Urging leftists to support the Ukraine proxy war, Bernie Sanders aide Matt Duss whitewashes the US role, attacks dissenting voices, and advocates the dangerous militarism that he claims to oppose.
By Aaron Maté
The unanimous vote by progressive lawmakers for the $40 billion Ukraine funding bill has been followed by a near-unanimous refusal to defend it. To date, no member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus – with the sole exception of Cori Bush – has publicly explained why they chose to hand over billions of dollars to the weapons industry and intensify a proxy war against nuclear-armed Russia.
Amid this resounding silence, Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, has stepped in to fill the void. In a New Republic article titled “Why Ukraine Matters for the Left,” Duss attempts to convince fellow progressives that the “provision of military aid” to Ukraine “can advance a more just and humanitarian global order.” Duss has only praise for a Biden administration that, in his view, “should be applauded for its judicious reaction to the Ukraine crisis.” By contrast, Duss opts to launch an attack on dissident journalists, myself included, who don’t share his enthusiasm.
To make his case, Duss omits an abundance of inconvenient facts, betraying either considerable ignorance of the Ukraine-Russia conflict or a deliberate effort to distort it.
While apologia for US hegemonic projects is normal in DC foreign policy circles, Duss’ contribution is particularly noteworthy given his painstaking attempt to cast himself as an outsider. “Our political class,” Duss states, “advocates military violence with a regularity and ease that is psychopathic.” Duss’ comment is both accurate and wildly ironic, given his choice to advocate our political class’s military violence in Ukraine — with the remarkable ease that he identifies in others as psychopathic.
When it comes to how the Biden administration has handled the Ukraine crisis, Duss cannot identify a single fault. “The Biden team clearly did not seek this war,” Duss claims, and “in fact… made a strenuous, and very public, diplomatic effort to avert it.”
Duss does not explain what the administration’s “strenuous” diplomacy entailed, perhaps because even its top officials now openly admit that none existed.
In an interview with War on the Rocks, State Department counsellor Derek Chollet was asked if NATO expansion into Ukraine was “on the table” in pre-invasion contacts with Russia. “It wasn’t,” Chollet replied. The White House, Chollet explained, “made clear to the Russians that we were willing to talk to them on issues that we thought were genuine concerns they have that were legitimate in some way,” including “arms control.” (emphasis added) But when it comes to “the future of Ukraine” and its potential NATO membership, Chollet said, this was deemed a “non-issue.”
To Duss, the Biden administration’s (openly admitted) refusal to even discuss Russia’s core demands – and to only entertain issues that it deemed to be “legitimate” on Russia’s behalf – is apparently a “strenuous diplomatic effort.” If “diplomacy” amounts to enforcing US hegemony, as many in DC seem to believe, then Duss would have a case. But in the rest of the world, where diplomacy entails constructive dialogue with a semblance of parity, he does not.
Duss also takes aim at the argument, advanced by prominent leftists including former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, that a US-European pledge that Ukraine won’t join NATO “would have solved the problem” with Russia.
To refute Lula, Duss stresses that “in the weeks leading up to the war, U.S. allies, specifically German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, signaled clearly” that Ukraine’s NATO ascension “was not going to happen.” According to Duss, it is Putin who sabotaged their efforts by invading, and who “has now made that discussion moot.”
Duss omits what also happened in the weeks leading up to the war. While Germany and France did indeed float a proposal to keep Ukraine out of NATO, it was Ukraine – with US backing – that rejected it. According to an account in the Wall Street Journal, Scholtz proposed to Volodymyr Zelensky on Feb. 19 – five days before Russia’s invasion — that Ukraine “renounce its NATO aspirations and declare neutrality as part of a wider European security deal,” signed by both Putin and Biden. But Zelensky rejected Schultz’s plan, a response that “left German officials worried that the chances of peace were fading.” In dismissing the Germans’ NATO proposal, Zelensky joined the Biden White House, as State’s Derek Chollet acknowledged and other Biden officials made clear in public.
Ignoring US-Ukrainian rejectionism, Duss then declares that “it seems absurd to suggest that even an ironclad public pledge from President Biden that Ukraine would never be accepted into NATO would have convinced Putin to draw back the 180,000 troops he had placed on Ukraine’s borders.” Perhaps, but that very public pledge happened to be the centerpiece of Germany’s last-minute diplomatic effort – one that Duss himself invoked, and that Zelensky (along with Biden) chose to reject.
Duss’ whitewashing of the Biden administration’s rejection of diplomacy before the Russian invasion carries over to the period since.
Since Russia’s invasion, Duss says, the White House has “acted with restraint and care not to get drawn into a wider war with Russia.” While it is true that Biden has opted not to start World War III – in other words, has opted not to trigger a global suicide pact — he has done anything but act with “restraint.” One day before Duss’ article was published, Biden authorized the delivery of medium-range advanced rocket systems to Ukraine. These rockets have the capacity to strike inside of Russia; the US is acting on Ukraine’s assurance that it won’t.
Duss may support undermining diplomacy in Ukraine and shipping off billions of dollars worth of heavy weaponry instead, but this can only be described as “restraint” if the sole measure is an immediate — rather than merely prospective — nuclear holocaust.
Duss is so impressed with Biden’s handling of the war that he cannot even detect a tangible path that could end it. “As of this writing,” Duss declares, “I have seen no evidence of a settlement in the offing—as in, a deal that Putin would actually entertain, let alone accept—that we’re refusing to ‘push for.'”
If Duss cannot see evidence of a realistic settlement that Russia could accept, then he is being willfully blind. Russia’s explicit proposals, issued before the war and after, including two weeks into the invasion, called on Ukraine to “cease military action, change its constitution to enshrine neutrality, acknowledge Crimea as Russian territory, and recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states.”
It is worth noting that the latter is Russia’s only new condition: for the eight years before the February invasion, Russia formally accepted the Minsk accords, which, to end the Donbas war, would have kept the Donetsk and Lugansk regions inside Ukraine’s borders, with limited autonomy.
Duss is free to argue that Russia’s terms for ending the war are unacceptable. But to pretend that Russia has not even laid out those terms, is to essentially advocate that the war never end.
By omitting Russia’s stated terms for a settlement, Duss also allows himself to erase one of the invasion’s key causes: the 2014 Maidan coup, and the ensuing eight-year Donbas war that had left more than 14,000 people dead by the time Russian forces crossed the border on February 24th.
In his 2500+ word piece, Duss makes no mention of the Donbas war and how it began: the 2014 ouster of a democratically elected Ukrainian president, with new leadership selected by Washington; the coup government’s assault on Ukraine’s ethnic Russian and anti-coup citizens, who launched a rebellion in the Donbas; the critical role of fascists and neo-Nazis in the Maidan coup and the Donbas war since; the fascist-led sabotage of the 2015 Minsk accords, which could have put an end to the conflict. By omitting this history, Duss can also omit how the US has helped undermine the Minsk agreements by siding with Ukrainian’s far-right and choosing to use the Donbas war to “fight Russia over there” (Adam Schiff) and “make Russia pay a heavier price,” (John McCain), because Ukraine’s “fight is our fight.” (Lindsey Graham).
After ignoring Russia’s stated grounds for a peace settlement, Duss goes on to disingenuously claim that the Ukrainian government has been pushing for one.
“Ukraine presented Russia with a far-reaching set of proposals over a month ago, including a commitment to ‘permanent neutrality,’” Duss claims. “Volodomyr Zelenskiy continues to offer to negotiate directly with Putin to end the war.”
It is true that Ukraine presented Russia with a 10-point plan in late March. But Duss omits what happened immediately after: while Russia “signaled its preliminary support,” (RAND analyst Samuel Charap) Ukraine’s Western backers sabotaged it, and Zelensky acquiesced. In early April, Ukrainian and Russian officials were finalizing details for a Zelensky-Putin summit. But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kiev and ordered him to halt diplomacy. Citing sources close to Zelensky, Ukrayinska Pravda reports that Johnson informed his Ukrainian counterpart that Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with.” Johnson also relayed that even if Russia and Ukraine chose to sign security guarantees, the UK and its allies would not take part – rendering any such agreement worthless.
Zelensky clearly received the message, as Duss’s own source makes clear. When Duss claims that Zelensky “continues to offer to negotiate directly with Putin to end the war,” he links to a Reuters article that reveals such an “offer” to be hollow. Zelensky, Reuters reports, said he would only negotiate with Putin if Russia first withdrew entirely from Ukraine – an obvious non-starter. “Get out of this territory that you have occupied since February 24,” Zelensky said. “This is the first clear step to talking about anything.” Zelensky also “ruled out suggestions… that Ukraine should make concessions for the sake of securing a peace agreement that would allow Putin to save face.”
Thus, returning to Duss’ rendering, Zelensky’s “far-reaching proposals” were immediately rescinded under Western orders, and Zelensky’s “offer to negotiate” was premised on a condition that would have made negotiations impossible.
None of this is to suggest that Russia was justified in launching an invasion of Ukraine. To defend the use of force, which has been so catastrophic, Russia has to meet a high burden of evidence that, in my view, it has not. But one does not need to defend Russia’s invasion to see through Duss’ attempt to whitewash the US role in provoking and prolonging it.
Tellingly, Duss is openly hostile to journalists who have reported on the context that he has omitted. Out of nowhere, Duss introduces an attack on The Grayzone, the Max Blumenthal-founded news outlet that I work for. While Duss has nothing but praise for Biden, he has nothing but ad hominems for us (“pernicious authoritarian agitprop,” “atrocity-denying grifters” “click-baiting provocateurs”). After sharing this vitriol, he then immediately declares that engaging with us is “wasting time.”
I feel the same way about his juvenile name-calling, but interested readers can judge for themselves whether his insults are supported by facts. (He links to two “sources,” one a Medium blog post that, true to the neo-McCarthyite norm, peddles innuendo that The Grayzone is funded by Russia, among other smears).
If Duss is genuinely concerned about wasting time, he also might reflect on why he devotes ample space to paying lip service to progressive principles, only to ultimately endorse policies that flagrantly violate them. “Centering opposition to U.S. imperialism and militarism is an entirely appropriate starting point,” Duss states. Yet Duss’ desired end point would see leftists center U.S. imperialism and militarism, with disastrous results: among them, prolonging a proxy war against a nuclear armed power, threatening a worsening global food crisis, and sentencing more Ukrainians to death.
Even putting aside US complicity in the Ukraine proxy war and its dangers for the planet, progressives like Duss might wish to consider the likely political consequences. One obvious guide is the election of 2016, when Donald Trump won over a significant portion of voters by claiming to oppose the military interventionism that Duss is now urging progressives to embrace. Having seemingly learned nothing from 2016, Democrats in 2022 are again ceding anti-war sentiment to Republicans, 68 of whom voted against the $40 billion Ukraine bill in the House and Senate (versus zero Democrats).
As at least some Republicans vote against the proxy war, Biden has defended the domestic pain caused by his Ukraine proxy war by blaming “Putin’s Price Hike” and trying to argue that “defending freedom is going to cost.” Biden’s defense of “freedom” in Ukraine is now costing him a transatlantic flight to grovel at the feet of the Saudi autocracy, in the hopes of staving off a humiliating cost in the November midterms.
Continuing his mealy mouthed approach, Duss both claims to support diplomacy while simultaneously declaring it to be unattainable. The US, he says, “should certainly be actively engaged in finding a diplomatic path to end the war, and avoid committing to maximalist aims that could foreclose one.” But yet, according to Duss, “for the moment that path is unclear.”
If the path toward peace for Ukraine is unclear to Duss, then that can only be because he has chosen to erase the factual background and the diplomatic solutions on offer, thereby reinforcing the “maximalist aims” that he claims to oppose. Duss’s proxy war apologia will certainly win him a warm reception in establishment DC circles. For the US progressive movement, Ukraine, and the rest of the planet, it only spells disaster.
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