Last week, Jeffrey Sachs, the economist and professor at Columbia known for his work in the fields of poverty alleviation and foreign aid, delivered remarks to the United Nations Security Council about the destruction of the Nord Stream pipeline. Sachs, who was invited to speak by Russia—but who told The New Yorker that it was “important to note” that he was there on his own behalf—called for an investigation of the incident. He has previously suggested that the United States was responsible; so far, no evidence linking the U.S., Russia, or any other nation to the attack has emerged. These were notable remarks for an economist to make, and highlight the degree to which, in recent years, Sachs has become outspoken on a broad sweep of geopolitical topics, from the war in Ukraine (he wants the West to negotiate a solution immediately) to China’s repression of the Uyghur population (he thinks the use of the term “genocide” is mistaken). He has also blamed Anthony Fauci for the role played by the U.S. public-health apparatus in funding research abroad, in part because he thinks COVID-19 originated in “U.S. lab biotechnology.”
It’s an interesting chapter for a man who was best known, for many years, as a member of the American establishment. (Thirty years ago, the Times called him “probably the most important economist in the world,” for his role in pushing post-Soviet Russia to adopt “shock therapy.”) Since then, Sachs has advised multiple U.N. Secretaries-General and written multiple books; he has travelled with Bono, and worked with governments with controversial records on human rights, such as the United Arab Emirates. He is currently the president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network. In 2020, shortly after COVID began spreading across the world, I talked to him for The New Yorker about the pandemic’s economic impact and how Trump was handling the emergency; more recently, he appeared as a guest on the podcast of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has become one of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists in the country.
I recently spoke by phone again with Sachs. I wanted to talk with him about his evolving views, and some of his recent travels, such as a visit with Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.
How did you get interested in wanting to end the war in Ukraine?
The war is horribly destructive and horribly dangerous, and it should never have happened. Not just in the simple sense that wars are tragedies but in the specific sense that this was an utterly avoidable war. I think that the more one knows about the background to this war, the more it is clear how it could have been avoided, and also how it can end.
What specifically about the background?
This is a war that reflects rising tensions between the United States and Russia now for a quarter century. There have been many points on that path that were truly ill-advised.
Tell me what you think some of the missed opportunities were.
The key to this, which is now well discussed, but still not well understood, is the post-1991 vision of strategic leaders in the United States: that we are now in a unipolar world, and that the United States can do pretty much whatever it wants, and that includes basing the military where it wants and when it wants, entering and exiting treaties when it wants and where it wants, without serious consequence. In the mid-nineties, there was a quite ferocious debate over even the first phase of NATO enlargement, where many wise people, including Bill Perry, our Defense Secretary at the time under Clinton, thought that this was a dreadful mistake; many others did, too. And George Kennan, whom I regard as the essence of wisdom, thought that it would lead to a new Cold War.
Clinton chose to move ahead with NATO enlargement. Because that first phase was in Central Europe, I don’t think it was decisive, although it definitely made the situation more difficult. And then came the war over Serbia and the bombing of Serbia by NATO forces. This was, in my opinion, a dreadful mistake. And there’s lots that we don’t know publicly about this. I’ve been told many, many things by insiders. I don’t know whether they’re true or not, because I don’t see the archives, but I believe that this was a dreadful mistake. Then came 9/11. President Putin offered support for the U.S. efforts at the beginning, but the Iraq war was clearly a major, major blow.
Bush continued with seven more NATO enlargements, getting close and hot under the collar, because they involved the three Baltic states, along with Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Slovakia, and the pushback was very, very hard. In 2008 came the absolutely dreadful decision by Bush to push for NATO enlargement to Ukraine and to Georgia. That was, in essence, what set us not just on a path of absolutely hardening relations but on a path to this war.
The war began, however, nine years ago, with the U.S. participation in the overthrow of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych, in February, 2014—the very active U.S. role in that. We’ll only perhaps know the full extent of it when the archives are opened, decades from now. We know enough that this was why the war actually occurred.
I’m a little confused when you talk about 2008, because the full-scale invasion of Ukraine didn’t start until 2022, fourteen years later, and Ukraine was no closer to getting into NATO.
In 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, NATO said that it would enlarge to include Ukraine and Georgia. The decision was made by NATO. It was a very contentious meeting, because most of the Europeans objected, but the United States pushed it through. And this led, in my view, to the war in Georgia very soon afterward. I think that was Russia’s message to Georgia: you’re not going to join NATO. And that was a message for Ukraine as well.
Ukraine was already in a battle in which the United States was heavily participating, between a divided country, east and west divisions, pro- and anti-NATO divisions, and so forth. In 2005, Viktor Yushchenko became President; he [later] called for Ukraine to join NATO. This created the big tensions that led to 2008. And then Yushchenko was defeated and Yanukovych came in saying we should have neutrality. And that, I believe, was viewed as an affront to the U.S. policymakers who were intent on NATO enlargement. In late 2013, when protests against Yanukovych broke out, the U.S. took the occasion to play extremely actively in this and in ways that were rather direct, let us say—paying a lot of money to those who were leading this so-called movement and helping to finance what became a coup.
So you think what happened in 2014 was a coup?
It was a coup, of course. It was an unconstitutional seizure of power when very violent groups, well armed, stormed the government buildings in February, 2014. [Protesters, angered by Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade agreement with the European Union, were killed by security forces after trying to occupy parts of Kyiv; afterward, Yanukovych was isolated politically and fled to Russia with the assistance of the Kremlin. I asked Sachs over e-mail for a source for his claim about the role played by the U.S. He responded, “It is public knowledge that the National Endowment for Democracy and US NGOs spent heavily in Ukraine to support the Maidan. I have first-hand knowledge of that spending.” The N.E.D. told The New Yorker that it provides funding to civil-society groups but “does not provide funding to support protests.”]
Let me just go back to 2008. I understand what happened at the Bucharest summit. My point is that fourteen years later Ukraine was no closer to actually joining NATO.
That’s not correct. That’s not correct, Isaac. At all. The fact of the matter is that, after the overthrow of Yanukovych, a series of governments in both Ukraine and the U.S. have heavily armed Ukraine, heavily modernized Ukraine’s Army, poured in many billions of dollars of armaments, and this is what made it possible for Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion in February, 2022.
You’re saying once the country was invaded?
No, no, no, no. Starting in 2014. This is important.
Once Crimea had been invaded, you are saying?
This is perhaps one of the things that needs more investigation by the likes of you and your colleagues, to look into the events around the Maidan. This was an overthrow of a government that replaced a government that was calling for neutrality—