How U.S. and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe
By Benjamin Abelow* – CounterPunch website
Note: The following is a revised and expanded version of an interview with Benjamin Abelow, author of How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How U.S. and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe. The interview was originally published in Italian translation by the Italian news and commentary site, QuotidianoWeb.
Question: In your book on the Ukraine war, you say that the United States and NATO provoked the war. How do you understand this word, “provoked”?
Abelow: To say that the U.S. and NATO provoked the war could mean two different things. Do I mean that they wanted a war, and that they knew their actions would start one? That is one possible meaning of “provoked.”
But “provoked” can also mean that their actions caused the war unintentionally. In fact, one can provoke a war while trying to avoid war. Although it is possible that some in the U.S. foreign policy elite wanted this war, I believe that most did not. I think that most were honestly trying to stabilize the peace. In English we have an idiom, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I think this expression applies to the role of the United States and NATO in creating this war.
Question: In your book, you challenge readers to view U.S. and NATO actions through Russian eyes. You suggest that this will help them understand the origins of the war. Can you offer an example?
Abelow: One telling example occurred in 2021, the year before Russia invaded Ukraine. In that year, NATO carried out a live-fire training exercise in Estonia, a NATO country on Russia’s northwestern border. NATO fired 24 missiles. The launch sites were just 70 miles from Russia, and the missiles had a range of 185 miles. The purpose of this exercise was to practice destroying air defense targets inside Russia. The missiles did not enter Russian airspace, and NATO was not planning to attack Russia. It was trying to figure out how to react if Russia invaded one of the Baltic nations—Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. Destroying air defense targets was part of an overall deterrent or protective strategy. But this exercise could have been perceived by Russian leaders as preparation for an offensive attack. In fact, the same exercises could be used to train for that purpose.
Now let’s picture the converse of this situation. Imagine that the United States and Canada underwent a rift in their relations, and that Russia and Canada developed close political and military ties. Now imagine that, using a training site in Canada, Russia launched missiles, 70 miles from the U.S. border, to practice destroying air defense sites inside the United States. How would U.S. politicians and the foreign policy elite, military planners, and ordinary citizens in the United States react? Would they have accepted Russian claims that their actions were only defensive? No. They would have had enough uncertainty that they would consider the exercises a threat, possibly even a prelude to war. U.S. leaders would have demanded that the exercises cease and that the missiles be removed. It is likely they would have required the Russian military to leave Canada altogether. And if Russia refused, the U.S. probably would have gone to war. If the situation required it, U.S. military planners might even have threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons.
Keep in mind that we are not simply talking about Canada having its own military. We are talking about a country, in this example Russia, coming from far away—outside our hemisphere, in fact—and practicing with its missiles right on the U.S. border. This is exactly what the United States and NATO did with respect to Russia during their exercise in Estonia. Their actions showed a deep disregard for what risks Russia might have perceived. It also shows a lack of understanding about how easily NATO’s behavior could decrease Western security, rather than increase it, by provoking a Russian response.
Question: What lessons can be drawn from this example?
Abelow: This example illustrates what political scientists and international relations scholars call a “security dilemma.” This term refers to the idea that an action which is intended to be defensive can also have offensive potential and be perceived by another country as a threat. The result can be a spiral of action and reaction that ends in war. The dilemma is that a country wants to increase its security, but it makes decisions that have the opposite effect, by provoking defensive moves from the other side.
This example also illustrates how important it is to be able to imagine how another country, especially a potential opponent, perceives things. This ability is sometimes called “strategic empathy.” It requires an ability to step outside of one’s own limited perspective and to (so to speak) stand in the shoes of another. It requires us to recognize that—whatever else we may think about a potential opponent—the other country’s leadership consists of human beings who have some of the same security concerns and fears that we do.
The missile exercise in Estonia was just one of many NATO exercises conducted near Russia’s border. In fact, NATO carried out a very similar missile exercise in 2020, also in Estonia. All of these exercises, to one extent or another, created a security dilemma for Russia. Each was intended as part of a defensive preparation and a form of deterrence. But each exercise could also be used as part of an offensive strategy. While some people in the U.S. or Europe may laugh at the idea that NATO is a threat, from Russia’s perspective it is no joke. NATO is first and foremost a military organization. In fact, it is the most powerful military organization that has ever existed in the history of the world. And long before this war started, it was pointing at Russia.
The simple and sad fact is that the United States and NATO, as they have gone about their own efforts at security, have not adequately taken Russia’s security concerns into account. As a result, they created a situation that Russian leaders very naturally perceived to be a military threat.
Question: Do you think Putin and the Russian leadership are paranoid?
Abelow: No. I think they are dealing with legitimate security concerns of the same sort that preoccupy many national governments, including those of the United States.
Nonetheless, the way leaders view things does get shaped and modified by the historical experiences of their countries. In the case of Russia, it’s important to remember that the country has repeatedly been invaded from the West through the territory of Ukraine. The last time this happened, during Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, one out of every seven Russian citizens died. That’s 13 percent of the entire Russian population. Not 13 percent of the military. Thirteen percent of the whole Russian citizenry. As one example of the awesome destruction the country experienced, St. Petersburg—then called Leningrad—Russia’s second largest city, was put under siege for over two years and its inhabitants forced into cannibalism. Russian citizens, in the country’s second largest city, were literally eating the dead bodies of their neighbors.
We in the United States, and I dare say in most of Europe, cannot even begin to imagine such a thing. It would be as if Los Angeles or New York had been put under siege and reduced to cannibalism. The whole thing is inconceivable to us. But it is very much a part of Russian historical memory. And that siege is just one example of what Russian citizens endured within its borders. In a single battle, that of Stalingrad, which turned the tide of the Nazi invasion, close to 1,000,000 soldiers and 40,000 civilians died.
These and other wartime events are not an historical abstraction for the Russians who are alive today. The events affected nearly every family. In Putin’s case, his parents barely survived disease and near-fatal wounds, and his older brother and several uncles died. We need to take all this, and the psychological outlook it contributed to, into account. It is one important factor we must consider when we think about strategic empathy and security dilemmas.
Question: You write about the Cuban missile crisis. Why?
Abelow: In 1962, the Soviet Union placed missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba, about 90 miles off Florida’s coast and 1,000 miles from Washington, DC. The United States almost got into a nuclear war to compel the Soviets to remove them. This episode can be instructive for Americans because in that case it was the United States that was on the receiving end of a security dilemma. Some of the same things that we experienced then can be compared to what we did to Russia before the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Most importantly, Russia was demanding that we not bring Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine shares a 1,200-mile border with Russia, which at certain points is just 400 miles from Moscow. Some have argued that what the West did to Russia was a kind of Cuban missile crisis in reverse. I think there is much truth to that view.
We can learn other things, too. One of the main reasons there was no nuclear war during the crisis is that President John F. Kennedy was a man of boldness and wisdom in his relationship with the Soviet Union. Although he came into office as a cold warrior, he nonetheless established a personal relationship with his Soviet counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, exchanging letters through a private diplomatic backchannel. As a result, when the crisis occurred there was some element of trust, some ability to work together to keep the crisis from escalating to nuclear war.
Unfortunately, our current leaders seem to have no such wisdom. Mr. Biden has insulted Mr. Putin repeatedly and personally. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, our nation’s top diplomat, and our current Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, seem not to know what diplomacy means. There is nothing but insult, hostility, and demands coming from Washington. There is much less chance that an acute crisis could be diffused the way it was during the Cuban missile crisis.
There is one additional lesson that we can learn. Contrary to the popular notion, the Cuban missile crisis was not resolved by Kennedy staring down Khrushchev in an eyeball-to-eyeball game of nuclear chicken. Rather, a secret deal was struck in which, in exchange for the removal of the Cuban missiles, Kennedy agreed to remove intermediate-range nuclear missiles from Italy and Turkey. In fact, the placement of those missiles in 1960 and 1961 by the United States was one of the reasons Khrushchev placed missiles in Cuba. The resolution of the crisis reveals the potential for win-win diplomatic solutions to militarily intractable problems.
Question: It is difficult to talk to people about this war. People often say there is an aggressor, Russia, and a victim, Ukraine, and that nothing else matters. What do you say to these people?
Abelow: These people may be thinking something like this: “Okay, the U.S. and NATO made mistakes, but we now must deal with the current reality. What does it matter how we got here?” This sounds good on the surface, but we must understand why the war started if we want to bring it to an end with a minimum of additional destruction and risk.
My formal training is not only in history but in medicine. In medicine, we understand that if we diagnose a problem incorrectly, and then try to treat it, we will be using the wrong therapy and may make the situation worse. In fact, we may kill the patient. This is exactly what is happening now. People in Washington and the European Union, and in the various capitals of Europe, have misdiagnosed the problem. As a result, the “treatment” they prescribed—and are continuing to prescribe—is like pouring gasoline onto a fire. This fire could easily get out of control and lead to a catastrophe. It could result not only in the destruction of Ukraine and its complete termination as a functioning society, but in a direct NATO-Russia confrontation, which could lead to a nuclear war.
Some people look at this war and they think of World War II. They think of Hitler. It appears to them that Russia is trying to expand and reestablish the Soviet Union or a tsarist empire. This is nonsense. The actual reason for this war is what I described: a security dilemma resulting from the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders. But if you think you are fighting Hitler, that is, someone who wants to take over the world, someone who has no rational security concerns but only a desire to kill and expand, then it might be reasonable to keep fighting. It might make sense then to view negotiation as appeasement. That seems to be what our leaders think—and with the help of a compliant mass media, they have propagandized the populations of the United States and Europe to think the same thing.
Let me address your question directly. You asked what to say to people who think the origins of the war don’t matter. The answer is simple: You explain why the origins matter a lot. You explain how an incorrect understanding of why the war started will lead to a bad and possibly catastrophic outcome. Ideas are the most powerful things in the world. Wrong ideas are among the most dangerous. It is currently our task to replace bad ideas with good ones, by which I mean ideas that better reflect the reality of the situation.
Question: What about the security concerns of central and eastern Europe? You’ve not said anything about them.
Abelow: I’ve focused on Russia’s security concerns because it is those concerns, and their disregard by the United States and NATO, that caused this war. And this war is what we are trying to understand. But you are right to mention Eastern and Central Europe. They have legitimate concerns too, of course. While modern Russia is absolutely not the Soviet Union, we can still understand why Eastern and Central Europeans might be fearful as a result of their own terrible histories with Moscow. These fears need to be considered.
The question is: How do you address those fears and security concerns? Do you do it by redrawing the lines of division in Europe, pushing a U.S.-dominated military alliance to Russia’s borders, and putting Russia into a massive security dilemma? Do you then act as if Putin were crazy, a paranoid madman and an inconsequential fool, even to worry about NATO and missile exercises on Russia’s border? That is what we did—and it was, and still is, an ill-conceived and very dangerous way to proceed. It was threatening to Russia, humiliating to its leaders, and it was asking for trouble. We’re seeing the results of that now in Ukraine, a country that, in terms of NATO expansion, has long been a red line for Russia.
What is needed is a security architecture for Europe and Russia that takes into account the needs of all parties. This should have been worked out decades ago. And in fact, this is exactly what Putin has been asking for—sometimes pleading, sometimes demanding—at least since 2007. But we in the West have not wanted to listen. Nobody should be surprised by this war. The leaders of the United States and NATO say the war was unprovoked for a very simple reason: to hide the fact that they provoked it.
Question: What can we expect from our leaders now?
Abelow: Many people are waiting for their elected and unelected leaders—in Washington, Brussels, and the European capitals—to recognize their mistakes. Some people probably think that, if what I’m saying were correct, our leaders would recognize their errors and try to undo them. I believe this is unlikely, for two reasons. These reasons are important to understand, because if we don’t understand them, we may continue to wait indefinitely for our leaders to fix the situation.
The first reason is that our leaders seem to be locked into a “Putin-equals-Hitler” mindset. They appear to be incapable or unwilling to apply strategic empathy, to see things through Russian eyes, and to grasp the actual causes of this war. While I believe that most of our leaders genuinely want what is best for their countries, political communities, and the world, they are dangerously limited in their outlook.
The second reason is that many of our leaders and institutions are the same ones that created the problem in the first place. They are the ones who pushed for NATO expansion. As a result, they backed not only Russia but also themselves into a corner. Think how hard it is for most of us to admit when we are wrong about something important. It can seem an overwhelming humiliation, truly shameful, to recognize and publicly acknowledge that we were wrong, especially when we have been outspoken with our views in the past. Our leaders, instead of recognizing their mistakes and making appropriate adjustments, are doubling down. They are pushing the same destructive policies even harder.
Imagine how the people who run NATO and set NATO policy feel. It must be very difficult for them to even consider the possibility that their failures of judgement destabilized European security and led to war. Ironically, the problem can be even worse if these people are fundamentally good but internally weak. Imagine what kind of inner honesty and strength of character would be required to recognize and acknowledge that, because of one’s errors, hundreds of thousands of people died and were maimed, millions have been traumatized and displaced, and now the whole world is at risk of nuclear war. In this circumstance, it would take an extraordinary person, someone of exceptional clarity and character, to be able to acknowledge their error, even to themselves.
That is why the people of Europe and the people of the United States must take action. It should be peaceful action, democratic action but powerful action nonetheless. It is up to us to see what is happening, to educate people, and to develop a mass movement that encompasses the entire political spectrum. Not just the left. Not just the right. Not just those on the fringes. Everyone. This issue is far too important to be about partisan politics. All that must be set aside. We must deal with the reality that we now face. This reality includes a risk of a direct NATO-Russia conflict and a growing possibility of nuclear war.
Question: You describe in your book how, as the Soviet Union was coming to an end, the Western countries assured Moscow that NATO would not expand eastward. Moscow made a serious mistake in not getting this assurance in writing. Do you think Moscow has made other mistakes?
Abelow: The assurances you mention were part of an arrangement by which Moscow would remove its 400,000 troops from East Germany. The goal was to let the divided Germany, East and West, reunify under NATO auspices. In exchange, NATO would not expand eastward. At that time, NATO was positioned no further east than the middle of Germany, about a thousand miles from Russia’s border. This was all agreed to verbally. We have written evidence of the process, but the understanding was never instantiated in a formal treaty. Moscow removed its troops, but the West did not carry through. As you say, this was a serious mistake by Moscow.
But in reality, when we say this was a mistake, we are really saying that Moscow was foolish to trust us. What kind of nations are we that do not abide by our word and live up to what we say we will do? Here it is worth pointing out that when Kennedy and Khrushchev prevented nuclear Armageddon by trading away Soviet missiles in Cuba for American missiles in Italy and Turkey, the deal was not instantiated in a treaty. It was done privately, through a backchannel. Trust was an essential component, especially since Kennedy, according to the terms of the deal, was not required to remove the American missiles until six months after Khrushchev removed the Soviet ones.
Coming to your question, you asked if Russia and its leaders made other mistakes. Yes, they did. And first among them was this: Russia invaded Ukraine. Even for Russia, the invasion is a disaster. It is true that NATO backed Russia into a corner, and Russia decided to come out fighting. We bear great responsibility for that and must now find a way to deal honestly with the reality we created. But still, Russia started the war. It is the moral obligation of a country and its leaders to explore every possible avenue for peace before taking such a step. The killing of innocents is unacceptable. One must walk the extra mile to avoid this. One must walk an extra ten miles. I am not convinced that Mr. Putin did that before launching this war.
And yet, because so few people seem to know it, I must emphasize that Putin tried many times to avoid this war. He tried in 2007, when he spoke out at the Munich Security Conference, emphasizing that European security must address the needs of all parties simultaneously. He tried in 2014 and 2015, during the Minsk process, which was Putin’s attempt to resolve the crisis in the Donbas, in Eastern Ukraine, where a war had broken out on Russia’s border. Putin tried again in December 2021, when he sought to negotiate the question of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. But the West, especially the United States, would not even discuss it. The American message to Russia was, in essence: NATO is none of your business, even on your border.
Also, in March 2022—just weeks after Russia invaded, at a time when Russia’s military action was still limited and had not yet caused massive destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure—Putin tried to reach a peace agreement with Ukraine. Even then he sought to avoid further war by getting Ukraine to renounce NATO membership. It seems that the basic features of an agreement were worked out, and that the war would have been brought to an end. But the West sabotaged that peace process. We know this from multiple sources, including a Ukrainian publication, from the ex-prime minister of Israel, from Turkish sources, and from two scholars writing in the journal Foreign Affairs. Apparently, the United States and Britain wanted to extend the war to punish Putin and weaken Russia.
Despite Putin’s many attempts to avoid this war and limit its extent, I still cannot view Russia’s invasion as anything but a wrongful act and a terrible mistake. I cannot justify it. I cannot accept the idea that there was nothing left for Putin to try.
Question: You discuss self-fulfilling prophecies and their role in this war. Are you referring to a metaphysical concept, something mystical in nature, perhaps something pertaining to fate, inevitability, or predestination?
Abelow: When I speak about self-fulfilling prophecies, I’m not referring to a mystical notion. I’m thinking concretely about the creation of an escalating cycle of action and reaction.
How does a self-fulfilling prophecy work? Think again of the security dilemma. Let’s say that country A is overly fearful of country B. Country A believes that country B wants to expand aggressively and must be checked by intense military pressure. Country A is convinced that only this military pressure will do any good. Country A intends this pressure to be a deterrent, a defensive action, a way to prevent a war. But country B perceives these military moves as a threat, and it responds with its own actions. Country A then perceives these actions as offensive threats—and the cycle continues. In the end, country B really does attack—just like country A was convinced it would from the start. The “prophecy” of attack is fulfilled.
This description has parallels with the war we are now witnessing. The very thing that NATO feared—a highly aggressive Russia—it made happen. The United States and NATO were so convinced that Russia was aggressive that they took actions that eventually led to Russia’s aggression.
Here, I think of a line from the British scholar Richard Sakwa, a professor at the University of Kent, England, which encapsulates much of what I’m talking about. It comes from his excellent book Frontline Ukraine. It bears directly on the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy and wonderfully captures the perverse circularity of the situation: “In the end, NATO’s existence became justified by the need to manage the security threats provoked by its enlargement.”
I should add that, in response to this fulfilled prophecy, NATO is now enlarging further. The new round of NATO expansion is intended defensively but will be perceived by Russia as a threat. The cycle is continuing. What will the result be? Where will this end? Unless the cycle can be interrupted, it is hard to be optimistic.
Question: It seems that this war, like many others, may not have any real winners. Hundreds of thousands on both sides will be killed and injured. Countless people, both combatants and civilians, will be scarred emotionally for life, and that harm will be passed on for generations. There is a real chance of nuclear war. The whole thing seems so irrational—yet this is typical of the human pattern. How can we explain it? Do humans have an innate drive to make war? Are unconscious influences at play?
Abelow: You’re raising questions that many have pondered, and to which they have given diverse answers. Freud and his followers have claimed there is a violent unconscious “id” and even proposed that humans have a death instinct. Christians sometimes assert that wars occur because humanity has fallen away from God. Evolutionary biologists argue that natural selection favored the survival of communities with strong in-group bonds and a tendency toward fear and violence directed at other groups.
I have a different perspective, one that arises from my study of psychological trauma, and in particular trauma during childhood. I do not discuss this in my book, and I don’t know if my ideas will resonate with those who read this interview. But perhaps some will find these ideas worth considering.
For most of history, in many cultures, and sometimes still, children have been reared with corporal punishment, especially beatings. During such a beating, what goes on in the mind of a child? The child naturally experiences fear and rage but is required to submit. If the child fights back or shows anger, even by an involuntary facial expression, the child may be viewed as insubordinate and disobedient—and the beating will be made more severe. As a result, the child is effectively forbidden to express his or her rage. That rage must be stuffed down, kept inside, and never be expressed.
But when the child grows into adulthood, those suppressed feelings can surface, because the individual is no longer small, weak, and afraid. The long-buried rage seeks a target and directs itself toward an enemy, real or imagined. Xenophobia, a desire for revenge, and ultimately war—these all provide remarkably efficient outlets for the emotions. These unconscious influences arising from childhood can merge with conscious, practical, real-world causes for conflict. They can exacerbate the situation, turning a potential conflict into actual conflict, and a small conflict into a large one. Sometimes they can create a conflict from nothing, from a situation where no conflict need exist at all.
I am speaking in very general and somewhat abstract terms. Let me make things more concrete by suggesting how these ideas can play out in practice. My comments pertain to the influence of violent, extremist groups—including the far-right, ultranationalist groups that are active in both Ukraine and Russia.
I believe that persons who are drawn to these violent, politically extreme groups have endured especially harsh childhoods—frequent or severe beatings, a lack of parental empathy, verbal mistreatment, inadequate nurture, and the like. In fact, I view members of these groups as being essentially very wounded children. They have grown into adults but remained preoccupied with the fear, rage, and sense of victimization from their early experiences. In some cases, they are fighting battles that do not exist in reality. Yet the violence they inflict, and the consequences of their emotional indifference and brutal aggression, are very real.
Let me give an example. I have studied the childrearing practices that were imposed on German children during the generations before the rise of Nazism. When one looks at the brutality these children endured, and compares it with the brutality that they, as adults, inflicted on their victims, the entire situation becomes much clearer. No longer do we feel ourselves confronted by a great mystery about the origins of their violence. Instead, we see how “trauma begets trauma”—a situation in which children who were traumatized grow into adults who inflict traumas on others.
I consider Nazi Germany to be a prototypical example of a general pattern. I think the lessons we can learn from it apply to other countries and situations where ultranationalist groups are active and use violence to impose their will on others.
Question: Speaking of the far right, you refer in your book to the role of Ukrainian ultranationalists during the lead-up to the current war. What are you referring to?
Abelow: We in the West hear a lot about fascist and ultranationalist influences in Russia, but much less about these groups in Ukraine. The subject is verboten. And we continually hear that their numbers are relatively small, which is true. However, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others on the far right are well organized and willing to use violence. As a result, they have exerted an outsized influence on decision-making in Ukraine. In fact, the far right has exerted a “coercive veto” over Ukrainian policy.
A prime example pertains to Ukraine’s president, Voldomyr Zelensky. He was elected in 2019 on a peace platform. He won with a 73 percent majority vote, giving him a huge mandate. He wanted to resolve the conflict in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, where a civil war had been going on since 2014. Although Russia had lent support to the ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who were seeking greater autonomy, or actual separation from Ukraine, the conflict was fundamentally internal to Ukraine. In his inaugural address, Zelensky said he was willing to lose his office if that were the result of seeking peace. But just one week later, a leader of the far right stated in a published interview that if Zelensky carried out his plans he would lose not his office, but his life. Zelensky, he said, would hang on a tree.
Threats of violence against Zelensky and his government continued. These included direct threats on Zelensky’s life, and violent ultranationalist and neo-Nazi demonstrations that defaced the presidential building. Over time, Zelensky capitulated. He gave up on his peace platform and adopted policies acceptable to the far right. He began to assert that the Donbas crisis was, in fact, not a civil conflict but was entirely the result of Russian meddling and intervention. That was the position espoused by the far right. The Minsk accords—a pair of previously signed agreements that could have peacefully resolved the Donbas crisis—were never implemented. Jack Matlock, Jr., who was the second-to-last U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, has stated that if the Minsk accords had been implemented, Russia probably would not have invaded Ukraine.
Most people in the West know little about this history. In fact, my impression is that Western governments have deliberately concealed it, because it does not fit with the story they want to tell.
Question: You say that Zelensky “capitulated” to the far right. That is not how he is usually portrayed in the West. Is it proper to speak this way when Ukraine has been invaded and is at war?
Abelow: When I say that Zelensky “capitulated” to the far right, I am repeating a word used by the Ukrainian-Canadian scholar Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa. He is one of the world’s most knowledgeable experts about many aspects of Ukraine’s recent political history. It’s not possible to understand what is happening in Ukraine without reading Katchanovski’s work (much of it is posted online and freely available at the Academia.edu and ResearchGate websites).
In addition to his research on the far right, Katchanovski has studied how the United States intervened in Ukrainian politics. He has described how, starting with the “Maidan” protests and overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, the United States gained extraordinary influence in the selection of key figures in Ukraine’s government, as well as in the setting of its policies. At times, the control has been essentially dictatorial. According to Katchanovski, the United States gained so much control that, using the technical definitions of political science, Ukraine became a “client state” of the U.S. The United States has used its power to position Ukraine as a pawn in a geo-strategic game to exert pressure on Russia.
Because Ukraine was attacked, there is a natural tendency to not criticize its leaders. Our governments and the media reinforce that tendency. They say, in effect: “After the war is over you may say these things, but not now.” However, because of Zelensky’s capitulation, his policies are deepening and prolonging this war. He advocates maximalist negotiating positions, which are complete non-starters. He uses aggressive rhetoric. To remain silent about Zelensky, to treat him with kid gloves, is to support the war by default.
We in the West are given to believe that Zelensky has the universal backing of his people. But how can we know this? Opposition parties and opposition media in Ukraine have been banned. Men of military age—the range has been defined broadly, as between 18 and 60—are arrested if they try to leave the country. Young men are being grabbed off the street and sent against their will into the meat grinder at the front. Such measures would not be needed if everyone were eager to fight. Ukrainians who are outspoken in opposing the continuation of the war risk being killed by the far right. I have personally heard reports about how frightened some Ukrainians are to speak, even anonymously.
Question: For many in the West, Zelensky has become the face of Ukraine and the personification of a just cause. He is seen as a model and an inspiration. How do you view Zelensky?
Abelow: Zelensky is seen in the West as a great hero, a new Churchill, a bold and brave warrior. I think this portrayal is nearly the opposite of the truth. It obscures the reality of a man who, under pressure, defaulted on his greatest value and objective: to make peace in the Donbas and end Ukraine’s civil strife. As a result, the Donbas war continued and contributed to the onset of the current, broader war.
Rather than heroic, I view Zelensky as a tragic figure. He faced a great trial. Could he put the interests of his country ahead of his personal safety and his desire to maintain power? He failed utterly. But this failure is understandable, and perhaps it was inevitable. In 2019, shortly after Zelensky was elected, the late Princeton and New York University professor Stephen F. Cohen said that unless the United States protected Zelensky from the far right, his peace efforts would fail. If the U.S. didn’t have Zelensky’s back, Cohen said, he wouldn’t stand a chance. Zelensky never received that support.
Further—and this speaks volumes about the influence of the far right in Ukraine—those who threatened Zelensky’s life were not prosecuted. Neither did the police and courts protect Zelensky’s supporters and colleagues when they advocated for peace. Tellingly, Zelensky’s friend Sergei Sivokho, whom Zelensky chose to play a key role in seeking peace and reconciliation within Ukraine, was physically attacked.
Just as troubling, the Ukrainian people did not rise up to demand that the police, courts, and other state institutions provide adequate protection for Zelensky. At first glance, this is hard to understand, given his large electoral mandate and the fact that, at the time of his election, there were at least 70 pro-peace groups active in Ukraine. This background is described in an important new book by Professor Nicolai Petro of the University of Rhode Island, The Tragedy of Ukraine. Why did this popular support for peace not translate into democratic pressure to protect Zelensky and his government from violence? A major factor, no doubt, was that many people feared the far right. They knew that speaking out could put their lives in jeopardy. The coercive veto of the far right extended to the citizenry.
But the problem runs deeper than that. Many in Ukraine have an ambivalent relationship with the far right. During parts of the 1940s, armed nationalist groups headed by Stephan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych fought against the Soviets in Ukraine. Because they are cast as fighters for Ukrainian independence, Bandera and Shukhevych are esteemed by many in Ukraine today. Streets and schools are named after them, and the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory has promoted them as full-blown heroes. However, to fight the Soviets, Bandera’s faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists collaborated openly with the Nazis when they invaded Ukraine in 1941, helping them carry out their totalitarian and genocidal policies. And the group headed by Shukhevych, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, committed mass murder against civilians. Not only did this group kill ethnic Ukrainians who opposed their policies, they murdered tens of thousands of Poles and Jews. Yet because Bandera and Shukhevych fought for the nationalist cause, many Ukrainians continue to hold them in high regard. As a result, when those who stand in the ideological lineage of these violent nationalist groups—the modern far right—threatened Zelensky’s life and government, the Ukrainian people did not rise to support him.
Further, few in Ukraine have seriously grappled with a central fact of the country’s recent political history: that the overthrow of the Yanukovych government in 2014, which came after several months of popular protest, was a violent right-wing coup. During that coup, ultra-nationalists, neo-Nazis, and others on the far right not only killed police and attempted to assassinate Yanukovych, they also—as a false flag attack—killed dozens of peaceful protesters. This mass killing, the so-called “snipers’ massacre” of February 20th, has frequently but incorrectly been blamed on Yanukovych. The massacre, and the erroneous presumption that Yanukovych was responsible, was the pivotal event that led the West to recognize the new Ukrainian government. None of those responsible for the massacre was ever tried. The far right also, and more generally, played a key role in fomenting violence during what otherwise would have been largely peaceful protests. This is all documented in the painstaking research of Ivan Katchanovski.
Thus, too few in Ukraine have paid adequate attention to either the country’s brutal nationalist past or the nature of the events that constituted its post-2014 political order. This lack of national reckoning helps explain the failure of the Ukrainian people to support Zelensky when the far right threatened his life and government. In the end, Zelensky really didn’t stand a chance. He genuinely wanted peace and, at least initially, he pursued his agenda bravely. But he ultimately lacked the courage, strength of character, and the necessary support from the West, as well as from his own people, to carry through. That is why I view Zelensky as a tragic figure.
However, we must also criticize Zelensky directly. If the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh is correct, Zelensky and his government have embezzled many millions of dollars of American aid since the war started. Yet, to my mind, that is not his greatest sin. I view Zelensky as a destroyer of his country. He is a man who, as Richard Sakwa has said, could have prevented this war by speaking just five words: “Ukraine will not join NATO.” Zelensky also bears responsibility for not persevering more courageously after his life was threatened. He could also have made peace in March and April, 2022, just weeks after the war started, when talks with Russia were underway and achieving success. But he caved in to Western pressure to terminate the negotiations—and so the war continued and escalated. The result has been that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed or maimed, untold millions have been displaced and traumatized, and the physical country of Ukraine has been depopulated and lost almost twenty percent of its territory.
Question: Even if the result has been a prolonged war, might Zelensky be serving some higher purpose? Might the sacrifice that Ukrainians are making be justified as part of a wider struggle against authoritarianism? And in the most limited sense, might Zelensky be acting in ways that serve American and European interests?
Abelow: No, none of these purposes are being served. In fact, Zelensky is bringing great risks to the United States and Europe. He has taken steps that could draw NATO into a direct war with Russia. For example, when a Ukrainian air-defense missile crashed in Poland, a NATO ally covered by the Article 5 provision for collective defense, Zelensky claimed it was a deliberate Russian missile attack on Poland. It appears he was lying for the purpose of drawing NATO into direct combat with Russia. Here it must be noted that a direct NATO-Russia war carries an unacceptably high risk of nuclear escalation. This was the conclusion of a January 2023 study by the RAND Corporation. RAND is a think tank funded by the U.S. military. It does not issue such warnings lightly.
Moreover, in an address to an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, Zelensky made a recommendation that, if followed, would lead directly to nuclear war. He suggested that the West launch a preemptive attack on Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Here is a translation of Zelensky’s remarks made by Professor Nicolai Petro. Zelensky mangled his sentences, but his intent is clear enough:
What should NATO do to make the use of nuclear weapons by Russia impossible? What is important, I must again address the international community as before the 24th—preventive strikes, so that they know what will happen to them if they use [nuclear weapons], not wait for nuclear strikes by Russia and then say, “Well, you’ve done it, now here’s a taste of your own medicine.” Review the procedure of applying pressure. I believe what needs to be done is to review the order of the actions taken.
Zelensky wanted to “review the order of the actions taken” and implement a new order, one that would result in “preventive strikes.” This means to shift from a posture of assured retaliation, after a nuclear attack, to one of attacking first—nuclear preemption. Some have claimed that Zelensky was misunderstood, that he was advocating economic sanctions. But his own words tell otherwise. Incredibly, Zelensky really does seem to believe that attacking Russia’s nuclear forces would stabilize the nuclear peace. In actuality, such an attack would almost certainly lead immediately to a strategic nuclear exchange, which could then escalate to a full-scale thermonuclear war. Such a war would kill hundreds of millions or even billions of people.
The fact is, Zelensky is essentially a mouthpiece. He speaks for the foreign policy elite of the United States, which wants to keep the war going so that it can continue to weaponize Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Russia, using the land of Ukraine as a battlefield and Ukrainian citizens as cannon fodder. Yet the goal of weakening Russia, which is the pipe-dream of Washington’s foreign policy establishment, is not in the interest of American or European citizens. It is unlikely to be successful. It is harming the West economically and destroying Ukraine. And if the West ever starts to achieve its goal—the destruction of Russia as a great military power—the likely result would be the Russian use of battlefield nuclear weapons, which could readily escalate to strategic nuclear war.
Those in the United States, Ukraine, and Europe who see this conflict as a struggle of democracy against authoritarianism are misreading what is happening. Some may do so out of ignorance, others as willful deception in support of a geo-strategic agenda. The reality is that, in crucial respects, democracy in Ukraine was long ago subverted by Ukraine’s far right—and the United States.
Question: Much of what you say runs contrary to the Western narrative and conflicts with current American policies. You could be perceived as anti-American. Are you anti-American? Do you hate America?
Abelow: Absolutely not. My grandparents came to the United States to escape violence in other countries and to find a better life. Even now, two generations later, I continue to hold in my mind the image of America as a shining beacon of freedom and safety to the world.
Despite all that is happening, I continue to believe that, at its core, America is a great country. It helped give to humanity invaluable philosophical concepts about freedom, and about the rights of the individual. No doubt, it has sometimes failed badly to live up to these high values, but other times it has succeeded. And in any case the ideals stand on their own and have played a transformative role in the world. I also believe that the United States—along with the Soviet Union, which for all its great evil played a decisive role in defeating Hitler—may have literally saved the world from Nazism.
So, no, I am not anti-American. I see my comments here, as well as my book and my broader efforts regarding the Ukraine war, as an expression of American patriotism—an attempt to help realign U.S. policies with the true interests of the United States as a nation. These are my attempts to peacefully influence policies so that they better reflect the highest ethical values of the United States. To achieve this end, a hope which many share, we must face reality, even if that reality is uncomfortable. We must be willing to speak openly.
*Benjamin Abelow is the author of How the West Brought War to Ukraine: Understanding How U.S. and NATO Policies Led to Crisis, War, and the Risk of Nuclear Catastrophe.