Somehow I missed this when it came by last March. I really wish I had not. So if I can retroactively still sign it, I hereby do so:
Open letter to Jeffrey Sachs on the Russia-Ukraine war
Yuriy Gorodnichenko, professor of economics | March 20, 2023
Dear Dr. Sachs,
We are a group of economists, including many Ukrainians, who were appalled by your statements on the Russian war against Ukraine and were compelled to write this open letter to address some of the historical misrepresentations and logical fallacies in your line of argument. Following your repeated appearances on the talk shows of one of the chief Russian propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov (apart from calling to wipe Ukrainian cities off the face of the earth, he called for nuclear strikes against NATO countries), we have reviewed the op-eds on your personal website and noticed several recurring patterns. In what follows, we wish to point out these misrepresentations to you, alongside our brief response.
Pattern #1: Denying the agency of Ukraine
In your article “The New World Economy” from January 10, 2023, you write: “It was, after all, the US attempt to expand NATO to Georgia and Ukraine that triggered the wars in Georgia (in 2010) and in Ukraine (2014 until today).” Similarly, in your article “What Ukraine Needs to Learn from Afghanistan” from February 13, 2023, you write: “The proxy war in Ukraine began nine years ago when the US government backed the overthrow of Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych’s sin from the US viewpoint was his attempt to maintain Ukraine’s neutrality despite the US desire to expand NATO to include Ukraine (and Georgia).”
Let us set the record straight on the historical events from 2013-2014, at which you hint in the aforementioned misinformative statements: The Euromaidan had nothing to do with NATO, nor the US. Initial protest was sparked by Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement, despite said agreement passing the Ukrainian Parliament with an overwhelming majority and enjoying broad support among the Ukrainian population. Yanukovych’s regime’s choice to respond by brutally beating peaceful protesters (mostly students) on the night of November 30, 2013, only further alienated the population and intensified the protests. After the adoption of a set of laws forbidding the freedom of press and assembly (commonly termed the “dictatorship laws”) by Yanukovych in January 2014, the Euromaidan turned into a broader movement against government abuse of power and corruption, police brutality, and human rights violation – which we now refer to as the Revolution of Dignity. Ukraine’s accession to NATO was never a goal of this movement. Hence, your attempts to trace the beginning of the war to “NATO” are historically inaccurate. Furthermore, treating Ukraine as a pawn on the US geo-political chessboard is a slap in the face to millions of Ukrainians who risked their lives during the Revolution of Dignity.
Pattern #2: NATO provoked Russia
You repeatedly emphasize that the expansion of NATO provoked Russia (e.g., “NATO should not enlarge, because that threatens the security of Russia,” from your interview to Isaac Chotiner at the New Yorker from February 27, 2023).
We want to alert you to a few facts. In 1939, it was the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that invaded Poland. In 1940, it was the Soviet Union that invaded the Baltic countries. In 1940, it was the Soviet Union that annexed parts of Romania. In 1956, it was the Soviet Union that invaded Hungary. In 1968, it was the Soviet Union that invaded Czechoslovakia. Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Hungary or Czechoslovakia did not invade Russia or the Soviet Union. No threat emanated from these countries. But these countries were attacked by the USSR/Russia. This is why these countries wanted to join NATO. Since joining NATO, none of these countries have been attacked by Russia again.
Just like these countries, Ukraine (whose military budget was a mere $2.9 bn in 2013, prior to Russia’s military aggression against it) wants to have security and peace. It does not want to be attacked again by Russia (whose military budget in 2013 stood at $68 bn). Given that Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons in 1994 in exchange for security “assurances” from the US, UK and Russia (!) did nothing to prevent Russian aggression, currently the only credible guarantee is NATO membership.
We also want to draw your attention to the fact that Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in response to Russian aggression, and yet Russia did not complain about these two countries joining NATO. You do not seem to be particularly concerned about these two countries joining NATO either. This differential treatment of Ukraine vs. Finland/Sweden legitimizes “spheres of influence,” a notion that seems appropriate for the age of empires and not for the modern era.
Pattern #3: Denying Ukraine’s sovereign integrity
In your interview to Democracy Now! on December 6, 2022, you said: “So, my view is that […] Crimea has been historically, and will be in the future, effectively, at least de facto Russian.”
We wish to remind you that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has violated the Budapest memorandum (in which it promised to respect and protect Ukrainian borders, including Crimea), the Treaty on Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation (which Russia signed with Ukraine in 1997 with the same promises), and, according to the order of the UN International Court of Justice, it violated international law. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia was supposed to protect peace, but instead Russia violated the foundational principle of the UN (Article 2 of the UN Charter: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”). Indeed, the entire world security architecture after WWII is based on the assumption that country borders (regardless of historical background) cannot be changed by force in order to preserve peace, as Kenya UN ambassador highlighted in his famous speech. If a nuclear power is allowed to annex territories of another country as it wishes, then no country in the world can feel safe.
By insisting that Russia can keep Crimea, you are making an implicit assumption that if Russia is allowed to do that, it will leave the rest of Ukraine in peace. However, this is demonstrably not true, as Russia’s “de facto” ownership of Crimea over 2014–2022 did nothing to preclude its current aggression. The aim of Putin is to “ultimately solve the Ukrainian question,” i.e. to completely destroy Ukraine and annex its entire territory. Thus, by annexing Crimea he did not “restore the historical justice” — he just prepared a springboard for further military attacks on Ukraine. Therefore, restoring Ukraine’s control over its entire territory is crucial not only for the security of Ukraine but also for the security of all other nations (by reinforcing the lesson that aggressors should not get away with land grabs!).
Also, you state that “Russia certainly will never accept NATO in Ukraine.” For your information, the UN Charter emphasizes the self-determination of peoples as a key principle. It’s not for Russia to decide what alliances or unions Ukraine will or will not join. Ukraine has its own democratically-elected government (not a dictatorship, like in Russia), and this government, after consultation with Ukrainian people, will decide whether Ukraine will or will not join NATO. Likewise, NATO countries have every right to decide for themselves whom they would like to welcome in their alliance.
Pattern #4: Pushing forward Kremlin’s peace plans
In the aforementioned article “What Ukraine Needs to Learn from Afghanistan,” you write: “The basis for peace is clear. Ukraine would be a neutral non-NATO country. Crimea would remain home to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet, as it has been since 1783. A practical solution would be found for the Donbas, such as a territorial division, autonomy, or an armistice line.”
While your suggestion is perfectly aligned with that of Russian propagandists, it leaves unanswered the key question from the Ukrainian perspective: Based on what evidence do you trust a serial warmonger, who has stated on multiple occasions that Ukraine does not exist, to be satisfied with Crimea and Donbas and not try to occupy the entire country? Until you find a convincing answer to this question, we would kindly ask you to refer to the 10-point peace plan proposed by President Zelensky and fully backed up by the Ukrainian people. Regurgitating Kremlin’s “peace plans” would only prolong the suffering of Ukrainian people.
Writing that if Ukraine offered Putin Crimea and Donbas in December 2021 or March 2022 then “the fighting would stop, Russian troops would leave Ukraine, and Ukraine’s sovereignty would be guaranteed by the UN Security Council and other nations” is just wishful thinking. Peace negotiations in early 2022 broke down not because of non-existent US intervention but because Russia demanded unconditional capitulation of Ukraine (and it still does!). Remember that Russia’s goals in Ukraine were “demilitarization and denazification”. What “denazification” means was explained by one of Putin’s political advisors, Timofey Sergeitsev, in his piece “What Russia should do with Ukraine?” There, he argued for the brutal destruction of the Ukrainian nation involving killing millions of people and “re-educating” others. Russians already started implementing these plans in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
We suggest that you read the entire text by Sergeitsev’s, but a few passages clearly show what he means: “a country that is being denazified cannot possess sovereignty,” “Denazification will inevitably include de-ukrainization — the rejection of the large-scale artificial inflation of the ethnic component in the self-identification of the population of the historical Malorossiya and Novorossiya territories, which was started by the Soviet authorities”, “denazification of Ukraine means its inevitable de-europeanization”, [denazification implies…] “the seizure of educational materials and the prohibition of educational programs at all levels that contain Nazi ideological guidelines” (in his article, Sergeitsev repeatedly calls Ukrainians “Nazis”).
You seem to be unaware that, consistent with this rhetoric, Russia commits horrendous war crimes as documented by the UN and many others. We fail to discern any indication of a genuine interest in peace from the ongoing Russian atrocities.
We urge you to reevaluate your stance on thinking that Russia is interested in good-faith peace talks.
Pattern #5. Presenting Ukraine as a divided country
In “What Ukraine Needs to Learn from Afghanistan,” you also state that “The US overlooked two harsh political realities in Ukraine. The first is that Ukraine is deeply divided ethnically and politically between Russia-hating nationalists in western Ukraine and ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.”
This statement echoes a Russian political technology first applied during 2004 presidential elections and still used by Russians to justify the “denazification” of Ukraine today. We encourage you to take a look at the actual empirical facts and history.
In 1991, all regions of Ukraine voted for independence. Including Crimea.
According to the 2001 Census (the latest data on self-identified ethnicity available for Ukraine), Ukrainian population is the majority in all the regions of Ukraine, except for Crimea. And when we speak about Crimea, we should ask why it has the ethnic composition which it has. It has a Russian majority because of a series of genocides and deportations starting from its first occupation by Russia in 1783 and as recently as 1944 when Crimean Tatars were deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union. Crimea’s indigenous population was deported, killed, and replaced by Russians. A similar tactic was used by Russia during its several genocides of Ukrainians — for example, during the Great Famine of 1932–33, Russians arrived to live in the houses of Ukrainians who died of famine. Russia is using the same tactics of population replacement today, in the current war: it deports the Ukrainian population, forcefully adopts Ukrainian children or “re-educates” (brainwashes) them after forcefully parting them with their families.
Besides cleansing Ukrainian and other indigenous populations, Russia used “softer” tactics, such as Russification, i.e. discouraging the learning and usage of the Ukrainian language in all spheres. Russification has been ongoing for centuries. Its instruments have been quite diverse — from “mixing” people by sending Ukrainians to work to Russia and sending Russians to study or work in Ukraine, to making it close to impossible for Ukrainian speakers to enter universities, to representing Ukrainian language and culture as backward and inferior to the “great Russian culture,” to stealing Ukrainian cultural heritage (e.g. only now world museums started to correctly identify Ukrainian artists presented by Russia as Russian, and hundreds of thousands of artifacts have looted from Ukrainian museums from 2014 and especially during the last year). Thus, the acute language discussions are a natural response to Russia’s historical attempts to suppress any restoration of rights of the Ukrainian language. Despite this history of oppression, Ukrainians have been gradually switching to Ukrainian, and the Russian full-scale invasion intensified this process.
Recent polls show that irrespective of language or location, Ukrainians overwhelmingly (80%) reject territorial concessions to Russia. Polls also show that 85 percent of Ukrainians identify themselves above all as citizens of Ukraine, as opposed to residents of their region, representatives of an ethnic minority, or some other identifier. This is hardly possible in a divided country.
In summary, we welcome your interest in Ukraine. However, if your objective is to be helpful and to generate constructive proposals on how to end the war, we believe that this objective is not achieved. Your interventions present a distorted picture of the origins and intentions of the Russian invasion, mix facts and subjective interpretations, and propagate the Kremlin’s narratives. Ukraine is not a geopolitical pawn or a divided nation, Ukraine has the right to determine its own future, Ukraine has not attacked any country since gaining its independence in 1991. There is no justification for the Russian war of aggression. A clear moral compass, respect of international law, and a firm understanding of Ukraine’s history should be the defining principles for any discussions towards a just peace.
Yuriy Gorodnichenko &7 al.
There is a weird parallelism between the way Sachs and others , e.g., John Mearsheimer, treat Russia and the way the legacy media, e.g., NYT and WaPo, treat the GOP. It goes something like this: Russia, and the GOP, will, in their respective spheres, do what they do because it is their nature (river, frog, scorpion), and it only remains for the US, and the Democratic Party, to accept their responsibility for provoking that behavior in the first place. When it comes to the US and Russia, only the US has agency; likewise the Democrats in relation to the GOP. The question of Russian and GOP responsibility for their own behaviors does not arise. How could it, given the worldviews of Sachs, et al. and the legacy media?
It is also almost quaint that Russia, and its apologists, still seem to believe that a country’s safety from its adversaries derives principally from the geographical distance between them. The next great-power war is more likely to be announced by hackers trying to take down the power grid and internet than by armored divisions crossing the border.
I keep coming back to this point: Substitute "Germany" for "Russia", "Czechoslovakia" for "Ukraine", and "Sudetenland" for "Crimea". This is bound to provoke howling about Godwins Law, of course, but where exactly do the parallels break down? Is it just that Russia waited a few years before taking another bite, while the Germans went back for the rest of the Czech lands immediately?