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The New Cold War: The United States, Russia & China, From Kosovo to Ukraine; China & Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord

Denis Staunton reviews new books by Gilbert Achcar and Philip Snow, both of which offer timely and important perspectives on key geopolitical relationships

The New Cold War: The US, Russia and China from Kosovo to Ukraine
Author: Gilbert Achcar
ISBN-13: 978-1908906533
Publisher: Westbourne Press
Guideline Price: £16.99
China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord
Author: Philip Snow
ISBN-13: 978-0300166651
Publisher: Yale University Press
Guideline Price: £25

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year pushed Europe into a tighter transatlantic embrace, reinforcing Washington’s dominant position over its allies as guarantor of their security. Nato, which Emmanuel Macron dismissed a few years ago as “brain dead”, is bigger and stronger than ever with formerly neutral Sweden and Finland applying for membership.

The debate within the European Union about strategic autonomy has been muted even as its member-states increase their spending on defence. And western Europe has exchanged its dependence on gas from Russian pipelines for one on American liquified natural gas (LNG).

The war has also reinforced the partnership between Russia and China, described by Putin and Xi Jinping days before the invasion as having “no limits”. Western sanctions have seen Russia export more energy to China at discounted prices while imports of Chinese cars and other manufactured goods have replaced those no longer available from western Europe.

As Gilbert Achcar documents, there was nothing inevitable about this .... It was Washington’s actions that made adversaries of Russia and China and drove them into one another’s arms

Russia’s subordinate place in the relationship is such that China did not even endorse last year’s invasion, just as it did not express support for the annexation of Crimea in 2014. It was enough for Moscow that Beijing did not condemn it and continued to trade with Russia, although China has been careful not to breach western sanctions.


China’s professed neutrality is not adequate for the US and its allies, however, who have demanded since the invasion that Beijing should condemn Russia and join in the economic war against it. The diplomatic face-off has led many western commentators to warn of a new Cold War, with the US and its allies on one side and Russia and China on the other.

As the Lebanese international relations expert Gilbert Achcar argues in his powerful, necessary and timely book The New Cold War, the two blocs have been in place at least since the start of this century. The question is not whether we are in a new Cold War but rather how we can prevent it becoming hotter.

As Achcar documents, there was nothing inevitable about this geopolitical development and in the early 1990s both Russia and China were available as potential allies for the United States. It was Washington’s actions that made adversaries of each of them and drove them into one another’s arms.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact offered the promise of a peace dividend that would allow western countries to cut defence spending in favour of funding social programmes and public services. Boris Yeltsin’s Russia not only embraced western capitalism but was initially enthusiastic about a security partnership with Nato.

The Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis suggested that Washington had three precedents that showed the options for how to behave towards the vanquished Soviet Union: the defeat of Napoleon and the end of the first and second world wars. Historians applaud the settlements at the end of the Napoleonic wars and in 1945 because they moved quickly to bring the defeated parties – France in 1818 and Germany and Japan after the second world war – back into the global order.

“Historians tend to criticise (if not condemn) the first world war settlement precisely because it failed to do that for two of the most powerful states in Europe – Germany and the Soviet Union. The resulting instability, they argue, paved the way for yet another conflagration,” he said.

Instead of funding a generous, Marshall Plan-style reconstruction of the Russian economy, Washington gave Yeltsin just enough money to keep him in power but not enough to cushion his people from the impact of moving to a market economy. And the shock therapy prescribed by western experts had catastrophic consequences, driving up to 40 per cent of the population into poverty and creating a new class of oligarchs grown rich on the proceeds of the corrupt privatisation of state assets.

When the former Warsaw Pact states in central and eastern Europe sought membership of the European Union and Nato, the EU made clear that the process would be long and demanding. Within the Clinton administration, a debate between those favouring swift Nato accession led by Anthony Lake and more cautious voices including William Perry was decided in the hawks’ favour.

Even after Nato agreed to accept new member-states, it attempted to reassure Moscow by agreeing in 1997 not to station permanently additional, substantial combat forces in the former Warsaw Pact states. Putin invoked this commitment in December 2021, two months before he invaded Ukraine but Nato said his invasion of Crimea had changed the rules of the game.

Lake was a protégé of Zbigniew Brzezynski, who identified the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy as: “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected and to keep the barbarians from coming together”.

By the late 1990s Washington’s allies in Europe and Japan were playing their allotted roles as vassals but the barbarians – Russia and China – were coming together. As China emerged from the Mao era and pursued economic development through the market economy, it initially kept a low economic profile.

No longer interested in exporting revolution, China sought an international order based on the United Nations charter’s principles of peaceful coexistence and non-interference in the internal affairs of states. But by now the US was abandoning these principles in favour of a “post-sovereign” order that allowed international norms of human rights to prevail over national sovereignty.

Successive US presidents have become more belligerent over Taiwan as they have become more alarmed by China’s rise as an economic, technological and military power. The consensus on Capitol Hill has become dramatically more hawkish towards China even as its trade relationship with the US has continued to grow.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has proven to be a geopolitical motherlode for the US, which has encouraged its linkage with the threat of a Chinese attempt to take Taiwan by force. Washington and its allies present the conflict with Russia and the confrontation with China as part of an ideological contest between democracy and autocracy.

Achcar observes that George HW Bush bequeathed Clinton the revival of American interventionism through the first Iraq war and the remaking of Nato from a defensive alliance into a security pact with no geographical limits.

“As a bonus, he gave him yet another present, one that would turn out to be fundamental to the deployment of American hegemony: the humanitarian argument, a media trick enabling the image of the US armed forces to be conflated with the Salvation Army,” he writes.

When Nato started bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 without a UN security council resolution, five American bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists who were taking shelter there. After the turn of the century, the champions of the rules-based international order continued to ignore those rules with calamitous consequences for the people of Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

Philip Snow navigates this huge panorama with a fluency and a lightness of touch that makes his book a wonderfully readable guide to the history of one of the most important but least understood relationships in global history

China and Russia have a shared interest in countering US hegemony with a multipolar international order, an ambition shared by many of the countries in the Global South that have remained neutral over Ukraine. But their partnership is, contrary to what Xi and Putin asserted last year, not only limited but contingent and neither can fully depend on the other.

Philip Snow’s China and Russia: Four Centuries of Conflict and Concord charts the ups and downs of their relationship from the time of Peter the Great and the Qing dynasty to the invasion of Ukraine. Snow navigates this huge panorama with a fluency and a lightness of touch that makes his book a wonderfully readable guide to the history of one of the most important but least understood relationships in global history.

He reveals how the balance of power between the two vast countries has shifted back and forth over the centuries, most dramatically during the 20th century. For much of it, the Soviet Union played the role of mentor to its poorer communist cousin in China, even if there were rifts and ruptures along the way.

By the end of the century, however, China was clearly the rising power while Russia was in decline despite its energy resources and nuclear arsenal. That trend has accelerated since then, a reality acknowledged by the Trump administration when it identified China rather than Russia as its greatest strategic challenge.

Snow avoids criticising the way the US and its allies have dealt with Russia and China over the past 30 years but he agrees with Ashcar that they should not be surprised that they are forming into a bloc to resist American hegemony.

Denis Staunton is Beijing Correspondent of The Irish Times

Further reading

Putin’s Russia: the Definitive Account of Putin’s Rise to Power (Harvill Press, 2004) by Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and human rights activist who was murdered in Moscow in 2006, is an unsparing picture of the cruelty of the Russian leader’s conduct of power. Her account of Putin’s indifference to the suffering of his own soldiers during the war in Chechnya offers a grim harbinger of what could lie ahead in Ukraine.

Fred Bergsten’s The United States vs China: the Quest for Global Economic Leadership (Polity, 2022) analyses the competition between the world’s top two economies and paints a grim picture of the consequences of trying to decouple them. Bergsten proposes instead that the US and China should form a G2 to act as an informal steering committee to manage the global economy and issues such as climate change.

In How China Escaped Shock Therapy: the Market Reform Debate (Routledge, 2021), German economist Isabella Weber contrasts the central and eastern European experience of price liberalisation and strict austerity after communism with China’s more carefully managed transition. She identifies China’s prioritisation of social stability as a key to its success in embracing the market economy while taking care of people’s essential needs and avoiding social unrest.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times