War, Peace and Ukraine

I’ve been toiling on this Berlin Bulletin for weeks, altering it, agonizing, starting anew. Events are simply too complicated and bitter – in the world and in Germany, too. Most dreadfully in Ukraine.

Just knowing that so many simple, common people are suffering so terribly is appalling. I was lucky in life, just months too young to get caught up in World War Two, then drafted in 1951 but sent not to Korea but, by pure luck,  to war-damaged yet peaceful Germany, then living for 38 years in East Germany, which never sent troops into combat anywhere. Yet I have always hated war emotionally, even when I felt sadly that taking up and using arms was sometimes necessary against severe oppression, in the US Civil War, in Spain 1936-1939, against Hitler, against invaders in Vietnam.

But now, like so many others, I am sickened at what I see on my TV screen from Kharkiv, Mariupol – and from earlier attacks along the borders of the regions, or republics, of Donetsk and Luhansk.

From my history books I know how often distortions and lies have been employed; they are again, now, repeatedly. I detected one clumsy TV lie myself (the video of a “Russian tank invading Ukraine” –  but displaying a completely obsolete Soviet flag with hammer and sickle). But despite doubts, and aside from analyses, I cannot see the TV scenes

without reacting with horror  – and sympathy for those who died, who fled, who lost people dear to them. I must condemn the killing of thousands of wives, grandparents, children – and young men, civilians or in uniform, on both sides of the lines. I hate the wrecking of homes, workplaces, monuments, products of human labor which should be maintained for human purpose, not destroyed. Crops of wheat and other foods, desperately needed in so many countries, should again be planted, cultivated, shipped off – not left to rot or remain unplanted.

Nor can such pictures fail to affect my feelings toward Vladimir Putin. He was never my great hero, but what I long considered his basic motivation and cool-headed search for security, negotiation and peace led me to draw far different conclusions than the overwhelming mass media. I still do. Today, however, when I read his words and watch his appearances, some media words insist on intruding – like ”heartless” and even “cold-blooded”.

I must also despair at the incalculable political damage unleashed by the February 24th invasion, enabling eager rightists to crawl from the woodwork of media desks or political armchairs and crow triumphantly, louder than for many years, denouncing any who dare to even question their hard-core decisions, croaking hatred at all those they label as deluded fools, suspicious “Putin-friends”,  or malevolent traitors. They can now glory in their bigoted ignorance, foaming against a soprano like Anna Netrebko at the Met or a conductor like Valery Gergiev at the Munich Philharmonic, calling for boycotts of Dostoyevsky or Chekhov, inspiring  attacks on Russian children in Berlin schools.

I am forced to wonder how Putin and his staff, unless they knew positively of an immediate, overpowering danger, could make such a dreadful, such a frightening decision which, while devastating Ukraine and killing thousands, is isolating Russia so widely while bruising and splitting peace and progressive movements in all the world? And if they did know of such an immediate menace, why didn’t they shout it out, loud and clear? The decades of efforts by people on all continents to ease tensions between the three greatest powers, to work together for a friendlier, ecologically improving world of peace has now been set back for years, perhaps for decades.

The basic question as to “Why?” gives rise to more questions. Has Putin settled on increased intransigence: No peace until victory? Does he really question the Ukrainians’ right to their status as a nationality? That would be inadmissibly nationalist, worse even than Spanish rightists’ views on Basques and Catalans. Isn’t his description of Ukraine as “Nazi” a distortion? Yes, fascist elements are far stronger than election results indicate  and played a key part in the putsch of 2014, with all their Hitler salutes and Nazi symbols. Nor can the fact of Zelenskyy’s Jewish roots obscure widespread official honors for the fascist war criminal Stepan Bandera, who joined in murdering  thousands of Jews and Poles during World War Two. in Kyiv an 11m high monument honors Bandera and the city council gave his name to a major thoroughfare, with 87 out of 97 in favor and the remaining ten abstaining. The brutal murder in Odessa was pure fascism. But does this justify a general Nazi label?

My biggest worry, however, is caused by Putin’s hint at atomic retaliation if Ukraine’s allies go too far in their support. For decades peace movements have drawn a red line rejecting any and all threats to use atomic weapons, large  or small. Did Putin cross that line, weakening condemnation of the USA and NATO as the main transgressors? If so then his threat, though still just a hint, is unforgivable.

But Putin is not Russia, a country which has almost always been on the defensive. And many decades of observing the ways of the world force me, despite my own emotions and huge pressure from all sides, to recall important facts and lessons I have learned, even when they contradict majority views.

I have observed that since the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 the key forces managing US foreign policy – with their presidents, Secretaries of State, Pentagon brass, CIA, AID and all the rest – were single-mindedly devoted to achieving US world leadership, indeed, world hegemony – though always dressed in handsome words about freedom and democracy. For many years “a free market economy” was sewn on as part of the outfit. Nowadays this latter phrase, the underwear in a way, is seen less often; with the crash of 2008 and a currently growing crisis this bit of negligèe no longer looks so alluring! Yet it remains the basic foundation while “freedom and democracy,” still good for shop windows, have been repeatedly ignored – or flouted – with Pinochet in Chile and apartheid in South Africa, from the Somozas in Nicaragua to the Saudis in Arabia in a long, tragic list.

But that basic “market” foundation, sometimes rudely called monopoly capitalism, is warily guarded by a limited number of giant companies, each year fewer in number but each year wealthier, whose bosses collect multiple mansions, yachts, jets, over-full garages and many-digited hoards in the Caymans or Panama. Their dream goal is an entire world open to unlimited, unregulated, profit-focused extraction, exploitation, expansion; by an Amazon, Inc. ruining retail shops or Amazon forests ruined by a Cargill, by mind-readers like Facebook or mind-muggers like Murdock, by monopolies like Tyson dominant in chicken meat or Merck in pharma remedies. Constant features of their dreams were the fertile wheatfields and fossil-fuel deposits, skilled workers and eager customers in the biggest country in the world and, just across its Amur boundary, the biggest consumer market in the world.

Yes, Russia and China now have their own share of billionaires (carefully called “oligarchs” if they’re Russian). But their economies are not nearly available enough, nor controllable. To make matters worse, both retain at least a whiff of those ideas about popular ownership, even confiscation which, since 1917 and earlier, the wealthy have feared above all else.

The goal, therefore, was always regime change, in Russia and in China. The US marionette Boris Yeltsin was installed for almost a decade after the USSR was buried; the goal seemed within reach. Indeed, much was grabbed up while Russia was reduced to a tragic, poverty-stricken  mess. But in 2000 Putin took over. Never a saint in any way, he was not a marionette either and, regardless of his later actions, in that aspect he became a rescuer who, by clipping controlling strings from abroad, just barely managed to salvage his country from total degradation and started up work to rebuild it.

 But this last-minute, last-ditch rescue was not to everyone’s liking, which is why, I am convinced, it was decided that Putin must be overthrown. Not because of shirtless horseback rides or head-line grabbing repression, accusations of poisoning, homophobia. Leadership foibles, like excessive vodka drinking or sawing up one’s opponents, can be tolerated, but not rebuilding a barrier to world hegemony! And if this lack of tolerance meant producing, or using, ever stronger armaments, why, all the better for that obscenely rich, greediest sub-species of profiteers, like Lockheed, Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop-Grumman, with siblings, alternately rivals and allies, in Germany, UK, or France, all eager to get their slices of the explosive pie in the “freedom and democracy” crusade, at least before it has led us all to Armageddon.

The lances of these modern crusaders bore many letters: CIA, US-AID,  NED (National Endowment for Democracy), IRI for the Republicans, NDI for the Democrats. Their main catapult was NATO, its missiles at the ready, wheeled up to the very edge of the besieged Russian castle despite all promises of 1989-1990 never to move east of the Elbe. One by one, from Estonia and Poland to Bulgaria and most of ex-Yugoslavia, they were lined up in a new version of Woodrow Wilson’s anti-Russian cordon sanitaire. Next on the list: Sweden and Finland. Recalcitrants in the Mideast or Africa were to be bombed or droned into the team, not always with success, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Just before the February attack, and with unusual candidness, conservative New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote of reactions to this expansion, recalling that in 2016 the Clinton administration’s defense secretary, William Perry, had admitted:

“… in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia… At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy … but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”

In 1998 Friedman spoke with old George Kennan, a former ambassador to Moscow and often called America’s greatest expert on Russia. Speaking of NATO eastward expansion, he said:

“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war…I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else… Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” (Feb. 21, 2022)

It was, however, not a mistake, but rather the crusade, whose strategic center, as any map makes clear, was the Ukraine, largely blocking off Russia from the Black Sea and, for a swift atomic missile, only five minutes from Moscow, the heart of the so often declared enemy. The crusade objectives were backed up by Washington’s military budget, currently $800 billion a year, more than that spent by the world’s next eleven military spenders combined, thirteen times that spent by Russia, triple that of China. Added to what other NATO members spent an appalling, frightening sum, partly invested in ever bloodier weapons, partly in over 700 bases, all around (but not in) Russia or China!

Faced with this giant array of weapons and expanded routes through Germany to speed them eastward, and seeing them tested annually in military and naval maneuvers along Russian borders, with constant chances of an error or provocation, plus nine years of battle in Donbas featuring  fascist-minded “Azov” crusaders, Putin’s fears could not fairly be dismissed as paranoid.

And what of reports on laboratories for outlawed biological or chemical weapons? Long dismissed as Russian propaganda, they gained credibility when State Department expert Victoria Nuland, in a seeming slip of the tongue, replied haltingly to Senate queries: ”Ukraine has, uh, biological research facilities… We are now in fact quite concerned that Russian troops, Russian forces, may be seeking to, uh, gain control of them, so we are working with the Ukrainians on how they can prevent any of those research materials from falling into the hands of Russian forces should they approach.”

The dangers are undeniable, the aims of the crusaders fully transparent, especially since the same Victoria Nuland, in a famous hacked telephone message in 2014, was caught telling the US ambassador in Kyiv just which marionette was to head a new government there – after she and her team supported (or perhaps helped instigate) a putsch which forced the elected president – who had tried to be neutral towards Russia and NATO – to flee for his life. Since then it was all-out build-up!

For years Russian calls for negotiations to ease tensions, promote agreements on weapons and remove the threat along its borders were ignored or dismissed in the media and by the government.  A major attempt in December 2021, indeed an appeal, received the same response as earlier attempts; Secretary of State Blinken, rejecting any compromises, declared:

“There are some very obvious nonstarters in things that the Russians have put on the table.”

Such “non-starter” responses, past and present, indicated that the goal was not reconciliation, coexistence or cooperation with Russia in solving world problems, but its demise as a world power – with international warfare quite possibly included. The US leadership – headed by an unsteady but belligerent Biden, who aside from openly calling for regime change, a dangerous demand, is moving to supply bigger and bigger weapons, while pressuring Zelensky, who seemed open at first to some form of settlement, to voice ever more unlikely conditions and turn instead to talk of defeating Russia, thus making a negotiated peace more and more difficult.

I have heard no loud discussion of how the USA might react if Russian or Chinese tanks, missile launchers and war planes were to conduct maneuvers in Baja California or swarm around Houston or + New Orleans with battleships, perhaps an aircraft carrier or two, plus some concrete-piercing atomic missiles. It is not only earth climate which is warming up; the political atmosphere is moving  dangerously closer to some kind of boiling point – maybe Hiroshima times Cernobyl! Halting this motion – soon – is surely more urgent even than fighting Covid, CO 2 or plastic waste.

While back-room profiteers in the shadows count up newly-acquired millions and billions from armament purchases or sales of frocking gas I think the rest of us should oppose both Putin’s criminal war as well as all attempts, on the other side, to prolong, extend and gain from it.

That is where Germany comes in, with both feet. On February 3rd 2015 George Friedman, founder of Stratfor, the so-called world’s top geopolitical intelligence platform, said that a main goal of US policy had long been to make sure there was no cooperation between Russia and Germany.

This goal now seems to have been achieved – once again. The current media-incited atmosphere of hatred against anything remotely connected with Russia recalls the iciest phase of the Cold War, and perhaps an earlier era as well, Germany’s most infamous.

The uneasy coalition now governing the country, after finally achieving a three-party truce and dropping plans for compulsory anti-Covid vaccination, soon faced a far more fundamental issue; what assistance should Germany send Ukraine. Should it consist of money and light weapons or extend to “heavy weapons” like tanks and artillery?

The Greens, once seen as a left-leaning party, are now led by the sharpest of Russia-haters, who spouted incendiary statements long before Putin sent in the troops. Most prominent are young, virulent Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Vice-Chancellor/Economics-Environment Minister Robert Habeck, both “Atlanticists” with what might better be called “Potomac” positions.

As for the Free Democrats, whose allegiance, quite overtly, is to big business, the heavier the weapons the better; yes, tanks, missiles, artillery, anything. In this – and despite coalition-soothing words from their leader, Finance Minister Christian Lindner – the FDP leans suspiciously towards the Christian Democrats, now trying to regain strength in opposition, well to the right of its retired leader Angela Merkel.

The Social Democrats, strongest party in the Bundestag and led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seemed to support a surprisingly different position. Germany, world-wide in fifth place in armaments export, has long kept to an older West German rule not to send weapons into conflict areas – or partially kept to it, since somehow there was frequent leakage. Scholz warned almost movingly that heavy weapons sent to Kyiv would expand the conflict, involve more countries and increase chances for a major war, possibly atomic. He seemed to be reflecting the position of those industrial sectors which depended heavily on exports to Russia and, more important, Germany’s considerable dependency on Russian oil, coal and gas to power its economy. In February Germany was importing 55% of its gas from Moscow; despite all its haste, developing substitute sources like oil from the Persian Gulf or the Atlantic and gas from American fracking would take time and cause great unemployment, shortages and general misery. The need for Russian energy imports and sales to Russia and China had long been a balancing factor against belligerent Atlanticists and their allies the armament groupies.

But it was these forces who won the day. An immense campaign was intensified against Scholz, with the opposition Christian Democrats loud and angry and his two coalition partners offering no real support. The media offered endless accounts of war damage and atrocities, true or alleged, with constant repetition of the worst pictures. The USA and eastern Europe, above all Poland and the Baltic countries, traditional foes of Russia, tightened the screws against Scholz’ “hesitancy”. Most unrelenting was the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, whose attacks against Chancellor Scholz, ex-Chancellor Merkel and President Steinmeier were anything but diplomatic.

“The Germans are going to regret that they are once again the last ones to agree,” he declared. “We (Ukraine) have become the biggest victim of this perverted relationship. Ukrainians are paying for this failed German policy with their lives” – “This kind of hypocrisy with Russia dates back to Nord Stream 1 (gas pipeline),” said Melnyk. “Germany’s huge dependence on Russia, at a time of the worst aggression since the Second World War, is shameful.” – “Germany is as far away from giving us the support we need today as it was at the start of the war… More than 40 days later, the German political elite apparently still does not believe that Ukraine can win the war.”

For many his blatant imperatives went much, much too far for an ambassador. But he was supported by President Zelenskyy who, when Steinmeier planned a joint trip to Kyiv with the presidents of Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “to send a strong signal of joint European solidarity” he was told that he was not welcome there because of his year-long detente policy towards Moscow. This, based on his years as foreign minister with Angela Merkel, was an almost unprecedented snub. But while she – no longer in office – stood by her 2008 stance against admitting Kyiv to NATO, Steinmeier abjectly acknowledged that his policy of détente “had been mistaken”.

In the end Scholz, too, could not withstand the pressure and backed down, announcing  “…yesterday we decided that Germany should hand over weapons to Ukraine to defend itself. Putin’s aggression meant we could give no other answer.” That means tanks to Kyiv – perhaps older Soviet-made tanks which the Ukrainians were acquainted with, to be sent by Slovenia, which would then receive a similar number of modern tanks from Germany in a face-saving swap.

In the changing atmosphere, Scholz made doubly clear that he was free of any pacifist impulses he may possibly have entertained. Bowing to the usual querulous complaints of Defense Ministers (the new one, Christine Lambrecht, third woman in a row in that job, but this time a Social Democrat), that the Bundeswehr was far from its necessary military fitness, Scholz proposed a rise of 100 billion euros ($ 112 billion) in the amount spent on the military. Though threatened by no-one, Germany had already seen the largest defense budget increases of all major 15 countries. And now this enormous new increase!

A part of the sum would be for travel; its contingent on maneuvers in Lithuania was to be increased. Minister Lambrecht said that Germany was strengthening its “troop contribution on NATO’s eastern flank and sending a clear sign of our resolve to our allies.” Very old German veterans might recall place names from attacks launched there against Leningrad eight decades ago. Somewhat younger men, with many-starred shoulders, clearly enjoyed the idea of being military alpha wolf in Europe.

All major parties supported the giant new spending decision. Opposed were the AfD delegates, who generally supported Putin in the past but may now be splitting on the issue. They usually vote against the government on everything, in keeping with their hopes of taking over some day. One single Christian Democratic maverick (from East Germany)also voted Nay. And so did the entire caucus of DIE LINKE – The Left, this time united. The party’s caucus co-chairperson, Amira Mohamed Ali (but no relation!), stated: “We from The Left cannot and will not join in such rearmament, such  militarization. History teaches us that competition in arms production does not bring security. What is necessary is disarmament and diplomacy.” She also stressed that the caucus agrees that Russia is responsible for an offensive war, breaking all rules of international law.”

The obvious plans in Washington and Berlin are to continue or expand the fighting, regardless of human losses until Russia is defeated or taken over. They embody an extreme danger, along with the almost racist hysteria against Russia, with all its echoes from an evil past. The only possible policy for people of good will must certainly be to demand a quick end of hostilities and negotiations for a peaceful solution, despite all plans of the crusading militarists.

This was the predominant message at countless Easter weekend peace demonstrations all over Germany, east, west, north and south – still small, but larger than for years. Then, on May Day, working people, especially those in unions, surprised the nation by proclaiming just this message, loud and clear, hissing Olaf Scholz for sending weapons to Ukraine and for increasing the  military budget while so many are hit hard – and the monopolies flourish. He shouted, enraged, at the unexpected chorus of whistles, while Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey, also a Social Democrat, was rewarded with thrown eggs (but not hit) for a similar message. The anger seems clearer and stronger than for many years.

In this situation, and with these dangers, a voice of The Left in the Bundestag and state legislatures is extremely important; an anti-fascist, anti-militarist voice for people’s rights – and with a vision. But, tragically, the Left now faces not only exclusion from most of these bodies for failure to reach the required 5% level, but also a worse  internal crisis than ever before. With its poll rates dropping, the nasty resignation of one of its chairwomen, phony accusations against the other because of an alleged sex scandal plus, most important, a deep split on major political issues, especially military and foreign policy, worsened by the Ukraine war  – the party’s existence is endangered. Pro or anti in regard to NATO, pro or anti on hopes for government seats; these and other basic questions will be fought over at the June congress in Erfurt, at which the entire executive body and two chairpersons will be newly elected. The end result is anything but certain.

Victor Grossman writes the Berlin Bulletin, which you can subscribe to for free by sending an email to: wechsler_grossman@yahoo.de.