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“The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China”: Gilbert Achcar on Ukraine War & More

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Belarus says Russia has begun transferring tactical nuclear weapons to the former Soviet state, which shares a nearly 700-mile border with Ukraine, escalating the risk of a nuclear confrontation in Europe. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged allies to “dig deep” to provide more arms and ammunition to help Ukraine as it launches its counteroffensive against Russia. The Ukraine conflict has intensified the “new Cold War” between the United States and its allies, on one side, and Russia and China, on the other, says Gilbert Achcar, professor of international relations at SOAS University of London. He pegs the start of this new geopolitical standoff to the Kosovo War in 1999, which NATO entered without U.N. approval and over the objections of Russia and China. He says the United States had a “window of opportunity” in the 1990s to reshape the world for more cooperation and multilateralism. “Instead of going for peaceful options, options leading to a long-term peace in international relations and enhancing the role of the United Nations, it made the opposite choices,” including the expansion of NATO, says Achcar. His new book is titled The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine.

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StoryJul 13, 2023Stephen Wertheim: The West Cannot Ignore Role NATO Expansion Played in Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

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

We turn now to Ukraine and what our next guest calls the “new Cold War.” The president of Belarus has announced Russia has begun transferring tactical nuclear weapons to the former Soviet state, which shares a nearly 700-mile border with Ukraine. In an interview, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko warned he’s ready to use the nuclear weapons if Belarus faces aggression. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged allies to “dig deep” to provide more arms and ammunition to help Ukraine as it launches its counteroffensive against Russia. Austin’s comment comes two days after Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted Russia is facing a shortage of ammunition, drones and warplanes, despite a sharp increase in military production.

In other news from Ukraine, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Grossi, is back in Ukraine to visit the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest nuclear plant in Europe. The IAEA has expressed concern the recent destruction of the Kakhovka Dam could impact the plant’s supply of water needed for cooling.

This all comes as the U.S. State Department has announced Tony Blinken’s plan to leave Friday for a trip to China this weekend, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018. In February, China put forward a 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine.

We’re joined now by Gilbert Achcar, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His most recent book is titled The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine. Here recently wrote an article for Truthout headlined “Washington Is Obstructing the Path to a Political Settlement in Ukraine.” And his recent Le Monde piece is headlined “A cold war by any other name: There’s been much debate over the definition of the term 'cold war' but one thing’s for sure: we’re in one now.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Achcar. If you can start off with that issue that’s on the table right now, this 12-point Chinese peace plan? Talk about how the U.S. media and the U.S. government characterized it. Talk about what you feel is being missed.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Yes. Well, first of all, good morning, Amy. And thank you to you and to Nermeen for inviting me. It’s very important to get this opportunity, especially for a book like this one, which is of the kind that the mainstream prefers to ignore, as you know well.

Now, about the Chinese plan, well, that is part of an attitude that has been expressed by China actually since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February last year. From the very beginning, I mean, two days into the invasion, China stated that it stands for the territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine. That was specified in this way. And yet, that was completely ignored and shunned by Washington. And the same story happens now, because this plan is an attempt by China to set principles, general principles, and they include territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries. So, that’s a very important principle to start with in addressing the issue of Ukraine. And yet, that has been shunned and, you know, denounced as a sham, as empty, and all that. So, there is deliberately no will on the side of Washington to get China into that, and yet there can’t be any political settlement of this without involving China and, I would say also, without involving the United Nations, where China, of course, is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: You say even Zelensky acknowledged what China was putting forward, and that while the United States says this is clearly a pro-Russian plan, that even Putin bristled at this point of China acknowledging the sovereignty of Ukraine.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. I mean, there was an amazing contrast between U.S. President Joe Biden, in just, you know, I mean, speaking of the Chinese plan in very contentious terms, and the Ukrainian president himself, who actually emphasized the fact that this is a positive and a good starting point. And there have been, therefore, since this plan, increased, really, I mean, negotiations and discussions between the Ukraine government and the Chinese government.

So, again, this is a matter of attitudes. And I think that it is very deliberate on the side of Washington. That’s part of what I call the new Cold War, which hasn’t started now, this deliberate desire to keep China out, to keep the United States in control of everything. I mean, this is really — and it doesn’t take Beijing or Moscow to acknowledge or to see it. I mean, there is, indeed, a very clear U.S. hegemonic position, and that has been the case since the ’90s.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Gilbert Achcar, if you could — let’s go to your book and the title, The New Cold War. If you could explain what the features of the war are, who you think the principal adversaries are, and why you believe that this situation is more comparable to what global — the global configurations of power prior to World War I, rather than that which existed between 1945 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which is, of course, what was termed the Cold War?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. Well, actually, the expression “cold war” existed before the First World War. And the first use — I mean, on record — of that expression is by the German socialist leader Eduard Bernstein. And, I mean, by that expression, he meant the fact that Germany was engaged in a military buildup in preparation of war against France and the rest of its European rivals, without yet getting into a real war, into a hot war. And that’s what he called a cold war. That’s the origin, actually, or the first use of the expression.

And the particularity of the Cold War of post-1945, the one that is considered by historians to run from 1945, after the Second World War, until 1990, '91, that Cold War had also an ideological dimension. But the ideological dimension is not what is called the Cold War. The Cold War refers to the military buildup, and the fact that the United States, in particular, for the first time in its history, kept, even without war, a high level of military expenditure, a very high level of military expenditure, much higher than what you had between the two World Wars, let alone what existed before the First World War. And that's what some American economists call the permanent war economy, right? And that is a key characteristic of the Cold War, whether the 1945-1991 or the new Cold War, that actually started after the demise of the Soviet Union, started first by Washington.

Washington maintained a military budget based on the scenario of two major wars, and that was clearly — I explained that at that time in articles, two articles, which are reproduced in the book. They make two chapters out of five, in which I said, in the ’90s, I showed how the military planning of the Pentagon was based on the possibility of war with both Russia and China. And that was there. And this, I mean, will lead, on the background of other provocative attitudes by Washington towards these two countries, into the new — what I call the new Cold War, which I identified as starting with the Kosovo War, due to the fact that this was the first time NATO, as such, enters into a war and — I mean, a war circumventing the United Nations Security Council.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Gilbert Achcar, so, if you could speak about that, what the involvement of NATO was in Kosovo? Because the first, in fact, airstrikes that NATO carried out in its history were in Bosnia against Bosnian Serbs to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims that was underway then. What distinguish the two air wars, from Kosovo from those in Bosnia?

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. I mean, the bombings — since the early '90s, the bombings in former Yugoslavia remained relatively limited and were linked to the United Nations intervention in that area. But the Kosovo War is the first real war, I mean, that's what you can call a war for NATO. I mean, of course, you had the war in Bosnia, you had the war in former Yugoslavia. But NATO — the first real NATO war is the Kosovo War. And that war was conducted by circumventing the opposition of both Moscow and Beijing at the U.N. Security Council. So, that set, I mean, a pattern of ignoring, if you want, the international law and the United Nations, that the two other countries found extremely alarming. And, of course, that will be repeated at a much higher scale later on with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which, again, was completely illegal by the standards of international law and, again, of course, circumvented the Security Council.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Achcar, in an article published earlier this year, headlined “Consistent Anti-imperialism and the Ukraine War,” you wrote, quote, “Consistent anti-imperialists must combine their support of Ukraine’s right to self-defence with support for a UN-based peaceful settlement of the ongoing war. Those who call for peace while opposing Ukraine’s right to get what it needs for its defence are in fact advocating its capitulation.” Can you talk about this? And also, talk about the increasing role of China, here and also in other places, and how the U.S. is continually trying to counter that, and the significance of Blinken going to China this weekend.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. Well, I think, I mean, there are two pitfalls that progressive forces should be avoiding. One is to react to Washington and NATO’s support to Ukraine by rejecting this and ignoring, in this way, the agency, if you want, of the Ukrainians, who are fighting for their country. They are fighting for their population. And we can see Russia is targeting more and more the civilians in Ukraine. Ukraine has the very legitimate right to self-defense. And therefore, if we acknowledge this right to self-defense, we have to acknowledge its right to get weapons for this self-defense.

But this being said, I mean, I would put the emphasis on self-defense. That is, I think it is right that Ukraine gets weapons for — defensive weapons, like anti-aircraft, anti-missile, anti-tank and the rest, but the demands of escalation of the war, of enabling Ukraine to strike deep into Russian territory and the rest, these are extremely dangerous. They put the world at very high risk. And I would say they put also the Ukrainian population at very high risk, because Russia has not yet done to Ukraine what it could do, if it wanted to turn even more violent than what it is.

Now, on the other hand, as progressives, we have to be in favor of a peaceful settlement, a political settlement, but on the basis of principles. And I think there can’t be any sustainable peace for Ukraine without the involvement of the United Nations, and if — I mean, without basing that peace on the principles of the U.N. Charter, including, of course, the sovereignty and integrity, the territorial integrity, of all countries. And that would mean also, therefore, involving China. And China is obviously the country with the — by far, I mean, the highest leverage over Russia, even much more now because Russia has, because of that war, turned more and more dependent, in some way, economically and the rest, on China. So, it is imperative to associate China, to work with China, in order to get to some peace. And, you know, even European countries, like France, like Germany, major allies of the United States, advocate the involvement of China in a political settlement process, whereas Washington, until now, has been blocking this, probably also waiting to see what the counteroffensive, the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive, might produce. Now, you mentioned in the news that Antony Blinken is going to Beijing for the first time since 2018. Imagine that. That’s amazing. Well, I hope, then, that Washington will change its attitude and try to work with China for a political settlement of this terrible tragedy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Gilbert Achcar, before we conclude, I’d like you to explain the longer-view historical context of what you think propelled the Russian invasion of Ukraine at this moment. You speak about the neoliberal policies, for example, that were implemented immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and how that may have contributed to the rise of Putin himself, and the distinction between the causes of the Russian invasion in 2014 and 2022, why you see those as distinct.

GILBERT ACHCAR: Right. Well, first, yes, I mean, Putin himself, and I would say even Xi Jinping for China, they are, in part, the product of the kind of international conditions that have been created by Washington. I mean, Washington, in the ’90s, had a window of opportunity, during which, as it acknowledged itself, it was in a position to shape the world. And therefore, it faced several options. And, well, instead of going for options — peaceful options, options leading to a long-term peace in international relations and into enhancing the role of the United Nations, it made the opposite choices, one of them being, of course, the choice of not only keeping NATO, which was originally built as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union, but to enlarge NATO eastward towards countries that were previously under Soviet domination.

You mentioned, yes, the neoliberal policies that were promoted and fostered in Russia by Washington, by the International Monetary Fund and a whole set of Western interests. And they were absolutely destructive of Russian society. I mean, the ’90s are nightmarish for — if you look at what happened, the very sharp drop in the standard of living of the Russians, to the point that in the late ’90s the gross domestic product — that is, the whole economy of Russia — was equal to only the military budget of the United States. That tells you a lot, right? So, this is the creation that created — I mean, the conditions, the situation that created Vladimir Putin, I mean, his kind of nationalist authoritarian rule.

And, of course, even that rule itself has an evolution over the years, which went further and further into nationalism and authoritarianism, but that was on a background of conflicting relations with Washington, with the Western countries, with NATO. And that played a real role in that regard, in the same way, as I just said, that also the kind of provocative attitude of the United States towards China created conditions under which nationalism can flourish and lead also to increased authoritarianism and nationalism as represented by China’s present ruler, Xi Jinping. So, there is a connection between all that, because the global conditions, well, create a terrain for this or that, depending on their nature, this or that development. So, yes, you had this.

Now, some of the wars — I mean, the —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute to go, Professor Achcar.


AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute to go, Professor Achcar.

GILBERT ACHCAR: All right. Well, very quickly, I mean, the two wars, the two military interventions by Russia — in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine, 2014 — were meant by the Russian side to block the accession of these two countries to NATO by creating a warlike situation with the two countries. We can’t say the same of the annexation of Crimea, which also took place in 2014, which was meant by Vladimir Putin as a means to restore his popularity, which had been dwindling beforehand. He knew how this could play very well with Russian nationalism. And the 2022 invasion, indeed, is plainly in that context. It’s not — it wasn’t to block Ukraine’s accession to NATO, because that wasn’t on the table anyway at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: Gilbert Achcar, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. His most recent book, just out, The New Cold War: The United States, Russia, and China from Kosovo to Ukraine. And we’ll link to your most recent piece, “Washington Is Obstructing the Path to a Political Settlement in Ukraine.”

Coming up, we go to Johannesburg, South Africa. Why was Kumi Naidoo, the former head of Amnesty International, as well as Greenpeace, thrown out of a bank meeting? Stay with us.

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