There is growing evidence that President Donald Trump briefly froze U.S. military assistance to Ukraine for political goals. Max Blumenthal explores how the Ukrainegate scandal overlooks the dangers of those weapons sales to Ukraine and the corrupt interests behind it.
Under Trump, U.S. military assistance has prolonged a bloody proxy war with Russia, killing thousands in Ukraine and enabling far-right Ukrainian forces — all while enriching weapons manufacturers and DC lobbyists.
Guest: Max Blumenthal, Editor of The Grayzone and author of “The Management of Savagery.”
AARON MATÉ: Welcome to Pushback, I’m Aaron Maté, here with Max Blumenthal, editor of The Grayzone and author of several books, including his latest, The Management of Savagery. We’ve been talking about several of the other facets of the Ukrainegate scandal that have gone ignored.
In this part, Max, let’s focus on the military assistance to Ukraine that Trump briefly froze and the outrage about that. We’ve been talking in the previous segment about the corruption of Joe Biden and others when it comes to Ukraine. Let’s talk about it now in the context of this military assistance, and I have to note that Kurt Volker, who up until just this week was the State Department envoy, the US envoy to Ukraine, has a huge conflict of interest that is not being discussed. So I want to read to you a paragraph from the Washington Post talking about Kurt Volker. It says, “Volker started his job at the State Department in 2017 in an unusual part-time arrangement that allowed him to continue consulting at BGR, a powerful lobbying firm that represents Ukraine and Raytheon. During his tenure, Volker advocated for the US to send Ukraine Raytheon-manufactured anti-tank Javelin missiles, a decision that made the missile firm millions of dollars. BGR has said Volker recused himself from all Ukraine related matters in response to criticisms about conflicts of interest.” That, from the Washington Post this week.
So, Max, we have here the top US envoy to Ukraine keeping his job as he’s in this post at a lobbying firm that is making millions of dollars off the sale of missiles that he himself is lobbying for in his position. So there’s that angle and then there’s the fact that what is the impact of all this. Well, the impact on the ground has been to prolong a bloody and disastrous proxy war between the US and Russia because it’s US military assistance that has kept this thing going, basically, similar to what the US did in Syria. And all this is not being discussed. Your thoughts on this, Max Blumenthal.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, it is being discussed in the sense that Trump is selling out our ally, and there’s all of this outrage that, quote-unquote, aid is not being provided to Ukraine. The aid being military assistance, and it’s sort of, it seems to be aid the way that it’s provided to Israel, where loans are given to Ukraine and they’re paid back to the American arms industry to, what, create jobs? Today it was announced by Raytheon that they’re expanding their Tucson campus to handle new weapons manufacturing demands, thanks to the $39 million deal just approved by the Trump State Department to send these Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Now, I reported on Kurt Volker’s relationship with the BGR Group, which is headed by Raytheon, one of the Raytheon’s top lobbyists in Washington, Ed Rogers, while he was also executive director of the McCain Institute, named for the man who issued, who authored the bill in the Senate, demanding all of this military assistance to Ukraine and serving as Trump’s liaison to Ukraine. And I thought this was a bizarre relationship, and I wrote about it again last year in 2018 and nobody in Washington paid attention. The mainstream media wasn’t really concerned about this obvious case of official corruption, and now they are because Volker’s out, he’s kind of maybe considered a bad guy because he played a role in shepherding Giuliani to Ukraine or helping Giuliani to dig up dirt on Trump’s opponents. But this was a serious issue. I think that Volker was actually seen as a check on Trump’s impulse to do détente with Russia, and that’s why this wasn’t brought up. Because Volker did play a role in influencing Trump to authorize, for the first time, to do something that Barack Obama refused to do: to authorize the initial shipment of these Javelin anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian military to turn up the heat on Russia.
Now, if you go back to the Republican convention in 2016, you can start to understand the origins of this Ukrainegate scandal that we’re talking about now. It was there in Cleveland where [senior Campaign advisor on policy and national security] J. D. Gordon, [rejected a proposed amendment to] the Republican National Committee platform about [sending] offensive weaponry to Ukraine, which was, a call for “offensive weaponry” [instead of] “appropriate assistance.” [“appropriate assistance” was the final language used]. And this was immediately seized on by the Democrats, who were starting to ramp up their Russiagate narrative and push the collusion theory that Trump had engaged in a quid pro quo with Putin to remove a call for offensive weapons to Ukraine in exchange for Putin interfering in the election against Hillary Clinton and hacking her emails, or whatever. Seems, it seemed, like, patently ridiculous to me, but, you know, the Huffington Post went with a headline at the time, “The Big Winner at the Republican National Convention: Vladimir Putin.” And so it’s always…it’s a win for Putin when one of the major parties in the US takes a turn towards détente and peace. Barack Obama had refused to authorize those very same offensive weapons because his National Security Council and his foreign policy team believed in advancing the Minsk II accords, at least to some extent, which would have de-escalated the proxy war in the east of Ukraine. Of course, all those people and the Ukrainians, they’re just bullet stoppers to us, we don’t care about them. And so the pressure mounts on Trump to authorize these offensive weapons, do something to prove that you’re not a Russian puppet! And Trump explicitly says, “I am NOT a Russian puppet. I authorized anti-tank busters to Ukraine!” He actually has come out and said it. It was a symbolic arms shipment for Trump to show that he wasn’t a Russian puppet.
For the Ukrainians, for the people in the east of Ukraine who are on the pro-Russian side, it means something very different, because they’ve been engaged in a trench war since 2014-2015. People in the frontline communities there have been dying in the sporadic artillery attacks, and there hasn’t been a tank battle since 2015, so the point of sending these Javelins, it doesn’t provide any defensive…it provides no defensive quality for Ukraine or the Ukrainian people. All it does is continue escalating this proxy war.
And so what we’re talking about now is not something that is in the interests of progressive people. We’re not talking about suspending human…, you know, aid for humanitarian programs, the way Trump has done to the Palestinians. Talking about suspending aid that actually directly interferes with something that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been elected to do, which is to make peace with Russia. There is a constituency for peace throughout Ukraine on the pro-Russian side and on the nationalist side, and he was elected to do what he’s doing now, which is called the Steinmeier Formula, named for the foreign minister of Germany, where elections will be held in pro-Russian areas in the Donbass in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian military support. And that is just, that just seems to me to be a good thing. The “quote unquote” international community is behind it. You know who’s against it? The neo-Nazi elements in Ukrainian society who are out in the streets protesting it and hardliners in Washington, including people who are close to Joe Biden, who’ve been wanting to constantly turn up the heat against Russia and use Ukrainians as bullet stoppers. And so I think it’s time to look into how this deal developed and what the effect is on the ground.
And one last point. Who put together the plan that McCain advanced in the Senate? It was the Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institution, two centrist, militaristic think tanks in Washington. And who funds both of those think tanks? Raytheon. Who is the defense secretary right now, who has signed off on this deal with $39 million of Javelins to Ukraine? The former lobbyist for Raytheon, Mark Esper. Who was funding John McCain? Raytheon. Who was supporting the firm of the former Ukra…ah, US liaison to Ukraine, Kurt Volker? Raytheon. So basically this deal is also the product of official corruption in Washington.
AARON MATÉ: Max, I’m going to add one more name here, someone who’s playing also a very prominent role in this, and that is Adam Schiff, the leader of the impeachment inquiry. As you reported on, I’m going to quote from you here, that the arms industry has rewarded Schiff handsomely as he has pushed Russiagate, which has pushed Democrats into adopting the same kind of militarist posture that Ukrainegate is doing now, and you write that, “Schiff’s largest donor in a previous campaign cycle at $12,700 was Northrop Grumman, the defense giant. Raytheon, the manufacturer of the Javelin anti-tank missile system, was close behind it with $10,000 in contributions. In all, arms giants accounted for over one-sixth of Schiff’s total donations.”
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, and the Atlantic Council just paid to send one of Schiff’s top staffers to Ukraine on some mysterious trip in September. But, yeah, Schiff has never met a war, a Washington war, he didn’t like. He’s even supported the US-Saudi war on Yemen, and he is one of the favorite donors…a favorite, uh, you know, recipients of arms industry donations. I mean, you just look at how much money this previously unheard-of member of Congress in California gets; I mean, he’s just raking a millions of dollars from corporations in the arms industry.
In 2013 Adam Schiff actually was treated to a $25,000, sorry, $2,500-a-head fundraiser by Ukrainian-born, California-based arms dealer named Igor Pasternak, and Pasternak has really benefited from the proxy war in eastern Ukraine. He got a lucrative contract, a lucrative contract to supply the Ukrainian state border guard with surveillance systems, and then he got another deal to replace the Ukrainian military’s old AK-47s with the new version of the M16. And the funniest thing is, I think PolitiFact has done some fact check on whether Schiff has a relationship with a Ukrainian arms dealer named Pasternak, and they declare that it’s mostly false by focusing on the fact that Pasternak has US nationality and that he was only born in Ukraine, but he’s from Kazakhstan, and they kind of nitpick. But it’s completely true that Schiff is deeply involved with the arms industry and they’re paying him for a good reason. This is someone who has pushed a narrative. I think it’s a…this is a ricochet effect of it. I think, you know, Schiff has his own vain ambitions for being in the limelight and pushing Russiagate, but there’s a ricochet effect which is benefit…it’s benefitting his donors for him to push this Cold War narrative.
AARON MATÉ: And, you know, I don’t claim to say that it’s intentional, but I have to note that as all of this outcry is going on in Washington about Trump briefly freezing the military assistance to Ukraine — because again under Congressional pressure he did unfreeze it and now it’s been approved as we saw with new Javelins sold just this week — but as that was going on, as you mentioned, this Ukrainian peace process is going forward. Just this week Zelensky, agreeing to hold elections in the Donbass, this region where Ukrainian forces are backing Russian-backed forces, which is a huge step forward. And it’s in this outcry over Trump and this claim that he’s endangering Ukraine, what is actually happening on the ground in Ukraine is being ignored. And as we wrap, Max, I’m wondering if you can comment on just how the scandals that Democrats have embraced, how aligning themselves with the national security state throughout Trump’s presidency, instead of resisting him for all of his dangerous policies to the country and to the world, but resisting him from the point of view of the imperatives of the national security state, where they don’t like his talk about having better relations with Russia, for example, about what that has done to just the overall progressive/liberal cause in general.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I saw Common Dreams, one of the websites that was really one of the major sources of critical analysis and reporting during the invasion of Iraq, retweeting David Frum yesterday, and it really reflects the atmosphere where the kind of progressive movement has been, un…almost unwittingly domesticated and neutered by the national security state into this kind of anti-Trump resistance where anything that harms Trump is…and anything that opportunistically hurts him is acceptable, even if it advances a new Cold War, which no progressive should support. And so here we are again, freaking out about the suspension of $400 million in military aid at a time when the Ukraine is going through a historic shift, moving towards peace.
We should be talking about how this affects Zelensky. You know, and it also upset me the way Trump treated Zelensky, that he kind of just treats him like this…this little colonial puppet. It upset me the way that Joe Biden treated Viktor Shokin, where the American vice president can just simply come in and fire the attorney general of another country and then go to the Council on Foreign Relations and brag about how he got rid of the “son-of-a-bitch.” It just shows our whole colonial relationship with Ukraine. This country has been turned into bullet stoppers by Washington. It’s been through two color revolutions, the Maidan coup has destroyed its gross domestic product, its export sector has been wiped out because its historic trading relationship with Russia is gone, corruption is sky-high, the people who looted all of the IMF loans and put them into foreign bank accounts are in power, and Ukraine has seen a migration crisis that’s almost on par or maybe worse than Venezuela’s, but we never hear about it because it’s of our doing.
So, we should actually start looking at this from an anti-war point of view, and we should also consider the fact that Ukraine’s interior ministry is controlled by someone, Arsen Avakov, who has been the benefactor of the world’s largest collection of neo-Nazis and helped integrate a neo-Nazi militia, the Azov Battalion, into the country’s National Guard. So that they now receive or have received US military assistance and Canadian military assistance. This is serious, like, you know, the progressives and anti-Trump people who are freaking out about the Proud Boys marching through Portland. Why aren’t they talking about the fact that we keep sending hun…tens of millions of dollars of offensive weaponry into a military that has a literal neo-Nazi battalion integrated into its ranks?
The 2018 NDAA blocked — thanks to some intervention by Democrats in the House — supposedly blocks assistance to the Azov Battalion, but it’s impossible to know how that will take place. There…it’s…we’ve reported at The Grayzone, as Asa Winstanley reported at Electronic Intifada, that the Azov Battalion is receiving Israeli weapons, and actually the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel attacked us for it. But they confirmed it at the same time. And they are taking US weapons into the field. So we should actually be talking about arming neo-Nazis with US taxpayer dollars and we should also talk about the fact that, as you and Ben Norton discussed, a would-be US domestic terrorist who wanted to kill Beto O’Rourke, and many others sought to go to Ukraine to train with the Azov Battalion. We should talk about how the Rise Above Movement, a white nationalist group in Orange County, actually did go to Ukraine to train with the Azov Battalion, and how Ukraine is becoming a global center of white nationalist activity, as the US is sending these advanced weapons there. But that discussion is only taking place within some sectors of alternative media that still maintain an anti-war point of view. It’s not taking place on Democracy Now!, it’s not taking place that I’ve seen at The Intercept, and I just don’t know how an institution like Common Dreams comes to retweeting one of the architects of the Iraq war, David Frum, just because he’s against Trump. But that’s really a sign of the times.
AARON MATÉ: You know, on the media front, I can only think of one exception, which is an article in Ha’aretz, which is headlined “Rights Groups Demand Israel Stop Arming neo-Nazis in Ukraine,” speaking to that controversy that you mentioned before. We’re going to leave it there, though. Max Blumenthal, final comments as we wrap.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Go to The Grayzone.com for more great reporting like this.
AARON MATÉ: Sounds good. Max Blumenthal, senior editor of The Grayzone, author of several books, his latest being The Management of Savagery, thanks very much.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Thanks a lot, Aaron.
Editor’s Note, October 9 2019: This transcript has been edited to correct errors about J.D. Gordon’s role on the Trump campaign and about the RNC platform on Ukraine. Gordon served as a senior Campaign advisor on policy and national security. And the RNC platform was not altered — an amendment that called for sending offensive weaponry was simply rejected.
Aaron Maté is a journalist and producer. He hosts Pushback with Aaron Maté on The Grayzone. He is also is contributor to The Nation magazine and former host/producer for The Real News and Democracy Now!. Aaron has also presented and produced for Vice, AJ+, and Al Jazeera.