Pushback

US fighting Russia ‘to the last Ukrainian’: veteran US diplomat

In Ukraine, the Biden administration is fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian,” retired senior US diplomat Chas Freeman says.

Chas Freeman, a retired senior US diplomat, analyzes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US role, and the geopolitical fallout. “Everything we are doing, rather than accelerate an end to the fighting and some compromise, seems to be aimed at prolonging the fighting,” Freeman says.

Guest: Chas Freeman. Veteran U.S. diplomat and public servant who has served in many senior positions, including as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Director for Chinese Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and as the principal US interpreter during President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

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AARON MATÉ:  Welcome to Pushback.  I’m Aaron Maté.  Joining me is Chas Freeman.  He is a retired veteran US diplomat who has served in a number of senior positions, including as the Assistant Secretary of Defense and US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  Chas Freeman, thank you for joining me.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Pleasure to be with you.

AARON MATÉ:  What is your assessment of the Russian invasion so far, and how the Biden administration has responded to it?

CHAS FREEMAN:  A huge question.  I thought in the run-up to this that Mr. Putin was following a classic form of coercive diplomacy:  massing troops on Ukraine’s border, issuing very clear offers to negotiate, threatening indirectly to escalate beyond the border—not in Ukraine, which the Russians repeatedly said they did not intend to invade, but perhaps through putting pressure on the United States similar to the pressure that the Russians feel from us, namely missiles within no-warning distance at all of the capital.  Of course, Washington doesn’t have quite the significance in our case that Moscow does for the Russians, but, still, I thought that was what was in store.

I was stunned when Putin actually invaded Ukraine.  I don’t think his troops were prepared for it.  There’s no evidence that they had the logistics in place or that the troops were briefed about where they were going and why.  And so, it looks like an impetuous decision, and if so, it ranks with the decision of Tsar Nicholas II, the last tsar to go to war with Japan in 1904.  That had disastrous consequences for political order in Russia, and I think this is a comparable blunder.

There are lots of things being said about the course of the war which is now about a month old, and many of them are, I think, frankly, tendentious nonsense.  For example, it’s alleged that the Russians are deliberately targeting civilians.  But I think in most wars the ratio of military-to-civilian deaths is roughly one-to-one, and in this case the recorded civilian deaths are about one-tenth of that, which strongly suggests that the Russians have been holding back.  We may now see the end of that with the ultimatum that has been issued in connection with Mariupol, where, if I understood correctly what the Russians are saying, they were saying, ‘Surrender, or face the consequences.’ And the consequences would be a terrible leveling of the city.

We don’t know where this war is going to end, whether there will be a Ukraine or how much of a Ukraine there will be, what the effects inside Russia will be.  There’s clearly a lot of dissent in Russia, although I’m sure it’s being exaggerated by our media.  The war is a fog of lies on all sides.  It is virtually impossible to tell what is actually happening because every side is staging the show.  The champion of that is Mr. Zelenskyy, who is brilliant as a communicator, it turns out.  He’s an actor who has found his role, and it probably helps Ukraine a great deal to have a president who is an accomplished actor, who came equipped with his own studio staff, who is using that brilliantly.  And I would say Mr. Zelenskyy was elected to head a state called Ukraine, and he has created a nation called Ukraine.  He is somebody whose perceived heroism has rallied Ukrainians to a degree that no one ever expected, but we don’t know where this is going.

And more to the point, the United States is not part of any effort to negotiate an end to the fighting.  To the extent that there is mediation going on, it seems to be by Turkey, possibly Israel, maybe China.  That’s about it.  And the United States is not in the room.  Everything we are doing, rather than accelerating an end to the fighting and some compromise, seems to be aimed at prolonging the fighting, assisting the Ukrainian resistance—which is a noble cause, I suppose, but that will result in a lot of dead Ukrainians as well as dead Russians.  And, also, the sanctions have no goals attached to them.  There’re no conditions which we’ve stated which would result in their end.

And finally, we have people now, including the president of the United States and the prime minister of Great Britain, calling Putin a war criminal, and professing that they intend to bring it to trial somehow.  This gives Mr. Putin absolutely no incentive to compromise or reach an accommodation with the Ukrainians, and it probably guarantees a long war.  And there seems to be a lot of people in the United States who think that’s just dandy:  it’s good for the military-industrial complex; it reaffirms our negative views of Russia; it reinvigorates NATO; it puts China on the spot.  What’s so terrible about a long war?  If you’re not Ukrainian, you probably see some merit in a long war.

So, this has not gone as anybody predicted.  Not Mr. Putin, not the intelligence community of the United States which extrapolated war plans from the disposition of forces on the Ukrainian border, not the way the Germans, who are now rearming, anticipated.  It’s got a lot of shock value to it and it’s changing the world in ways we still don’t understand.

AARON MATÉ:  I wonder if US intelligence extrapolated that Russia would invade based on the certainty that the US would reject Russia’s core security demands, namely neutrality for Ukraine and Ukraine not joining NATO.  And I’m wondering if their assurance that Biden would reject those demands made them, if that’s what made them, all the more confident that Russia would then invade.  And on that point about NATO, I wanted to get your response to some comments that Zelenskyy recently made.  He was speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN, and he made what I thought was a really telling admission about what he was told to say publicly about NATO before the war.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy:  I requested them personally to take…to say directly that we are going to accept into NATO in a year or two or five, just say it directly and clearly, or just say no.  And the response was very clear:  you are not going to be a NATO member, but publicly the doors will remain open.  But if you are not ready to preserve the lives of our people, if you just want to see us straddle two worlds, if you want to see us in this dubious position where we do not understand whether you can accept us or not, you cannot place us in this situation.  You cannot force us to be in this limbo.

AARON MATÉ:  So, that’s Zelenskyy saying that he was told by NATO members—presumably the US—that we’re not going to let you in, but publicly we’re going to leave the door open.  I’m wondering, Ambassador Freeman, your response to that.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Well, those are two questions.  First, in my experience, the intelligence community does not start from estimates of US policy.  And I think what we saw was an order of battle analysis with the judgment as expressed at one point by Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken, that if we massed 150,000 troops on somebody’s border, that would mean we were about to invade.  In other words, mirror imaging.  That’s what we would do; therefore, that’s what the Russians will do.

I think Mr. Putin was surprised by being stiff-armed on the…after all, 28-year-old demands that NATO stop enlarging in the direction of Russia.  At root, this is a contest over whether Ukraine will be in the US sphere of influence, the Russian sphere of influence, or neither’s.  And, neutrality, which is what Mr. Putin had started out saying he wanted, what’s compatible with neither side having Ukraine within its sphere, whether that’s now possible or not, I don’t know.  I think one of the mistakes Mr. Putin made in upping the ante was to make it very difficult for Ukraine to become neutral.

But on the question of what Mr. Zelenskyy was told, I think this is remarkably cynical, or perhaps it was naïve and unrealistic on the part of leaders in the West.  Zelenskyy is obviously a very intelligent man, and he saw what the consequences of being put in what he called limbo would be:  namely, Ukraine would be hung out to dry.  And the West was basically saying, ‘We will fight to the last Ukrainian for Ukrainian independence,’ which essentially remains our stand.  It’s pretty cynical, despite all the patriotic fervor.  And I’d add, I have heard, I know people who have been attempting to be objective about this, and they’re immediately accused of being Russian agents.  Or let us just say, the price of speaking on this subject is to join the pom-pom girls in a frenzy of support for our position, and if you’re not part of the chorus, you’re not allowed to say anything, and you can’t sing.

So, I think that this has very injurious effects on Western liberties, and it has enforced an almost—I won’t say it’s totalitarian, but it’s certainly a similar kind of control on freedom of expression and inquiry in the West.  It’s very depressing, really.  We should rise to this occasion.  We should be concerned about achieving a balance in Europe that sustains peace.  That requires incorporating Russia into a governing council for Europe, of some sort.  Europe historically has been at peace only when all the great powers who could overthrow the peace have been co-opted into it.  A perfect example is the Congress of Vienna, which followed the Napoleonic Wars, where Kissinger’s great hero met in it, and others had the good sense to reincorporate France into the governing councils of Europe.  And that gave Europe a hundred years of peace.  Of course, there were a few minor conflicts, but nothing major.  And after World War I, when the victors—the United States and Britain and France—insisted on excluding Germany from a role in the affairs of Europe, as well as this newly formed Soviet Union, the result was World War II and the Cold War.  So, it’s really depressing that instead of trying to figure out how to give Russia reasons not to invade countries and to violate international laws as it has—that does not make Russia unique, of course—but instead of trying to give Russia reasons for being well-behaved, we have, in its view, left it with no alternative but the use of force.

AARON MATÉ:  Can you take us back to the 1990s?  You served in the Clinton administration at a time when there was a big discussion, a big debate in Washington over the future of European security architecture.  This is after the Soviet Union had collapsed; Russia was never weaker.  There were people, including inside the George H.W. Bush administration, who talked about pledging support for neutrality, not trying to bring the former Soviet states into one camp or the other.  And Clinton, ultimately Bill Clinton, President Clinton, went with NATO expansion, went with violating the pledges that accompanied the end of the Soviet Union to expand NATO to Russia’s borders.  Can you take us back to that time and the debates that were taking place, and how that’s fueled the crisis we’re in today?

CHAS FREEMAN:  Well, I actually had a good deal to do with the formulation of what became known as the Partnership for Peace [PfP].  And this was two things:  it was a pathway to responsible application for NATO membership, and it was also a cooperative security system, rather than a collective security system, for Europe.  It left the members to decide whether they defined themselves as European or not.  So, Tajikistan joined the Partnership for Peace, but it made no effort to civilianize its defense establishment or subject its military to parliamentary oversight, and it didn’t learn the 3,000 standardization agreements that are the operating doctrine of NATO that allow a Portuguese soldier to die for Poland or vice versa.  So that process was, the question of what countries would have what relationship with NATO was left to those countries.

What happened in 1994, which was a midterm election year, and 1996, which was a presidential election year, was interesting.  In 1994, Mr. Clinton was talking out of both sides of his mouth.  He was telling the Russians that we were in no rush to add members to NATO, and that our preferred path was the Partnership for Peace.  The same time he was hinting to the ethnic diasporas of Russophobic countries in Eastern Europe—and, by the way, it’s easy to understand their Russophobia given their history—that, no, no, we were going to get these countries into NATO as fast as possible.  And in 1996 he made that pledge explicit.  [In] 1994 he got an outburst from [Boris] Yeltsin, who was then the president of the Russian Federation.  [In] 1996 he got another one, and as time went on, when Mr. Putin came in, he regularly protested the enlargement of NATO in ways that disregarded Russia’s self-defense interests.  So, there should have been no surprise about this.  For 28 years Russia has been warning that at some point it would snap, and it has, and it has done it in a very destructive way, both in terms of its own interests and in terms of the broader prospects for peace in Europe.

There really is no excuse for what Mr. Putin has done.  To understand it is not to condone it.  So, I think what happened here was a combination of forces.  There were those people in the United States who were triumphalist about the end of the Cold War.  There were those who felt that what they perceived as victory—I think it was a default by the Russians—but anyway, the game was over.  This allowed the United States to incorporate all the countries right up to Russia’s borders and beyond them, beyond those borders in the Baltics, into an American sphere of influence.  And, essentially, they posited a global sphere of influence for the United States modeled on the Monroe Doctrine.  And that’s pretty much what we have.

Ukraine entered that sphere of influence; it was not neutral after 2014.  That was the purpose of the coup, to prevent neutrality or a pro-Russian government in Kiev, and to replace it with a pro-American government that would bring Ukraine into our sphere.  Since about 2015, this is…of course, Russia reacted by annexing Crimea.  Let me say about Crimea:  of course, Russia reacted because its major naval base on the Black Sea is in Crimea; and the prospect that Ukraine was going to be incorporated into NATO and an American sphere of influence would have negated the value of that base.  So, I don’t think it had anything to do with the wishes of the people of Crimea who, however, were quite happy to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine.  So, since about 2015 the United States has been arming, training Ukrainians against Russia.  A major step-up in 2017 in that, ironically because of Mr. Trump, who was actually impeached for trying to leverage arms sales to Ukraine for political dirt on the Bidens.

But, at any rate, it isn’t as though Ukraine was not treated as an extension of NATO.  It was.  And this had a good deal to do with the Russian decision to invade, I’m sure.  At the moment I understand the Ukrainian forces, although they’ve lost their command and control, there are major units that are surrounded and in danger of being annihilated by the Russians.  There are cities that are in danger of being pulverized.  None of this has happened yet, but the Ukrainians do not lack weaponry.  They have more than enough to deal with the Russian forces on a dispersed basis, and they have shown themselves to be very courageous in defending their country with those weapons.  A lot of them are dying for their country.  One can admire that, but one must also lament it.

AARON MATÉ:  I’m going to quote you Eliot Cohen [who] served as a counselor to Condoleezza Rice when she was the Secretary of State, and he writes this in The Atlantic magazine.  He says:

“The United States and its NATO allies are engaged in a proxy war with Russia.  They are supplying thousands of munitions and hopefully doing much else—sharing intelligence, for example—with the intent of killing Russian soldiers.  And because fighting is, as the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, ‘a trial of moral and physical forces through the medium of the latter,’ we must face a fact:  To break the will of Russia and free Ukraine from conquest and subjugation, many Russian soldiers have to flee, surrender, or die, and the more and faster the better.” 

That’s Eliot Cohen, former State Department advisor, in The Atlantic.  I’m wondering your response to that, especially him calling, just openly declaring that the US is using Ukraine for what he calls a proxy war against Russia.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Well, Professor Cohen is a very honest man, which is to his credit.  And therefore, his adherence to neoconservative objectives is entirely transparent.  And what he just said and what you quoted him as saying is consistent with the neoconservative objective of regime change in Russia, and it’s also consistent with fighting to the last Ukrainian to achieve it.  I find it deplorable, but I have to say it’s probably representative of a very large body of opinion in Washington.

AARON MATÉ:  And why does this view of Ukraine as essentially cannon fodder against Russia, why is it so prevalent in Washington?

CHAS FREEMAN:  This is essentially cost-free from the United States as long as we don’t cross some Russian red line that leads to escalation against us.  We are engaged, as Professor Cohen said, in a proxy war, and we’re selling a lot of weapons.  That makes arms manufacturers happy.  We’re supporting a valiant resistance, which gives politicians something to crow about.  We’re going against an officially designated enemy, Russia, which makes us feel vindicated.  So, from the point of view of those with these self-interested views of the issue, this is a freebie.

AARON MATÉ:  And as someone with extensive experience in China, you served as President Nixon’s translator/interpreter when he did his historic visit to China.  I’m wondering what you make of China’s response to Russia’s invasion so far, and these warnings that they’ve been receiving in recent days from the Biden administration, trying to basically tell them not to help out Russia or else there will be consequences.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Well, this has been fascinating to watch.  The Chinese clearly agree with Mr. Putin and Russian nationalists in objecting to NATO enlargement, having been subjected to foreign spheres of influence in the 19th and 20th century.  They don’t like them.  They don’t believe Ukraine should be part of either the Russian or the US sphere of influence.  They are the last citadel of Westphalianism in the world.  They really do believe strongly in sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Mr. Putin went to Beijing for the Winter Olympics and had a long discussion with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, and they agreed that NATO should not enlarge, there should not be spheres of influence, and that the security architecture in Europe needed to be adjusted to relieve Russia of the sense of menace that it experiences.

I don’t believe for a minute that Mr. Putin told Mr. Xi that he planned to invade Ukraine.  In fact, he may have said he had no intention of doing it.  I don’t know.  He may indeed have had no intention of doing it at that point, assuming that his coercive diplomacy was going to get a response.  But, of course, it got no response.  It got an evasive set of counter proposals about arms control, which didn’t address the main question he was raising, which was how Russia could feel secure when a hostile alliance was advancing to its very borders.

Anyway, poor Mr. Xi Jinping now has to straddle something he probably almost certainly had no idea was in prospect.  On the one hand he can oppose spheres of influence and demand consideration for the security concerns of great powers as he does with regard to Russia and with regard to his own country.  But on the other hand, Ukraine is being violated.  So, the Chinese have had an awkward straddle.  The irony is, I don’t think this was intended, but inadvertently this has put them in a position where they’re one of the few countries that might conceivably mediate an end to the fighting.  And I noticed that recently the Chinese have emphasized heavily the need for there to be negotiations, to bring that fighting to an end at the earliest possible moment.  That doesn’t mean that they’re going to end up mediating.  Mediation is a very difficult thing, and often mediators enter the mediation with two friends and end up with two enemies.  So, this is not something you take on lightly.

At this point, however, I would just say, nobody knows what’s going on between…or at least, if anybody does know, they’re not saying what’s going on between Russians and Ukrainians in the meetings that they are having.  Turks claim that the two sides are close to an agreement.  Various points [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [Dmytro] Kuleba, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, have both said something similar, but there is no agreement.  And it’s not clear at this point whether there can be an agreement.  By taking the land corridor from Donetsk to Crimea, Mr. Putin has taken something that he probably will be very unwilling to give up.  And as I said, you ask Ukrainians to accept neutrality when they’ve been batted around the way they have been and lost all the lives and property that they have, it’s not at all easy for them.  So, even though from the very beginning the solution has been obvious, which is some variant of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, meaning a guaranteed independence in return for two things:  one, decent treatment of minorities inside the guaranteed state; and second, neutrality for the guaranteed state.  This has been there; this is still the objective as far as we can tell.  But it’s been made more difficult rather than less by the outbreak of war.

AARON MATÉ:  What’s your sense of the agency and the free reign that Zelenskyy actually has to make decisions, and the extent of US influence over him?  One of the things that the late Professor Stephen F. Cohen warned about to me in 2019 was, that unless the US steps up and supports Zelenskyy within his mandate of making peace with the rebels in the east, then he has no chance, because otherwise he’ll have to submit to the far right inside Ukraine, who are very influential.  And since then, I’ve seen no indication there has been any sort of support from Washington for making peace with Russia.  Trump, of course, was impeached when he paused those weapons sales.  There’s that famous incident where [US Senators] Lindsey Graham and John McCain and Amy Klobuchar go to the front lines in late 2016, of the Ukrainian military’s fight against the rebels in the Donbas.  And Lindsey Graham says, ‘2017 is going to be the year of offense, and Russia has to pay a heavier price.’

Senator Lindsey Graham:  Your fight is our fight.  2017 will be the year of offense.  All of us will go back to Washington and we will push the case against Russia.  Enough of a Russian aggression.  It is time for them to pay a heavier price.

Senator John McCain:  I believe you will win.  I am convinced you will win.  And we will do everything we can to provide you with what you need to win.

AARON MATÉ:  Even fast forward to when Biden came, Time magazine reported that when Zelenskyy shut down the three leading opposition TV networks in Ukraine, that that was conceived as a welcome gift to the Biden administration, to fit with the Biden administration’s agenda.  So, what’s your sense of all that, the agency that Zelenskyy actually has and the extent of US influence over his decisions?

CHAS FREEMAN:  Zelenskyy was elected by a landslide, not because of anything—except he wasn’t all the other candidates.  So, his political capital very quickly evaporated, and he really had no power to make decisions.  Whether there were other people behind him making decisions that he mouthed, or whether he was taking instructions from the Biden administration or the Trump administration or whoever, is unclear.  But what is clear to me is that Mr. Zelenskyy’s performance as the leader of wartime Ukraine has gained him enormous political capital.  He has the ability now to make a compromise.  It will not be easy.

As you indicated, there are elements in the coalition that support him who are very right-wing and anti-Russian, perhaps even neo-Nazi—and, by the way, antisemitism is a disastrous aspect of Nazism, but it’s not the definition of Nazism, and apparently you can be a Nazi and have a Jewish president and not feel uncomfortable about it.  So, I think this simplistic argument that, well, because Ukraine has as a secular Jewish president who apparently doesn’t really identify as Jewish but is identified as Jewish, this means somehow that there can’t be any Nazis backing him.  It’s ridiculous.  Anyway, clearly Ukraine has been very divided in multiple directions ever since its independence, and I’m sure those fissures continue to exist.  Mr. Zelenskyy, however, he really has empowered himself, I think, if he gets backing from the United States and others.

Here, we have a problem.  Not only do we have the ‘Putin is a war criminal and must be brought to trial’ statements coming out of leaders in the West, including President Biden, but we also have people like [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson saying the sanctions have to stay on, whatever Russia does, because Russia has to be punished.  Well, this means Russia has absolutely no incentive to accommodate, and it also means that Mr. Zelenskyy has no freedom to accommodate.  So, this is the opposite of an effort to resolve the issue.  It’s an effort, in effect, whatever its intent, to perpetuate the fighting, and that is going to be disastrous for the Ukrainians, for the Russians, and for Europe, and ultimately for the United States.

AARON MATÉ:  You mentioned the neo-Nazi issue in Ukraine.  Let me quote you from a new article in The Washington Post by Rita Katz.  She’s the executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group.  Her article is called “Neo-Nazis are exploiting Russia’s war in Ukraine for their own purposes: Not since ISIS have we seen such a flurry of recruitment activity,” and she writes this:

“In many ways the Ukraine situation reminds me of Syria in the early and middle years of the last decade.  Just as the Syrian conflict served as a perfect breeding ground for groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, similar conditions may be brewing in Ukraine for the far right.”

I’m wondering your response to that.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Well, I think she’s got logic on her side.  I frankly don’t know Ukraine personally well enough to know exactly what the definition of a member of the Azov brigade or other neo-Nazi groups is.  I think right-wing populism is ugly enough in our own country.  To imagine that it’s even uglier in a country as divided as Ukraine—and I don’t dismiss the whole thing at all, because Ukraine has a horrible history of running pogroms, first against Jews, and then, frankly, against Russians.  And so, to dismiss the argument that there are people with violent tendencies and great prejudice, ethnic prejudices, involved in this fight seems to me to be wrong.  So, I hadn’t read the article you cited.  I don’t know the author, but she makes sense to me.

AARON MATÉ:  And I’m curious what you make now of the allegations we’re getting from both the US and Russia against the other, that the other side is plotting false flag chemical attacks.  This has only surfaced in recent days.  In the case of the US, it strikes me that they’re recycling a playbook that they employed under the Obama administration, which was, there were people inside the Obama White House who wanted to put out the option of military intervention, and the red line was a good way to pursue that.  I’m wondering if you think the Biden administration, especially the remnants of the Obama administration—Blinken, Sullivan, and Biden himself—are recycling that playbook.

CHAS FREEMAN:  I certainly hope not, but it does have a resemblance to the probably false flag use of chemical weapons in Syria—and it almost worked in Syria.  It was only at the last minute when the chief of the Joint Chiefs said to the president, ‘This isn’t the slam dunk.  There are real questions here.’  And the questions were about whether this was the Turkish or Turkish and Saudi, or whoever, false flag intended to force an American escalation over Syria.  It was only when that happened that Mr. Obama decided that he should remember the Constitution, which he once taught about, which says that only the Congress can authorize a war; the president does not have the Constitutional authority to do that.  Of course, in practice, presidents since Truman have done so, but he put it to the Congress, and the Congress behaved in its usual craven fashion and ducked the issue.  And being said, ‘It’s unfair to ask us to do our Constitutional duty, so we won’t,’ once again.  And so, that almost worked in Syria.  And this could well be a replay.

From a military point of view, I can’t see any reason that the Russians would want to use chemical weapons.  Usually, they are a defensive device against a mass attack, but there’s no such thing going on in Ukraine.  They don’t need chemical weapons.  They have enough rightful weapons of other types without having to do that.  So, this does strike me as…on its surface, it’s suspicious.

AARON MATÉ:  You were the former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.  What do you make of their positioning so far?  There’s a lot of talk of them essentially moving closer with Russia.  A lot was made that MBS [crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] refused to take Joe Biden’s call when he phoned him recently, and Saudi Arabia considering accepting payments for oil in the Chinese currency and the implications of that.  Your thoughts there when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s apparent shifting stance here.

CHAS FREEMAN:  Saudi Arabia has been very ill at ease with its US relationship for a long time.  The affection that the Saudis once enjoyed in the United States from a limited number of people, to be sure, has been replaced by mass Islamophobia.  Saudi Arabia has been successfully vilified in US politics.  Saudi Arabia’s assumption that the United States would back the monarchy against attacks on it from at home or abroad was thrown into doubt when the United States rather gleefully saw Mubarak overthrown in Egypt.  The United States is now the competitor for oil production and exports, no longer a consumer.  The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its attribution to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, obviously does not endear him to us or us to him.  And so, Mr. Biden has refused to speak with him.

So, at this point the Saudis have gone full-bore looking for alternative partners to rely upon, and there is no single partner that they can rely upon.  But they have every interest in exploring alternative relationships, not just with Russia or China, but with India and others, and they are doing so.  Same thing with the United Arab Emirates.  It bound to the United States in the so-called Abraham Accords.  It has a reputation well-deserved for realpolitik.  It, too, is crafting its own future and it is not prepared to mortgage that future to American policy, especially when the common view in the Gulf is that the United States is retreating.

So, this brings us all back to the Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians, others who have not got onto the bandwagon hurling invective at Russia.  I think the Chinese ambassador the other day went onto one of the Sunday talk shows, and to the extent they let him get a word in, he said very clearly—and I agree with him—that condemnation does not accomplish anything very much at all, and what is required is serious diplomacy, and what has been missing has been serious diplomacy.  There have been condemnations, there have been sanctions, there have been armed shipments to the Ukrainians from a remarkable range of sources, by the way.  I mean, it illustrates the extent of Mr. Putin’s mistake that even Austria and Switzerland, two neutral countries, have provided aid to the Ukrainian resistance, as has Finland.  So, Mr. Putin has paid a huge price in terms of arousing animus against his country.

AARON MATÉ:  India and Brazil are in the same situation as China?

CHAS FREEMAN:  They’re in the same straddle.  They see no benefit in alienating a partner, namely Russia, and while they both may care about the independence of Ukraine, I think taking sides with the United States against Russia, which is what they’re being asked to do, is a step too far.

Let’s face it.  This is in large measure, as I said at the outset, a struggle between the United States and Russia for a sphere of influence that will include Ukraine.  It’s US-Russia.  It’s not Russia versus Europe.  So, in this context, why would a great power that values its cooperation with Russia want to alienate Russia?

AARON MATÉ:  We’re going to wrap.  Any final words for us?  At the beginning of this interview, you said that the long-term geopolitical implications of this crisis are unknown; the world is changing in ways we don’t know.  But I wonder if there’s any speculation that you are comfortable engaging in about what the geopolitical implications are?  A lot of people are speculating that this could mean the weakening of US dollar supremacy as a result of China and Russia drawing closer together.  Any thoughts on that, and anything else you want to leave us with as we wrap?

CHAS FREEMAN:  I think the reliance on our sovereignty over the dollar, to our abuse of that sovereignty, if you will, to impose sanctions that are illegal under the UN Charter, which are unilateral, ultimately risks the status of the dollar.  And we may, in fact, be in a moment when the dollar is taken down a notch or two.  It isn’t the case…well, I should just say that the dollar serves two purposes.  One is as a store of value.  If you have dollars, you’re fairly confident that they’re going to have a significant value 10 years from now as well as today.  So, that is why countries keep reserves in dollars, and it’s why people stash dollars in mattresses all over the world.  The other use of the dollar is to settle trade transactions.  It’s the most convenient currency in which to do that, and, in many cases, when other currencies are used, they are used with reference to the dollar and dollar exchange rates.  Both these things are now in jeopardy.

The oil trade commodities being priced in dollars is the basis for the dollar’s international value.  If you look at the United States’ trade and development balance of payments, you will see that we are in chronic deficit.  That says the dollar is overvalued, and that means it’s vulnerable to devaluation.  So, if you start saying SWIFT, the communications system in Belgium that handles most of the world’s transactions was established to ensure that trade could be conducted unencumbered by politics and now it’s being encumbered by US-imposed unilateral sanctions on a huge array of countries—Iran, Russia, China, you name it, even threatened against India—so, if the use of the dollar is now encumbered, it’s less desirable, and people will want to make workarounds around it.

Will the dollar hold its value?  Now we have a congress that repeatedly goes to the brink of defaulting on our national debt.  This is not something that inspires confidence.  And I’ll add a final factor, which I think is very injurious, potentially, and that is:  bankers get deposits because they are fiduciaries; they are meant to hold the deposits for the benefit of those who deposit the money and not to rip it off themselves.  But we’ve just confiscated the entire national treasury of Afghanistan and we’ve confiscated half of Russian reserves.  We’ve confiscated the Venezuelan reserves.  We have our allies the British having confiscated Venezuela’s gold reserves.  The Anglo-American reputation—its bankers, its fiduciaries—is in trouble.  And so, the question is, if you’re a country that thinks, well, maybe you might have some serious policy difference with the United States someday, why would you put your money in dollars?  The answer has been, there’s no alternative.  But there are now major efforts being made to create alternatives.  So, we’re not there yet, but this is—and I don’t want to make a prediction, but I think this is a major question that we need to monitor carefully—because if the dollar loses its value, the American influence on the global level decreases enormously.

AARON MATÉ:  Chas Freeman, thank you as always for your time and insight.  I say this on behalf of many people in my audience who have come to rely on your expertise.  It’s really, really appreciated, so thank you.

CHAS FREEMAN:  It’s a pleasure to talk to you.

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