Michael Brenner: American Dissent on Ukraine Is Dying in Darkness

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Editor’s Note: We are reposting this frank interview and focus more on Prof. Brenner’s own words, while cutting down on the interviewer’s long interruption. For the full conversation please go to the original here.

As the death toll in Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to rise, there have only been a handful of Westerners publicly questioning NATO and the West’s role in the conflict. These voices are becoming fewer and further between as a wave of feverish backlash engulfs any dissent on the subject. One of these voices belongs to Professor Michael J. Brenner, a lifelong academic, Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins, as well as former Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner’s credentials also include having worked at the Foreign Service Institute, the U.S. Department of Defense and Westinghouse, and written several books on American foreign policy. From the vantage point of decades of experience and studies, the intellectual regularly shared his thoughts on topics of interest through a mailing list sent to thousands of readers—that is until the response to his Ukraine analysis made him question why he bothered in the first place.

In an email with the subject line “Quittin’ Time,” Brenner recently declared that, aside from having already said his piece on Ukraine, one of the main reasons he sees for giving up on expressing his opinions on the subject is that “it is manifestly obvious that our society is not capable of conducting an honest, logical, reasonably informed discourse on matters of consequence. Instead, we experience fantasy, fabrication, fatuousness and fulmination.” He goes on to decry President Joe Biden’s alarming comments in Poland when he all but revealed that the U.S. is—and perhaps has always been—interested in a Russian regime change.

On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Brenner tells host Robert Scheer how the recent attacks he received—many of a personal, ad hominem nature—were some of the most vitriolic he’s ever experienced. The two discuss how many media narratives completely leave out that the eastward expansion of NATO, among other Western aggressions against Russia, played an important part in fueling the current humanitarian crisis. Corporate media’s “cartoonish” depiction of Russian president Vladimir Putin, adds Brenner, is not only misleading, but dangerous given the nuclear brinkmanship that has ensued. Listen to the full discussion between Brenner and Scheer as they continue to dissent despite living in an America that is seemingly increasingly hostile to any opinion that strays from the official line.


Host: Robert Scheer

Producer: Joshua Scheer

Transcription: Lucy Berbeo


RS: Hello, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Michael Brenner, who is a professor of international affairs emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS Johns Hopkins; he’s written a number of important studies, books, academic articles; he’s taught at every place from Stanford to Harvard to MIT and what have you.

But the reason I wanted to talk to Professor Brenner is that he’s been caught in the crosshairs of trying to have a debate about what’s going on in the Ukraine, and the NATO response, the Russian invasion and what have you. And to my mind, I read, I was reading his blog; I found it very interesting. And then he suddenly said, I’m giving up; you cannot have an intelligent discussion. And his description of what’s going on reminded me of the famous Lillian Hellman description of the McCarthy period as “scoundrel times,” which was the title of her book.

So, Professor Brenner, tell us what buzzsaw you ran into when you dared question, as far as I can see, you dared do what you’ve done all your academic life: you raised some serious questions about a foreign policy matter. And then, I don’t know what, you got hit on the head a whole bunch of times. So could you describe it?

MB: Yes, it came only partially as a surprise. I’ve been writing these commentaries and distributing them to a personal list of roughly 5,000 for more than a decade. Some of those persons are abroad, most are in the U.S.; they’re all educated people who’ve been involved one way or another with international affairs, including quite a number who have had experience in and around government or journalism or the world of punditry.

What happened on this occasion was that I had expressed highly skeptical views about what I believe is the fictional storyline and account of what has been happening in Ukraine, back over the past year and most pointedly in regard to the acute crisis that has arisen with the Russian invasion and attack on Ukraine. I received not only an unusually large number of critical replies, but it was the nature of them that was deeply dismaying.

One, many—most of them came from people whom I did know, whom I knew as level-headed, sober minds, engaged and well informed on foreign policy issues and international matters generally. Second, they were highly personalized, and I had rarely been the object of that sort of criticism or attack—sort of ad hominem remarks questioning my patriotism; had I been paid by, you know, by Putin; my motivations, my sanity, et cetera, et cetera.

Third was the extremity of the content of these hostile messages. And the last characteristic, which really stunned me, was that these people bought into—hook, line and sinker—every aspect of the sort of fictional story that has been propagated by the administration, accepted and swallowed whole by the media and our political-intellectual class, which includes many academics and the entire galaxy of Washington think tanks.

And that’s a reinforced impression that had been growing for some time, that this was not just—that to be a critic and a skeptic was not just to engage in a dialogue [unclear], but to place one’s views and one’s thoughts and send them into a void, in effect. A void, because the discourse as it has crystalized is not only uniform in a way, but it is in so many respects senseless, lacking any kind of inner logic, whether you agree with the premises and the formally stated objectives or not.

In effect, this was an intellectual and political nihilism. And one cannot make any contribution to endeavor to correct that simply by conventional means. So I felt for the first time that I was no part of this world, and of course this is also a reflection of trends and attitudes that have become rather pervasive in the country at large, sort of over time. And so beyond simply sort of disagreeing with what the consensus is, I had become totally alienated [unclear] and decided there was no point to it, to going on distributing these things, even though I continue to follow events, think about them, and send some shorter commentaries to close friends. That’s essentially it, Robert.

RS: OK, but let me just say, first of all, I want to thank you for what you did. […]

MB: Well, I mean, it’s the fundamentals. One, it has to do with the nature of the Russian regime, the character of Putin; what Soviet objectives, foreign policy and national security concerns are. I mean, what we’re getting is not only a cartoon caricature, but a portrait of the country and its leadership—and by the way, Putin is not a dictator. He is not all-powerful. The Soviet government is far more complex in its processes of decision-making.

RS: Well, you just said the Soviet government. You mean the Russian government.

MB: Russian government. [overlapping voices] You see, I’ve picked up by osmosis this conflating of Russian and Soviet. I mean, it’s far more complex [unclear]. And he is, Putin himself, an extraordinarily sophisticated thinker. But people don’t bother to read what he writes, or to listen to what he says.

I know, in fact, of no national leader that has laid out in the detail and the precision and the sophistication his view of the world, Russia’s place in it, the character of interstate relations, with the candor and acuity that he has. It’s not a question of whether you believe that that depiction he offers is entirely correct, or the conclusion that he draws from it, with regard to policy. But you are dealing with a person and a regime which in vital respects is the antithesis of the one that is caricatured and almost universally accepted, not only in the Biden administration but in the foreign policy community and the political class, and in general.

And that raises some really basic questions about us, rather than about Russia or about Putin. As you mentioned, the question was: what is it that we’re afraid of? Why do Americans feel so threatened, so anxious? I mean, by contrast in the Cold War—I mean, there was a powerful enemy, ideological, military in some sense, with all the qualifications and nuances [unclear]. But that was the reality then; that was a reality which was, one, the focal point for national leaders who were serious people, and responsible people. Second, that could be used to justify actions highly dubious, but at least could be used to justify, such as our interventions all around the so-called Third World, and even the great, tragic folly of Vietnam.

What is there today that really threatens us? At the horizon, of course, there is China, not Russia; although they now, thanks to our unwitting encouragement, have formed together a formidable bloc. But I mean, even the Chinese challenge is to our supremacy and our hegemony, not to the country directly [unclear]. So the second question is, what is so compelling about the maintenance and the defense of a conception of the United States of America’s providential birth admission in the world that compels us to view people like Putin as being diabolical, and as constituting as grave a threat to America as Stalin and Hitler, whose names constantly crop up, as well as ridiculous phrases like genocide and so on.

So I mean, once again, I think we have to look in the mirror and say, well, we’ve seen—[unclear] the source of our disquiet, and it’s within us; it’s not out there, and it is leading to gross distortions of the way in which we see, we depict and we interpret the world, all across the board. By which I mean geographically and in terms of sort of different arenas and dimensions of international relations. And of course, continuing along this course can only have one endpoint, and that’s disaster of some form or other.

RS: Well, you know, there’s two points that have to be addressed. […] What is going on?

MB: Well, Robert, you’re absolutely right. And that question is the one that should preoccupy us. Because it really cuts deepest into, you know, contemporary America. It’s what contemporary America is. And I think the intellectual tools to be used in trying to interpret it must come from anthropology and psychology at least as much, if not more, than political science or sociology or economics. I truly believe that we are talking about collective psychopathology. And of course, collective psychopathology is what you get in a nihilistic society in which all sort of standard, conventional sort of reference points cease to serve as markers and guideposts on how individuals behave.

And one expression of that is in the erasure of history. We live in the existential—I think in this case the word can be properly used—moment, or week, or month, or year or whatever. So we totally, almost totally forget about the reality of nuclear weapons. I mean, as you said, and you’re absolutely right, in the past, every national leader and every national government that had custody of nuclear weapons came to the conclusion and absorbed the fundamental truth that they served no utilitarian function. And that the overriding, the imperative was to avoid situations not only in which they were used as part of some calculated military strategy, but to avoid situations in which circumstances might develop where, as you said, they would use them because of accident, misjudgment, or something of the sort.

Now, we can no longer assume that. I believe, oddly, in some sense oddly enough, that the people in official positions who must remain most acutely aware of this are the Pentagon. Because they’re the ones who have direct custody of it, and because they study and read about it in the service academy as a whole Cold War sort of history, and the history of weaponry, et cetera.

I’m not suggesting that Joe Biden has sort of sublimated all of this. But he seems to be in a state, hard to describe, in which certainly [unclear] could permit the kind of encounter with the Russians that all his predecessors avoided. Which, in turn, is the kind of encounter where it is conceivable, and certainly not entirely inconceivable, in which nuclear weapons might be somehow resorted to in some uncalculating, you know, way.

And you see that, by the way, in articles published in places like Foreign Affairs and other respectable journals, by defense intellectuals, if you’ll excuse the expression. Whenever I hear the word “defense intellectual,” of course my reaction is to run and hide, but there are people of some note who are writing and talking along these lines, and some of them are neocons of note, like Robert Kagan, Victoria Nuland, sort of husband and partner in crime, and others of that ilk. And so, yes, this is pathological, and therefore really leads us into territory I don’t think we’ve ever been in or experienced before.

RS: So let’s get to the basic, what you feel is the distortion of this situation. […]

MB: Robert, I’ll try to do it in a staccato fashion. One, this crisis, in leading to the Russian invasion, has little to do with Ukraine per se. Certainly not for Washington; for Moscow it’s otherwise. It’s had to do with Russia from the beginning. It’s been the objective of American foreign policy for at least a decade to render Russia weak and unable to assert itself in any manner of speaking in European affairs. We want it marginalized, we want to neuter it, as a power in Europe. And the ability of Putin to reconstitute a Russia that was stable, that also had its own sense of national interest, and a vision of the world different from ours, has been deeply frustrating to the political elites and the foreign policy elites of Washington.

Two, Putin and Russia are not interested in conquest or expansion. Three, Ukraine is prominent to them, not only for historical and cultural reasons, et cetera, but because it is linked to the expansion of NATO and an obvious attempt, as became tangible at the time of the Maidan coup [unclear], that they wished to turn Ukraine into a forward base for NATO. And against the background of Russian history, that is simply intolerable.

I think a point to keep in mind is that—and this relates to what I said a moment ago about policy-making in Moscow—that if one were to place the attitudes and the opinions of Russian leaders on a continuum from hawk to dove, Putin has always been well towards the dovish end of the continuum. In other words, the majority of the most powerful forces in Moscow—and it’s not just the military, it’s not just the oligarchs, it’s all types—the locust of the sentiment has been that Russia is being exploited, taken advantage of; that cooperation will become a part of a European system in which Russia is accepted as a legitimate player is illusory.

So we have to understand that, and I—OK, specifically we’ve gone to the current crisis. The Donbass, and that is not just Russian-speaking but a highly concentrated Russian region of Eastern Ukraine, which tried to separate itself after the Maidan coup—and by the way, Russian speakers in the country as a whole represent 40% of the population. You know, Russians, quite apart from intermarriage and cultural fusion—you know, Russians are not some small, marginal minority in the Ukraine.

OK, quickly down now to the present. I believe there is growing and now totally persuasive evidence that when the Biden people came to office, they made a decision to create a crisis over Donbass to provoke a Russian military reaction, and to use that as the basis for consolidating the West, unifying the West, in a program whose centerpiece was massive economic sanctions, with the aim of tanking the Russian economy and possibly and hopefully leading to a rebellion by the oligarchs that would topple Putin.

Now, no person who really knows Russia believes that it was ever at all plausible. But this was an idea which was very prominent in foreign policy circles in Washington, and certainly the Biden administration, and people like Blinken and Sullivan and Nuland believe in it. And so they set about strengthening even further the Ukrainian army, something we’ve been doing for eight years—Ukrainian army, thanks to our efforts, armaments, training advisors.

And by the way, it is now becoming evident that we might well—probable that we have physically, in the Ukraine now, American special forces, including British special forces and some French special forces. Not only people who have engaged in training missions, but are actually providing some direction, intelligence, et cetera. We’ll see if this ever comes out. And that’s why [unclear] Macron, et cetera, are so desperate about getting the brigades and other special elements trapped in Mariupol out of the city, which they’re not ceding it.

So the idea was you created—and it is now growing evident that in effect, an assault on the Donbass was planned. And that it was in November that the final decision was taken to go ahead with it, and the time set for February. And that is why Joe Biden and other members of the administration could begin to say, with complete confidence, in January that the Russians would be invading Ukraine. Because they knew and committed themselves to a major, a major military attack on the Donbass, and they knew that the Russians would respond. They didn’t know how large a response, how aggressive a response it would be, but they knew there would be a response.

You and listeners might recall Biden saying in February, second week of February that when the Russian invasion comes, if it is small, we’re still going to go ahead with sanctions, but we might have a fight within NATO as to whether to go whole hog. If it is large, there’ll be no problem, everybody will agree on killing Nord Stream II, and taking these unprecedented steps against the Russian Central Bank, et cetera. And he said that because he knew what was planned. And the Russians reached the conclusion about the same time. Well, they certainly understood what the broad game plan was.

And then they crystalized that this was going to happen soon, and the final blow came when the Ukrainians began massive artillery barrages on cities in the Donbass. Now, there had always been exchanges over the past eight years. On February 18, there was a 30-fold increase in the number of artillery shells, five from the Ukrainians into the Donbass, to which the Donbass militias did not retaliate in kind. It peaked on the 21st and continued to the 24th. And this apparently was the last confirmation that the assault would be coming soon, and forced Putin’s hand to preempt by activating plans which no doubt they’d had for some time to invade. I think that has become clear.

Now, this is of course the diametrical opposite of the fictional story that pervades all public discourse. And you can say “all” and only count on the fingers of your hands and toes the number of dissenters, right, that prevails. Now, let’s leave open the question of do you defend Putin’s actions. I, like you, find it very hard to defend, justify, any major military action that has the consequences that this does. Except in absolute, you know, self-defense.

But you know, that’s where we are. And if there had been the Ukrainian assault that was planned on the Donbass, Putin and Russia would have been in real, real trouble, if they limited themselves to resupplying the Donbass militias. Because given the way we had armed and trained the Ukrainians, they really couldn’t withstand them. So that would have been the end of [unclear] subordination of the Russian population and the suppression of Russia’s language, all of which are steps that the Ukrainian government has moved on and has in the work.

RS: You know, what’s at the heart of this really is the denial of anyone else’s nationalism. […]

MB: Yeah, Robert, you’re absolutely right in everything that you say. Of course the world system is being transformed by the formation of this Sino-Russian bloc, which is increasingly incorporating other countries. You know, Iran is already part of it. And you know, we will note that there are only two countries outside the Western world—about which I’m speaking politically and socially, not geographically—who have supported the sanctions: South Korea and Japan. All of Asia, Southwest Asia, Africa and Latin America is not observing them, has not signed on to them. Some are exercising self-restraint and slowing down deliveries of certain things, out of sheer prudence and fear of American retaliation. But we’ve gotten no support from them. So, yeah, the gross underestimation of this, Bob.

Now, in what passes for grand strategy among the American foreign policy community, not just the Biden people, they still—they’ve had a dual hope: one, that they could drive a wedge between Russia and China, an idea they entertain only because they know nothing or have forgotten anything they might have known about each of those countries. Or, second, to in effect neutralize Russia by what we talked about: breaking the Russian economy, maybe getting some regime change, so that they would be a negligible contributor, if at all, to ally with the Chinese. And of course we have failed utterly, because all of those mistaken premises were mistaken.

And this utterly unprecedented hubris, of course, is peculiarly American. I mean, from day one, we’ve always had the faith that we were born in a condition of original virtue, and we were born with some kind of providential mission to lead the world to a better, more enlightened condition. That we were therefore the singular exceptional nation, and that gave us the freedom and the liberty to judge all others. Now, that’s—and we’ve done a lot of good things in part because of that [unclear] dubious things.

But now that’s become so perverted. And as you said, it encourages or justifies the United States setting it up as the judge of what’s legitimate and what isn’t, what government’s legitimate and what isn’t, what policies are legitimate and which aren’t. Which self-defined national interests by other governments we can accept, and which we won’t accept. Of course, this is absurd in its hubris; at the same time it also defies [unclear] logic—Nixon and Kissinger really operated and were able to set aside or sort of, you know, surmount this ideological, philosophical, self-congratulatory faith in American unique prowess and legitimacy, based on strictly practical grounds.

And currently, though, we don’t exercise restraint based either upon a certain political-ideological humility, nor on realism grounds. And that’s why I say we’re living in a world of fantasy—a fantasy which clearly serves some vital psychological needs of the country of America, and especially of its political elites. Because they are the people who are supposed to have taken on the custodial responsibility for the welfare of the country and its people, and that requires maintaining a certain perspective and distance on who we are, on what we can and cannot do, of reality testing even the most basic and fundamental of American premises. And now we don’t do any of that.

And in that sense, I do believe it’s fair to say that we have been betrayed by our political elites, and I use that term, you know, fairly broadly. The susceptibility to propaganda, the susceptibility to allowing the popular mindset to be set the way it’s going on now, in giving in to hysterical impulse, means that yeah, there’s something wrong with society and culture as a whole. But even saying that is up to your political leaders and elites to protect you from that, to protect the populace from that, and to protect themselves from falling prey to similar fantasies and irrationalities, and instead we see just the opposite.

RS: You know, one final point, and you’ve been very generous with your time. […] It’s kind of the Roman empire gone nuts.

MB: You’re absolutely right, Robert. And it is China which we look at over our shoulder. And I mean, you could argue in a number of respects—if you look at Chinese history, they have never been terribly interested in conquering other societies, nor in governing alien peoples. Their expansion, such that it was, was to the west and to the north, and was an extension of their millennia-long wars with the marauding tribes of central Asia, and dealing with that constant threat. And you know, those Central Asian barbarians succeeded four times in breaking through and in bringing them central authority in Asia.

So they’ve never been in the conquering business. Two, yes—so it’s easy enough and convenient enough to conflate China’s growing military capabilities with its economic prowess, and the fact that its whole system, in every respect, whatever you want to call it—state capitalism, ideological overlay, whatever—and whatever it turns out to be, to crystalize, it is going to be different from what we’ve seen before. And that is very threatening. Because it calls into question our self-definition as being in effect the natural culmination point of human progress and development. And suddenly we’re not; and second, the guy who’s taken another path might very well—is certainly going to be in a position to challenge our dominance politically, in terms of social philosophy, economically, and secondarily, militarily.

And there is simply—you know, we won’t censor—there is simply no place in the American conception of what’s real and natural for a United States that is not number one. And I think that’s ultimately what drives this anxiety and paranoia about China, and that is why we have not seriously entertained the alternative. Which is, you develop a dialogue with the Chinese that’s going to take years, that will be continual, in which you try to work out the terms of a relationship, about a world which will be different from the one we’re in now, but will certainly satisfy our basic interests and concerns as well as China’s. To agree on rules of the road, to carve out areas of convergence as well. You know, a dialogue of civilizations.

That’s the kind of thing which Chas Freeman, one of the most distinguished diplomats, and who was the interpreter as a young man for Nixon when he went to Beijing. And he’s been writing and saying this since his retirement 10, 12 years ago, and the man is ostracized, he is shunned, he is invited almost nowhere to speak, nobody asks him to write an op-ed piece. As far as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the mainstream media, he doesn’t exist.

RS: Who is that you’re referring to?

MB: Charles Freeman. And he still writes, and incredibly intelligent, acute, sophisticated, I mean, by orders of magnitude superior to the kinds of clowns who are making our China policy today. And recently published a breathtaking long essay on the nature and character of diplomacy. So he’s the kind of person who could, you know, be involved in and help to shape the kind of dialogue I’m talking about. But these people don’t seem to exist. Those that have any potential like that are marginalized, right.

And instead we’ve taken this sort of simplistic path of saying the other guy is the enemy, he’s the bad guy, and we’re going to confront him across the board. And I think this is going to lead to, sooner or later, to confrontation and crisis, probably over Taiwan, which will be the equivalent of the Cuban missile crisis, and hope that we survive it, because we’re going to lose a conventional war if we choose to defend Taiwan. And everybody who knows China says the Chinese leadership is watching the Ukraine affair very closely, and thinking to themselves, ah, maybe Russia has given us a glimpse of what the dynamic might be if we go ahead and invade Taiwan.

RS: Yeah. Well, that’s of course the position of the hawks also: let’s show them that they can’t, and let’s get embroiled in that. But leaving that aside, we’re going to wrap this up. I want to say it’s your voice, clearly anyone listening to this, I hope you keep blogging and return to the fray, because your voice is needed. I want to thank Professor Michael Brenner for doing this. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW and the rest of the staff for posting these podcasts. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who does the introductions and overview. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And I want to thank the JKW Foundation and T.M. Scruggs, separately, for giving us some financial support to be able to keep up this work. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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