Why do foolhardy spoilers insist on causing embarrassment? Why must out-of-step fools upset well-steered apple-carts? Why did German vice-admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach open his big mouth on Saturday in far-off Mumbai – and spill so many beans?
Many or most U.S. media overlooked it – that is, buried it. Or emasculated it. In Germany they couldn’t fully ignore it – though unpleasant as a messy cat cadaver near the red carpet at a major film event. This was no star-studded premiere, however, but a dangerous, frightening political and military program, and the disturbing element was not a raggedy, dead alley-cat but the elegantly-uniformed boss of the German Navy. Yet here, too, a demise was involved – that of the vice-admiral’s career!
What sin earned him such a fate? When asked about the month-long NATO-Washington campaign against Putin and Russia, based only on vague, dubious assumptions and prophesies by anonymous experts yet rushing headlong toward military catastrophe, this top-level expert had the temerity to puncture the foundation of the whole campaign with one word: “Nonsense!”
Is Schönbach a concealed, left-over leftist? By no means! Indeed, his views on other matters – like China – are far from pacifist. But in just a few words he recalled the glass-shattering voice of little Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass’ “The Tin Drum.” When asked “What do you think Russia really wants?” this navy boss responded: “Is Russia really interested in adding a tiny little strip of Ukraine to its territory? No, that is nonsense! I think Putin is using pressure because he is able to. He knows that he can split the European Union. What he really wants is respect. He wants respect on a basis of equality. My God, give him respect! That costs so little, really nothing at all. If you ask me – but nobody asks me: It is easy to pay him the respect which he desires and really deserves. Russia is an ancient country, Russia is an important country. Even we, India, Germany, need Russia, we need Russia against China.” While his reasoning may be questionable, his taboo-breaking disclosure , based on inside knowledge, was rendered even more troublesome by his next contribution to the discussion: “Crimea is gone…and will never come back, that is a fact.”
Schönbach, who had been commanding an armed frigate waving the German flag in Indo-Pacific waters, was speaking to a group of Indian military men in Mumbai. Thus, his advocacy of lining up with Russia against China was not surprising – nor was it realistic. But the revelation by a top insider in the NATO military machine was like a gut punch to all the hysteria about those deep dark secret plans of Putin.
The result was: The new Minister of Defense, Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat, suspended him immediately from all duties and titles. Her earlier predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, now European Union boss, announced that the EU has allocated over 17 billion euros in grants and loans to Ukraine since 2014 and now plans 1.2 billion more. Its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, in worrisome disregard of Schönbach’s disclosure, turned up the heat:
“The core message is this: Europe is in danger. I wish it were different, but the last two years have seen a serious worsening of our strategic environment. … I am convinced that today we are living through the most dangerous moment of the post-Cold War period. We face the risk of a major military conflict on our continent.“
Based on such assumptions, Denmark sent fighter jets to Lithuania and a frigate to the Baltic in the Russian north, France plans sending troops to Romania and Spain a frigate to Russia’s Black Sea region in the South, Poland demanded more NATO troops and armaments in Russia’s west, and in Washington the House voted for an increase in arms shipments to Ukraine, while 41 of the 50 Democrats in the Senate, including Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Chris Murphy and Jeff Merkley, had already agreed on a similar plans to send $500 million more in military aid to Ukraine in 2022, making it the third-largest recipient of such funding, behind only Israel and Egypt. More funds would also strengthen Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. (Could that be labeled “influencing elections in other countries”? Or was that something done only by Putin?)
Nor was the GOP shy. It submitted a similar bill and Michael McCaul (TX), top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, asserted that “We need joint exercises in Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, Bulgaria, to show Putin that we’re serious…Right now, he doesn’t see we’re serious.”
But with annual NATO troops, tanks and fighter planes maneuvering in a tight ring on Russian borders and up to 800 US military or naval bases in a wide ring surrounding its heartland it is highly likely that Mr. Putin does indeed see that they’re serious. It is just such hard facts which motivate Russian policy in Ukraine and Belarus, not any useless, clearly suicidal attacks against Ukraine now treated as facts in the West but called “Nonsense” by the ex-admiral.
Then more unexpected voices could be heard. One belonged to retired General Harald Kujat, commanding Inspector General of Germany’s Bundeswehr from 2000 to 2002 and then, until 2005, the chairman of NATO´s top level Military Committee. You can’t get any higher than that. In a TV interview (which quickly disappeared) Kojat said:
“If I were still in office I would have stood up for Admiral Schönbach, and tried in every way to prevent his dismissal… A criticism of the way Schönbach voiced his views is understandable in the current heated situation …But it must be in our interest to achieve a sensible result, to de-escalate and arrive at a relaxation of tension with Russia, of course with consideration of Ukrainian security interests as well. … However, we cannot tolerate a situation in which we are always talking about war instead of talking about how a war can be prevented.”
Then hard-liner Markus Söder, Bavaria’s right-wing minister president, came up the same surprising sentiment: “Nobody can want a war in Europe. The territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine must be respected. But constant new threats and tougher and tougher sanctions against Russia can not be the only solution.”
Most surprisingly perhaps, Annalena Baerbock, the new foreign minister from the Greens party and notoriously belligerent and bellicose in regard to Russia and China, turned to the official German policy of sending no military weapons to conflict areas – a porous policy with huge weapons shipments to Israel, Egypt and other officially peaceful but very conflict-ridden regions. But now, very correctly, Ukraine was offered only a medical unit. When the pressure was stepped up, she increased the offer, permitting the sale of defense bunkers – and then 5000 military helmets – but none of the death-dealing weapons Ukrainian leaders were heatedly demanding. This offer, they made clear, amounted to an insult. But Baerbock stuck to it and even toned down her usual aggressive vocabulary, presumably reflecting some views of the new government with clauses, new for her, like: “Dialogue has absolute priority” and ”Whoever is talking is not shooting!”
Baerbock added another surprise by dropping her fervent opposition to the newly-completed but still unused Baltic gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Economic factors were undeniable; Germany is shutting down its atomic plants and aims (though far too slowly) to cut down and then shut down coal-driven power plants. But with far too little wind , sunshine or water power to fill current energy needs (while top-level profits are always protected), prices for household heating and cooking and for industry are soaring alarmingly, with possible political repercussions. This is leading the new German government to reject US pressure to shut the pipeline and buy more expensive gas elsewhere – like from American frackers.
Does this mean that the long tug-of-war between the strong Russophobes, or “Atlanticists”, and those producers still dependent on sales of cars, machinery, chemicals and foodstuffs to Russia is not moving the way many people feared or expected with the new government. For better or worse, that seemingly eternal umbilical cord might be further fraying.
Even in the USA, Joe Biden seemed – on and off – to be keeping one ear open to those who want to “cool it,” or at least mix some talking with the arming. Of course the danger of using provocations abroad to win elections at home is always present, and there are plenty in politics and the media always willing or eager to risk this path. One prime example is the news agency Politico, now owned by the mighty far-right Axel Springer company, Germany’s Murdock equivalent, which recently ran hellfire and brimstone articles on Putin’s bloodthirsty plans – all based on unnamed “experts” but helpfully labeled at the top: “Presented by Lockheed Martin.” That’s the outfit whose F-35 fighter planes and other useful items helped them rake in over $62 billion in revenue in 2020. Marilyn Hewson, chairman, president and chief executive officer, was rewarded with $20.2 million in 2017. But let’s not jump to any hasty conclusions about war-hungry complicity! Or lobbying!
I think Americans are deeply troubled by Covid-19, Omicron, and all too often by steep prices, medical costs, rent increases, opioids – but rarely by possible conflicts in far-off places. People in Germany, also troubled by viruses and the incredible bungling and endless daily arguments about possible compulsory vaccination, the proper age for vaccination, school opening or closing with or without masks, about lockdowns and about the sometimes violent demonstrations – with some leftists as well as rightists (and loonies) opposing vaccination (or opposing the opposers). Also very disturbing – for Roman Catholics (and many new ex-Catholics) – was the giant new scandal in Munich affecting church dignitaries, including ex-Pope Benedict XVI (who was caught in a lie), and their decades-long cover-ups of multiple sexual abuse.
Headlines also featured the choice of Friedrich Merz as new chairman of the Christian Democratic Union and head of its Bundestag caucus. Merz, for sixteen years an unlucky rival and loser to the more moderate Angela Merkel, will most likely move the party, now in opposition, well to the right; Merz, a multimillionaire, faithful “Atlanticist” and dedicated anti-leftist (his main book is titled “Dare Have More Capitalism),” was the German chairman of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, before re-entering politics.
Even further to the right, Jörg Meuthen, till now the main spokesman for Alternative for Germany (AfD), who tried to maintain a more respectable camouflage for the party, has quit the job and the party, abandoning it to the most overt and vicious pro-fascists.
But while Germans may not be much more interested in Ukraine than Americans, their grandparents told them enough about that last big war to keep a majority from wanting to risk another one. The disaster in Afghanistan and the military mess in Mali have hardly increased anyone’s enthusiasm.
But how many will defy viruses and inertia for this year’s peace marches – in Germany at Eastertime? How many will defy Lockheed and Krupp death merchants or Axel Springer hate-mongers, all loaded with power measured in billions? Will they realize that the terrible threat to “poor democratic Ukraine” recalls “Remember the Maine” and phony Vietnamese attacks on US warships (in Vietnamese waters) and so many other “security threats”? They led to so much misery and bloodshed – and this time could lead to far, far worse)? Can peace movements make the citizenry aware of the danger facing it, worse even than job loss, ecology or viruses? Can enough people in many countries recognize that supposed facts are manufactured “Nonsense” – but insanely dangerous nonsense?
Postscript: I was just finishing this column when I received a report on a press conference of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with foreign journalists in which he stated that Russia is not attacking his country and news reports are “out of balance”.
“We see today no greater escalation than we did earlier. Yes, the number of (Russian) troops has increased, but I already spoke about that in early 2021 during Russian military exercises. ..The media conveys the impression that we are at war, that tanks are rolling, troops marching around, that there is a mobilization, that people are in flight. That is not true. We do not need such panic. … I have been speaking with leading politicians and explaining that we are forced to stabilize our economy because of all such signals that there will be war tomorrow. The signals even came from respected politicians who said openly, not even in diplomatic language, that ‘there will be war tomorrow’. That leads to panic. Panic on the stock markets, panic in the financial sector. 12.5 billion have been withdrawn from Ukraine since the panic began, which is very costly for the Ukrainians.”
Zelensky also called on Russia to reduce its military deployment and thus lessen tension. Some media used these words – and not what he said earlier. Others ignored all of it.