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Ukraine: “Russia was always elected to be the enemy”

INTERVIEW: Is Putin plotting to invade Ukraine, as unanimously suspected by the Western media? Retired CIA analyst Ray McGovern brings some sanity into this new Cold War-style propaganda battle.

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On the eve of the NATO summit earlier this month, CIA veteran Ray McGovern, NSA whistleblower William Binney and five other intelligence colleagues sent an open letter to Angela Merkel, “briefing” her about the situation in Ukraine: reminding the German chancellor of the precedent of the Iraq War 12 years ago, they urge her not to trust the “fixed intelligence” presented by the US State Department and NATO officials. There is no evidence of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

As the civil war rages on killing hundreds of civilians and displacing thousands of others, the self-dubbed Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity point out that the US and NATO are stoking the flames of a new confrontation with Russia through shameless media propaganda, reminiscent of a time they know something about: the Cold War.

McGovern served as a CIA analyst under seven presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush, and prepared the President’s Daily Brief for Ronald Reagan’s most senior national security advisers from 1981 to 1985. Fluent in German and Russian, he was stationed in West Germany as a CIA liaison officer.

We caught McGovern on his stop in the German capital, where he gave a series of eye-opening talks to a mixed audience of Berliners. 

In the mainstream media here, the picture of the Ukraine crisis is pretty simple: A Soviet-nostalgic expansionist Russia is fighting alongside and arming insurgents opposing the legitimate government in Kiev; invasion is next. Therefore Russia is being rightfully subjected to sanctions from the EU and The US.  In your open letter to Merkel, that’s a reading you strongly challenge. How so?

Well, Russia has always been elected to be the enemy. Need that be the case? No, that doesn’t need to be the case. Twenty-five years ago, when the Berlin Wall fell, there was a real chance for peace in Europe. It’s the most profound disappointment in my professional life that that chance was squandered. We should have followed George H.W. Bush’s policy of embracing Russia, inviting it into Europe. That was a golden opportunity. The dreams of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and all those great people could have been realised. But no, instead, Russia was marginalised, Russia was pushed away, Russia was made out to be a threat. And the promise to not move NATO an inch further east was forgotten.

You mentioned that gentlemen’s agreement between George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in your open letter. Can you tell us more?

When the Berlin Wall fell, the question was, what would the Russians do? We know what they did in 1956 against the Hungarians. We know what they did in 1968 in suppressing the Czech revolution. And so there was legitimate concern that they would use the 24 mechanised Russian divisions in East Germany, about 260,000 men, to suppress dissent in East Germany and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Those of us who saw what happened in Prague and Budapest had no reason to believe that the reaction would be much different despite the fact that Gorbachev and his foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze seemed to be more enlightened people. And so, George H.W. Bush, to his credit, called up Gorbachev and said, “We’re not gonna dance on the Berlin Wall” in other words, I’m not gonna take advantage of your troubles. Just three weeks later in December of 1989, Bush met with Gorbachev on Malta and they decided, hey, this is really a chance for peace in Europe, let’s explore this, let’s be statesmen.

So the idea was to reassure Russia… and make them ‘swallow’ the reunification of Germany?

Well, in February 1990, Bush sent Secretary of State James Baker to Moscow to talk to Shevardnadze and Gorbachev. There’s a lot of obfuscation about what exactly happened there. I know someone who was there, Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Moscow at the time. Matlock told me what Baker did was say to Gorbachev and Shevardnadze that this situation needs to be addressed right now… and the quid that we want, as in quid pro quo, is a reunited Germany. Now, I was around in World War II and I studied Russian history and I know that Russia lost 25 million people, and I can imagine what it meant for Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: It was a really bitter pill for them to swallow. And they said, if that’s the quid, what’s the quo? And James Baker said, how about if we promise not to move NATO one inch – those were his words – further east. And Gorbachev said, well, let me talk to my associates about that. The next day Gorbachev said, okay, I will talk to my military, let me just make sure that your promise is to not move NATO one inch further east after Germany, right? That was a promise. It was not written down, for some strange reason. But Matlock was there, he has written books about it, he was there. Foreign Minister Genscher had his own discussions with Shevardnadze and that is contained in official Foreign Ministry records in Berlin. The same promise.

But in 1999, three former Eastern countries joined NATO. Now even the Baltic States are in. What happened?

When Bill Clinton came in, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic said they’d like to be members of NATO, and that seemed to be good politically for Clinton because he wanted to show himself strong on defence and there were a lot of émigré votes in key districts in his second election. He said, let Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic in. His advisers said, we promised not to do that. He said, show me the promise. He’s a lawyer. There’s no piece of paper. Gentlemen’s agreements are a thing of the past, apparently. Before you knew it there were 12 new members, in effect doubling the size of the original NATO. And then in 2008 there were rumours that NATO wanted to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine.

That was the red line for the Russians, right?

Yes, we know it from WikiLeaks, we have the cable that was sent in from our ambassador Williams Burns in Moscow dated February 1, 2008 and it was titled “Nyet Means Nyet: Russia’s NATO Engagement’s Red Line”. Lavrov called up the ambassador and said, we’ve heard you’re thinking of offering NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia and we’re not going to let that happen because if Ukraine is offered this kind of membership it is going to divide the country. There will probably be hostilities and we, the Russians, will face the problem of whether we will have to intervene, so don’t do it. Wow, nothing could be clearer. But in April 2008 in Bucharest NATO decided that Ukraine and Georgia will become members, period. To their credit, the French and the Germans said that’s kind of provocative, let’s put it on a slow track, but there it is in a formal declaration. So that’s the seed of all this trouble.

The EU also chimed in when they offered Ukraine some sort of association…

Yes, more proximate causes started in late 2013 when the EU offered a take it or leave it deal to President Viktor Yanukovych saying, we’ll incorporate you as an associate in the EU. You’ll have to meet some very stringent conditions from the IMF, there will be a lot of austerity, but it will be much better for you in the West. Yanukovych seemed ready to accept that till he started to read the fine print. What would it mean for Ukraine? Do they want to become a basket case like Greece is now? Then Putin made him a better offer: keep your relationship with us, get your $15 billion right away, and gradually recover from your economic problems if you stay with us.

But a lot of Ukrainians opposed the Russian plan and truly aspired to join the EU instead, right? That’s how the Maidan protest started…

The people who opposed that kind of Ukraine gathered on Maidan Square in Kiev.  In western Ukraine there were a lot of people who felt it was a bad decision, but Yanukovych was the popularly elected president. You contend with that by bringing somebody else in at the next election. You don’t mount a coup with the help of proto-fascists. Four of the people who ended up in the cabinet could be described as proto-fascists. The Right Sector and Svoboda led the charge. There was talk about banning Russian as an official language. If you’re a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and that’s the first thing they do, you’re going to have some qualms about who this crowd is in Kiev. There were some people saying, we ought to throw the Russian fleet out of Crimea. So I interpret Russia’s attitude as a reaction to a coup right on their doorstep.

What about the “insurgents”, the “separatists” or as the pro-Western Kiev government call them, the “terrorists”?

The government in Kiev demonises them as “terrorists”, or they’re called “pro-Russian separatists”. But most are simply anti-coup federalists, there is a big difference. The Russian-speaking people in the East don’t want to join Russia, they want a degree of autonomy. So they revolted and took over a few cities and what we have now is a situation where the Ukrainian forces have shown themselves to be totally inept. Many of them have fled, defected to Russia…

Would you describe it as a civil war?

Yes, because you have Ukrainians fighting against Ukrainians. It’s a situation where cousins are reluctant to kill each other. That partially explains why the troops that came from the West were unenthusiastic about their tasks. But they did shell the cities, they did kill almost 3000 people. Why do you want to kill civilians? I don’t know.

Okay, it was reported by Human Right Watch that the pro-Western Ukrainian army used rockets against civilians, which was surprisingly underreported in the Western press. But then it seems the Russians were practically invading – or so claimed the Ukrainians and the State Department…

Three or four weeks ago, the Western press was full of reports that Ukrainian forces were making progress. There was a mop-up campaign to get those “terrorists”. But the anti-coup federalists began to win. They were better led, they had better tactics. They surrounded a lot of Ukrainian forces. All of a sudden in the Western narrative it became clear that that the Ukrainian forces were losing and that even cities like Mariupol on the Black Sea were in danger. How are you going to explain that? Easy! Blame it on the Russians. “It’s an invasion!” The evidence to show it was an invasion was really, really sketchy. As a professional intelligence officer I’m embarrassed that anyone would show those murky photos and pretend that they showed anything really interesting. They have no shame!

But isn’t clear that the Russians are helping the rebels?

Of course, the Russians are helping the Ukrainians in the East. There are intelligence officers from the GRU (military intelligence) there. That’s their backyard, they know the territory and they’re always influencing what goes on there without sending in the tanks, without doing the kinds of things they are accused of doing by Kiev.

Have they meddled in Ukrainian affairs more than the West has? There’s been huge involvement from the EU, NATO and the Americans since the beginning of the Maidan protests…

Never before in history have I seen an assistant secretary of state join in with demonstrators on a public square as Victoria Nuland did in January 2014. Nuland was captured talking to the US ambassador on the phone as she picked out the new prime minister. She said, “Yats! Yatsenyuk, this is our guy, he was the head of the central bank, he understands what austerity is needed for the IMF to help Ukraine out.” The people who intercepted that conversation put it on Youtube. Nobody denied its authenticity.

That’s when Ms. Nuland also memorably said, “Fuck the EU.” Seems people remembered this more than the “Yats” cronyism…

It had a couple of days of reporting in the news, but then everybody kind of forgot. Then three or four weeks later on February 22, I hear “Yats, Yatsenyuk is going to be the new prime minister of Ukraine!” Unbelievable! There wasn’t even any attempt to disguise the fact that he was America’s man. In many ways he’s been the fly in the ointment, the one putting the brakes on President Poroshenko to come to a ceasefire. That shows to any objective observer that the coup of February 22 was incited and supported not only by the US but by the EU. There was the $5 billion that Nuland had been given to support “Ukraine’s aspirations to join the West”. You have the National Endowment for Democracy, encouraging “democracy” in Ukraine. We know that there were 65 such projects. We know that head of the National Endowment for Democracy said on the record, “It’s Ukraine today, we’ll be demonstrating on Kremlin Square tomorrow,” meaning Putin is going to be facing the same kind of trouble. So you don’t have to be a paranoid Russian to see what’s going on, to see the chipping away of influence for no good reason. Add that to the missile defence system that America is trying to install in that part of the world and you can see that Putin, Lavrov and the other Kremlin leaders are not making this up. On the strategic front, a missile defence system that would be capable of taking out their ICBM sites in European Russia would be incredibly destabilizing. Once the perception is that the US has this capability, then at the first little idiosyncrasy, at the first little piece of evidence that the US might be striking, we’re all fried.

But why would the US want a new Cold War?

The answer is complicated. My colleague Robert Parry wrote about this. One of the things that he talks about is liberalism gone amok, this notion that the US can remake the world in its image, that it can implant democracy by threats and military means and that it can enlarge its sphere of economic domination by extending the borders of the EU, the EU feeling the same way. That’s part of it.

The other part of it has to do with the military-industrial-congressional-media-security-services complex. The manufacturers and sellers of the weapons make lucrative deals as long as there’s a possibility of war.

Peace is bad for business…

Yes, and if peace is bad for business, if you have a glorious opportunity to blame the Russians for the ineptitude of the Ukrainian forces and to blame the relative success of the anti-coup federalists on the Russians, then hey, there are two good things. You blacken the Russians: “Bad Putin! Very bad Putin. Sometimes has no shirt on, sometimes rides a horse with no shirt on. Bad, bad Putin!” Then you can blame it on the terrorists in eastern Ukraine and – guess what? – the Baltic states and Poland feel very vulnerable and their leaders will buy more weapons and their pockets will be stuffed with the profits too. The whole thing is incredibly corrupt.

You co-founded the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity with famous colleagues such as  NSA whistleblower William Binney in 2003. What motivated you? Was the Iraq war a turning point?

Yes. That’s when it became clear that our profession of intelligence analysis was being corrupted expressly for the purpose of justifying an unnecessary war. The “intelligence” was being manufactured, and given to our policymakers and Congress to deliberately deceive them out of their constitutional prerogative to authorise a war. That’s as bad as it gets and since a lot of us felt this is a crass violation of anything sacred in the United States, our constitution included, and since we were retired and had the ability and the knowledge and the opportunity, it was a moral obligation to speak out. So when Colin Powell spoke before the UN (on Iraq) in February 2003, we warned the president that it could be catastrophic.

And in your letter to Merkel, you made a direct analogy to this incredible episode of deception of the public to justify the war in Iraq. Do you think those people really believe their lies when they say them?

You can start to believe your own lies, but in the case of Ukraine, I don’t think they believe it for a second. These fuzzy photos supposed to show an invasion or prove the Russians downed the Malaysian aircraft… couldn’t they find better than that? We know exactly what’s happening out there. The important thing to realise here is that these are not intelligence mistakes, this is intelligence fraud. And the greatest perpetrator of that is Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Secretary General of NATO. Going back to the US-UK-supported attack on Iraq in March of 2003, Rasmussen was the man who memorably said, “It is not that we believe that weapons of mass destruction are in Iraq. We know it!”

...and 12 years later, Rasmussen is still leading NATO. His term was even extended until September 30, 2014. Would you say that, like Yatsyunevitch, he was ‘picked’ by Washington?

Well, we know that the US wanted him to be the Secretary General and lobbied for votes. They didn’t have enough. They needed a vote from Turkey. The Turks said, “We’re not going to vote for him unless he does something we want against the Kurds.” The Kurds are always a pawn. So what happened was, with US support, Rasmussen did what he could with respect to the Kurds and in return got the Turkish blessing to become Secretary General. How do we know that? WikiLeaks cables!

Germany is a country you know well for serving many years here as a CIA liaison. Are you surprised by not only the EU alignment of the US and NATO, but also Germany’s?

Am I surprised? No. Am I disappointed? Yes. Angela Merkel and the other major European leaders should grow up. The war is over. They should not accept the US dictat anymore, particularly when they have more to lose economically vis a vis Russia than the US does. It’s like a vestigal organ in their brains where they can’t distinguish from Washington’s policies on matters of national security, partly because they’re afraid that the German people who support NATO 90 percent, would vote them out of office. They bow to political exigencies and the result is missed opportunities to work with the Russians. And opportunities that stoke up war and fear and, not incidentally, more arms sales.

How do you explain the conformism in the media? Is it laziness?

Some of it is self-censorship. If you say things that the powers that be don’t like, you lose your job. So there’s a gravitation of people without any courage, people who think only of their careers. They look pretty, they say what they’re told to say, and it’s a scandal. It’s very disappointing. In 51 years in Washington I have seen a lot of change and the biggest change has been that we no longer have in any real sense a free media. And of course, many of the people who control the cable channels and outlets in the US – GE, Motorola – they are profiteering from these wars. To a degree these multi-national corporations would like to have inroads to Ukraine and other places, and one of the ways they do that is to give a totally fraudulent picture of the dangers out there. It used to be communism, now it’s terrorism.

If people think they can watch the news at night and find out what’s going on in the world or read the newspaper… forget about it! They’re not going to get informed!

What about the German media? A recent Der Spiegel cover made the direct connection to Putin as the assassin of all those poor people that died on the Malaysian Airlines plane.

That’s yellow journalism. That’s an old tactic and it’s run amok. Spiegel should be ashamed. The headline in the Daily Telegraph on September 1 was “NATO allies are told to increase defence spending.” Who told ’em? God? “Growing threat from Russia…” There it is, right in this headline: you want more defence spending? You need to be told there’s a growing threat and it’s artificial, it’s made-up, it’s a synthetic threat. It’s not real, but it could become real if the Russians feel really threatened.

Is there really no Russian neo-imperialism? They don’t want to take back chunks of the former Soviet Union?

That’s what they are trying to make people afraid of. It’s all manufactured. NATO, the EU and the US provoked this crisis. The Russians are reacting. It became clear that a very hostile government had been imposed by a coup d’état by the United States and Western Europe.

Putin has a very jocular way of presenting these very important issues and about three months ago he said: “Those NATO and US sailors, I’m sure they’re great fellows, but I’d rather not visit them in their naval base in Sevastopol, I’d prefer them to visit us in our naval base in Sevastapol.” That’s a funny way of saying, hey this is really important to us, it shouldn’t be important to you, drop the intention to enfold Ukraine into Western systems like NATO, don’t install your anti-missile defence systems and elsewhere on the Black Sea. It’s not going to happen.

Do you see hope for a settlement? 

I think the best solution would be to get the major stakeholders around a table and just talk it out, the way we used to. The anti-coup federalists will be satisfied with a little bit more regional autonomy and protection from the anti-Russian state in Kiev. They don’t want to join Russia and Russia doesn’t want to have ’em. But Putin needs to be seen to be protecting these people and I dare say, they deserve protection from the kind of pro-fascists who are in the government – people reminiscent of Stephen Bandera. It’s a complicated thing, but not all that complicated.  If there is no imperative for war, than there are obvious solutions for this problem. If we are primarily motivated by the desire to make the Russians the kind of enemy to justify increased defence spending, than it’s more difficult.

You’re somehow pleading for a long-term, more geo-strategical view…

Politicians don’t care about the long term. I have nine grandchildren. Surely people in the Bundestag have children. Do they not care? Do they see only objectives to be achieved by stoking up tensions and manufacturing wars? It’s very distressing to see a lack of statesmanship. If Russia is marginalised to the point where it’s excluded from Europe, if Russia thinks, finally, China and Asia are the way we need to orient ourselves, then there is ample reason for the Russians to make a $400 billion deal for natural gas with China over 10 years. I am pretty sure that Putin and Lavrov and the rest of them see their future in Europe.

A final word?

I hope that reason will prevail, that NATO refuses to inflame the situation by providing armaments to Kiev. I hope there are some sober people at the top of NATO and that Angela Merkel is one of them.