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Biden in Ukraine on War Anniversary: Matt Duss, Medea Benjamin Debate U.S. Involvement, Hopes for Peace

Written by on 21/02/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As the war in Ukraine approaches the one-year mark this week, President Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine today. During a meeting with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Biden announced a new wave of sanctions against Russia and another half-billion dollars in assistance, including more military equipment.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, on the U.S. support for Ukraine in their war against a brutal attack by Russia. Now, it’s good to be back in Kyiv.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden’s increased weapons commitment comes after the head of the European Commission said the bloc would take “extraordinary measures” to ramp up the production, purchase and supply of weapons to Ukraine. Ursula von der Leyen made the pledge during this weekend’s Munich Security Conference while intense battles continued along the front in eastern Ukraine. Outside the conference, hundreds of people gathered to protest.

PROTESTER: [translated] Because it is simply important that we cannot permanently supply weapons, because then the war does not stop; every day that weapons are supplied, people die on both sides. And these people count. It is important to go into peace negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: Before President Biden left for Ukraine, he was met with protest during his dinner this weekend in Washington, D.C., by an activist with the antiwar group CodePink.

CODEPINK ACTIVIST: President Biden, I hate to bother you. We need to end this war in Ukraine. We need to push through negotiations. I hate to bother you, but people are dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunday in Washington, D.C., there was also a Rage Against the War Machine protest at the Lincoln Memorial, where former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and others spoke.

For more on Biden’s surprise trip to Ukraine today, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by two guests. Medea Benjamin is co-founder of CodePink, co-author of the new book War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict. Also with us, Matt Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders and co-author of a piece in The New Republic headlined “A Better Biden Doctrine.”

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Matt Duss, let’s begin with you. Your response to this surprise visit, before the announced visit to Poland, that President Biden made today, meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv?

MATT DUSS: Sure. And thanks for inviting me on.

I think the visit by President Biden to Kyiv is, you know, clearly intended just to show continuing support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine as we approach the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion, or the Russian further invasion, on February 24th. And I think, you know, for an American president to make a trip like this is enormously symbolic, if, on all days, on President’s Day, to be — make an appearance with Ukraine’s president. So, I think, you know, coming after — days after we’ve seen a number of senior administration officials making speeches and holding consultations at the Munich Security Conference, working with allies and partners to show continuing support, I think the president’s visit really puts — underlines that in an important way.

AMY GOODMAN: And the announcement of more, something like half a billion dollars of weapons to Ukraine, mainly?

MATT DUSS: I think, you know, the release of further funds that have been already allocated is important. I think it — you know, but the president also did not commit to sending the advanced forms of long-range weapons that the Ukrainians have continued to request. And I think it does show the way the president has approached this problem with a really important measure of restraint.

The last point I would make is, last week we saw a report in The Washington Post about various administration officials in conversations with their Ukrainian counterparts, making clear that, you know, this — there should be an opportunity sometime in the next few months, hopefully, for the possibility to find an opportunity to get to negotiations. They are very mindful that the United States and its partners cannot continue to supply Ukraine at the current rate. So, I think that article we saw last week signaled an effort to start to prepare the environment for eventual negotiations.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Biden speaking in Kyiv before he left.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Together, we’ve committed nearly 700 tanks and thousands of armored vehicles, 1,000 artillery systems, more than 2 million rounds of artillery ammunition, more than 50 advanced launch rocket systems, anti-ship and air defense systems, all to defend Ukraine. And that doesn’t count the other half a billion dollars we’re going to be — we’re announcing with you today and tomorrow that’s going to be coming your way. And that’s just the United States in this piece. And just today, that announcement includes artillery ammunition for HIMARS and howitzers, more Javelins, anti-armor systems, air surveillance radars, that will protect the Ukrainian people from aerial bombardments. Later this week, we will announce additional sanctions against elites and companies that are trying to evade sanctions and backfill Russia’s war machine.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Biden speaking in a surprise trip to Kyiv this morning before heading on to Warsaw, Poland. We’re also joined by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Medea, your response to President Biden’s trip and to the statement that he just made?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I feel like this is a propaganda move to shore up support for a senseless war that the American public are starting to realize has no end in sight except for more senseless waste of lives. We saw a new AP poll that showed that only 40% of the American people want to send more weapons to Ukraine. We see protests happening here in the United States, like the one that happened yesterday, bringing together a broad sector of people. And we see the protests happening all over Europe, a new coalition called Europe for Peace that is pushing their governments towards negotiations.

And we see just from the United States the opposite from Biden, saying we’re sending more weapons. And, of course, Zelensky, every time the U.S. agrees to send a new weapon, like the tanks, then has another request, like the fighter jets. And what is it going to be after that? Troops.

The American public, the public in Europe and the world community is saying, “We need to find an answer for this.” That is why the top diplomat from China is on his way to Russia. They are about to announce a peace plan. The entire world is calling for a peace plan. We saw this with President Lula from Brazil, who met with Biden. Biden was pushing Brazil to send weapons to Ukraine. He said, “We don’t want to join this war. We want to end this war.”

AMY GOODMAN: Matt Duss, your response to Medea Benjamin’s comment that this is a senseless war?

MATT DUSS: I agree it’s a senseless war. It’s a senseless war that was launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. I would agree that we all want to end this war. I think the people who want to end this war most of all are the Ukrainians. I think the question is: Under what conditions can we end this war in a way that’s durable and that provides for continuing security, and not simply a pause before we get to another round of even worse fighting? I think this has been the approach of the Biden administration thus far, is to get to a point where you have real negotiations that can produce a ceasefire — if not a peace agreement, an actual ceasefire that is enforceable and durable. And, you know, I certainly grant that there are very legitimate concerns and questions on the part of lots of people, including within the administration, about how long this can go on, and continuing to seek opportunities for precisely the negotiations that I previously mentioned.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said he’s ruling out trading territory for peace as part of any negotiated settlement with Putin. He made the comments in an interview with the BBC. Your response?

MATT DUSS: You know, I think, from Zelensky’s perspective, it makes sense for him to say that. And I will also recognize that as a matter of international law, all of Ukraine, including Crimea, is — this is part of Ukraine. Now, if we get to a point where there’s a ceasefire that is possible and durable, in the absence of those kind of maximalist goals, I think that is something that we should look at seriously. I’m not proposing to negotiate on the behalf of the Ukrainians — no one should do that — but I do think we do have an interest in seeking, you know, an end to this war. And I think the administration is clear about that, even if they very carefully do not want to get ahead, at least publicly, of declarations from the Ukrainian president.

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, if you could respond to what Matt says? And you talked about the antiwar protest yesterday in Washington, D.C. You were initially on the — scheduled to speak, but then you didn’t speak. I was looking at a series of tweets between you and Ralph Nader, and he said, “Why didn’t you speak?” Can you explain what’s happening within the antiwar movement? But first, respond to Matt.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think the U.S. has a history of trying to stop negotiations, especially the ones that were taking place in March, a month after the war began, and the West decided that they didn’t want Zelensky to make an agreement with Russia. I think that the sending — constant sending of weapons is saying to Zelensky, “You don’t have to negotiate. We are behind you 100%.” The U.S., what it should be doing is talking to the Russians. Biden, instead of making a symbolic appearance in Kyiv, should make a meeting with Putin, and they should talk about how to end this war.

The issue of yesterday’s march, a rally and then a march to the White House, it was fascinating, Amy. I’ve never been at an antiwar rally like that. My organization, CodePink, didn’t want me to speak there, because they didn’t like a number of the speakers and their positions on other issues. But when have we ever had an antiwar march that brought together Ron Paul, Tulsi Gabbard, Jill Stein, Dennis Kucinich, people from very different political perspectives? And there is another march coming up on March 18th, which a different set of groups is putting together. I think we have to be at every antiwar march. And I’m also excited that on Tuesday we’re having a lobby day in Congress, inviting people of all political persuasions to come meet us in the Rayburn Building and go to the offices of every member of the Armed Services Committee in Congress to say, “Enough weapons. Stop sending weapons. Start negotiating. Stop escalating. Start negotiating.” This is the message I think now that more and more American people want us to take to Congress, which has done nothing but supply billions and billions of weapons to keep this war going, when there is no winning on the battlefield.

And I think that’s an important thing to say to you, Matt Duss, because there is no winning on the battlefield. If you agree to that, then why do we keep fueling this war?

AMY GOODMAN: Matt, your response?

MATT DUSS: Sure. I mean, first, I would just quickly, you know, reference something Medea just said about the United States stopping negotiations. She referenced talks that were happening in March and in April. And I think it’s — I would encourage viewers to look closely into that, because I think that’s a very, very incomplete and, frankly, inaccurate rendition of what actually happened in that situation, in those negotiations between the Ukrainians and the Russians.

You know, with regard to ending the war, as I said, I want this war to end. Ukrainians certainly want this war to end. I think acknowledging that there can be no victory on the battlefield, even if one does acknowledge that, there is still an argument for continuing to support the Ukrainians for creating the best possible situation on the battlefield that they can, to come into negotiations from the strongest possible position. That has been, I think, the Biden administration’s approach. That has been the approach of our European allies. That does not preclude eventual negotiations, when those negotiations become possible.

I would note also that the Biden administration has been talking to the Russians at various levels, even if we’re not seeing phone calls between President Biden and President Putin. There’s been numerous reports of contacts at various levels between United States officials and their counterparts to identify when negotiations are appropriate and can achieve something. But, as yet, Vladimir Putin is the one who has given no indication that he is ready for that. And I think that’s very important to recognize.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: That’s just not true, Matt. And going back to the negotiations that were happening in March, it was not only confirmed by Turkish officials involved in the negotiations and Ukrainians themselves, but now we have former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett from Israel saying that the West blocked these negotiations.

And in terms of the negotiations, I think it’s very exciting that now we have the Chinese who are on their way to talk to Putin in Russia and will be announcing a peace plan. And I think the Chinese are representing what the entire world wants to see: stop the fighting now. You say, “When will it be time for negotiations?” Well, the time for negotiations is way past due. And I think the pressure to send fighter jets — I mean, we’re just getting deeper and deeper into a third world war, into a nuclear war. And I think that American people should be horrified that this is the direction that our government is taking us. And it’s the Ukrainian lives that are being lost and sacrificed every day while the U.S. is trying to weaken Russia. Enough is enough. Negotiations now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get Matt’s response to China. Both Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned China at the Munich Security Conference this weekend against providing support to Moscow, as reports emerged Beijing is supplying Russian forces with nonlethal military assistance. Beijing responded to the U.S. threats earlier today.

WANG WENBIN: [translated] It is the U.S., not China, that is providing a steady stream of weapons on the battlefield. The United States is in no position to make demands of China. We will never accept the U.S. pointing fingers at Sino-Russian relations or even coercing us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Matt Duss?

MATT DUSS: I mean, well, you cannot dismiss what he just said. I mean, certainly, the United States has been supplying weapons. And more broadly, I think there are — you know, part of what China is able to exploit in its own rhetoric is the fact the United States has a very bad record on these issues, going back many decades. It employs a whole series of double standards on issues of international law when it comes to dealing with friends versus dealing with adversaries. And I do think these are arguments that have — you know, have an audience in the world, particularly in the Global South. Now, certainly, I think China has its own problems both with its foreign policy and certainly with its domestic affairs — its repression of the Uyghurs, just to name one of the various abuses it’s been carrying out — but I think we should not dismiss these arguments.

Now, as for China’s role in brokering peace, personally, I’m very skeptical that the Chinese government will be willing to play an actually productive role here. They do have influence with Vladimir Putin, certainly. He’s become much, much more reliant on support from the Chinese government over the course of this war. But going back to what Medea mentioned, Brazilian President Lula, you know, I certainly don’t dismiss the possibility that Lula could play a productive role in this, as well. This is something I think the United States, frankly, should be willing to work with, if the president and his administration have, at least rhetorically, said that we need to make space for others to play a role, particularly leaders from the Global South, in global affairs. So I think we should be willing to, you know, see if Lula can produce something here, and not dismiss that out of hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we gave you the first word, Matt, so, Medea Benjamin, the last word.

MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think it’s very exciting that the Chinese are coming up with a peace plan, because we know that Putin would be on board for that. And then we have to get the U.S. and Zelensky on board for that, as well. I think there is this very loud groundswell coming up from below and from the Global South to say, “Enough. We have to find a way to end this.” It’s causing greater hunger around the entire world. It’s causing greater increase in prices of energy. It’s causing more dirty energy to be used. It’s time to find a solution. And I think now it’s the West against the rest of the world saying, “End this war now.”

AMY GOODMAN: Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CodePink. Her book, War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict. And Matt Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. We’ll link to your new piece, “A Better Biden Doctrine,” at democracynow.org.

Next up, the Munich Security Conference this weekend, Vice President Kamala Harris accuses Russia of committing crimes against humanity. We’ll get response from war crimes prosecutor Reed Brody. Stay with us.



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