The battle for Mariupol resembles the WW II battle for Stalingrad both in its strategic as well as symbolic significance. For the Russians, it turned the tide after the frontal assault on major Ukrainian cities, including Kiev itself, stalled and, ultimately, turned into defeat and a full and complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the center and west of the country. They turned all of their military might to the east of Ukraine. Mariupol was the last city they had to take to clear the land corridor to the Krim and the Black Sea which – it would be foolish to deny this – is historically Russian. It also allowed Mr. Putin to effectively claim a victory on neo-Nazis, because the ideology of the Azov Regiment was effectively very right-wing – and that is a euphemism. It is also foolish to deny the support it got – since its creation in 2014 – from extremist groups abroad, and from the US in particular.
However, just a few days after the Russian Army could finally clear the Azovstal bunkers (19 May, to be precise) after rather enormous military efforts, Mr. Biden’s pushed a US$40 billion package through the US Congress – mainly military assistance. The initial David versus Goliath geometry between the Ukrainian and Russian armies has now been reversed completely: such packages are of the order of Russia’s entire annual defense budget. Another comparison to put these US$40b or 50 US$b figures into perspective is this: Belgium’s government decided – also as a result of what is seen as the new Russian threat – to invest about 10 billion Euro to replace its outdated defense equipment, but this investment program covers 10+ years (it runs till 2030) – so it amounts to about €1b per year. In contrast, the US delivers this immense support now, in just one go.
It amounts to this: in just a few months, the US has turned the Ukrainian army into one of the most modern and powerful armies of the world: Ukraine is now – for all practical purposes – a strong US ally outside of NATO and outside of the EU right in the heart of Asia. From a geopolitical point of view, its strategic location is even better than Afghanistan. Is that we Europeans wanted? I do not think so.
Yesterday (16 August), Putin accused the US to ‘drag out’ the war in Ukraine. I do not agree with most of his statements – and, to be fully clear, of course I condemn Russia’s invasion – but Mr. Putin is right here. Yesterday also, Finland – NATO’s new poster boy – imposed limitations on tourist visas for Russians, further antagonizing not Mr. Putin but ordinary Russians. Politicians all over the EU – but most vocally those from former satellites of the Soviet Union – call for tougher economic sanctions. Why? Economic warfare hurts us more than Russia, and reinforces Mr. Putin’s only appeal in his own country – which is that of a tough but reliable leader in very tough times (which is, by the way, the same image which Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi try to cultivate with their own constituencies back home now).
What is rather remarkable is that Mr. Putin did not see this coming: his own visit to Beijing just before his invasion (in February this year) was preceded by Mr. Zelensky going to Washington DC in September last year, purportedly sounding out the chances of Ukraine joining NATO. Mr. Putin cannot say he did not notice that because it was what led to him stationing and building up troops at Ukraine’s borders. Hence, looking back, one might look at all this as something that could be foreseen.
So what is next? I am not sure. Sun Tzu was a very wise general: one of the principles of his Art of War is that, in a war, the purpose is to defeat the enemy militarily. The objective is not to try to destroy him. That is exactly what we are trying to do now. It will fail, and it does nothing to work towards long-term peace on the European continent. There is hope, however. Little hope but whatever hope is there, we must highlight:
1. The UN Secretary General and Turkey are actively involved and working with Mr. Zelensky (and, hopefully, Mr. Putin) to work towards solidifying the grain exports deal and – hopefully – a ceasefire agreement. Rumors – credible rumors – have it that, in September or October, Russia will organize referenda in the areas that it currently is holding. Hopefully, Mr. Zelensky will see that it is in the interest of his country to work towards a ceasefire agreement before that happens. Mr. Putin has clearly signaled that he wants to talk: his 9 May public speech at the occasion of Russia’s national Victory Day was not belligerent. On the contrary, independent media analysts rightly marked it as “far from triumphant.”
2. Gerhard Schröder – one of the very few sensible great European politicians who is old enough to remember the Cold War back in the 1980s – has not been expelled from his party and is becoming increasingly vocal. He is right: the current madness must stop. Europe is not, and should not be, at war with Russia. We may not like it, but Russia is our neighbor, and we cannot move away from it. It is time for hawks to back off and tone down. The belligerent voices of a von der Leyen or a Josep Borrell do not represent what Europe – or NATO – should stand for: we are not at war with Russia. Ukraine is at war with Russia and, because of its huge military support, the US is now at war with Russia too. The EU must cut its umbilical cord with the US when it comes to this hot war and – more recently – the new cold war with China.
Yankee, please go home. Now! The US should not be barging around in the world as we Europeans did during colonial times. The Black Sea is Russian. The China Sea is Chinese. They must, of course, remain open and free for all trade and to all people – and both the East and the West should work together to ensure they remain that way. But we live in a multipolar and very multicultural world, with different political systems and very different relations and a very different distribution of geopolitical power now.
Not accepting that amounts to a new moral fascism which Europe and Europeans, having learned what it learned through the painful experiences of two 20th century world wars (the second following the first because we did not go for a genuine people-to-people peace with Germany), should not accept. I’ve used such strong wording a few times already and I got censured for it on LinkedIn, but I do not retract it. The US keeps investing in hard power. It is about time we start investing in soft power: brains, respect, and truly liberal (or, if you prefer that term: Western) values.
I am happy to see that Mr. Fukuyama now also sees his much proclaimed ‘end of ideology‘ cannot be imposed by the US. I quote one of his recent comments: “Expect more violence before America returns to sanity.” I hope more violence can be avoided. Hot or cold wars are the worst thing now as truly bright global citizens are trying to address much more important issues to avoid long-term disaster and the end to civilization and mankind as we know it – first and foremost things such as climate change and the rapid exhaustion of natural resources that do not belong to this but to future generations.
We all know the golden rule for people and states to avoid war: si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war). Today we should turn that on its head, in line with Sun Tzu’s advice: if you are at war, prepare for peace. It is about time that Europe’s politicians start doing that. I have no hope that America’s politicians will ever do that. We can only hope the Republicans take US Congress again in November’s mid-term elections and that we will see a bit more of a lame duck government in the US. That would be good for the world.
However, even that we cannot hope for: the praise of Republicans for Pelosi’s rash visit to Taiwan – which triggered this new Cold War with China – and the fact that both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly vote for further increases of US military expenditure and more arms shipments to Ukraine confirms US politicians are all on the same line when it comes to warmongering and creating new enemies. As such, they have – what irony of history – much in common with what is currently providing legitimacy for Mr. Putin: a rather recent survey (May-June) finds that over 75% of Russians now support Putin’s Ukraine war. That is an increase as compared to when the war started. I have no doubt the economic sanctions were very counterproductive in that way. The new sanctions, which target people-to-people exchanges such as tourism, will only cause further alienation, and a further increase in the above-mentioned numbers. If, as Mr. Biden did not imply just once but several times already, American support to Ukraine would also aim at some kind of regime change in Russia, what he and loyal allies are doing is producing exactly the opposite effect.
Post scriptum: We do need a new peace movement in Europe. I have read both Oppenheimer’s excellent biography (American Prometheus) as well as General Groves’ account of the Manhattan project (Now It Can Be Told: The Story Of The Manhattan Project), so what recently declassified reports on the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (6 and 9 August 1945 – yes, another sad anniversary this month) reveal does not come as a surprise. Oppenheimer – after having turned into a anti-nuclear weapons activist (with other eminent scientists such as Einstein) – died a miserable death as a victim of McCarthyism in the 1950s.
General Groves received a Distinguished Service Medal and went into business, becoming part of what Eisenhower, in his rather alarming farewell address as President to the nation, referred to as the military-industrial establishment. A lot of old people start speaking up. One of them is the 82-year old Australian journalist, writer, scholar, and documentary filmmaker John Pilger. I warmly recommend watching his latest contributions to the debate. Yes: Yankee, please go home. And please take the nuclear weapons that have been stationed in Europe for too long now with you.
We have anti-war and anti-US protests in Korea now as the US are about to launch their own military exercises close to China now. Where is the peace movement in Europe?