Tensions high at Northampton forum over Russia-Ukraine war

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. AP – Olivier Matthys

By Sophie Hauck

For the Gazette

Published: 10-20-2023 5:09 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Discussion over the Russia-Ukraine war turned testy at a forum this week in which foreign policy experts advocating for and against current United States policy in the 19-month conflict sparred over who was right.

“You sound like people who have never heard of World War II,” Mordechai Kamel of Easthampton told anti-war advocates — panelists invited to the forum and audience members alike — who said the U.S. should suspend military aid to Ukraine.

Kamel was one of multiple audience members unconvinced by some arguments panelists presented Monday evening at the community forum at Forbes Library.

Two panelists spoke in support of maintaining current U.S. policy toward Ukraine, and two panelists said the country should move to end the war. Their positions mirrored the divide in the crowd of more than 30 people who attended the event in-person, and another 22 who watched the livestream on the library’s YouTube channel.

“It’s a heated issue,” said event organizer John Berkowitz of Northampton. He encouraged attendees “to question the current policy and to see that there’s a different approach.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched attacks on Ukraine in February 2022, following years of political strife between the two nations over whether Ukraine had a right to independent statehood. Russia has deployed 1,330,900 troops to Ukraine in the 19 months since the invasion began, more than double the size of Ukraine’s 500,000-person military operation, including active soldiers, reserve forces and paramilitary troops, according to analysts

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The New York Times reported that close to 500,000 Russian and Ukrainian troops have been killed or wounded in this conflict. Over 9,600 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, and more than 17,000 were injured, the United Nations reported.

Since the start of the war, the U.S. has contributed more than $29.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, according to the Department of Defense. On Friday, the Biden administration requested an additional $61.4 billion for Ukraine as part of a $105 billion security aid package to support Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and the U.S. southern border.

“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Biden said in February after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”

For Berkowitz, the conflict is not so black and white.

“I changed my mind about this war,” said Berkowitz, who once supported U.S. policy toward Ukraine but now favors entering negotiations to end the conflict. He organized Monday’s forum with Tom Weiner and Allen Davis after they came to the same conclusion and wanted to share their outlook with the community.

“Our hope is that other communities will have their own program,” said Davis, a longtime Northampton resident who now lives in New Hampshire. “We want people to hear different perspectives and learn from each other.”

Support U.S. policy

Panelists who spoke in favor of U.S. policy were John Feffer of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, and Alina Parker, a lecturer on East European and Russian studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“I love Russia,” Feffer said. “Shouldn’t I start with, ‘I love Ukraine?’ Well, I do love Ukraine, but first and foremost, I love Russia.”

Feffer majored in Russian in college and traveled to Moscow to study the language and culture. He admired Russians’ effort to “transform their society” under former president Boris Yeltsin, but said things took a turn for the worse when Putin took office.

“He has extraordinarily conservative social policy, and he supports basically a corporatist economic agenda. If you look in the dictionary, what do those add up to? Fascism. That is literally the definition of fascism,” Feffer said. “I love Russia, but I am appalled at what direction Vladimir Putin has taken Russia in.”

Parker, who is originally from Ukraine, said that asking the smaller nation to enter into negotiation with Russsia is unreasonable given the amount of damage the war has inflicted on Ukraine.

“Should the victim of this invasion be provided military aid, or should it be pressured into negotiations?” Parker asked. “Even if peace could be negotiated, it would only be temporary because it will just give time for the Russian army to rest. The only possible lesson is to help Ukraine win this war and reshape itself, and this may actually serve as a deterrent for future generations.”

Opposition to U.S. policy

On the other side of the question are Northampton author Howard Friel and Traprock Center for Peace and Justice board member Patricia Hynes, who both support suspending U.S. policy toward Ukraine and negotiating a cease-fire.

Friel acknowledged that Russia violated the “cardinal rule of international law” — Article 2 (4) in the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the threat or use of force in international relations.

“I am not saying that these things should be ignored, but they are not reasons for continuing the war in Ukraine,” Friel said.

He worried that escalating the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, with the support of NATO and the U.S., would lead to nuclear war, noting that Russia and the U.S. have the world’s largest nuclear arsenals.

“The longer the military conflict in Ukraine continues, which is largely a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, the greater likelihood of a nuclear confrontation,” Friel said. “These wars tend to not have happy endings.”

Hynes agreed that the death toll and pollution caused by the war is not worth continuing to fight.

“The risks of not trying to end the war are higher than the risks of trying to end it through cease-fire and peace negotiations,” Hynes said.

She advocated for investing in public education and climate action instead of funding military action.

“The world cannot afford the Green New Deal, costing some $5.4 trillion to prevent devastating climate chaos, unless global military spending is curbed,” Hynes said.

Audience response

After panelists delivered their prepared remarks, they fielded questions from the audience. Claudia Lefko of Northampton asked panelists whether the environmental impact of the war is “worth it,” interrupting Feffer, who favors current U.S. policy, when he answered her by listing the environmental damage that has happened as a result of the war.

“I know what you’re talking about, but my question really is, is it worth it?” Lefko asked.

Kamel, from the audience, called out, “If I were in Kyiv, it would be worth it.”

Neither Kamel nor Lefko said they left the forum having changed their position on whether the U.S. should continue to support Ukraine.

“The only reasonable response to a bully is to fight back,” Kamel said.

“I’m an anti-war person,” Lefko countered. “I feel like the price of the bombing and the war is never worth it.”