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Are Peace Talks Possible? Prof. Gilbert Achcar on Whether Russia & Ukraine Can Negotiate End to War

StoryDecember 29, 2022
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The war in Ukraine is now in its 11th month, and Russia unleashed a new bombardment this week of cities across the country, including the capital Kyiv. This comes as both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin have expressed a willingness to negotiate an end to the war — but their positions remain so far apart that there are no real hopes of peace talks, says longtime antiwar activist, author and international relations scholar Gilbert Achcar. “For now, both sides are just probably betting on being able to achieve more on the ground and not really serious about a ceasefire and negotiations under the present conditions,” he says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Russia has launched a massive series of missile attacks across Ukraine today, with reports of explosions and fresh power outages in cities including Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa. The attacks come after Ukrainian officials called on residents to evacuate the city of Kherson amidst heavy Russian artillery strikes. On Wednesday, two explosions rattled a maternity hospital in Kherson, where at least five people were recovering from childbirth.

OLHA PRYSIDKO: [translated] It was frightening, also unexpected. The explosions began abruptly. The window handles started to tear off. Glass. Oh, my hands are still shaking, frankly speaking.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, the Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky gave his annual address to the Ukrainian parliament, where he again pressed for Ukraine to join the European Union. Zelensky has been pushing a 10-point peace plan, while Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s prepared to end the war in Ukraine, saying he’ll negotiate with everyone involved in this process about acceptable solutions. Are negotiations likely?

For more, we’re joined by the longtime antiwar activist and professor Gilbert Achcar, author of a number of books, including Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising. His next book, to be published in April, is titled The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Professor Achcar. So, you have this barrage of missiles, Russian missiles, across Ukraine today, and at the same time, you have President Putin saying he is prepared to negotiate with anyone. Can you respond to this situation? And do you think negotiations are possible, and what the peace plan of President Zelensky is?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yeah. Good morning, Amy and Nermeen. Thank you. Thank you both for hosting me.

What’s happening in Ukraine, this systematic destruction of civilian infrastructure by the Russian side, is a war crime. I mean, human rights organizations have clearly stated that from the beginning. It started two months. It’s been already two months of systematic destruction, systematic bombing of the civilian infrastructure. So, this is horrifying, of course, and it must be very, very strongly condemned — no less than the condemnation of the U.S. destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure, its civilian infrastructure, in 1991. I mean, we have to be consistent. If we have denounced and condemned what happened in Iraq, we have to denounce and condemn what is happening today in Ukraine.

Now, about — the statements about negotiations are, I think, today, more propaganda devices than the — than real, I mean. That’s because if you see what conditions they are associated with, I mean, they sound like more ultimatums than real willingness to negotiate.

On the Russian side, I mean, it’s been a while now, since September, that Vladimir Putin is making statements calling for a ceasefire and calling the Ukrainians to return to the negotiating table. That’s his own words. But if you read clearly what he’s been saying, he’s saying at the same time that there’s no way that there could be any discussion about the four provinces, the four Ukrainian provinces, that he annexed to Russia, very officially. So, if this is excluded from any possible negotiation, how do you — I mean, how possibly could that negotiation, or even the ceasefire leading to it, happen?

On the Ukrainian side, they may be more flexible, but sometimes you have statements like a recent one by the foreign affairs minister of Ukraine saying that the condition for negotiations would be that Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders be deferred in front of an international tribunal. Of course, that’s, again, putting the bar very high for any possible negotiation.

So, I think, for now, both sides are just probably betting on being able to achieve more on the ground and not really serious about a ceasefire and negotiations under the present conditions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Achcar, I want to go to some of your — you wrote a number of articles before and following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You pointed out, rightly, anticipating that Russia’s invasion would strengthen NATO immeasurably, including with Finland and Sweden seeking to join the military alliance — which is, of course, what’s happened. Now, a lot of people pointed out that one of the reasons for the invasion in the first place was NATO’s eastward expansion. If that’s the case — first of all, do you agree that that’s the case? And second of all, how does one understand what’s come about as a result, since it was anticipated, not just by you but many others? How does that — how did that figure into Russia’s calculations for the invasion? They couldn’t possibly have thought that NATO would be weakened as a result.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. Well, I think, first of all, I mean, to start with the last point, this has been a terrible miscalculation. I mean, that’s one of those historical blunders committed usually by leaders who lose the sense of reality and of measure and who completely overestimate their own force and underestimate the capacity of those that they aggress to resist. And that has been very clear. I mean, remember that for the first few weeks, the Russian troops were encircling Kyiv, and the plan was to take the capital and bring down the government, remove all the leadership of the Ukrainian state and replace them with something like what you have in Belarus — that is, a government that is compliant to Moscow. And that failed miserably. So, I think there has been, basically, a huge miscalculation. That was a completely reckless move, from whichever angle you take it. I mean, even leaving aside the justice, the human considerations and the rest, even from the sheer point of view, I mean, of sheer realism, if you want, or calculation, that was terribly, terribly miscalculated.

Now, the issue of NATO, I mean, it depends how we are looking at it. If we are speaking in historical terms, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the expansion of NATO, the eastward expansion of NATO, that was started by the administration of Bill Clinton in the ’90s, this terrible, fateful decision to expand NATO, instead of either freezing or, even better, dissolving NATO, as should have been with the end of the Soviet Union — this decision has been crucial in creating the conditions that led to the present state of the world and this state of relations between Western countries and Russia.

And there have been a lot of moves since 2008, very clearly, from Russia, that can be construed as countermoves to block the possible accession to NATO of Georgia and Ukraine, after two waves of accessions to NATO of countries that were previously under Soviet domination or even part of the Soviet Union. The three Baltic states were part of the Soviet Union. They were Soviet republics. And yet they were integrated into NATO.

And, of course, from the Russian side, this has always been perceived as aggressive and hostile — and for good reason. I mean, in the first place, why is it that NATO is so eager to integrate all these states and not offer Russia itself — and never offer to Russia itself — to join NATO, I mean, if it weren’t actually meaning by all this to — how to say? — to encircle and to block Russia?

So, Vladimir Putin himself is, to a large extent, a product of U.S. administrations’ policies towards Russia, including terrible economic policies in the ’90s, you know, the so-called shock therapy, neoliberal shock therapy, that created the ground, along with national frustration, to the rise of something like Vladimir Putin.

Now, all this being said, to say that the 2014 war of Russia on Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea were meant, to a large extent, to block Ukraine’s accession to NATO, that can be sustained as an argument. And indeed, ever since Russia has annexed Crimea, there was no longer any possibility for Ukraine to join NATO, because NATO cannot take on board a country that is de facto at war with another country, in a state of war. So that wouldn’t happen. And for the same reason, you had the incursion of Russia in Georgia in 2008, also to block any prospect of Georgia’s accession to NATO.

But in 20 — I mean, this year, in February this year, the reason was not. There was no immediate prospect of any accession of Ukraine to NATO. No, that was much different. And it’s been prepared over several months by Vladimir Putin as part of his own, first, domestic policies of nationalism, of “Ukrainemania,” as one Russian author called it, and to — with the view also, that he had, that he could actually invade Ukraine and change its government, and without much trouble. So, that’s the miscalculation that we mentioned.

And I think one of the reasons he is very bothered by Ukraine is actually what happened with the election of Zelensky, whatever one may think of Zelensky. But the election, in free elections, of a maverick like Zelensky is something that is felt as a very bad example, from someone like Vladimir Putin. Of course, Zelensky, in his mind, can only remind him of Navalny, his own opponent, and what he — you know, as we know, all that happened to Navalny.

So, I think there is this — on the one hand, the fear that you might have the development of some kind of democratic society and polity in Ukraine, which is unacceptable, going in the exactly opposite direction of the increasing authoritarian and autocratic transformation of the Russian side. I wouldn’t hesitate even calling present-day Russia, the regime, as neofascist, in the sense that it has a lot of the features of fascism, without, you know, this paramilitary kind of aspect, but on a background of imitating democracy. It’s a fake democracy, of course. You have fake elections, an imitation of democracy. But, basically, you have a very repressive and right-wing regime.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Achcar, could you elaborate just a little bit on the point that you made about Navalny and Zelensky, why Putin would view them or may already view them as somehow linked or analogous figures? And then, also I want to turn to the article that you wrote on the very day — days after the invasion, headlined “A memorandum on the radical anti-imperialist position regarding the war in Ukraine.” Explain why you wrote that piece.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. First, I mean, what I said about Zelensky and Navalny, I think, I mean, the possibility of the election of someone like Zelensky, as a kind of maverick — he was perceived as such — and on top of that, I mean, that’s even as someone who is a Russophone, I mean, whose mother tongue is Russian, and who’s of Jewish descent. I mean, this is something that represents a kind of democratic achievement in a country like Ukraine, that is shocking for someone like Putin, because of the cultural osmosis, the strong cultural links, and including linguistic, between Ukraine and Russia. So the example is very troubling. And it’s — I am sure that that was one factor — of course, not the only one, but one important factor — in the escalation of Vladimir Putin’s attitude towards Ukraine, starting from the summer of 2021.

About the memorandum that I wrote three days into the invasion, that is because of the fact that I have been involved in many discussions about wars, about imperialist wars, and about the meaning of anti-imperialism. Last year, I had an article, a long article in The Nation, about the meaning of anti-imperialism. And therefore, I thought that the confusion that developed among the radical left was such that there was a need to clarify what the anti-imperialist position should be towards this war, and that’s why I wrote this memorandum. And my key point is that we have — that anti-imperialism should be against all imperialism, not against the U.S. or the Western imperialist countries alone, and, secondly, that anti-imperialism should be based on the right of the people to self-determination. That’s the basis of anti-imperialism. And that should be our guiding principle in defining our position, as antiwar, as left-wing, as progressive, towards all the wars of this kind.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Achcar, you’re professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and we’re speaking to you in Marseille, France. You also look at the media. And in France, there’s a different approach. Certainly, the president, Macron, has a different approach to Putin, often seen as a back channel for Biden in talking to Putin. And I’m wondering now, as we begin to conclude this conversation, what you think, as Russia just pounds Ukraine today, as the U.S. gives billions of dollars’ worth of military weapons to Ukraine — Zelensky just addressed a joint session of Congress in person in Washington, D.C. — what you see the ending of the war could look like, and if you see the U.N. involved in the negotiations around that.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Oh, definitely. I can’t think of any end of this war without the involvement of the U.N., I mean, short of, you know, some miracle or some big surprise like the collapse of Putin’s government or Putin’s regime. I mean, short of something that would completely change the situation, the only way to end this war is also through the United Nations, the United Nations coming in. And that means also China. Now, I can see that both the United States and China have not been eager to let the U.N. take up this issue and move towards, I mean, a lasting peace and just peace, which can only be a peace without annexation and a peace based on the right of — the people’s right to self-determination in disputed territories. That’s the peaceful, democratic way of solving such issues, not by war, not by force. We are against the acquisition of territory by force. And this is one of the key principles upon which the United Nations Charter is based. And so, that’s the point here. I mean, any solution to that should go through the United Nations. Any negotiations should go through the United Nations and respect the principles of the U.N. Charter.

Now, I am not seeing the Biden administration really active on trying to get to that, which would involve also a cooperation with China. And the Biden administration has been extremely aggressive, extremely hostile to China, continuing the hostile policies that were started by Donald Trump, in particular. And this has been quite counterproductive for the prospect for peace, because China, very obviously, holds a key position in that it’s the only important ally that Russia may look at, and therefore China’s position weighs a lot on whatever decision Russia makes.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Gilbert Achcar, professor of international relations at SOAS, the School of [Oriental] and African Studies, at the University of London, speaking to us from Marseille, France. He’s been active in the socialist and antiwar movement for decades, author of a number of books, including Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky; The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising; his next book, coming out in April, The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine.

That does it for our show. To see all of our shows, on radio and TV, podcast, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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