Biden and Putin play with fire
by Gilbert Achcar and Jan van Aken
Biden and Putin play with fire
The risk of an escalation of the Ukraine conflict is real
by Gilbert Achcar*
[This article published in March 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.sozonline.de/2022/03/biden-und-putin-spielen-mit-dem-feuer/.]
It is no exaggeration to say that what is currently unfolding in Europe represents the most dangerous moment in recent history. The Ukraine conflict is taking us as close to a Third World War as only the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 last did.
Neither Moscow nor Washington has yet hinted at using nuclear weapons – but there is no doubt that they are keeping their nuclear arsenals on standby. Also, U.S. military alert levels have not yet reached those of 1962.
But Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine exceeds the scale of troop concentrations on a European border even in the hottest moments of the Cold War. And the West’s verbal escalation toward Russia has also reached a dangerous level – accompanied by military gestures and preparations that increase the risk of a conflagration.
The rulers of the two great powers are playing with fire. In Vladimir Putin’s eyes, it may just be a matter of positioning his troops like queens and rooks on a chessboard to force the opponent to retreat his pieces.
Joe Biden, for his part, may believe that this crisis provides an opportunity to burnish his image at home and abroad, which has been badly tarnished since the embarrassing failure to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Boris Johnson may think that his government’s pretentious grandstanding is a distraction from his domestic problems. The fact remains, however, that in such a tense situation, and especially to the beat of the war drums, events can quickly develop a momentum of their own that is beyond the control of the individual actors and threatens to set off an explosion that none of the participants originally intended.
The current tensions between Russia and the West have reached a level that the European continent has probably not seen since the end of World War II. The first episodes of war in Europe since then – the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s – never reached today’s levels of sustained tension and alarm between the great powers themselves.
If war breaks out as a result of current tensions, even if it initially rages only on Ukrainian soil, the country’s central location and sheer size mean that there is a danger that the fire will spread to other countries bordering Russia in Eastern Europe, as well as to the Caucasus and Central Asia.
What we are witnessing today stems from developments for which the world’s most powerful state is primarily responsible: the United States. Ever since the Soviet Union disintegrated under Mikhail Gorbachev, and even more so under the first president of post-Soviet Russia, Boris Yeltsin, Washington has behaved like a merciless victor, intent on preventing its defeated adversary from ever getting back on its feet.
This looked, for example, like expanding the U.S.-dominated NATO to include countries that had previously belonged to the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, rather than dissolving the Western alliance in parallel with its Eastern counterpart. Moreover, the West dictated “shock therapy” to Russia’s bureaucratic economy, triggering a massive socioeconomic crisis and eventual collapse.
New Cold War
These conditions led quite naturally to the outcome that one of Gorbachev’s most prominent advisors, a former member of the CPSU CC, Georgi Arbatov, had warned about thirty years ago: he predicted that Western policies toward Russia would lead to a “new Cold War” and the rise of an authoritarian power in Moscow that would revive Russia’s old imperial tradition.
This has indeed occurred with Putin’s presidency. He represents the two main blocs of the capitalist economy in Russia (in which state capitalism and private interests are mixed): the military-industrial complex – which employs one-fifth of Russia’s industrial workforce in addition to members of the military – and the oil and gas sector.
The result is that Russia has pursued a policy of military expansion since Putin took office. That in itself represents a historic shift: after 1945, the Soviet Union did not deploy combat troops outside the territory that fell under its control in World War II until it invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, precipitating its own demise.
Thanks to the rise in fuel prices since the turn of the century, Putin’s Russia has regained its economic vitality. Since then, it has intervened militarily outside its borders with a frequency reminiscent of the United States before its defeat in Vietnam or in the period between the first Iraq War in 1991 and its inglorious withdrawal from that country twenty years later.
Russia’s interventions and invasions are no longer limited to its “near abroad,” those neighboring countries that were dominated by Moscow in the days of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Thus, post-Soviet Russia has indeed intervened militarily in the Caucasus, particularly in Georgia, Ukraine, and most recently Kazakhstan. But since 2015, it has also been at war in Syria, intervening under a very transparent guise in Libya, and more recently in sub-Saharan Africa.
With Russia’s renewed aggression and the continued arrogance of the U.S., the world is on the brink of a catastrophe that could greatly accelerate our destruction, toward which we are already headed due to environmental degradation.
We can only hope that reason will prevail and the great powers will come to an agreement that addresses Russia’s security concerns and restores the conditions for a new “peaceful coexistence.” This would reduce the heat of this new Cold War and prevent it from turning into a hot war that would be a disaster for all humanity.
Source: Courtesy of Jacobin.de. The article originally appeared in Arabic at Al-Quds al-Arabi.
Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Policy and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.
Building peace without weapons
Militarization is not solidarity!
By Jan van Aken
[This article published in March 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/artikel/frieden-schaffen-ohne-waffen/.]
Yes, this is still true: Building peace without weapons. Even if it is currently difficult to stick to this principle, perhaps more difficult than ever.
The images of merciless bombardments of Ukrainian cities, advancing tank units and displaced civilians are shocking. It therefore warms the heart that hundreds of thousands in Germany are now taking to the streets to demonstrate against the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. From trade unions to Fridays for Future to the Bundesliga, the peace sign is being held high, blue-yellow solidarity is everywhere, the whole country is helping to take in the war refugees. And that is a good thing.
How I would love to write now about how the Western European peace movement is standing up to the geopolitical chess game of governments and taking matters into its own hands. How it actively supports the insanely courageous Russian peace movement on the ground. How it is now discussing civil resistance against Russian oligarchs and German rearmament in Germany instead of arms deliveries. But unfortunately we are not there – apart from the right and important verbal declarations of solidarity with the non-violent resistance in Ukraine and Russia, the peace movement in this country seems strangely paralyzed at the moment.
Therefore, this text focuses on options for state action and on possible demands of the peace movement to the federal government. From my point of view, there are currently two essential questions: How can we – in the short term – stand by the Ukrainian people and help to end the war, and how – in the long term – can we secure a peace order in Europe. The one must not torpedo the other, in the literal sense of the word, and this is where opinions differ.
The acute question: How can this war end?
There is a very simple answer to this question: only through negotiations. This is a truism and it applies to almost every war. A cease-fire is followed by more or less protracted peace negotiations.
However, there are serious negotiations only when both sides are ready for them at the same time. Therefore, the question about the end of the Ukrainian war is primarily a question about what could motivate the Russian government around Vladimir Putin to enter into peace negotiations as soon as possible, which do not have the total destruction and/or takeover of Ukraine as a prerequisite? From my point of view, the meaningfulness and value of solidarity actions, sanctions, arms deliveries and NATO armament can only be judged against precisely this background. An attempt in ten theses and a call:
Strengthen the Russian peace movement!
No government can hold out a war for long without support in its own country. At the moment, resistance to the war in Russia is minimal, which is not surprising given the tremendous repression and the fierce media laws and agitation. Nevertheless, a central question for a left peace movement here in Germany is how we can also reach out to the Russian population and support them in their criticism of the Russian state. How we can contribute to delegitimize the Putin regime and the war inside Russia. How can we establish contact with peace groups in Russia? I don’t have answers to these questions either, but I observe with increasing astonishment that they have hardly been discussed in the German peace movement so far. We should close this gap – and this is also a challenge to myself – as soon as possible.
Thesis 1: The 100-billion-euro rearmament program has nothing to do with Ukraine
It was a clever move by the German government to use the initial horror over Russian aggression to quickly wave through a 100-billion-euro rearmament package for the Bundeswehr. However, this was not about Ukraine, but simply about NATO’s two-percent target, which has been discussed for many years – and which has so far met with great resistance from the German public. Now, in the slipstream of the war in Ukraine, it has been agreed without any problems: 20 billion euros for each of the five years of the Bundeswehr, which means that the two percent of GDP target will be reached almost exactly. However, before all this money is spent and the weapons are purchased, the war in Ukraine will be long over, so the 100 billion really have nothing to do with it. This is about a long-term positioning (in) NATO and in Europe – more on this below.
Thesis 2: Arms deliveries will not influence the outcome of the war.
A quick look at the global SIPRI database on national military spending is enough to prove this point. According to it, Russia spent ten times more money on the military than Ukraine in the year before last. Over the last ten years combined, it has spent as much as 17 times more. This is a military imbalance that even the delivery of a few thousand anti-tank or anti-aircraft missiles cannot even begin to shift. Nor will the planned delivery of a few Soviet-era Eastern European fighters have any lasting effect on the course of the war. This is also evident from the fact that Ukraine is not only asking for arms deliveries but also, very centrally, for the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone in its own country. Kiev, too, knows about the massive military superiority of its adversary and that this imbalance could never be eliminated with additional weapons alone.
As long as NATO does not enter the war itself – and hopefully it never will – the military outcome of this war is clear: Russia will overrun and take Ukraine, if that is the Russian war objective.
For our initial question, this means: No, supplying weapons to Ukraine will not make Russia willing to negotiate peace more quickly or with lowered demands. Therefore, from my point of view, any arms delivery to Ukraine is wrong at the moment, because in principle it will not change the outcome of the war. In the best case, it will have no effect at all, and in the worst case, it will only prolong the suffering.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not a radical pacifist. On the contrary, I think it is absolutely right that people defend themselves against aggression even with a weapon in their hand. My opposition to arms exports is simply based on a sober view of the current situation and the enormously highly armed Russian military.
The claim that refusing to supply weapons would undermine the right of self-defense enshrined in the UN Charter is simply false. Using the same argument, we would have to supply weapons to Yemen today; we would also have had to supply them to Saddam Hussein when Iraq was invaded by the United States in 2003, and no one would even think of doing that. There is a right of self-defense in the UN Charter, but no obligation for other states to support this militarily.
3rd thesis: Whoever is in favor of supplying weapons is far from being a warmonger.
What I have said so far is based on a very sober view of the situation, which is often difficult in view of the pictures from Ukraine. Of course, I understand the impulse that many people are feeling right now: We can’t leave the people in Ukraine alone who are defending their lives with homemade Molotov cocktails – of course a real weapon makes a difference. For those who are defending their homes in Kiev, a bazooka is of course better than no bazooka. This is also an emotional question, which from my point of view – with all sobriety – of course has its justification. It reminds me very much of the situation in 2014, when there was a broad debate on the social left about whether or not it was right to supply weapons to the Kurds in northern Iraq in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS). I can understand very well if someone decides in favor of supplying weapons in this situation, even if I myself considered and still consider it wrong from a rational point of view in these two extreme situations.
However, we must be aware that in such situations the militarists of this world always try to bring about a deliberate aggravation in which any refusal to intervene militarily seems heartless and inhumane. Remember Benghazi in Libya in 2011, when it was suddenly said that if there was no intervention tonight, Gaddafi would kill tens of thousands of people in Benghazi. That night, the U.S. President Obama gave his okay, together with England and France, the U.S. bombed Libya that same night. The people in Benghazi were saved – at the price of a long civil war with many, many dead.
Also at the price of seeming hard-hearted and lacking in empathy: I plead for a sober view even in extremely acute situations. Supplying even the most modern weapons to the Ukrainian army will not change the outcome of the Russian invasion any more than the West’s interventions to overthrow Gaddafi prevented the suffering and misery in Libya. And yes, that hurts me, too. But even one’s own powerlessness should not lead one to choose the wrong path.
Thesis 4: Small arms in particular often end up in the wrong hands
In addition to all the acute considerations, there is another very good reason that speaks against arms exports in general: once weapons have crossed national borders, there is no control over where they end up. We know from small arms and light weapons in particular (and anti-tank missiles or Stingers are among them) that they are sometimes passed on from war to war for decades. IS fought the Democratic Kurdish Federation in northern Syria with a German anti-tank missile – a weapon that had been supplied to the Syrian government more than 30 years earlier. In all experience, it is not only possible but very likely that some of the weapons now supplied by Germany will be captured by the Russian army – and then possibly used in the attack on the next country. Supplying weapons to a war does not automatically arm only one side; the fighting is often far too fluid for that.
Thesis 5: Weapons deliveries to the end mean a new arms race
We should not forget one thing when looking at the current situation: It is very likely not just about Ukraine. If the goal of the Russian government is indeed the (re)creation of a Greater Russian Empire – quasi the Soviet Union without socialism – then other countries such as Kazakhstan or Georgia are also in danger. If we now follow the logic of arms deliveries, this means a new arms race for decades to come, in which NATO “would have to” keep upgrading all countries that might be affected. Apart from all the practical and financial questions that this raises, it would above all be a clear rejection of long-term peace prospects for Europe – see more on this below.
Thesis 6: Not supplying weapons is not doing nothing
For eight years I had to listen to the war-mongers of the other parties in the Bundestag saying that we would leave the girls in Afghanistan alone if we were against the foreign mission. That was wrong then, and it is just as wrong today when opponents of arms deliveries are accused of letting the people in Kiev “die” if we don’t deliver weapons. O-Ton Linkspartei to Linkspartei.
We on the left must never allow ourselves to be faced with the false choice of intervening militarily or doing nothing at all. We must always consider a civilian option as well – and in most cases we will find that there are, of course, non-military options that are more effective and also do not cause lasting damage. Military intervention and doing nothing is and remains a false dichotomy.
But this also means that it is not enough to simply shout “No War”, to declare solidarity with the democrats in Russia and Ukraine, to be in favor of peace negotiations and against the rearmament of NATO. We as the left must also have an idea of how an aggressor like the current Russian government can be stopped. Very concretely.
7th thesis: The world is bigger than Russia and NATO
Faced with the narrowed choice between acting militarily or not acting at all, one of several alternative paths is to engage third parties. I have wondered for some time why Scholz, Macron, and Biden do not visit Beijing daily to try to engage China in support of an acceptable peace settlement. Of course, no one knows how much the Russian government needs China to support or at least keep quiet, but it could actually make all the difference. Therefore, real peace diplomacy would have to start here as well, even if the probability of success is low.
This situation is again very reminiscent of the discussion about arms deliveries to the Kurdish peshmerga in 2014, when IS was still mainly financed by donations from the Gulf states. In order to cut off this flow of money, there were corresponding UN resolutions. During a visit to Qatar, we discovered that the German Embassy in Qatar did not even know who was responsible for such issues in the Gulf state. As an explanation for this, members of the CDU later said succinctly: There is nothing that can be done in Qatar, because they own large shares of VW stock, and this has to be taken into account. A very simple question, a very simple answer: Germany could have used its economic power to exert influence on Qatar and thus significantly weaken IS financially, but it shied away from the political and economic costs of this civilian measure. Supplying weapons was – politically – simply cheaper. This is militarism.
Against this background, I fear that the German government is shying away from such a discussion with Beijing precisely because they would have to pay a political price. But if all the expressions of solidarity with Ukraine are serious, then they should at least try to go down that road. Solidarity must not stop where it starts to hurt. Especially not if the alternative is the mass export of war equipment – because this inflicts life-threatening injuries on other people in other countries as intended and guaranteed.
Thesis 8: We should redefine the concept of “targeted” sanctions.
Another non-military way of intervening, of course, is to apply economic pressure through sanctions. There are many good arguments against general economic sanctions because in the past they have rarely had the intended effect, but have hit hardest the poorest of the poor in the sanctioned countries. Sanctions exacerbate social inequality within capitalist societies, which has often enough led to national closing of ranks against an external enemy. This danger is particularly prevalent in authoritarian states where freedom of expression, civil society and the media are suppressed. As a left, we have therefore spoken out in the past in favor of targeted sanctions, but against general sanctions.
“Targeted” sanctions have so far always meant personal sanctions against the respective power elite of a country: Travel bans, for example, or a freeze on assets abroad. This is exactly what has happened with Russia, sanctions against the closest circle around Putin, including some multi-billionaires, the so-called oligarchs.
At this point, we have to come back to the initial question: What could most likely persuade the Russian government to enter into peace negotiations as soon as possible? One way to do this is surely to weaken the Putin government’s power base in Russia. Russia is a thoroughly capitalist country, and Putin’s power is based on a strong capital faction. But this consists of much more than just a few banks and the few richest oligarchs who are currently affected by sanctions. Only when the layer below, the tens of thousands of multi-millionaires, turn against Putin could things get tight for him.
That’s why I advocate putting them all on a sanctions list. Then, in principle, everything these people own in the West can be frozen. The problem will then be that they have placed a lot in tax havens, the problem will be that there is no real estate register in Germany. But you could try: freeze the accounts and deny access to yachts and luxury apartments. There is a legitimate hope that many will then turn against the expansion plans; in the end, for many, their own wallets are more important than the dream of a Greater Russian Empire.
Such an approach would have another very special advantage: to be effective, it would need more transparency about who owns which assets in Europe in the first place. The whole system of tax havens and letterbox companies would finally have to be eliminated – this would also affect the Western European super-rich. I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but the German government would, and that’s a point we need to emphasize much more in the public debate: You can’t resort to false arms deliveries just because the protection of the German super-rich is more important to you than the fate of Ukrainians and Ukraine…! This is a truly left-wing approach that goes far beyond the current war.
9th thesis: We should discuss a stop of oil and gas imports from Russia.
And here I reach my limit, so this is not really a thesis, but rather an open question for me: If all the other things don’t help, if China sides with Russia, if even a sanction of the multimillionaires and a support of the peace movement in Russia doesn’t change anything: Wouldn’t it then be right to finally stop all oil and gas deliveries from Russia? Every day, the West transfers several hundred million US dollars to Russia for fossil energies. Without this money, even Moscow’s already highly equipped war machine would soon grind to a halt.
Against this, however, is the strong argument that this would primarily hit the poorer population in Russia; it would be grist to the mill of Russian propaganda and could give Putin much more backing, even for future wars, than he has so far.
And the other way around, even within the EU, those people would be hit hardest by price increases and shortages of raw materials who already rarely have enough to live on. Such a demand for a complete import stop for fossil energies from Russia would therefore have to be linked to solidarity-based crisis financing here in Germany and the EU.
Thesis 10: Neutrality for Ukraine is a decision of Ukraine, not ours.
Should there be – hopefully very soon – a willingness on both sides to engage in serious peace negotiations, the question of a neutral Ukraine will of course be on the table as a Russian demand.
A brief clarification on this: until a few weeks ago, I too assumed that Russia was primarily concerned with security interests. I now consider this analysis to be completely wrong. Nor is it obviously “only” about demilitarizing Ukraine, because that would not require the Russian army to bomb civilian residential areas. Regardless of Russia’s actual war aims, the security issue will nevertheless play an important role in upcoming peace negotiations.
In recent months, there has often been talk of a “Finnish” solution for Ukraine, that is, a neutral status. The important thing to remember, however, is that Finland chose neutrality on its own at the time; it was not negotiated over Finland. The same must be true for Ukraine – it would be fundamentally wrong and almost neocolonial in character if, for example, the U.S. and Russia were to negotiate such a status for Ukraine.
In a perfect world, it would certainly be a good idea for the EU and Russia to discuss with Ukraine that a neutral status for Ukraine would be a good option. Both sides could then make appropriate offers that could make neutrality attractive to Ukraine. Unfortunately, we are currently very far away from such a situation.
The long road to a new peace order
At first glance, it looks as if with the Russian war of aggression all considerations for a peaceful future on the Eurasian continent have also failed. The LEFT always stood for a cooperative security system including Russia. Now we have to state soberly: It won’t work with this Russia.
But that does not necessarily mean that rearmament and Cold War are now the only options. Of course, a cooperative security system has receded into the distant future – but the vision is still the right one. In the long run, in a post-Putin era, it will be a matter of slowly rebuilding trust. To do so, however, the West should take the right steps now and refrain from taking the wrong ones:
1. this war is first and foremost Putin’s war. It is not Russia, not the Russian people, but a small power elite in Moscow from which this war emanates. It would be fatal if the old West German hatred of Russia were to take hold again.
2 Even if the current war of aggression is certainly not due to Russia’s elementary security interests, the criticism of NATO’s eastward expansion remains correct. NATO is and remains a child of the Cold War; it has no place in the 21st century. Any expansion of NATO to the east will also complicate or even prevent a cooperative solution in Europe with Russia in the long term. As much as Finland’s current desire to join NATO is understandable – it would have long-term consequences that none of us can want.
3 The massive rearmament of the Bundeswehr with the 100-billion-euro package is more likely to lead in the direction of a new arms race and Cold War. If Russia is indeed perceived as a threat, then the logical consequence would be to convert the Bundeswehr to a purely defensive army for national defense. We used to call this “Structural Non-Aggression Capability,” meaning that the Bundeswehr would dispense with all weapons and systems it needs only for foreign missions (e.g., the A400M transport aircraft or corvettes or or or …). That would save so much money, there would be 100 billion euros left over the next few years. At the same time the way into a new arms race would be stopped.
This article was published on rosalux.de. More on this topic in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s dossier “Against the new war in Europe”.
Jan van Aken is a biologist, has worked for many years on issues of genetic engineering at Greenpeace and was a bioweapons inspector at the UN. Between 2009 and 2017, he sat for The Left Party in the Bundestag and was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.