My Interview on the Ukraine War with the Swiss Magazine *Die Weltwoche*
In late October, 2022, the largest Swiss newsweekly Die Weltwoche (“The World Week”) published an interview with me in German translation. I’ve copied the English original of this interview below, with minor edits. Some of the military and political details have changed since the interview was published, but most of it remains relevant. One major change since the interview is that Russia has launched sustained attacks on the Ukrainian electrical grid and other infrastructure, which were only just beginning when I gave this interview.
About the Interviewee
Benjamin Abelow is the author of How the West Brought War to Ukraine. The The German translation is a №1 Amazon bestseller. Translations are forthcoming in Italian, Polish, Danish, and Slovenian, and are being explored in France and 40 other countries. In Switzerland, 340,000 copies of a special edition of the German translation were distributed. Abelow previously worked in Washington, DC, where he focused on nuclear arms policy. He holds a B.A. in European history from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.D. from the Yale University School of Medicine. His other areas of interest include the psychology of trauma, including war trauma.
Interview with Benjamin Abelow, author of How the West Brought War to Ukraine, published 27 October 2022 in the Swiss newsweekly Die Weltwoche.
Weltwoche: Russia has annexed four Ukrainian regions. What is your assessment of the current situation in the Ukraine war?
Abelow: If Vladimir Putin is serious, and I think he is, and if NATO and Voldomyr Zelensky continue to try to recapture those territories, the situation will become extremely dangerous.
Weltwoche: Meanwhile, both sides are talking about nuclear weapons. Volodymyr Zelensky recently spoke of “pre-emptive strikes” by the West. How dangerous is this call by the Ukrainian president?
Abelow: Some people have claimed that Mr. Zelensky’s words were taken out of context. But if you watch the video of his presentation, you know that he really did recommend a preemptive attack on Russia, probably with missiles. Zelensky seems to think a preemptive attack would contribute to deterrence and nuclear stability. In reality, a preemptive strike is the worst possible thing you could do. It probably would initiate a nuclear war that would kill hundreds of millions or even billions of people. As part of this, Ukraine would be annihilated. It probably would be vaporized. Yet the Western media make excuses for Zelensky, and Washington acts as if he is a thoughtful, rational statesman.
Weltwoche: How does the escalation of language affect this war?
Abelow: The rhetoric is dangerous. We are in a situation where neither side can win without triggering a catastrophe. Yet, at least in the West, and certainly in Ukraine, people are talking about winning, and they are sticking their finger in Russia’s eye. Face it, nobody is going to win.
Weltwoche: Describe the victory scenario of the West.
Abelow: You hear two points being discussed. One is that the West drives Russia out of Ukraine entirely. But that is impossible without triggering a nuclear confrontation. The other is you fight a long war that exhausts and weakens Russia to the point where it can’t launch another war for a long time.
Weltwoche: What happens when more and more pressure is put on a nuclear power like Russia? What are the consequences for Putin’s regime?
Abelow: Mr. Putin’s approval ratings remain high but Western media distort this reality and make his position seem tenuous. I think resistance inside Russia comes mostly from those who think Putin has not been resolute enough. They say, “Why are we fighting with one hand behind our back?” Now that Putin is increasing his forces and is treating this more like a real war, this opposition probably will diminish. Zelensky recently said he was willing to negotiate, but only with a different Russian leader. That’s crazy. Firstly, it’s unlikely Putin will be overthrown. Secondly, if he were, what makes you think the next person would be easier to deal with? In effect, Zelensky is saying he doesn’t want to negotiate, period. As a result, tens and possibly hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians will be maimed and killed, millions more will be displaced, and the European refugee crisis will deepen. All this because Zelensky won’t negotiate. But the reality is, Zelensky is doing the bidding of the U.S and NATO. This is a proxy war. The U.S. and NATO could stop this war in a minute, but they don’t want to.
Weltwoche: Do you have any idea what kind of ruler would follow Putin? A good guy? Or will it be even more dangerous?
Abelow: It’s a bad idea even to think about Putin’s departure. I believe he’s essentially a rational character, even if he badly misjudged the Western response to his invasion. He probably will remain in power and that is a good thing, because if he were replaced, it might be by a militaristic Russian nationalist. The ousting of Putin would be a dangerous roll of the dice. You think things are bad now? Things could be much, much worse.
Weltwoche: What brings you to that conclusion?
Abelow: The Western media emphasize the issue of war crimes and claim that Putin is trying to kill civilians as a matter of policy. But the reality is this military operation has been a limited one. And that has required a great deal of restraint by Putin. There are undoubtedly powerful factions in his military who said, if we start a war in Ukraine, we have to go in with all our might. He didn’t do that. US officials have actually said they are baffled by how he has conducted this war. Only now, after months of US refusal to negotiate, and ongoing massive arming of Ukraine, plus attacks on Russian infrastructure, are we seeing Russian attacks on the electric grid, to disrupt Ukrainian troop and supply transport. Compare all this with how the U.S. went into Iraq, with its “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad. But Putin’s goal was not to destroy Ukraine. He wanted a neutral Ukraine, autonomy in the Donbass, and recognition of Crimea as Russian territory. Most people don’t realize it, but Russia and Ukraine were negotiating in March. They probably would have signed a peace agreement. But Boris Johnson, then prime minister of Great Britain, showed up unannounced in Kyiv to sabotage the process. He told Zelensky [in essence], “You may be ready to make peace, but we [the collective West] are not.” This was reported in a Ukrainian publication, Ukrainska Pravda. Multiple former senior U.S. officials have confirmed key aspects of this account, as reported in the journal Foreign Affairs. So, Russia was seriously negotiating. This indicates Putin can be a negotiating partner.
Weltwoche: Let’s talk about the United States: what is the role of America in the war in Ukraine?
Abelow: First of all, the U.S. tells NATO what to do. The U.S. wants war, so NATO wants war. Second, the U.S. has long been arming and training Ukraine. And third, the U.S. may be preventing a peace deal. When Boris Johnson went to Kyiv, he probably had American approval. He might even have been acting on an American plan. Further, the U.S. already has forces in Ukraine. Not traditional front-line combat troops, but intelligence, special military operations services, covert units. Behind the scenes, the American military-industrial complex is in full swing. Conflict with Russia is a gold mine for them, both financially and in terms of institutional power.
Weltwoche: What is the interest of the United States? What does Joe Biden want?
Abelow: The interest of the United States, for its 330 million citizens, is a rapidly negotiated end to this bloody war. But if you’re asking about what the Washington elite want, and what they propagandize the whole world to achieve, one goal, as I said, is to weaken Russia. This was stated publicly by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at his side. But if this goal were achieved, it would also mean that Russia could no longer defend itself. We will see a nuclear war before Russia lets that happen. This goal also entails the ongoing destruction of Ukraine because it requires a long war. We are told this is a humanitarian war, a war based on Ukrainian agency. That is a fantasy. This is a war controlled by the United States, using Ukraine as a battlefield and Ukrainians as cannon fodder. Basically, a small number of ideologues in the White House and State Department, a war-like Congress, and a large war industry in the US, plus a so-called free press, beholden to Washington and acting as a massive propaganda machine — these are driving the United States on a collision course with Russia.
Weltwoche: Who is the strong man behind this goal? Who determines U.S. foreign policy?
Abelow: It’s not easy to identify which influence is dominant. Biden certainly plays a role but he’s clearly not in control of everything. His own people walk back half of what he says, and it’s not even certain that what he says comes from him. People like Antony Blinken and the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, also play a role — and they’re a bad influence. For God’s sake, they run the State Department but don’t seem to believe in diplomacy. The most senior military officers, for example, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have a powerful influence. And the military-industrial complex can put enormous pressure on the whole system, pushing it toward war. Remember, the term “military-industrial complex” came from President Eisenhower, not from some pacifist. Eisenhower invented the term. He was a five-star general, a war hero, and highly experienced. He knew first-hand how things worked. He was so concerned about the military-industrial complex that he publicly warned the American people about it in his final televised address as president.
Weltwoche: What happens next? In the fall? In the winter? Is the U.S. planning to intervene in Crimea to push the Russians back? What do you suspect is coming?
Abelow: Any talk about pushing Russia from Crimea is crazy. Russia took Crimea in 2014 largely because it has an important warm-water naval base there, in Sevastopol. Russia and Ukraine had negotiated a long-term lease that assured Russia use of that base until almost 2050. A base in warm waters is extremely important because it can operate all year. In 2014, with the new, pro-American Ukrainian government in Kyiv, which both Victoria Nuland and Joseph Biden played a role in setting up, there was a reasonable concern in Russia that the Sevastopol base might be handed over to the U.S. That was totally unacceptable to Russia. It would have killed their navy. Face it. Russia is not leaving Crimea. Period. People who talk about driving Russia from Crimea are living in a dream world.
Weltwoche: How long is the US in a position to support Ukraine? If you think about it, America also has problems, economic, political. How long can Joe Biden help?
Abelow: The US is essentially bankrupt, 30 trillion dollars in debt, yet Congress has allocated to Ukraine about $70 billion so far and is set to keep pouring in money, year after year. I don’t think Congress even considers where the money comes from. They are so used to the Federal Reserve printing money that they’ve lost their minds. But the more money you print, the more inflation you have, and this will contribute to the demise of the dollar as the dominant world-wide transaction currency and to the loss of the dollar as the major international reserve currency. The same is true of the politicization of the financial clearing system by American leaders, who casually use it as a policy tool. And of course, politically, the country is deeply divided.
Weltwoche: What was the biggest mistake, of the West, that led to this war?
Abelow: NATO expansion. In 1990–1991, when the Soviet Union still existed, the United States and other Western powers assured Moscow that if it withdrew 400,000 troops from East Germany, allowing East and West Germany to reunify under NATO auspices, NATO would not expand toward Russia. But these assurances were disregarded, and NATO moved 1,000 miles eastward. And in the end, NATO was doing live-fire rocket launches, right on Russia’s border, to practice destroying air defense systems inside Russia. This is unbelievable but true. NATO did this in Estonia in both 2020 and 2021. Imagine if Russia had moved into Canada and done that with respect to the U.S. The U.S. would have gone to war too, and fast. This explains why U.S. and NATO leaders keep saying the war was unprovoked — because they provoked it. What do you expect them to say? Do you want them to face reality, admit their mistakes, and take responsibility? That’s not going to happen.
Weltwoche: What if Donald Trump returns to the White House? What if the political situation changes?
Abelow: I did not vote for Mister Trump, and I have no plans to. But I do think many of his foreign policy intuitions were good. I mean, why do we have hundreds of military bases around the world? Why does NATO even exist? Why are we moving NATO to Russia’s doorstep, disregarding Russia’s security concerns, insulting Putin, and creating the very conflicts NATO claims to protect against? Trump asked these questions, but he was accused of being pro-Russian, and he felt he had to disprove that. So, he caved in and developed a strong anti-Russian stance. But if somebody with a different kind of integrity came to office, a person with deeper understanding, real courage and conviction, a true thinker and leader, that person could make a difference. It doesn’t matter if that person is a Republican, a Democrat, or something else. That person could say, “Look, this whole Russia narrative is nonsense, driven by unelected money and power. It’s destroying our society and destroying Europe. Let’s fix things at home and stop this nonsensical narrative.” Then you would really see something.
Weltwoche: If you were Joe Biden’s top advisor, what would be done immediately? What would your advice be now?
Abelow: The U.S. should immediately negotiate with Russia. Yes, the U.S. and Russia, not Ukraine. Zelensky would of course sign the document, but the reality is, he’s not in control now. Everything he’s doing is because the West sabotaged his peace process in March and did not support the peace platform he was elected on in 2019. As Biden’s advisor, I would say, “Tell Antony Blinken to get his butt to Russia within 48 hours, sit down at the table with Russian foreign minister Lavrov, and don’t come back until you negotiate a settlement.”
Weltwoche: What does the EU need to do? What is your recommendation to the EU?
Abelow: First, I would quickly learn more about the European situation by consulting with people who know a lot more than I do. But my basic message would be simple. I’d say, “For heaven’s sake, stop following the U.S. as it jumps off a cliff. Stand on your own feet, decide what is reasonable, and do it. Stop committing suicide.”
Weltwoche: Do you see a statesman who is able to mediate between the parties? A bearer of hope?
Abelow: Many people could do that. The person doesn’t have to come from a large power or be a great genius. Just someone who has good relations with both sides, who is neutral, has some political savvy and emotional intelligence, someone who knows you can treat people with respect even if you don’t approve of what they’re doing. Tell me, speaking of neutrality, I can’t quite understand Switzerland’s position. How do you see things?
Weltwoche: Well, Switzerland has joined the sanctions imposed by the EU. Russia accuses us of no longer being neutral.
Abelow: Do you want me to play the adviser again?
Weltwoche: Shoot. What does Switzerland have to do?
Abelow: I would say to the Swiss leaders, “You misunderstood this conflict. You thought it was about Hitler. You believed what Washington told you. You didn’t understand it was about NATO and threats to Russia’s security, right on its border. Go on television and say to the Swiss people: ‘We have thought carefully and now realize we chose the wrong path. We will return to neutrality, remove the sanctions, and offer to mediate between the United States and Russia.’” That’s what I would say. Why are governments afraid to admit their mistakes? If a married couple acted that way, they’d be divorced in five minutes.
Weltwoche: What is your desired scenario in the current situation? What are you hoping for?
Abelow: You’re using the word “hope.” That is a deep word, so I’ll answer at the deepest level. You know, everybody is afraid. The U.S. is afraid of Russia. Eastern Europe was trampled by the Soviet Union, so they’re afraid. Ukraine is certainly afraid; they have just been invaded and bombed. Putin and the Russians are afraid, too. Their psyches have, very understandably, been shaped by the trauma of invasions from the West. During the German invasion of World War II, one out of every seven Russians died. That’s an unbelievable number. That’s thirteen percent of their entire population. And the killers came from the West, over flat terrain that still provides no protection. Putin has relatives who died, his father and mother almost died. So, everyone is afraid. It may sound naive, but I believe this fear makes it possible to meet at the highest level, to brush aside the games and propaganda. Nonviolent communication could be of great value. That is a structured way of communicating that can help warring parties identify and mutually satisfy their most important needs, like the need for security. I believe it is possible. But the starting point is to immediately negotiate an end to hostilities. Yes, a compromise. Forget about victory. It’s not going to happen. We must end this war before things get completely out of control. Then, once we feel some mild confidence that the world won’t be incinerated, we can start talking at a deeper level.