The Ukraine government has stepped up its assault in the eastern part of the country. Tensions are running high between the NATO bloc and Russia, as both sides carry out military exercises. Journalists are being arrested and deported from the battlefields in Ukraine. The media war goes full speed. What will the conflict bring in the future? Will the civil war in Ukraine spill over the borders? Today we ask these questions to a veteran journalist and war correspondent. John Pilger is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze:John Pilger, veteran journalist, war correspondent, author, director – welcome, its really great to have you on our show today. Now, we’re just going to go ahead and start with Ukraine. Not a week goes by without journalists detained and assaulted in Ukraine – so why aren’t we hearing any condemnation of these incidents from the West?
John Pilger: I think in your part of the world you must be used to a pretty one-sided view coming from here. Over here in the West we don’t believe we’re biased at all – in fact, we believe we’re the essence of objectivity and impartiality, but of course when it comes to great power politics, that simply is not true. Ukraine has been presented here generally as an act of Russian manipulation and aggression. There has been some better reporting than that, but that generally is the view.
SS: Do you think we’re getting reliable information from the conflict zone in Ukraine? I mean, apart from Western media, the world media is involved in covering this conflict. You worked as a war reporter in Africa – is there such thing as one truth?
JP: No, it’s impossible to get an informed cover of pretty well anywhere [in] the world, unless you navigate your way through, these days, through the internet. If you don’t navigate, and you sit in front of your television set, then you’re likely to be given propaganda. It’s always been that way – it’s probably now more intense, but we do have alternatives now. We do have the internet, but as I say, it requires that research. Otherwise, we sit in front of the TV, or we pick up a newspaper, and we’re not so much informed as when we’re monitoring it or deconstructing it – that’s what I do as a journalist. We live in an age of intense propaganda.
SS: You have also said that the US is threatening to take the world to war over Ukraine – but there is already a civil war going on in Ukraine. Do you think it could get any more serious?
JP: Yeah. Well, we’ve just seen recently these nuclear strategic bombers arriving here at an Air Force base from the US. I mean, clearly, there’s a lot of news about that, and that’s clearly a statement – you know, it used to be called “saber rattling.” We used to have it year after year, during the Cold War, and yes, the civil war has been triggered in Ukraine, and that civil war could spill over into Russia. Those are the real problems, but behind this is an old American design – and that is the control of resources and trade and strategic areas right across the European and Asian landmass. That is not a secret, that has been going on pretty well since the US discovered itself as a great world power, right around the time of the Korean War.
SS: Now President Obama has approved $23 million worth of military aid to Ukraine since March. He has recently announced that the US is sending advisors and gear to the country, while the newly elected Ukrainian president wants more military aid from the US – what more can he expect?
JP: Well, what you can...I mean, it’s all an aggressive provocation. It seems almost incredulous that they should be doing this, to be on Russia’s border and provoking in the way they’re doing. It is almost as if NATO, Obama and the rest are trying to set a trap for Vladimir Putin. It’s an incredibly difficult time for Russia. As we all know we’re about to celebrate, we are about to commemorate the centenary of the First World War that began, yes, partly by design, but it also was triggered by a number of incidents. And any war can happen that way, that’s my experience as a war correspondent, although there may be a policy, a design, an aim, a strategy, but there can be incidents that can start the war without people wanting it to start. Now, when you have military exercises being conducted in Ukraine, which is essentially and always has been a buffer state, next to the Russian Federation, that is very, very dangerous.
SS: You know, since March, there also have been reports that US mercenaries are involved in operations in eastern Ukraine. Are you inclined to think that’s true?
JP: Well, I have no evidence of that, but I would think it’s almost certainly true. Ukraine has become a kind of awful theme park for those agencies which we know so well – CIA, FBI...The director of the CIA has dropped in, along with Vice President Biden…And the mercenaries – the successors of the infamous Blackwater organization – are said to be there. As I said, I don’t know, I don’t have evidence if they are, but this is an extraordinarily important operation and I repeat – operation – for the US. They finally gained access to the buffer state, to Ukraine. That almost is the last hurdle, if you like, before Russia.
SS: So you’re saying that Washington had foreseen a military standoff when it was supporting the opposition on Maidan? It was something that was planned, in your opinion?
JP: Well, yeah. Of course it was planned. We had the tapes of Victoria Nuland, boasting of the US spending several billion dollars to get rid of the regime that it didn’t like in Kiev, and install another regime. This is a US-installed regime.
SS: You’ve also written that Washington actually had plans to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea, and the plans have failed – why do you think so? Do you have evidence of that?
JP: What is there in Ukraine for the US? Above all, there is strategic position, there is a toehold, more than a toehold, in a part of the world where it has only recently, relatively recently, been able to gain access. And the most important prize in that was undoubtedly Crimea. This was the home of the Russian Fleet. This was Russia’s access. This is where we now see US ships exercising within sight of the Russian base. I think, certainly, getting hold of that would have been...If the Kiev regime would have gotten hold of that, that would have meant the US would have got hold of that – there is no question about that. It was all part of, as I’ve said, a provocation. It’s a very intriguing mix – all the reasons why the US has behaved the way it has in Ukraine. Partly it is about strategic influence, partly it is about business, partly it is about provocation. They’re all different ingredients. This administration in Washington has been doing some very strange things. Also, it may have been, and I’m only guessing here, an attempt by the Obama administration to reassert itself, having really been trumped by Russia over Syria.
SS: You’ve also said that Obama is currently seeking a budget for nuclear weapons greater than during the Cold War – but where are you getting this information from, and what do you need it for?
JP: You just look it up! It’s all there, there’s no secret, the rising of the manufacture of warheads and of nuclear strategic materials has been steadily increasing over recent years. In many ways, that’s whether or not it is academic, because the US has many, many nuclear warheads, just as Russia still has nuclear warheads. That means when a so-called superpower and regional power, like Russia, finds themselves looking down each other’s gun barrels, and that’s a situation that we’ve got at the moment.
SS: So you think Obama is reinforcing its nuclear budget to confront Russia, is that it?
JP: There always is a chance. You know the nuclear clock has been at five minutes to midnight for many years now. There has always been a chance of nuclear war, there always will be while there is this kind of dangerous situation. I’m of course not going to predict there will or won’t be one, but the dangers are obvious. You only have to look or read what general Butler, the former head of the US Strategic Air Command, said – and I’ll paraphrase him. He said “the dangers are there every day.” But when you have a flashpoint with two nuclear powers engaged, even indirectly engaged – they are not directly engaged at the moment, but they are indirectly engaged – that’s extremely dangerous.
SS: But remember when there was a lot of talk about whether America should strike Syria with local strikes? The prospect of action in Syria got a very cold response from both Congress and the public – so what makes you think that Americans are as gung-ho over Ukraine as the military is?
JP: Well, I didn’t quite hear the beginning of the question, but I’ve heard the last bit. It’s very simple – American foreign policy is run pretty well in the straight line, since about 1950 – and you only have to consult the documentary record to answer that question. There is always a danger, but something else has happened recently. Certainly during the Bush years the military – the Pentagon in the US now is in the ascendancy – it has much greater power than it used to have. It has influence in the State Department, it has influence right throughout all the institutions of government in Washington. There is a military sense all the time about American foreign policy at a higher level than it used to be.
SS: The first part of my question which you didn’t hear was precisely about the American foreign policy that failed in terms of striking Syria. Because remember when there was talk about whether America would bomb Syria or not, it didn’t get any support from Congress or the general public...
JP: In many ways this is an administration that contradicts itself, which makes it even more dangerous. Syria seemed to be almost the design of the intelligence agencies of the US, the support for a lot of the radical groups came from the intelligence and what is called a “deep state” in the US. Whether or not the White House agreed with that, I have no idea. I mean that is one of the great contradictions – in Washington there is always a great deal of competition, and as a result, the White House was made to look rather foolish over Syria. It staked a lot on the allegation that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Well, according to Seymour Hersh, they didn’t use chemical weapons, and there is not a great deal of evidence to suggest that they did use chemical weapons. There is evidence to suggest that those whom the Americans were supporting used chemical weapons. So, into this contradictory and confusing and rather tumultuous situation, the almost “black and white” of the US foreign policy doesn’t work. Doesn’t work in their own terms.
SS: Since we’ve started talking about Syria. The issue of Syria has been completely eclipsed by Ukraine lately. No one seems to mention it anymore. Meanwhile, the American administration is still providing arms to the opposition...
JP: Unless you are Syrian!
SS: ...Yeah. Could it be that the US is getting free reign there while Russia is busy?
JP: Possibly, possibly. I read the other day that there was going to be non-lethal and lethal aid to some of the opponents, the jihadists opposing the Assad regime. Yes, the world looks the other way, and things happen. I think that’s very possible. Where that is heading – it's almost impossible to know, because my understanding is that the US actually would like to have a settlement with Iran. That seemed to be the way it was heading, and that would mean kind of settlement with Syria. And then it could concentrate on what is really close to this administration’s heart – and that is confronting China, and perhaps also confronting Russia – certainly, dealing with its grand design on the Eurasian continent. Now, if for example, as I understand it, two-thirds of the US naval forces are going to be transferred to the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020, that will mean the US will have to tidy up all these unfortunate problems that it has: Syria, Iran and so on. All I’m saying is that the US policy as it has acted out in Syria, is very, very confusing, because they don’t seem to be wanting to resolve matters there. They seem to want to stroke it instead of play some kind of broker role, calm it, and deal with it.
SS: I want to get back a little bit to NATO and war games that just took place in Eastern Europe, like the most recent ones in Latvia. So, do you think those are aimed at intimidating Russia? Is that their sole goal?
JP: I’ve thought about why this intimidation of Russia is going on, and I think it is partly historical. The Soviet Union was deeply resented just for existing, because it was getting in the way of an enormous part of the world that the US and its western allies had previously had a great deal to do with and they exploited it, and wanted to do that again. I think there is almost a historical sense of unfinished business. There is no question that US foreign policy finds its opponents or enemies in those governments that effect any form of independence. That is a rule that runs right through it. Now, the Russian government is independent – it’s a very powerful and very important independent government. And there is a history between Russia and the US – you can never underestimate this history.
SS: Where do you think the US' European allies' interests are in all of this? In the whole US vs. China, US vs. Russia? Can Europe act independently, or are they completely under US influence?
JP: Well, that’s a very good question. What are their interests? I don’t know! I mean, you know, the interests of trading peacefully with Russia and with China are demonstrable! Gas from Russia and every manufactured good we could think of from China! What is the problem, you might ask. And for Europeans to go along with this kind of Wild West kind of foreign policy is absurd. But Europe is divided. Europe in terms of foreign policy, often reluctantly, but it does – it falls in with the US. You only have to read the German press to see this. There is a kind of ambivalence, almost – what do we do? Oh, well, we’d better go with the US. Europe has never spoken with one voice that has been entirely representative or reflecting its own interests.
SS:Alright, Mr. Pilger, thank you so much for this interview. We were talking to John Pilger – author, journalist, war correspondent. We were talking about America’s interests in Ukraine, and also what NATO is going to do next. Thank you very much, that’s it for this edition of SophieCo, and we’ll see you next time.