At 94 years old, Noam Chomsky is as vocal as ever. In May, the American political commentator and linguist will publish his latest book, Illegitimate Authority, a collection of interviews with the political scientist CJ Polychroniou, primarily focusing on foreign policy. The interviews span a period from March 2021 to June 2022, covering in particular the prelude to and first months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
When I spoke to Chomsky over video call from his home in Arizona, we spent most of our time discussing the war in Ukraine. The conflict marks a time of great fluctuation in the international order, which one might think would test the convictions of Chomsky, whose critical view of US foreign policy came to international prominence during the Vietnam War. His 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, published in the New York Review of Books, pilloried the American intellectual class for helping to sanitise their government’s actions abroad and the atrocities committed in Vietnam. The Ukraine war is a very different conflict, however. This time, the US is supporting a sovereign country under attack by an external aggressor. Chomsky also has a family connection to the region: his father was born in what is now Ukraine, before emigrating to the US in 1913.
Yet Chomsky’s world-view does not leave space for Ukrainian agency. It is the “US and Britain” who have “refused” peace negotiations in Ukraine, Chomsky tells me, in order to further their own national interests, even as the country is being “battered, devastated”. That negotiations with Russia would mean de facto abandoning millions of Ukrainians to the whims of an aggressor that has shown itself capable of extraordinary brutality, such as in Bucha and Izyum, is dismissed. “Ukraine is not a free actor; they’re dependent on what the US determines,” he says, adding that the US is supplying Kyiv with weapons simply to weaken Russia. “For the US, this is a bargain. For a fraction of the colossal military budget, the US is able to severely degrade the military forces of its only real military adversary.”
According to Chomsky, Russia is acting with restraint and moderation. He compares Russia’s way of fighting with the US’s during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, arguing that large-scale destruction of infrastructure seen in that conflict “hasn’t happened in Ukraine”. He adds: “Undoubtedly Russia could do it, presumably with conventional weapons. [Russia] could make Kyiv as unliveable as Baghdad was, could move in to attacking supply lines in western Ukraine.”
When I asked him to clarify whether he was implying that Russia is fighting more humanely in Ukraine than the US did in Iraq, Chomsky replies, “I’m not implying it, it’s obvious.” Delegations of UN inspectors had to be withdrawn once the invasion of Iraq began, he says, “because the attack was so severe and extreme… That’s the US and British style of war.” Chomsky adds: “Take a look at casualties. All I know is the official numbers… the official UN numbers are about 8,000 civilian casualties [in Ukraine]. How many civilian casualties were there when the US and Britain attacked Iraq?”
The number of foreign dignitaries who have travelled to Kyiv since the war broke out is proof of Russia’s restraint, Chomsky says, in stark contrast with Iraq. “When the US and Britain were smashing Baghdad to pieces, did any foreign leaders go to visit Baghdad? No, because when the US and Britain go to war, they go for the jugular. They destroy everything: communications, transportation, energy, shock and awe – anything that makes society function.”
Estimates of civilian deaths from the invasion of Iraq vary widely. An estimate by the Iraq Body Count project (IBC), considered one of the most comprehensive databases of deaths during the Iraq War, puts the total civilian death toll at between 186,000 and 210,000 in the 20 years since the 2003 invasion, which it says is likely an under-count. Almost 25,000 of those deaths are directly attributable to the US-led coalition and its Iraqi allies. Tens of thousands more are attributable to anti-government insurgents, including Islamic State, according to the IBC. Responsibility for more than 100,000 civilian deaths cannot be conclusively attributed.
[See also: The West’s narrative on Ukraine hasn’t convinced the rest of the world]
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has recorded 8,490 civilians killed and 14,244 injured in Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion 14 months ago. However, it “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher” because of poor data from areas with high civilian casualties, such as the city of Mariupol in the south. Ukrainian officials believe that tens of thousands – perhaps up to 50,000 people – died in Mariupol alone during Russia’s siege of the city in 2022.
At times, Chomsky’s ideological priors lead him to overlook facts that might contradict his narrative. For instance, Sweden and Finland, which had been officially non-aligned for 210 and 73 years, respectively, both applied to join Nato in May 2022. To most observers, the end of their decades of neutrality might seem at least tangentially related to the invasion of Ukraine three months earlier. However, Chomsky says that both countries seeking to join Nato had “nothing to do with fear of a Russian attack, which has never been even conceived”. Claims that Russia could threaten either country amount to “Western propaganda”, he adds. Instead, Chomsky argues that joining Nato gives the military industries of both Nordic countries “great new market opportunities [and] new access to advanced equipment”.
In fact, both countries explicitly cited the invasion of Ukraine as the reason behind their applications to join Nato. Moreover, within living memory, Finland fought off Soviet attempts to conquer and annex the country. The Winter War of 1939-40 against the USSR still shapes Finnish attitudes to Russia. Finland joined Nato on 4 April, while Sweden’s application continues to be held up by Turkey’s objections.
Asked what form a potential settlement to the war in Ukraine might take, Chomsky says: “First of all, Ukraine will not be a member of Nato. That’s the red line that every Russian leader has insisted on since [the former Russian president Boris] Yeltsin and [the former Soviet president Mikhail] Gorbachev.” He adds: “Ukraine gains the status of, say, Austria during the Cold War or Mexico today. Mexico can’t join a military alliance [hostile to the US]. There’s no treaty about it but it’s perfectly obvious.”
A peace agreement would involve Ukraine offering “a degree of autonomy” to the eastern Donbas region, today partially occupied by Russia. “With regard to Crimea [which was illegally annexed in 2014]… we put it off for the moment. Let it be discussed later. Those are the basic outlines of a solution under the Minsk II agreement.” The Minsk I and II agreements were signed between Ukraine and Russia in 2014 and 2015. Intended to end the conflict that began in 2014, they included military and political steps that were never implemented by Moscow. The agreements are today widely viewed in Ukraine as having paved the way for Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. “There will be no Minsk III,” as the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky curtly put it last November.
Chomsky’s criticisms of US foreign policy are not limited to Ukraine. Just as Washington provoked Russia with Nato expansion it is also “provoking China openly” over Taiwan, he tells me. “The US is carrying out a programme… to encircle China with a ring of sentinel states armed with advanced precision weapons aimed at China,” an apparent reference to American defence cooperation with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.
“What is the threat from China at this point?” Chomsky asks me. “The threat is coming from the US with, of course, Britain following. [The UK] is just a lackey at this point. It’s not an independent country anymore.” Though he acknowledges that China is “not a nice country” and is violating international law in the South China Sea, he says “the talk about [war over] Taiwan is coming from the West”. Beijing, which views Taiwan as its own territory, has not ruled out an invasion and regularly conducts military exercises which simulate a blockade of the self-governing island.
Reflecting on our conversation, I came across a passage in an essay from Chomsky’s 1970 book At War with Asia. “As long as an American army of occupation remains in Vietnam, the war will continue,” he wrote. “Withdrawal of American troops must be a unilateral act, as the invasion of Vietnam by the American government was a unilateral act in the first place. Those who had been calling for ‘negotiations now’ were deluding themselves and others.” These words seem to me to be more applicable to the war in Ukraine than anything Noam Chomsky said during our conversation 53 years later.
[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]