A possible oil and gas embargo against Russia, for example, will bring the social question to the fore and bring many people to the streets. More and more voices, it is hoped, will then rise up against war and the militarization of our lives.
The real Zelensky: from prominent populist to unpopular Pinochet-style neoliberal
by Nachdenkseiten editors
[This article published on May 9, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.nachdenkseiten.de/?p=83634.]
Ukrainian scholar Olga Baysha has been studying Volodymyr Zelensky’s rise to power and the way he has wielded that power since his election as Ukrainian president. In an interview, she discusses Zelensky’s commitment to neoliberalism and his increasing authoritarianism – and how his actions have contributed to the current war, as well as his counterproductive leadership during it. We have taken this contribution from “Grayzone”. Translation by Heiner Biewer.
The following interview was published on TheGrayZone on April 28. The references are mostly taken from the original, in some cases translator Heiner Biewer added his own links, mostly to German sources.
Ukrainian scholar Olga Baysha describes how Zelensky pursued widely hated neoliberal policies, how he suppressed his rivals, and how his actions fueled the current war with Russia.
Zelensky, the comedian who ascended to the highest office in the land in 2019, was virtually unknown to the average American, except perhaps as a bit player in the theater surrounding Trump’s impeachment. But when Russia attacked Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Zelensky suddenly became an A-list celebrity in the U.S. media. The American news audience was inundated with images of a man who was overwhelmed and possibly overwhelmed by the tragic events, but ultimately seemed sympathetic. It did not take long for this image to morph into a tireless hero in khaki fatigues, ruling a defensible little democracy and single-handedly fending off autocratic barbarians from the East.
But behind this image, carefully crafted by the Western media, lies something much more complicated and less flattering. Zelensky was elected with 73 percent of the vote because he promised to work for peace, while the rest of his program remained vague. On the eve of the invasion, however, his approval rating had dropped to 31 percent because he pursued extremely unpopular policies.
Ukrainian scholar Olga Baysha, author of Democracy, Populism, and Neoliberalism in Ukraine, has examined Zelensky’s rise to power and the way he has exercised that power since his election as president. In the following interview, she discusses Zelensky’s commitment to neoliberalism and his increasing authoritarianism, how his actions have contributed to the current war, his counterproductive and oblivious leadership during the war, the diverse cultural and political views and identities of Ukrainians, the partnership between neoliberals and the radical right during and after the Maidan, and whether a Russian takeover of the entire Donbass region might be less popular with the local population than it would have been in 2014.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from and what led you to your current area of study?
I am ethnic Ukrainian, born in Kharkov, a Ukrainian city on the border with Russia, where my father and other relatives still live. Before the current war, Kharkov was one of Ukraine’s leading educational and scientific centers. The city’s residents are proud to live in the “intellectual capital” of Ukraine. In 1990, the first non-partisan television station was established there, and soon the first news program went on the air. At that time, I had already graduated from Kharkov University, and one day I was invited by a student friend to work as a journalist for this program. The next day, with no previous experience, I started reporting. After a few months, I was already a news anchor. My meteoric career was no exception.
The new, uncontrolled media, whose number was increasing enormously every day, demanded more and more media professionals. In the vast majority of cases, they were young, ambitious people without any journalistic training or life experience. What united us was a desire to Westernize, a lack of understanding of the social contradictions that characterized the post-Soviet transition, and deafness to the concerns of the working population that opposed the reforms. The latter were backward-looking in our eyes: They did not understand what civilization meant. We saw ourselves as the revolutionary vanguard and elected progressive reformers. It was we – the media professionals – who created a favorable environment for the neoliberalization of Ukraine, which was presented as Westernization and civilization, with all the disastrous consequences for society that it entailed. It was only years later that I realized this.
Later, while overseeing the production of historical documentaries at a Kyiv television station, I realized that the mythology of unilateral, historical progress and the inevitability of westernization of “barbarians” provided an ideological basis for neoliberal experiments not only in the former Soviet states, but around the world. This interest in the global hegemony of the ideology of Westernization led me first to the doctoral program in critical media studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and then to the research I am doing now.
According to the scholarly work of some Ukrainian sociologists, recent surveys have shown that most Ukrainians are not very interested in the question of identity, but are more concerned with issues such as jobs, wages, and prices. Your work is mainly about the neoliberal reforms that have been implemented in Ukraine since 2019 against the will of the population. Can you tell us how most Ukrainians think about economic issues and why?
In the social milieus where I lived – in the east of Ukraine, in Crimea and in Kiev – there were very few people who were concerned with the issues of ethnic identity. I emphasize “my social milieus” for a reason. Ukraine is a complex and divided country, where the far-flung East and West hold completely opposite views on all socially significant issues. Since Ukraine declared independence in 1991, two notions of national identity have competed in Ukraine: an “ethnic Ukrainian” versus an “Eastern Slavic” one. The ethnic Ukrainian national idea is based on the notion that Ukrainian culture, language, and ethnicized history should be the dominant integrating forces in the Ukrainian nation-state and has been much more popular in western Ukraine. The East Slavic notion that the Ukrainian nation is based on two primary ethnic groups, languages, and cultures-Ukrainian and Russian-has been accepted as normal in the Ukrainian Southeast. By and large, however, I can agree that most Ukrainians are much more concerned with economic issues, which has always been the case.
Indeed, Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was to a large extent also a matter of economic considerations. Many Ukrainians supported the idea of political detachment from Russia because they hoped it would improve Ukraine’s economic situation – or so propagandist leaflets promised us. This economic hope was not fulfilled. The collapse of the Soviet Union radically changed people’s lives for the worse in many ways, because Ukraine was neoliberalized – through the marketization of the social sphere and the dismantling of the Soviet welfare state.
As for the neoliberal reforms initiated by Zelensky, their popularity can be judged by opinion polls: as many as 72% of Ukrainians did not support his land reform, the flagship of Zelensky’s neoliberal program. After his party endorsed it despite popular outrage, Zelensky’s poll rating fell from 73 percent in spring 2019 to 23 percent in January 2022. The reason is simple: a deep sense of betrayal. In his unofficial election platform – the program “Servant of the People” – Zelesnky-Holoborodko [Holoborodko was Zelensky’s character in the television program] promised that if he could govern the country for just one week, he would “make the teacher the president and the president the teacher.” To put it mildly, this promise was not kept. People realized that once again they were deceived – the reforms were carried out not in the interests of Ukrainians, but of global capital.
To what extent do you think the prioritization of economic security over issues of identity has changed with the Russian invasion? How do you think this will affect the political future of the nationalists/ultranationalists compared to the moderate or leftist forces?
This is an interesting question. On the one hand, people are now primarily concerned with survival, which makes security their main concern. To save their lives, millions of Ukrainians, including my mother and sister with children, have left Ukraine for Europe. Many of them are ready to stay there forever, learning foreign languages and adapting to a foreign way of life – all these developments hardly put the concern for identity in the foreground. On the other hand, the intensification of ethnic sentiments and the strengthening of the nation in the face of the invasion is also evident. I can judge this from the public discussions on social media – some Kharkov people I know personally have even started posting in Ukrainian, which they had never used before, to emphasize their national identity and signal that they are against any foreign invasion.
This is another tragic aspect of this war. The Maidan Revolution of 2014, which was not supported by many people in the Southeast, transformed these people into “slaves,” “sovki” (according to Wordesense.eu, “a person who uncritically supports Soviet values or has a Soviet mentality”, n.d.) and “vatniki” (patriotic hick , a person who is stupid and blindly loves his fatherland, n.d.) – pejorative terms denoting their backwardness and barbarism. This is how the Maidan revolutionaries, who considered themselves a progressive force in history, saw the anti-Maidan “others”, because they adhered to the Russian language and culture. Never could this pro-Russian population have imagined that Russia would bomb their cities and ruin their lives. The tragedy of these people is twofold: first their world was symbolically destroyed by the Maidan, and now it is being physically destroyed by Russia.
The consequences of these developments are still unclear, because it is unclear how the war will end. If the southeastern regions remain in Ukraine, the ruin of all that opposes aggressive nationalism will most likely be completed. This will likely be the end of this unique border culture that never wanted to be fully Ukrainized or Russified. If Russia gains control of these regions, as it now boasts, I can hardly predict how it will deal with mass resistance – at least in significantly damaged cities like Kharkov.
Let’s turn to Zelensky in particular: You point out in your book that Zelensky acted as a kind of pied piper, using his celebrity and acting skills to get people to support him on behalf of a vague feel-good agenda (peace, democracy, progress, anti-corruption), but this masked another agenda that would not have been popular, namely a neoliberal economic agenda. How did he do that – how did he run his campaign and what were his priorities once he got into office?
The main argument in my recent book is that the astonishing victory of Zelensky and his party, which was later transformed into a parliamentary machine to push through and rubber-stamp neoliberal reforms (in what they called a “turbo regime”), cannot be explained other than by the success of his television series, which many observers believe served as Zelensky’s informal electoral platform. Unlike his official program, which was only 1,601 words and contained few policy details, the 51 half-hour episodes of his show provided Ukrainians with a detailed vision of what should be done for Ukraine to move forward.
The message Zelensky conveys to Ukrainians through his television series is clearly populist. In it, the Ukrainian people are portrayed as an unproblematic whole with no internal divisions, from which only oligarchs and corrupt politicians/officials are excluded. The country will not be healthy until it gets rid of the oligarchs and their puppets. Some of them are imprisoned or flee the country; their property is confiscated without regard to legality. Later, Zelensky, the president, will do the same to his political rivals.
Interestingly, the TV series ignores the issue of the Donbass war that broke out in 2014, a year before the series went on air. Since the Maidan and Russia-Ukraine relations are very divisive issues in Ukrainian society, Zelensky ignored them so as not to jeopardize the unity of his virtual nation, his viewers, and ultimately his voters.
Zelensky’s electoral promises, on the borderline between the virtual and real worlds, were primarily about Ukraine’s “progress,” understood as “modernization,” “Westernization,” “civilization,” and “normalization.” This progressive discourse of modernization allowed Zelensky to disguise his plans for neoliberal reforms, which were launched just three days after the new government took office. Throughout the election campaign, the idea of “progress” emphasized by Zelensky was never associated with privatizations, land sales, budget cuts, etc. Only after Zelensky consolidated his power as president by gaining full control of the legislative and executive branches did he make it clear that “normalization” and “civilization” of Ukraine meant privatization of land and state/public property, deregulation of labor relations, a reduction in the power of trade unions, an increase in the tariffs of public utilities, etc.
You pointed out that after the 2014 coup and before Zelensky’s tenure, many foreigners were appointed to important economic and social posts. Likewise, many of Zelensky’s officials have close ties to global neoliberal institutions, and you have suggested that there is evidence of them manipulating Zelensky, who has a poor understanding of economics/finance. Can you discuss this aspect of the impact of the pro-Western change in government in 2014? What are the larger interests at play here, and do they even have the interests of the general Ukrainian population in mind?
The change of power on the Maidan in 2014 marked the beginning of an entirely new era in Ukraine’s history in terms of the influence of the West on the country’s sovereign decisions. However, this influence has always existed since Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Center for U.S.-Ukraine Relations, the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, the European Business Association, the IMF, the EBRD, the WTO, and the EU-all of these lobbying and regulatory institutions have had a significant impact on Ukraine’s policy decisions.
Before the Maidan, however, the country had never appointed foreign nationals to high ministerial posts – this became possible only after the Maidan. In 2014, U.S. citizen Natalie Jaresko was appointed Ukrainian Minister of Finance, Lithuanian citizen Aivaras Abromavi
ius as Ukrainian Minister of Economy and Trade, and Georgian citizen Alexander Kvitashvili as Minister of Health. In 2016, Ulana Suprun, a U.S. citizen, was appointed acting Minister of Health. Other foreigners assumed posts with lower ranks. Needless to say, all these appointments were made not by the will of Ukrainians, but by the recommendations of global neoliberal institutions, which is not surprising considering that the Maidan itself was not supported by half of the Ukrainian population.
As mentioned earlier, most of these anti-Maidan “others” reside in the southeastern regions. The further east one looked, the stronger and more uniform was the rejection of the Maidan and its European agenda. More than 75 percent of residents of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (two eastern regions of Ukraine inhabited predominantly by Russian speakers) rejected the Maidan, and only 20 percent of residents of Crimea supported it.
These statistical figures, presented by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology in April 2014, did not prevent Western institutions of power from presenting the Maidan as the uprising of the “Ukrainian people,” who were presented as an unproblematic whole-a very effective ideological ploy. When members of the “international community” visited Maidan Square and encouraged the revolutionaries to protest, they disregarded millions of Ukrainians who opposed the Maidan, contributing to the escalation of the civil war that eventually led to the disaster we helplessly observe today.
What about the foreign interests that invested in the neoliberalization of Ukraine, which was carried out in the name of the Ukrainian people? They are manifold, but behind the land reform, which I have carefully analyzed, were financial lobbies in the West. Western pension funds and investment funds wanted to invest funds that were losing value. Looking for assets to invest in, they enlisted the support of the IMF, the World Bank, the EBRD, and various lobby groups to push through their interests and create all the necessary conditions. Of course, this has nothing to do with the interests of Ukrainians.
What about democracy under Zelensky – freedom of speech and press, political pluralism and treatment of different political parties ? How does this compare to previous presidents of post-Soviet Ukraine?
I agree with Jodi Dean who argues that democracy is a neoliberal fantasy in the sense that it cannot exist in neoliberal systems of government controlled not by people but by supranational institutions. As noted above, this was particularly evident after the Maidan, when foreign ministers were appointed by these institutions to represent their interests in Ukraine. In his zeal for reform, however, Zelensky went even further. In early February 2021, three opposition television channels – NewsOne, Zik, and 112 Ukraine – were initially shut down. Another opposition station, Nash, was banned in early 2022, before the war began. After the war broke out, dozens of independent journalists, bloggers, and analysts were arrested in March; most of them represent leftist views. In April, the right-wing television channels Kanal 5 and Pryamiy were also closed. In addition, Zelensky signed a decree requiring all Ukrainian channels to broadcast a single telethon presenting only a pro-government view of the war.
All of these developments are unprecedented in the history of independent Ukraine. Zelensky’s supporters argue that all arrests and media bans should be dismissed on grounds of military expediency, ignoring the fact that the first media outlets were shut down a year before the Russian invasion. In my opinion, Zelensky is only using this war to strengthen the dictatorial tendencies within his government regime that emerged immediately after he came to power, when he created a party apparatus to control parliament and rubber-stamp neoliberal reforms without regard to popular sentiment.
The National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) was established by Zelensky in 2021 to sanction certain individuals, mostly political rivals. Can you explain what the NSDC is, why Zelensky did this, and whether or not it was legal?
After his popular support plummeted in 2021, Zelensky initiated the unconstitutional process of extrajudicial sanctions against his political opponents imposed by the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC). These sanctions included the extrajudicial seizure of property without evidence of illegal activity by the individuals and legal entities in question. Among the first to be sanctioned by the NSDC were two members of parliament from the opposition platform “For Life” (OPZZh) – Viktor Medvedchuk (later arrested and shown on television with his face beaten up after interrogation) and Taras Kozak (who managed to flee Ukraine), as well as members of their families. This happened in February 2021; in March 2022, 11 opposition parties were banned. The decisions on banning opposition parties and punishing opposition leaders were taken by the NSDC and put into effect by presidential decrees.
The Ukrainian Constitution states that the National Security and Defense Council is a coordinating body: it “coordinates and controls the activities of the organs of executive power in the sphere of national security and defense.” Coordination has nothing to do with prosecuting political opponents and confiscating their property-something the NSDC has been doing since 2021. It goes without saying that this is unconstitutional – only courts are allowed to decide who is guilty or not and seize property. The problem, however, is that Ukrainian courts were not prepared to play Zelensky’s puppets. After Ukrainian Constitutional Court Chairman Oleksandr Tupytskyi called Zelensky’s unconstitutional reforms a “coup d’état,” Zelensky had no choice but to rely on the NSDC to push his unpopular policies. And what happened to the “dissident” Tupytskyi? On March 27, 2021, Zelensky signed a decree – also in violation of the Ukrainian Constitution – revoking his appointment as a judge of the Constitutional Court.
Under Stalin, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) created “troikas” to convict people after simplified, quick investigations and without a public and fair trial. What we observe in the case of the NSDC is a very similar development, except that the unconstitutional trials of the NSDC are attended by a larger number of people – all the key figures of the state, including the President, the Prime Minister, the head of the Ukrainian Security Service, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, etc. A single meeting of the NSDC can decide the fate of hundreds of people. In June 2021 alone, Zelensky put into action an NSDC decision to impose sanctions on 538 individuals and 540 companies.
I would like to ask you about the “peacemaker” list (Myrotvorets), which is reportedly linked to the Ukrainian Government and the SBU intelligence service. As I understand it, this is a list of “enemies of the state” where the personal information of these enemies is published. Several of the people who were on this list were subsequently murdered. Can you tell us about this list, how people end up on it, and how it fits in with a government that we are told is democratic?
The nationalist website Myrotvorets was launched in 2015, according to the UN report, “by a people’s deputy who works as an advisor to the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.” This people’s deputy is Anton Gerashchenko, a former advisor to former Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Under his auspices, nationalist punitive battalions were created in 2014 and sent to the Donbass to suppress popular resistance to the Maidan. Myrotvorets was part of the general strategy to intimidate opponents of the coup. Any “enemy of the people” – anyone who dares to speak out publicly against the Maidan or question Ukraine’s nationalist agenda – can show up on this website. The addresses of Oles Buzina, a well-known publicist shot by nationalists near his home in Kiev, and Oleg Kalashnikov, an opposition MP killed by nationalists in his home, were also on Myrotvorets, which helped the killers find their victims. The names of the murderers are known; however, they are not imprisoned because they are considered heroes in today’s Ukraine, whose political life is controlled by radicals.
The website was not closed even after an international scandal when Myrotvorets published the personal data of well-known foreign politicians, including former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. But unlike Mr. Schröder, who lives in Germany, thousands of Ukrainians whose data is stored on Myrotvorets cannot feel safe. All those who were arrested in March 2022 were also listed on Myrotvorets. Some of them I know personally – Yuri Tkachev, the editor of the Odessa newspaper Timer, and Dmitry Dzhangirov, the editor of Capital, a YouTube channel.
Many of those whose names are on Myrotvorets were able to flee Ukraine after the Maidan; some were able to do so after the mass arrests in March. One of them is Tarik Nezalezhko, a colleague of Dzhangirov. On April 12, 2022, when he was already safe outside Ukraine, he published a post on YouTube in which he called the Ukrainian security service a “Gestapo” and gave advice on how to avoid being arrested by its agents.
That is, Ukraine is not a democratic country. The more I observe what is going on there, the more I think of the modernization course of Augusto Pinochet, who, by the way, is admired by our neo-liberals (A.d.Ü: even Wikipedia does not conceal this). For a long time the crimes of the Pinochet regime were not explained. But in the end, humanity discovered the truth. I only hope that this will happen sooner in Ukraine.
Ukrainian academic Volodymyr Ishchenko said in a recent interview with NLR that in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, unlike in Western Europe, there is more of a partnership between nationalism and neoliberalism. This has been observed even in the Donbass among the wealthier segments of the population. Do you agree with this? If so, can you explain how this combination developed?
I agree with Volodymyr. What we observe in Ukraine is an alliance of nationalists and liberals based on their common intolerance of Russia or of anyone who advocates cooperation with Russia. Given the current war, this unity of liberals and nationalists may seem justified. However, the alliance was formed long before this war – in 2013, during the emergence of the Maidan movement. The association agreement with the European Union advocated by the Maidan was seen by liberals primarily in terms of democratization, modernization, and civilization – bringing Ukraine closer to European standards of governance. In contrast, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union was associated with a civilizational regression to Soviet etatism and Asian despotism. Here, the positions of liberals and nationalists met: the latter actively supported the Maidan not because of democratization but because of its clear anti-Russia stance.
From the beginning of the protests, radical nationalists were the most active Maidan fighters. The unity between liberals, who associated the Euromaidan with progress, modernization, human rights, etc., and radicals, who appropriated the movement for their nationalist agenda, was an important precondition for the transformation of the civil protest into an armed struggle that led to an unconstitutional overthrow of power. The crucial role of radicals in the revolution also became a decisive factor in the formation of the mass anti-Maidan movement in eastern Ukraine against the “coup d’état,” as the prevailing anti-Maidan discourse referred to the transfer of power in Kiev. At least in part, what we observe today is a tragic result of this short-sighted and ill-fated alliance formed during the Maidan.
Can you elaborate on Zelensky’s relationship with the far-right in Ukraine?
Zelensky himself has never expressed far-right views. In his series “Servants of the People,” which was used as an unofficial election campaign platform, Ukrainian nationalists are portrayed negatively: They appear as nothing more than stupid puppets of the oligarchs. As a presidential candidate, Zelensky criticized the language law signed by his predecessor Poroshenko, which made knowledge of Ukrainian a requirement for civil servants, soldiers, doctors and teachers. “We must initiate and adopt laws and decisions that consolidate society, not the opposite,” candidate Zelensky demanded in 2019.
After taking office as president, however, Zelensky turned to the nationalist agenda of his predecessor. On May 19, 2021, his government adopted an action plan to promote the Ukrainian language in all spheres of public life, strictly adhering to Poroshenko’s language law – to the delight of nationalists and the horror of Russophones. Zelensky has done nothing to prosecute the radicals for all their crimes against political opponents and the population of the Donbass. The symbol of Zelensky’s shift to the right was his endorsement by nationalist Medvedko – one of those accused of Buzina’s murder – who publicly endorsed Zelensky’s ban on Russian-language opposition channels in 2021.
The question is, why? Why did Zelensky make an about-face toward nationalism when people hoped he would pursue a policy of reconciliation? As many analysts believe, this is because radicals, despite being the minority of the Ukrainian population, do not hesitate to use violence against politicians, courts, law enforcement agencies, media workers, etc.-in other words, they are simply good at intimidating society, including the holders of public power. Propagandists may repeat the mantra “Zelensky is a Jew, so he can’t be a Nazi” as often as they like, but the truth is that radicals control the political process in Ukraine through violence against those who dare to oppose their nationalist and supremacist agendas. The case of Anatoliy Shariy – one of the most popular bloggers in Ukraine who lives in exile – is a good example to illustrate this. Not only do he and his family members constantly receive death threats, but radicals also constantly intimidate, beat, and humiliate the activists of his party (which was banned by Zelensky in March 2022). Ukrainian radicals call this “political safari.”
With regard to the Ukrainian conflict, , which may have serious consequences if it escalates, Zelensky is currently the most influential figure on the world stage. I am concerned that he is using the same manipulative show business skills to gain support for his image of the personified incarnation of democracy and righteousness against the forces of evil and autocracy. It’s like a movie based on a comic strip. This is exactly the kind of framing that runs counter to diplomacy. Do you think Zelensky is playing a constructive role as Ukraine’s war leader or not?
I regularly follow Zelensky’s war speeches and I can say with certainty that the way he frames the conflict can hardly lead to a diplomatic solution, as he constantly repeats that the forces of good are being attacked by the forces of evil. It is clear that there can be no political solution to such an Armageddon. What is missing from this mythical frame of reference for the war is the broader context of the situation: the fact that Ukraine has for years refused to implement the Minsk peace agreements signed in 2015 after the defeat of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass war. According to these agreements, the Donbass was to receive political autonomy within Ukraine-a point that is unimaginable and unacceptable to radicals. Instead of implementing the document ratified by the UN, Kiev has been fighting the Donbass along the demarcation line for eight long years. The lives of Ukrainians living in these territories have turned into a nightmare. For the radicals whose battalions have fought there, the people of the Donbass – who are called sovki and vatniki – deserve no mercy or leniency.
The current war is a continuation of the 2014 war that began when Kiev sent troops into the Donbass to suppress the anti-Maidan rebellion under the premise of the so-called “anti-terrorist operation.” Considering this broader context does not require endorsing Russia’s “military operation,” but it does imply recognizing that Ukraine is also responsible for what happened. Framing the issue of the current war as a struggle of civilization against barbarism or democracy against autocracy is nothing more than manipulation, and that is essential to understanding the situation. Bush’s formula, “You are either on our side or on the side of the terrorists,” which Zelensky promotes in his appeals to the “civilized world,” has proven very convenient when it comes to dodging personal responsibility for the ongoing catastrophe.
When it comes to selling this one-dimensional story to the world, Zelensky’s artistic skills seem invaluable. He’s finally on the world stage, and the world is applauding. The former comedian doesn’t even try to hide his satisfaction. When asked by a French reporter on March 5, 2022 – the tenth day of the Russian invasion – how his life had changed with the start of the war, Zelensky replied with a smile of joy, “Today my life is beautiful. (Short version here). I believe that I am needed. I believe that is the most important meaning of life – to be needed. To feel that you are not just a void that just breathes, walks and eats something. You’re alive.”
To me, this construction is troubling: it implies that Zelensky enjoys the unique opportunity to perform on a global stage that war offers him. The war has made his life beautiful; he is alive. Unlike millions of Ukrainians whose lives are not beautiful at all, and thousands of those who are no longer alive.
Alexander Gabuev has suggested that the Russian leadership has a lack of knowledge about Ukraine. I have also heard from Russian commentators that Ukraine maintains a sense of superiority over the pro-Russian side with respect to its pro-Western attitude. Do you think that is an important factor for either side?
I am inclined to agree that the Russian leadership has not sufficiently understood the social processes that have taken place in Ukraine since the Maidan. In fact, half of the Ukrainian population did not welcome the Maidan, and millions of people in southeastern Ukraine wanted Russia to intervene. I know this for a fact, because all my relatives and old friends live in those areas. But what was true in 2014 is not necessarily the case today. Eight years have passed, a new generation of young people has grown up, raised in a new social environment, and many people have simply gotten used to the new realities. Even though most of them despise radicals and the politics of Ukrainization, they hate war even more. The reality on the ground has turned out to be more complex than the decision makers expected.
What about the sense of superiority of those Ukrainians who identify more with Westerners than with Russians?
That’s true, and for me that’s the most tragic part of the whole post-Maidan story, because it was precisely this sense of superiority that prevented the “progressive” pro-Maidan forces from finding a common language with their “backward” pro-Russian compatriots. This led to the uprising in the Donbass, the Ukrainian army’s “anti-terrorist operation” against the Donbass, Russia’s intervention, the Minsk peace accords, their non-fulfillment, and finally the current war.
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War “More diplomacy instead of more weapons”
Supplying weapons does not end the war in Ukraine, but prolongs the horror, Lars Pohlmeier of the organization “International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War” told Deutschlandfunk radio. He said everything must be done for a diplomatic solution – which would include Russia.
Lars Pohlmeier in conversation with Sebastian Engelbrecht
[This interview published on 5/8/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.deutschlandfunk.de/lars-pohlmeier-ippnw-atomkrieg-verhindern-100.html.]
A Ukrainian flag flies at a monument in front of houses destroyed during attacks by the Russian army in the settlement of Borodyanka near Kiev
Destruction in Borodyanka near Kiev: There is a risk that the suffering in Ukraine will be increased by arms deliveries because the conflict will last longer, says Lars Pohlmeier (picture alliance / Photoshot/ Yuliia Ovsyannikova / Avalon)
Lars Pohlmeier is chairman of the German section of the organization International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). He calls on political leaders to continue searching for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict. There must be a civilian solution, he said in this week’s interview on Deutschlandfunk radio. If the military conflict continues to escalate, that potentially plunges everyone into ruin, he said. “We have a lot to lose,” Pohlmeier stressed.
Greater risk of nuclear war
Concerns about a third world war are not unfounded, Pohlmeier added. There is a risk of a politically intended use of nuclear weapons, he said. The risk of an accidental use of nuclear weapons is also much greater, he said, if systems are put on alert. Everything must be done now, he said, to “take the drama out of this situation” and stop the killing in Ukraine.
Lars Pohlmeier, chairman of the German section of Physicians Against Nuclear War (IPPNW), at the anti-war demonstration under the slogan “Stop the war! Peace for Ukraine and all of Europe” in Berlin on Feb. 27, 2022.
Lars Pohlmeier, chairman of the German section of Physicians Against Nuclear War (IPPNW), at the anti-war demonstration under the slogan “Stop the war! Peace for Ukraine and all of Europe” on Feb. 27, 2022, in Berlin (picture alliance / SULUPRESS.DE / Marc Vorwerk)
The IPPNW organization was founded in 1980, during the Cold War, by a US cardiologist and his Soviet colleague. The acronym stands for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The name of the German section is IPPNW Germany – International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, Physicians in Social Responsibility. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. It has 150,000 members worldwide who maintain international contacts and dialogue, even across ideological boundaries.
Arms deliveries prolonged suffering in Ukraine
Pohlmeier spoke out against the export of weapons to Ukraine. He said there was a danger that the suffering would be increased by arms deliveries because the conflict would last longer. In addition, he said, Germany had the right and the duty not to be drawn into the war. Ukraine would gain nothing from NATO’s entry into the war, Pohlmeier says. NATO involvement, in his opinion, would first and foremost mean the destruction of Ukraine and “secondarily, possibly, the destruction of Europe.”
A self-propelled howitzer 2000 fires a shell during an exercise at the Altengrabow training area.
Pros and consShould Germany become more militarily involved in Ukraine?
Political scientist Thomas Jäger criticizes the open letter by initiator Alice Schwarzer and co-signers.
Open letter to Chancellor Scholz Political scientist: “A simply inadequate analysis of the situation in the war”
Face-saving solution with Russia
In Pohlmeier’s view, Russia cannot be defeated “except at the price of possibly destroying itself.” Therefore, he said, everything must be done to find a “face-saving solution that includes the Russians.” First, he said, a “compromise peace” must be accepted, even if it is “perhaps a rotten peace” according to Western perceptions of the rule of law. He said there must be consistent discussion about who can mediate in this conflict and who can also be perceived by the Russian side as an honest broker.
Behind closed doors, Pohlmeier said, his organization is also trying to make contact with the Russian government.
The interview in full length:
Sebastian Engelbrecht: Physicians Against Nuclear War has 150,000 members worldwide. In 1985, they received the Nobel Peace Prize – five years after they were founded. And Lars Pohlmeier is also a co-founder of the international ICAN campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, which also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine began, fears of nuclear war have returned. Last week, the Russian army rehearsed the launch of mobile ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad. The Iskander-M missile system can hit targets up to 500 kilometers away with cruise missiles or rockets. So the missiles can reach Warsaw or Berlin. And, Mr. Pohlmeier, the Second World War ended 77 years ago today. Are we on the verge of a third?
Lars Pohlmeier: Well, good morning to you first. The danger of a third world war is certainly not unfounded, because we are in danger that the momentum that has now been created in this terrible war of aggression against Ukraine will become uncontrollable, and we have to fear that we could also be drawn into this conflict. And unfortunately it is the case that nuclear weapons, which have still not been abolished, are now obviously playing a greater role again in military considerations and in propaganda, and the use of them is once politically intentional implicitly threatened and at the same time, of course, there is the great danger of accidental use. And this danger is much greater when these systems are put on alert.
Engelbrecht: The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has threatened lightning-fast retaliation if NATO intervenes directly in the Ukraine war. Should the Western alliance really be intimidated by these deterrent words?
Pohlmeier: Well, what President Putin thinks and what he really wants, we don’t really know. I think that we have to do everything we can to stop the war in Ukraine and to stop the arms deals and to take the drama out of this situation, so to speak, also in terms of nuclear weapons. Not to mention stop the killing in Ukraine.
The open letters to the Chancellor
Engelbrecht: Now there are several lines of argument on this issue now. Leading intellectuals have written two open letters to Chancellor Olaf Scholz. In the first, 28 of them, led by women’s rights activist Alice Schwarzer, called for a categorical ban on accepting the risk of nuclear war.
Can you endorse this first letter?
Pohlmeier: Yes, I also co-signed it myself. Not as the first signatory, but several 100,000 people have now signed this letter, and I am one of them.
Engelbrecht: Can you elaborate a bit more? Why are you behind this letter?
Pohlmeier: It’s an incredibly difficult situation, the question of arms deliveries, which moves us very much. And there is no golden answer for it. We are struggling to find the right thing to do. Mrs. Baerbock spoke about this on German television, about the rapes by Russian soldiers, and took that as an argument for arms deliveries. And I share this terrible emotional consternation. The question is whether arms deliveries will end that more quickly, or whether, in practice, they will not prolong this terrible suffering. And that is sort of the problem we have with arms deliveries. We believe that the arms deliveries will prolong the conflict and thus prolong the horror and just not mitigate it and end it. And that is why I think that at this level this letter is a right initiative and is also right with regard to nuclear weapons, that everything must be done to get back into a dialogue. That is, after all, the call that is associated with this, to reach a diplomatic solution. Because that can be the only goal.
Engelbrecht: So, if I understand you correctly, if the Ukrainians are suffering now, that’s less suffering than if the whole world is suffering? Isn’t that cynical towards the Ukrainians?
Pohlmeier: No, I didn’t mean it that way. The question is whether arms deliveries can stop the raping, this image that Mrs. Baerbock used, whether it can stop that faster. And I’m afraid that the arms supplies, given the strength of the Russian army, will prolong the conflict, and that will increase the suffering in Ukraine in the end. I will say another example. I had a lot of hope at the beginning of the war that the soldier mothers in Russia would lead to when the first dead Russian soldiers come, as in the Afghanistan war, that there will be an emotional psychological turnaround in Russia from the dead boys coming home. And I am shocked that on Russian state television, parents are presented who are supposedly talking about their children who have died and saying, our boys must be avenged – avenged in Ukraine. And that, of course, will lead to a further escalation of this incredible violence. And then the arms deliveries would … is the danger that that will increase the suffering because it will prolong the conflict. And I have no doubt, unfortunately, that Vladimir Putin is ready, as he has shown in the past, to mercilessly destroy Ukraine as well. Then the people of Ukraine would have nothing from this conflict. That is my concern.
Military parade on “Victory Day” in Moscow in 2019.
Militarization of war commemoration
What is the significance of May 9 in Russia and Ukraine?
May 9 is celebrated in Russia as “Victory Day” of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany. But the state constructs heroic stories instead of commemorating suffering – including in the current war in Ukraine. There, in turn, May 9 has had a very checkered history.
Engelbrecht: But isn’t this ultimately an expression of Western egoism? We in the West want to remain unmolested by this war in this way, by not sending weapons.
Pohlmeier: Well, again. For me, this has two levels. So, I have said that I think that the suffering in Ukraine is prolonged. This has nothing to do with selfishness. I think this is an act of solidarity to spare suffering and murder and also the … what I call destruction of souls that happens through war and that will last a long, long time. That’s why it’s important to stop the fighting. This is not an endorsement of any of these insane ambitions of Russia, and it is not an expression of a lack of solidarity; on the contrary, it is a humanitarian concern, which is what I am representing here with this. On the other hand, I am absolutely of the opinion that we have the right and the duty not to be dragged into this war, because Ukraine would have nothing to gain from it either: Ukraine would have nothing to gain from it either. In the event of NATO entry – and there may be attempts to draw NATO into this war – that would mean, first of all, the destruction of Ukraine and, secondly, the destruction of possibly Europe. And that is not in Ukraine’s interest either. That is also neither cynical nor lacking in solidarity, on the contrary. This is a humanitarian concern.
“This is not about giving in to Vladimir Putin.”
Engelbrecht: Now a second letter has been added by 58 German intellectuals and celebrities, initiated by the Green politician Ralf Fücks. These intellectuals are now, on the contrary, pleading for supplying weapons to Ukraine. They write that the danger of a nuclear war cannot be banished by concessions to the Kremlin, because these concessions would encourage it, the Kremlin, to further military adventures. What do you think of this rather apt argumentation?
Pohlmeier: Of course, I’m familiar with the letter and I’m skeptical that it hits the right point. I understand the severe criticism and the frustration. After all, there are many co-signers who know Russia well, some of whom come from there themselves. It is not about giving in to Vladimir Putin. And it can’t be … it’s in the letter: Vladimir Putin must not leave the field as the winner. But this is not about victory and defeat. We cannot defeat Russia except at the price of possibly destroying ourselves. That is why everything must be done to find – as terrible as this may sound – a face-saving solution that includes the Russians. And that tenor is what I think is missing from the letter. I understand the great criticism of Russia’s actions and also the reflex to show toughness. But I believe that since the West cannot defeat Russia militarily, there must be a bridge of some kind. And this aspect is not named enough there.
Engelbrecht: In these two letters, it is also clear that there is a different weighting of values. Ralf Fücks from the Green Party, who was mentioned earlier, has brought this to the point in an interesting way for his position and in his opinion. He said in connection with this debate that peace is not the highest value, but freedom and justice. Can you agree with that?
Pohlmeier: Yes and no. For me, peace actually only exists in freedom and justice. But unfortunately, in many countries of the world this is not possible. I have been observing the dismantling of democracy in Russia for many years now, and it distresses me greatly. It is quite terrible and hard to bear. This is also reflected by critical voices towards Russia. I share this assessment. The only problem is, and this is my concern, when you see, for example: In the Korean War, the war started at the 50th parallel. Then the front line crossed the country all the way to the south and then again all the way to the north. I myself was in Pyongyang in North Korea. There is not a single old house left there. In the end, they met again at the 50th parallel. I would like to spare Ukraine and the people from Ukraine this fate. And that is why I believe that in the balancing of interests, where there is no golden answer, I know that, it can be better to say that a peace, even if it is a compromise peace and perhaps a rotten peace in our sense of the rule of law, must be accepted first in order to create the possibility of developing justice and freedom again.
A NATO flag waves in the wind.
War in Ukraine
NATO and its Eastern Flank
With the Russian attack on Ukraine, the importance of NATO as a defense alliance has also come back into political focus. How has NATO’s presence in eastern Europe evolved since its founding, and how has it changed with the war in Ukraine?
Engelbrecht: Behind the idea of arming Ukraine is ultimately the idea of deterrence. The proponents of arms deliveries argue in this way. The danger of nuclear escalation must be countered by credible deterrence. Don’t they have a point there?
Pohlmeier: I think the deterrence ideology is a myth. And I can only say experts from the U.S. military, generals who then retire, who say that nothing has happened in the times of deterrence has been God and luck. There are so many possible sources of error in a high-armament, disarmament system that that cannot be the perspective. I believe that deterrence is error-prone. And, after all, all it takes is one mistake, one accident, if you wanted to massively threaten each other again in the future, to bring about the destruction of our continent within seconds, minutes. That is one thing. The second thing that concerns me about this issue is, when it comes to high armament, I believe, given the great challenges, we do not have the financial resources, nor do we have the intellectual resources to play that, to achieve that. What grieves me is we don’t have enough physicians. My son has to make a career decision now. Should he now consider becoming a rocket scientist or a fighter pilot? We don’t have the social resources for that. We should write off climate change as a phenomenon. We need money and intellect to solve these problems. In other words, it would be a trap to go in that direction.
Parallels to 1980
Engelbrecht: You are listening to the interview of the week on Deutschlandfunk. Today with Lars Pohlmeier, the chairman of the German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. Your organization, Mr. Pohlmeier, was founded in the 1980s, or 1980, when the fear of nuclear war was also very high, similar to today. What is the difference between the situation now and then?
Pohlmeier: Basically, I would say I wasn’t around in 1980 because I’m too young for that. But I’m afraid that many things are similar now. Actually, our last feeling was that we had to start all over again from where we started in 1980. That was to say for our organization: we establish professional personal contacts between physicians from different countries with different ideologies, maybe also to get into a dialogue. And I think that we have managed to do that is a great value. And I would like our society as a whole to try to conduct this dialogue, especially with Russia, in order to build trust, to enter into a conversation and to contribute to peace from below. It’s not about approving government policies. It’s about opening up fields of dialogue. And that’s a great result of IPPNW, with great difficulties, with a lot of mistrust. It’s interesting to have observed that for me. But I think this is a very great value and in this respect also a model for many other activities, which unfortunately are now rather discontinued, with Russia.
Engelbrecht: What about the current situation? Are you in contact with your Russian colleagues, and what can you achieve? What can you do against a possible nuclear war?
Pohlmeier: Yes, we are in contact with Russian colleagues. It is clear that these contacts are taking place under the most difficult conditions at the moment because of the extremely restrictive legal situation. We all know that the word war cannot be mentioned, so our colleagues are under great pressure. In this respect, at the moment, it is on a level to keep contact, solidarity insurance, exchange messages of peace. But a free debate is unfortunately not possible at the moment. It’s important now to keep in touch so that you can survive this together.
Engelbrecht: I know the question is a bit impertinent, but nevertheless I want to ask it. Once again, what can your organization, whose goal is to prevent nuclear war, actually accomplish?
Pohlmeier: Well, we have now recently, that was after the beginning of the war, the Russian Academy of Sciences had its annual meeting. At that time, it was still possible for guest speakers from the United States to join in and call for nuclear weapons to be taken off high alert. There is our possibility, through traditionally high-ranking contacts in states of the world, not only in Russia of course, but in many other countries of the world, to try to exert influence with our humanitarian concerns. And on another level, which is one of the successes we have to show, we have succeeded in negotiating a treaty at the United Nations banning nuclear weapons. This treaty will not come into force until 2021, and it is a great event for our organization, in a large network as a campaign.
Engelbrecht: And now, in these days and weeks, you suggest that bridges have to be built to the Russian government. That’s a proposed solution, but what does that mean concretely? What could that mean?
Pohlmeier: Well, we called it that at our statement last weekend: more diplomacy instead of more weapons. We talk about supplying weapons, but we also have to talk about it consistently: Who can mediate in this conflict? We certainly regret that the United Nations, including Mr. Guterres, came to Moscow very late. The question is, who is an honest broker in this conflict? Or who can be perceived by the Russian side as an honest broker? Is it perhaps necessary to include China in a diplomatic solution after all? Which other countries could be involved? Traditionally for us actually the governments of Finland and Sweden as so far neutral countries. And we need to think more about that. Not which weapons systems we supply. And that is what we would demand politically.
Russian attack on Ukraine
Why are Sweden and Finland considering joining NATO?
Scandinavia is also undergoing a security transition because of the Russian war in Ukraine. Sweden and Finland are considering giving up their military neutrality and aiming to join the NATO alliance. But the countries have not yet decided.
Engelbrecht: Do you also have the channels to effectively introduce these thoughts in the current situation?
“In the end, sometimes you also have to go to bed with the devil in order to achieve something.”
Pohlmeier: You have to say that yes, the former health minister under Gorbachev, he is one of the founding fathers of the Russian IPPNW. So, there are channels into politics, and we are trying to get in touch here, so to speak, even behind closed doors.
Engelbrecht: Also with the current Russian government?
Pohlmeier: Also with the current Russian government.
Engelbrecht: Do you want to tell us more about that?
Pohlmeier: I don’t want to tell you more about that publicly. But I will say again clearly that when I say “build bridges,” that does not mean agreement with what is happening, but in the end there can only be a civilian solution. Let me put it this way: In the end, sometimes you have to go to bed with the devil in order to achieve something. Because the alternative of a military conflict that continues to escalate, that potentially plunges us all into ruin. And we have a lot to lose.
Engelbrecht: But the Russian government, namely Vladimir Putin, has ultimately rejected all diplomatic attempts with scorn and derision by starting the war. Do you really believe that you can make a difference?
Pohlmeier: I believe that Vladimir Putin also has an interest in agreeing to a solution, because he must have an interest, even as an autocrat, that the people live in a certain security in order to be able to maintain his own power. I know that it is incredibly difficult, for me personally as well, to endure that there is no diplomatic solution at the moment, which is obviously on the floor. It is incredibly difficult. And yet I see this as the only chance to keep trying, to re-enter into talks, because the alternative will only be annihilation at the end of the day.
Wish: Germany as mediator
Engelbrecht: You put it this way in one of your current texts, you plead for Germany to intervene in the war humanitarianly or diplomatically, i.e. as a mediator. But wouldn’t that be lacking in solidarity with NATO’s allies?
Pohlmeier: I believe that this can be coordinated, that roles can be distributed differently. I would have liked to see, or still wish to see, although this is of course now becoming more difficult, simply because the situation has escalated to such an extent, that the Federal Republic of Germany, with its traditionally good connections both to Ukraine and to Russia, plays a mediating role. That has now become more difficult because of the clear support, including military support, for Ukraine. But that’s what I would have liked to see.
Engelbrecht: Then in your current paper, “Risks and Side Effects of Arms Supplies,” you talk about “social defense.” This would mean that fewer people would be killed, and cities and infrastructure would be spared. But again, the question arises here, doesn’t that have to seem cynical to the people who are in the hail of bombs in Ukraine, in Mariupol, when you recommend social defense?
Pohlmeier: I don’t think so either. Should we call on the people in Mariupol to fight to the last man? Because that is what is threatening now. That there will be bombing until there is no one left. And then heroes are created, war heroes are now presented every evening on Russian television. That is cynical, of course. But then there is no mother who can take her son in her arms because he is dead. Does it help him that he is a hero, died as a hero in Mariupol? That’s the catastrophe, isn’t it? And this is so terrible that you can hardly stand it. But that’s the problem I see with the arms shipments. We fight to the last man, and then everybody is dead. That’s not solidarity.
Engelbrecht: Mr. Pohlmeier, you know Russia very well. Not only are you married to a St. Petersburg citizen, you speak Russian and travel a lot in the successor states of the Soviet Union. How do you explain the current confrontation between Russia and the West? What is actually at the heart of this dispute?
Pohlmeier: Yes, I have been traveling to the Soviet Union and its successor states since 1987. And I have also lived in France and the United States. I would say that Russia somehow remains incomprehensible and foreign to me in some places, and I am only ever five percent Russian. As much as I love the country and the culture, the good and beautiful things that exist in Russia or in Eastern Europe, there are many things that remain incomprehensible to me. I have been seeing what is happening here in Russia for years. On the one hand, I see a massive dismantling of democracy. I see colleagues and friends of mine losing their jobs or losing their positions because they don’t have the political stature. I see arrests of friends, loss of jobs as punishment for demonstrations. The cessation of freedom of the press. There is an unfortunate lack of rooting in democratic traditions. The awareness that the opinion of others has value. And unfortunately, in Russian society, as well as in civil society, there is a very strong notion, on the one hand, that one has nothing to do with politics, that one is not part of the community. There is no tradition of active involvement, as there is here. And the boss, Putin, will decide and fix it. Such a feeling.
“Putin has been totally incapable of modernizing his society and his economy as a whole.”
And then overall in society, I see what I call the total modernization failure of Russian society. Russia makes money selling raw materials, but Putin has been totally incapable of modernizing his society and his economy as a whole. After all, there is practically no industrial product that would be competitive from Russia. No cars, no airplanes, no medical equipment. One could imagine that new ideas, markets and a sustainable economic system would have emerged in Russia that could have competed with us, with lower prices. None of this has happened. And then, of course, someone has to be blamed for this failure. And then, at this point, it is also to some extent, that is my feeling, the West that is supposed to take the blame for this, which, as they say now, has always hated us. Which is, of course, completely insane.
Engelbrecht: The doctors against nuclear war should actually all be pacifists, I thought to myself – Mr. Pohlmeier, are you a pacifist?
Pohlmeier: Well, I wouldn’t say that. I’m not a pacifist. I think it’s a very interesting question, and I have a high regard for people who see themselves as pacifists. I see my role here, it is very much related to my profession of medicine, where I would say: I try to analyze and make a right decision to the best of my knowledge. And it’s often pacifist in that context. But it’s not a basic philosophical attitude that drives me there, but experience, analysis and then, of course, conviction.
Engelbrecht: My last question: What could be the hope that could move us in the near future? What could be a step that could still prevent the war?
Pohlmeier: Can end it, you mean. Yes, I am an extremely hopeful person. I always deal with the destruction of the world on a voluntary basis. And yet, I’m very hopeful. I think the act of reaching out and saying, we’re going to stop and stop this killing and stop this war and try to negotiate – that actually only takes five minutes. It takes political will, and it takes five minutes. And it needs someone to trigger this stone, to bring down this system, so to speak. All my political work, which is always done from a minority position vis-à-vis the big politics, when we talk at the United Nations or when we talk to government representatives, my idea is always that of a domino game. A whole room full of dominoes. But in order for this whole system to fall over for the better, there needs to be a little stone somewhere that falls. Where this stone falls, I do not know. Whether I can be the one to push this stone, I don’t know. But we must try, because I believe that this, which we are led to believe is all powerful and immovable, is ultimately unstable. With good will and the right historical happy moment, it will be possible to change it. I remain firmly convinced of that.
Engelbrecht: Mr. Pohlmeier, thank you very much for talking to us.
Pohlmeier: Thank you. Goodbye.
More interviews of the week
Jörg Hofmann, Chairman of IG Metall, warned in Dlf of the consequences of increased arms spending for social cohesion in Germany
IG Metall Chairman Jörg Hofmann Rearmament must not be at the expense of social security
Days in May
by Detlef D. Pries
[This article published on May 9, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://das-blaettchen.de/2022/05/tage-im-mai-61515.html.]
The day before this issue of Blättchen appeared was May 8. As “Liberation Day” it is a day of remembrance in many places in Europe, on which the end of the Second World War, the liberation of the peoples from the yoke of German fascism is remembered and the liberators are respectfully commemorated. Leftists, trade unions, but above all the survivors of the concentration camps repeatedly demanded that May 8 be declared a public holiday in Germany. A petition to this effect with 175,000 signatures was handed over days ago by the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime – Association of Anti-Fascists to the current president of the Bundesrat, Thuringia’s head of government Bodo Ramelow.
The demand will not remain without opposition. Certainly, since Richard von Weizsäcker’s memorable speech on May 8, 1985, even in the CDU the voices of those who said: “One does not celebrate defeats! Now, however, it will be said that one cannot celebrate a liberation when at the same time Russian descendants of the former liberators overrun their Ukrainian neighbors with brutal war.
“After difficult and very necessary discussions,” the Ravensbrück camp community recently commemorated the Red Army servicemen and women who liberated the women’s concentration camp near Fürstenberg an der Havel in April 1945. Those present remembered them “in their hearts and with respect” – and at the same time condemned the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine “just like the wars in other parts of the world”. They did this in the knowledge that the Russian invasion of Ukraine also turns their memory and the confrontation with fascism and nationalism into battlefields.
Even before May 8, the Soviet memorial in Treptower Park had been smeared with anti-Russian slogans and swastikas, and the Berlin CDU demanded that the historic tanks at the memorial in Tiergarten should disappear from the cityscape. The guns would no longer stand for the liberation of Germany and Europe from Nazi fascism, but they would become “symbols of the aggressive warfare of the Putin regime, which disregards territorial borders and human lives”. At this memorial lie the graves of 2500 Soviet soldiers and no one has yet distinguished whether the fallen were Russians, Ukrainians or members of other peoples of the Soviet Union. Never again war, never again fascism! This was once the hope of the survivors. Today, soldiers whose ancestors fought together in the Red Army against Hitler’s fascism face each other in Ukraine – and they call each other “fascists”!
Twelve years ago, troops from former republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, paraded across Moscow’s Red Square alongside forces from France, Poland, Great Britain and the United States. Together, 65 years after the end of the war, they celebrated “Victory Day,” which is traditionally celebrated on May 9 in the successor states of the USSR. Originally, even before military great power was demonstrated in Moscow, it was a silent commemoration day in the Soviet Union, a day “with tears in the eyes”. After all, almost every Soviet family had victims to mourn. Surviving veterans of the “Great Patriotic War” met in Gorky Park under the plaques of their units and exchanged memories. In 1991 it was when I approached Ivan Serdyukov under the shield of the 3rd Shock Army. Alone he stood there. Having gone to war at the age of 17, he had survived terrible bloodshed, indescribable suffering. Serdyukov would be 98 years old today. I don’t know if he is still alive. The number of veterans is dwindling, as is the number of concentration camp prisoners they liberated. The question remains: Would they, too, who knew the horrors of war, have succumbed to the nationalist frenzy that has gripped at least part of the Russian population since February 24, when their president once again launched a war? One may not believe it.
In any case, to call the merciless assault on the civilian population of Ukraine with rockets, bombs, grenades and machine guns “denazification” is absurd. And the slogan “For a world (peace) without Nazism” (the two are synonymous in Russian), behind which Putin’s entourage in Moscow may also be rallying on this May 9, is cynical.
Meanwhile, the argument rages in this country, too, about how to put an end to the bloodshed and destruction, how to put a stop to the warlord. By throwing more and more dangerous weapons into the fray, thus increasing the danger that the war will turn into a nuclear inferno? By bringing “the Russians” to their knees with stranglehold sanctions, under which Putin himself will suffer the least? Shouldn’t punitive measures and “sanctions packages” at least be linked to substantial offers of negotiations that do not ignore legitimate Russian interests? Even those who ask such questions are denounced as “Putin defenders.” Not arguments, but suspicions and insults are buzzing through the “social networks.”
“With Russia, we can only sign its capitulation,” rigorously declares the secretary of the Ukrainian Security Council, Olexiy Danilov, on Ukrainian television. And its president, Volodymyr Selensky, is in effect making Russian capitulation a precondition for a cease-fire. Those who call on both sides to compromise instead of intensifying the war, because ultimately only a peace agreement can put an end to the horror, are either counted among Moscow’s fifth column and denigrated as “lumpen pacifists” or even as “warmongers”.
Gloomy prospects in these May days!
On “The folly of those in power”
by Hannes Herbst
[This article published on May 9, 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://das-blaettchen.de/2022/05/ueber-%e2%80%9edie-torheit-der-regierenden%e2%80%9c-61502.html.]
I am convinced
that we can learn from history.
[…] Passion and partisanship make our eyes blind
our eyes blind, and the light
that experience gives,
is a lantern at the stern
that only illuminates the waves behind us.
I admire […] Barbara Tuchman,” wrote Helmut Schmidt in 2004. After all, 30 years after the U.S. journalist – she reported from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s – and later historian published her investigation “The March of Folly. From Troi to Vietnam” published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. The author, who died in 1989, understood folly as political action against one’s own interests.
If someone were to start writing a sequel to the decades that have passed since then, he would certainly not have to begin with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, but just as certainly this aggression belongs in the pantheon of great follies. It is already inscribed in the annals of criminal wars kept since the time of human memory …
Tuchman had packed her starting point, and thus at the same time the driving motive of her research, right into the first sentence of her introduction: “All of history, regardless of time and place, is pervaded by the phenomenon of governments and rulers pursuing policies contrary to their own interests.” A variation on this follows shortly thereafter in question form: “Why do holders of high office so often act in ways contrary to reason and enlightened self-interest? Why do insight and reason so often remain ineffective?”
Of basic types of misgovernment in this context, Tuchman first identifies the following four:
– Tyranny or tyranny as historically so common a manifestation that the author refrains from naming individual examples;
– Self-aggrandizement, as in the case of the twofold attempt by the self-proclaimed German master race to subjugate Europe;
– incompetence or decadence, as in late Rome or the last Romanovs, and finally
– Folly or stubbornness in the form of political action “contrary to the self-interest of the respective state and its citizens”-that is, to “all that is to the welfare and advantage of the body politic.”
It is on the latter variety that Tuchman focuses her investigation, which she further circumscribes by three central criteria. According to these, “the concept of folly […] is used to describe a policy […] only if – firstly
firstly – this policy was already recognized as counterproductive at its time and not only in subsequent historical observation, because “every policy is dependent on the circumstances of its epoch”;
secondly – there was “a practicable alternative course of action to this policy at its time” and
thirdly – this policy was “pursued by a group and not by an individual ruler” and “endures beyond the political career of an individual”; folly as a merely “individually characterized phenomenon” is not worth “a generalized investigation”.
Having said this, Tuchman also formulates her conclusion already in the introduction to her book: “The occurrence of folly is not bound to a particular epoch or place; it is timeless and universal, although the form it takes is determined by the habits of life and outlook of a particular time and place. It is not limited to particular forms of government: Monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy all produce it equally. Nor is it a peculiarity of particular nations or classes. As recent history has clearly shown, the working class, represented by communist governments, exercises its power no more rationally or effectively than the bourgeoisie.”
Concluding her introduction, Tuchman points out, “One can speak of folly only where there is undiscerning adherence to policies that are demonstrably ineffective or work directly against one’s own goals.” And adds, “It is almost needless to say that the present study was prompted by the fact that we encounter this problem at every turn these days.”
As to the latter, however, Tuchman’s book provokes the reader to ask, at least rhetorically, whether this may actually ever have been different in human history. For in addition to her numerous cursory case histories, the author provides four detailed accounts that, beginning with the Trojan War and continuing through the blunders of the Renaissance popes who brought about the Reformation and the British governance of the time of George III that provoked the apostasy of the North American colonies, to the defeat of the United States in Indochina, thus covering a period of more than 3,000 years. (That the folly of the rulers can also bring about historically positive results in the interest of completely different actors is nevertheless conceded by Tuchman – as is hardly to be expected from a Protestant with regard to the Reformation). Whereby the “incalculable number of cases of military [emphasis – H.H.] folly”, which history records, remains completely excluded in her book, “because they would go beyond the scope of the present investigation”. Only two particularly glaring cases are touched upon by the author – namely the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by Germany in early 1917 and the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Both events resulted in each case in the entry of the U.S. into the war – with the well-known consequences for the further course of the war …
In her search for the why (insight and understanding so often fall by the wayside with political decision-makers) Barbara Tuchman arrives at the following explanation: “Folly is a child of power. From Lord Acton comes the well-known saying ‘power corrupts’. We are less aware that power often also makes stupid and produces folly; that the power to command often leads to ceasing to think; that the accountability of power dwindles as its scope for action grows.”
A more recent example of how this works in practice has come down to us from the circle of the intellectually highly regarded President Barack Obama: Richard Holbrooke, appointed U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, had learned the lesson in Indochina that such wars cannot be won militarily and can only be ended through negotiation, and he wanted to make the relevant experience productive for debates regarding the conflict in the Hindu Kush. His audio diary later included this passage: “In the first National Security Council meetings with the President, I mentioned Vietnam a couple of times, and Hillary [Holbrooke’s immediate superior at the time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – H.H.] subsequently informed me that the President did not want any reference to Vietnam.”
The reception of Tuchman’s book at the time of its publication was mixed, and in some cases highly critical. A review in the weekly DIE ZEIT in November 1984, for example, ended as follows: “With her all too narrow concept of political folly, Barbara Tuchman cannot do justice to history, nor to the politics of the day. She probably doesn’t even want to. At the end of her extensive book, she comes to the meager conclusion that was certain for her from the beginning: ‘We can only muddle on as we have done for these three or four thousand years …’ – That may be so, but to come to this ‘realization’ Barbara Tuchman would not have had to write this ‘investigation’ – as she calls her 550-page book.” Nevertheless, it can still be read with profit today.
Finally, back to Russia’s Ukraine war. If one applies Tuchman’s criteria of folly to it, the following picture emerges:
First – The stated goal of Russia’s policy toward Ukraine at least since 2008 (NATO’s Bucharest Summit Communiqué of April 3, 2008: “We have agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia – H.H.] will join NATO.”) has been to prevent the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from advancing further toward Russian borders. Since 2014 – Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as well as support for pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine – the counterproductive nature of the chosen path has been exposed: In addition to the economic sanctions and international exclusions of Russia by the West, which have been imposed and tightened several times since then, NATO has permanently deployed combat units to the Baltics and Poland, strengthened its Rapid Reaction Force, significantly increased the number and scope of its maneuvers from the North Cape to NATO’s eastern flank and Ukraine to the Black Sea, and systematically intensified equipment and training assistance to Ukrainian forces. Against this background, it was absolutely clear that a direct attack by Moscow on Kiev would lead to a further surge in confrontational military countermeasures by NATO countries. Such a development quickly occurred after February 24: NATO, which not so long ago was described by the French president as “brain dead,” is undergoing a renaissance that no one seriously expected. Finland and Sweden will join the pact. New NATO combat units will be stationed in Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. The German government wants to make the Bundeswehr fit for war again by greatly increasing military spending. Et cetera, et cetera …
Second – There was a “viable alternative course of action” until the February 24, 2022 raid: namely, serious negotiations to resolve the Ukraine issue, not only demanded by Moscow, but pursued as such. And that without ultimate theater, as was practiced by Russia with the so-called draft treaties (without any leeway for compromise) slapped on the table by NATO and the United States in December 2021. Moscow could have, indeed should have, adopted a corresponding course at the latest after Putin’s philippic at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, instead of just playing the offended liver and repeating warnings of red lines. And even on February 23, 2022, the possibilities for negotiation were by no means exhausted, because Ukraine had – according to Russian information – concentrated large parts of its armed forces around the Donbass for a possible reconquest, but the United States had publicly declared several times in the weeks and months before that it would not intervene with its own armed forces under any circumstances should war with Russia break out. Thus, even from Moscow’s point of view, it was not to be expected that the Ukrainian president would repeat the mistake of his Georgian counterpart in 2008, strike out and thus provoke Russia’s intervention …
Thirdly, as far as the author of this article is aware, the predominant view in local politics and the media that the Russian president alone is to blame for the invasion of Ukraine (“Putin’s war”) does not reflect the real balance of power in Moscow. Alexander Dubowy, who recently wrote in the Berliner Zeitung, is probably more correct: “The leadership of the Russian Federation is a heterogeneous mixture of different, competing elite groups. In this system, Vladimir Putin has the role of a very influential arbiter and moderator …” For “a personalist dictatorship,” on the other hand, “the current Russian system […] is far too complex.”
In other words, the war in Ukraine is not only illegal under international law, a crime, but also a classic folly according to Tuchman’s criteria. A folly that Russia and the world will have to bear heavily and for a long time – even if there is no further military escalation or even the use of nuclear weapons.
by Teresa Sciacca
[This article published on 5/8/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.ossietzky.net/artikel/boese-pazifisten/#.]
For a few weeks now I have been back in touch with old acquaintances from the student movement of the 1990s. Yesterday we met in front of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo to demonstrate against war and for reconciliation, armed with some peace flags. There were just a dozen of us. Where are all the others? I asked myself. The last time I saw most of them was thirty years ago in front of the American consulate at a demonstration against the first Iraq war. There were many of us then – and we were full of indignation.
In the meantime, the world has changed completely, we grew up, and our student movement was the last important young wave of protest that existed in Italy. The left is now fragmented. The Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), which existed then, no longer exists, and the PD (Democratic Party) has been running after the right for years in order to remain the governing party. And now? Today we sit in front of the TV in shock, watching the people of Ukraine being slaughtered. The first reaction is deep pain and dark emptiness, as if the world has turned off the day and the light. Then you don’t want to watch anymore. My screen now remains dark as well. Only the same frightening and terrible images come on, as we have never seen them before in this clarity and on this scale. On television, there is only this war, and the way out that we are shown is an intensification and prolongation of the war. Until victory. But who is going to win here?
In the meantime, I just want to get away, maybe to a lonely village on the mountains, to the countryside, to escape from this reality. Of course, that is just as naive as turning off the television. For me, this flight started with the pandemic, when that was all the media were talking about. There was no reality other than protective measures and quarantine, curfew, vaccination advocates and vaccination opponents, as if the virus had wiped out everything. The virologists showed up on every talk show and called the shots. It was a matter of life and death, and they showed us the way to end the pandemic; the virus is still rampant. There was no more room for exchange of opinions and alternatives. Friendships were broken, many people were impossible to talk to. Anyone who did not share the same opinion became an enemy. The war has now made Corona almost forgotten, but the enemies are still there. We are surrounded by enemies, they tell us on television.
First it was the Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. For twenty years we were afraid of the Islamists. Then we were afraid of the virus, and now a new old enemy is coming back on the scene, and everyone is afraid of the Russians. Twenty years of fear. How long is this going to go on? Of course, I am afraid too. I am afraid of war and hatred, which is also spreading like a virus. Hatred of the Russians against the Ukrainians, hatred of the whole world against the Russians, hatred against the “Filo putiniani” or “Filorussi” (Putin understanders), as the pacifists are called nowadays. On TV and in the newspapers one hears and reads only about the need to supply weapons, to hate the enemy and his culture, and to rearm. Analyses of the background, possible causes or alternatives to the escalation that may follow the rearmament policy are frowned upon. There is no room on the talk shows for words expressing peace, reason, visions of a better and more just world. Everything that was learned in the pandemic period – the global reality of interconnectedness that makes it necessary to act with each other to prevent world catastrophes such as pandemic and climate crisis; the issue of social justice – everything is forgotten. Weapons are the only answer at the moment, and in this fog of anger and fear we no longer even see where we are going. We are just walking around blindly, trapped and driven by the problems that we ourselves have helped to create.
At least the Pope has now reminded us of this. He said he had heard that some heads of state wanted to increase funding for rearmament. “You are crazy!” He said. Our societies are run by madmen, said John Lennon in the sixties. These days, it seems to me that the Pope is the only celebrity with a vision. We must not spend more and more money on more weapons, he said, our resources should be invested in schools, hospitals, culture, only that would make our societies better. For this vision Francesco was attacked. He would probably be a friend of Putin and of course a communist, although Putin and being a communist are contradictory. His Good Friday action of having the cross carried by two women, one from Ukraine and one from Russia, has also been heavily criticized, not only by Ukrainian diplomats at the Vatican, but by Italian journalists who now seem to see their purpose and mission in defaming any attempt at dialogue and reconciliation as treason. Evil Pacifists. The anti-war pacifists have replaced the anti-vaccination pacifists as the internal enemy.
The ANPI (Associazione Nazionale Partigiani d’Italia) – the association of surviving partisans who fought against fascism and German occupation in World War II – is also attacked, because on a poster for the commemoration day of liberation from the Nazi-fascist regime on April 25, they mention the article of the Italian Constitution that outlaws and rejects war.
What is strange and worrying about all this is the disconnection between politics and the media, on the one hand, and the concerns and opinions of the population, on the other. The slogans of the media and politicians do not really correspond to the opinion of Italians. About 60 percent of the population thinks that both the delivery of weapons to the Ukrainians and the increase in funding for further rearmament are wrong. It’s an absurd situation: politicians in government and parliament make majority decisions that most Italians reject, while a large section of journalists rail against this majority of the population.
This split between politicians and opinion makers on the one hand and a large part of the population on the other is frightening. At the same time, I think that it is precisely this blindness and deafness on the part of decision-makers that will exacerbate the problems that are openly there. A possible oil and gas embargo against Russia, for example, will bring the social question to the fore and bring many people to the streets. More and more voices, it is hoped, will then rise up against war and the militarization of our lives. What is missing at the moment, however, is an organization that will unite the many isolated initiatives into one big movement. What is missing is the PD, which has always played this role in the peace movements, but which is now in government, faithfully spreading the slogan of militarism. Nevertheless, this very party will have to take into account the opinion of its voters if it wants to continue to exist. Already, therefore, some of its representatives are distancing themselves from the war zeal of Johnson and Biden and are urging negotiations in the foreseeable future. Therefore, I am pessimistic and optimistic at the same time. I count on the fact that we will be more and more numerous at the next demos.