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Vijay Prashad on the War to "Put Russia in its Place"
Historian, activist, and writer Vijay Prashad explains in this interview why Russia crossed the border into Ukraine, how the US plans to break Russia's link with China, and more.
Welcome back to Conflicts of Interest, a very basic history of US foreign policy.
We’re very excited to present an interview with historian, activist, and writer Vijay Prashad. For those of you who are new to learning about foreign policy, to help you out I’ve added a few small explainers on key issues throughout, along with links to build on what you learn here. If you have other questions, be sure to comment down below!
Last thing before we start: There was too much useful stuff to send to you all at once, so I’ll be publishing part two of this interview for subscribers later this week, which includes more of Prashad’s thoughts on the China-Russia-US relationship, what it’s like working alongside Noam Chomsky, fixing the left’s tendency to eat itself, and a spirited defense of Jeremy Corbyn.
Please support our work and get that update by subscribing for free today:
Conflicts of Interest: Thanks for sitting down with us, Vijay. One thing that’s really important to us is helping our readers understand how the US got what it needed from other countries in the past, so they can draw their own conclusions about how it does that today.
There are lots of opinions on the issue, but in your opinion, what are the most important US interests in Ukraine?
Vijay Prashad: The United States doesn’t have many exact material interests in Ukraine. I don’t think they're going there to capture the wheat. I don’t think this is a resource war directly, in the same way as, let's say, the overthrow of the government in Guatemala.
That was directly a resource war, a coup in 1954 against the pretty moderate government of Jacobo Arbenz, who wanted land reform. There, a United Fruit Company controlled by US shareholders, including members of the then president’s inner circle, the Dulles brothers and others, was not keen on allowing land reform to take place.
My sense is that the conflict between Russia and the West around Ukraine is largely along two axes. The first is about Europe. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian government of Boris Yeltsin privatized and destroyed that country, and was very eager to integrate with the European Union.
During the 2007 financial crisis, the realization creeps into the Russian ruling sections that full integration with Europe and The United States is not going to be possible. The timeline is important here. It’s at the Munich Security Summit in 2007 where Putin attacks the United States for the first time directly. He says ”We don’t want to live under one single master.” Very strong language. He doesn’t name the master, he doesn’t directly say the United States, but he’s roundly attacked for that.
Suddenly, after Mr. Putin says the United States can’t be the singular power, he is considered a dictator.
By about 2011-2013, you see Europe becoming more dependent on Russian energy. Because of the financial crisis and the insufficiency of Western capital to come and liquefy business, Europe starts to look to China.
In fact, after China developed the Belt and Road initiative in 2013, Poland joined in 2015. This is a little factoid that people don’t remember. Poland, right-wing Poland, links up with China, and Italy does so in 2019.
This war is, to some extent, because of this conflict over who gets to define European power. If Europe is not subordinate to the United States, the United States will not tolerate that. Mr. Trump told the Europeans directly: “You can’t be buying gas for Russia and expect us to protect you from Russia.” He told that to Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO.
There is a second reason for this war, in my opinion. The Russians did cross an international border. The Russians are culpable for that. But why did they do it? They didn’t do it because they’re crazy.
Since 2007, accelerating through 2018, Putin has been talking about security guarantees. He didn’t mean from Ukraine meant from the United States. Why? Because in 2002, the US government withdrew from the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty, and in 2018, most chillingly, the US withdrew unilaterally from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
These are mid-range nuclear missiles. Mr. Putin made it very clear, after 2019, when the US withdrawal went into effect, that Russia would not tolerate the US putting mid range nuclear missiles in the Baltic states, in Georgia, in Moldova, in Ukraine. It’s out of the question. “We will fight you to prevent that from happening.” He said that. Now, Putin may be wrong, but when he felt that the US might be going through with the intermediate missiles, when he said “we are feeling insecure,” he invaded.
I think this invasion could have been avoided at many many points. The United States could have, at many points, offered security guarantees. At many points, there could have been a less contentious debate about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline*, but none of that happened, and so then Mr. Putin broke international law by entering Ukraine.
CI: One of the things that we’ve covered in the newsletter in the past is the United States efforts through Zbigniew Brzezinski to draw the USSR into Afghanistan, to mire their socialist competitor in a war, and drag down its economy and cause casualties.
One of the cases we make is that this model of pushing a large, “near-peer competitor” to the edge, to draw them into a border conflict, it’s a pretty tried and true model of getting a nation to intervene militarily.
We’ve also talked about the US’s role in the election of Boris Yeltsin, and Harvard economists' role in creating the mass death event that was the restructuring of the Russian economy throughout the 1990s.
All of that said, Russia is no longer a socialist country. It no longer has the same anti-capitalist aspirations that the USSR once did, so the old argument that we’re fighting Russia in order to prevent communism no longer makes sense.
So what is it that the US is trying to change in the Russian Federation by drawing it into this proxy war?
VP: Well, you’re absolutely right, Russia is not the USSR. This is not a socialist project at all. In fact, there are very many elements of Russia today that replicate the United States in its level of kleptocracy.
Putin's Russia is very much Yeltsin’s Russia. There’s just a few things that have changed. Yeltsin's Russia was designed by, as you say, US economists and policymakers and government officials. They encouraged Russians to put stolen state wealth into Western banks in Cyprus, which helped the stock markets of the world thrive.
Now, what’s the problem with Russia today? From 2002 until 2018, the United States principle battlefield was the Global War on Terror. In 2018, Trump's time, [US Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis led a review of the National Defense Strategy Posture, which decided that the principle battlefield was no longer the Global War on Terror, but that the real issue now was to prevent the emergence of “near-peer powers.”
“Near-peer,” that’s a really interesting term. What it suggests is that the US continues to have primacy, but it’s been challenged. When Mattis says “near-peer competitors: the US government document names them: China and Russia.
China is a “near-peer competitor” because of its economic power. That’s plainly acknowledged by the Pentagon. They write about the Chinese military, but it knows China only has the military capability to defend its borders. China is not actually going to be able to contest the United States in an actual battle situation anywhere, and the Chinese are not foolish enough to get involved in something like that. So near-peer competition with China is largely economic. That’s not my opinion, that's the Pentagon and their strategic documents.
The Pentagon directly notes that Russia has lots of nuclear weapons. In fact, there are more nuclear warheads than in the United States. They may not be in the best shape, but they exist. Russia has a major military which, by its own admission, has twice intervened outside its borders since before the 2018 document, first in 2014 in the annexation of Crimea, and it also intervened in Syria in 2015.
These are two interventions outside the Russian borders you could make an argument were defensive. Let’s leave out the war in South Ossetia, let’s leave out the Donbas region, they say they didn’t directly intervene, let’s just take them on their word, but they did officially intervene twice, to defend Russia’s ports in Sevastopol and Latakia.
That’s also what the United States is concerned about: that Russia could intervene in Venezuela. Imagine the Russian air force landing in Caracas airport saying, “no regime change here pal!” They could intervene in Cuba, they could intervene in many places, directly preventing US aims or blocking its global Monroe Doctrine.
Russia has very close ties with China, everything up to a military alliance. They instead have a strategic alliance. The difference is that, if Russia is attacked, China doesn't have an obligation to come into the war. There is no Article 5 like there is in NATO, but there is a strategic alliance where their militaries may cooperate together. This is disturbing to the United States that, in Eurasia, China and Russia are coming closer.
The aim of the war was, in my opinion, to put Russia in its place, to not allow it to be a “near-peer competitor,” not even allow it to be a competitor, actually. It was to break the link with China. These are very much on the surface. You don’t have to fantasize about all this. US officials say these things. Let’s take them at their word.
CI: I’m glad you got to China and how that figures into this conflict. Have you been surprised at all by China's response to the invasion? Are there things that we can conclude about the existing world order that we couldn’t figure out a month or two months ago based on what’s happened here?
VP: It’s very clear the Chinese did not want this war. Yes they are not condemning it directly, but they’re not applauding the Russians either. They are calling for a ceasefire. They are calling for negotiations. [Chinese Foreign Minister] Wang Yi went to Delhi. Wang Yi has been traveling all over the place to caution people, urging a cease fire and negotiations.
I think the Russians could not have anticipated anything different. Why? The reason the Chinese want to play a circumspect game is that the last thing they want is the United States aggressively putting mid range nuclear missiles in Taiwan, closing off the Chinese game of unification of all of China. That’s an aim they have, and they don’t want to see that short circuited by the United States putting mid range nuclear weapons there.
As it is, Biden is now talking about accelerating the hypersonic missile program. This kind of stuff is not what the Chinese want.
CI: Do you have anything upcoming you’d like to share with our readers?
The second is a book I co-wrote with Noam Chomsky. It’s called The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power, and it’s about exactly that, the US defeats in these areas. But we don’t come up with the idea that the United States has been defeated. We think we are in an area of US fragility, and fragility is super dangerous…
Subscribe for free to continue reading later this week, including Prashad’s thoughts about working with Noam Chomsky, the media treatment of British Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, and more:
About Vijay Prashad
Vijay Prashad is director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, editor of LeftWord Books, and the chief correspondent for Globetrotter. He is the author of The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World, Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today, and co-author (with Noam Chomsky) of The Withdrawal (all published by The New Press), as well as Washington Bullets. The Darker Nations was chosen as a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year by the Asian American Writers' Workshop and won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize. He lives in Santiago, Chile.
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