Ukraine Ceasefire Takes Hold, but an Expanding NATO on Russia’s Borders Raises Threat of Nuclear War

Democracy Now!

9/5/14

[partial transcript]

… STEPHEN COHEN: One latest development is related to what Juan just said about New York kids. There are about a million refugees from eastern Ukraine, most of them having fled to Russia, a lot of kids. Traditionally in Ukraine and Russia, the first day of school is September 1. There are about 50,000 to 70,000 kids who needed to have started school. The Russians have made every effort to get them in school, but there are a lot of little Ukrainian kids who won’t be going to school this September yet, because they’re living in refugee camps. And that’s the story, of course.

This is a horrific, tragic, completely unnecessary war in eastern Ukraine. In my own judgment, we have contributed mightily to this tragedy. I would say that historians one day will look back and say that America has blood on its hands. Three thousand people have died, most of them civilians who couldn’t move quickly. That’s women with small children, older women. A million refugees. Talk of a ceasefire that might go into place today, which would be wonderful, because nobody else should die for absolutely no reason.

But what’s driving the new developments, and partially the NATO meeting in Wales, but this stunning development, that Juan mentioned, reported in The New York Review of Books, though a handful of us in this country have been trying to get it into the media for nearly two weeks, is that it appeared that the Ukrainian army would conquer eastern Ukraine. But what they were doing is sitting outside the cities, bombarding these cities with aircraft, rockets, heavy artillery. That’s what caused the 3,000 deaths and the refugees. They’ve seriously damaged the entire infrastructure, industrial infrastructure, of Ukraine, which is in these eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, the so-called Donbas region.

It turned out, though, that the Ukrainian army didn’t want to enter these cities, where the rebels were embedded, ensconced. It’s their homes; these fighters are mainly from these cities. And while this killing was going on, the rebels were regrouping. Now, there’s an argument: How much help did they get from Russia? Some people are saying Russia invaded. Others say, no, Russia just gave them some technical and organizational support. But whatever happened in the last 10 days, there’s been one of the most remarkable military turnarounds we’ve witnessed in many years, and the Ukrainian army is not only being defeated, but it’s on the run. It’s fleeing. It wants no more of this. It’s leaving its heavy equipment behind. It’s really in full-scale retreat, except in one place, the city Juan mentioned, Mariupol, where there’s a fight going on as we talk now. The rebels have the city encircled. Whether that fighting will stop if the ceasefire is announced in the next couple hours, we don’t know. It’s a very important city. But everything has now changed. If there’s negotiation, the government of Ukraine, Poroshenko, the president, our President Obama and NATO thought that when negotiations began, the West would dictate the terms to Putin because they won the war in Ukraine. Now it’s the reverse…

AMY GOODMAN: The possibility of Ukraine in NATO and what that means and what—

STEPHEN COHEN: Nuclear war.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

STEPHEN COHEN: Next question. I mean, it’s clear. It’s clear. First of all, by NATO’s own rules, Ukraine cannot join NATO, a country that does not control its own territory. In this case, Kiev controls less and less by the day. It’s lost Crimea. It’s losing the Donbas—I just described why—to the war. A country that does not control its own territory cannot join Ukraine [sic]. Those are the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Cannot join—

STEPHEN COHEN: I mean, NATO. Secondly, you have to meet certain economic, political and military criteria to join NATO. Ukraine meets none of them. Thirdly, and most importantly, Ukraine is linked to Russia not only in terms of being Russia’s essential security zone, but it’s linked conjugally, so to speak, intermarriage. There are millions, if not tens of millions, of Russian and Ukrainians married together. Put it in NATO, and you’re going to put a barricade through millions of families. Russia will react militarily.

In fact, Russia is already reacting militarily, because look what they’re doing in Wales today. They’re going to create a so-called rapid deployment force of 4,000 fighters. What is 4,000 fighters? Fifteen thousand or less rebels in Ukraine are crushing a 50,000-member Ukrainian army. Four thousand against a million-man Russian army, it’s nonsense. The real reason for creating the so-called rapid deployment force is they say it needs infrastructure. And the infrastructure—that is, in plain language is military bases—need to be on Russia’s borders. And they’ve said where they’re going to put them: in the Baltic republic, Poland and Romania.

Now, why is this important? Because NATO has expanded for 20 years, but it’s been primarily a political expansion, bringing these countries of eastern Europe into our sphere of political influence; now it’s becoming a military expansion. So, within a short period of time, we will have a new—well, we have a new Cold War, but here’s the difference. The last Cold War, the military confrontation was in Berlin, far from Russia. Now it will be, if they go ahead with this NATO decision, right plunk on Russia’s borders. Russia will then leave the historic nuclear agreement that Reagan and Gorbachev signed in 1987 to abolish short-range nuclear missiles. It was the first time nuclear—a category of nuclear weapons had ever been abolished. Where are, by the way, the nuclear abolitionists today? Where is the grassroots movement, you know, FREEZE, SANE? Where have these people gone to? Because we’re looking at a new nuclear arms race. Russia moves these intermediate missiles now to protect its own borders, as the West comes toward Russia. And the tripwire for using these weapons is enormous.

One other thing. Russia has about, I think, 10,000 tactical nuclear weapons, sometimes called battlefield nuclear weapons. You use these for short distances. They can be fired; you don’t need an airplane or a missile to fly them. They can be fired from artillery. But they’re nuclear. They’re radioactive. They’ve never been used. Russia has about 10,000. We have about 500. Russia’s military doctrine clearly says that if Russia is threatened by overwhelming conventional forces, we will use tactical nuclear weapons. So when Obama boasts, as he has on two occasions, that our conventional weapons are vastly superior to Russia, he’s feeding into this argument by the Russian hawks that we have to get our tactical nuclear weapons ready.

Stephen Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University. He’s also the author of a number of books on Russia and the Soviet Union. His latest piece in The Nation is headlined “Patriotic Heresy vs. the New Cold War: Neo-McCarthyites Have Stifled Democratic Debate on Russia and Ukraine.”

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