provided, inadvertently, by the leading foreign policy analyst of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman in his headline: “How Do We Deal With a Superpower Led by a War Criminal?”

Who could imagine that a superpower could be led by a war criminal in this enlightened day and age? A difficult dilemma to face, even to contemplate, in a country of pristine innocence like ours.

Is it any wonder that the more civilized part of the world, mostly the Global South, contemplates the spectacle unfolding here with astonishment and disbelief?

Returning to the press conference, Putin did say that the invasion was proceeding as planned and would continue until the initial goals are achieved. If the consensus of Western military analysts and political elites is anywhere near accurate, that is Putin’s way of acknowledging that the initial goals of quickly conquering Kiev and installing a puppet government had to be abandoned because of fierce and courageous Ukrainian resistance, exposing the Russian military as a paper tiger incapable even of conquering cities a few miles from its border that are defended by a mostly citizens army.

The consensus of experts then draws a further conclusion: The U.S. and Europe must devote even greater resources to protecting themselves from the next onslaught of this rapacious military monster who is poised to launch an attack to overwhelm NATO and the U.S.

The logic is overwhelming.

According to the consensus, Russia is now revising its abandoned plans and concentrating on a major assault in the Donbass region, where some 15,000 people are reported to have been killed since the Maidan uprising in 2014. By whom? It should not be hard to determine with many Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observers on the ground.

It seems to me to go too far to conclude that Putin is aiming for war with NATO and the U.S., that is, mutual annihilation. I think he wants peace — on his terms. (What monster doesn’t?) What these terms are we can only discover by trying to find out, through “statecraft and diplomacy.” We cannot find out by refusing to engage in this option, refusing even to contemplate or discuss it. We cannot find out by carrying forward the official policy announced last September and reinforced in November, matters that we have discussed repeatedly: the official U.S. policy on Ukraine that is withheld from Americans by the “free press” but surely studied very carefully by Russian intelligence, which has access to the White House website.

Returning to the essential point, we should be doing what we can to bring the criminal aggression to an end and doing so in a way that will save Ukrainians from further suffering and even possible obliteration if Putin and his circle are driven to the wall with no way out. That calls for a popular movement that will press the U.S. to reverse its official policy and to join in diplomacy and statecraft. Punitive measures (sanctions, military support for Ukraine) might be justified if they contribute to this end, not if designed to punish Russians while prolonging the agony and threatening Ukraine with destruction, with unspeakable ramifications beyond.

There are unconfirmed reports that Russia has used chemical weapons in the Ukrainian city that has been perhaps most brutally attacked — namely Mariupol. In turn, the U.K.’s government rushed to announce rather boldly that “all options are on table” if these reports are correct. Indeed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has already stated that such development would “totally change the nature of the conflict.” What does “all options on table” mean, and could it possibly include that scenario that the Ukraine war might go nuclear?

The phrase “all options are on the table” is normal in what passes for statecraft in the U.S. and U.K. — all in direct violation of the UN Charter (and if anyone were to care, the U.S. Constitution). We don’t know what might be in the minds of those who regularly issue these declarations. Perhaps they mean what the words say: that the U.S. is prepared to resort to nuclear weapons, thus very likely destroying itself along with much of life on Earth (though beetles and bacteria may proliferate). Maybe that is tolerable in their minds if it at least punishes Russians, who, we are told, are such an irremediable curse that the only solution may be “permanent Russian isolation” or even “Russia delenda est.”

It is, to be sure, appropriate to be much concerned about use of chemical weapons, even when unconfirmed. At the risk of more whataboutism, we should also be concerned about the well-confirmed reports of deformed fetuses in Saigon hospitals right now, among the terrible results of the chemical warfare unleashed by the Kennedy administration to destroy crops and forests, a core part of the program to “protect” the rural population who were supporting the Viet Cong, as Washington knew well. We should be concerned enough to do something to alleviate the consequences of these terrible programs.

If Russia might have used or be contemplating the use of chemical weapons, it is definitely a matter of deep concern.

There are also claims that thousands of Ukrainians have been forcefully deported from Mariupol to remote parts of Russia, evoking dark memories of the Soviet mass deportations under Stalin. Kremlin officials have rejected such claims as “lies,” but have openly talked about relocating civilians trapped in Mariupol. If reports of forced civilian deportations from Mariupol to Russia are proven true, what would be the purpose of such reprehensible actions, and wouldn’t they add to the list of Putin’s war crimes?

They surely would add to the list, already quite long. And, fortunately, we will know a lot about these crimes. There already are extensive investigations of Russian war crimes underway, and despite technical difficulties, they will proceed.

That, too, is normal. When enemies carry out crimes, a major industry is mobilized to reveal every tiny detail. As should be done. War crimes should not be concealed and forgotten.

Regrettably, that is the near-universal practice in the U.S. A few of the myriad examples have just been alluded to. But the fact that today’s global hegemon adopts the reprehensible practices of its predecessors still leaves us free to expose the crimes of today’s official enemies, a task that should be undertaken, and surely will be in this case. Others outside of the reach of the U.S. propaganda system will be appalled by the hypocrisy, but that’s no reason not to welcome the highly selective exposure of war crimes.

Those with some perverse interest in looking at ourselves can learn some lessons from the way atrocities are handled when exposed. The most notable case is the My Lai massacre, finally recognized after freelance reporter Seymour Hersh exposed the crime to the West. In South Vietnam, it had long been known but did not arouse much attention. The Quaker medical center in Quang Ngai didn’t even bother reporting it because such crimes were so common. In fact, the official U.S. government investigation found another one like it at the nearby village of My Khe.

The My Lai massacre could be absorbed within the propaganda system by restricting the blame to GIs in the field who didn’t know who was going to shoot at them next. Exempt were — and are — those who sent them on these mass murder expeditions. Furthermore, the focus on one of the many crimes on the ground served to conceal the fact that they were the merest footnote to a huge bombing campaign of slaughter and destruction directed from air-conditioned offices, mostly suppressed by the media, though Edward Herman and I were able to write about it in 1979, making use of detailed studies provided to us by Newsweek correspondent Kevin Buckley, who had investigated the crime along with his colleague Alex Shimkin but was unable to publish more than fragments.

Short of such cases, which are rare, U.S. crimes are not examined and little is known about them. An old story among the very powerful.

It’s not easy to understand what is in the back of the minds of war criminals like Putin — or those who don’t exist, according to the canon as preached by New York Times pundits who are aghast at the discovery that war criminals exist — among official enemies.

Finland and Sweden seem to be warming up to the idea of joining NATO. In the event of such development, Russia has threatened to deploy nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles in the Baltic region. Does it make sense for neutral countries to join NATO? Do they really have reasons to be concerned about their own security?

Let’s return to the overwhelming consensus of Western military analysts and political elites: The Russian military is so weak and incompetent that it couldn’t conquer cities near its border that are defended mostly by a citizen’s army. So, therefore, those with overwhelming military power must tremble in their boots about their security in the face of this awesome military power, on the march.

One can understand why this conception should be a favorite in the offices of Lockheed Martin and other military contractors in the world’s leading arms exporter, relishing the new prospects for expanding their bulging coffers. The fact that it is accepted in much wider circles, and also guides policy, again perhaps merits some thought.

Russia does have advanced weapons, which can destroy (though evidently not conquer), so the Ukraine experience is held to indicate. For Finland and Sweden, abandoning neutrality and joining NATO might enhance the likelihood of their use. Since the security argument is not easy to take seriously, that seems to be the most likely consequence of their joining NATO.

It’s also worth recognizing that Finland and Sweden are already fairly well integrated into the NATO command system, just as was happening with Ukraine from 2014, solidified further with the official U.S. government policy statements of last September and November and the refusal of the Biden administration “to address one of Vladimir Putin’s most often stated top security concerns — the possibility of Ukraine’s membership into NATO” — on the eve of the invasion.