In 1307 in Switzerland, so goes the legend, the Habsburg rulers’ local bailiff, Gessler, stuck his hat on a pole and commanded every passerby to salute it. Wilhelm Tell refused. As fearsome punishment he had to shoot an apple from his own little boy’s head with his crossbow. His aim was sure, the boy was safe. But “Gessler’s hat” still means forced obeisance to some symbol. Or else!
In current media, every mention of the war in Ukraine must start with a denunciation of that monster Putin. Or else! What epithet is more withering than “Putin-lover”!
I, too, am not a Putin-lover. And I have a great hatred of war, especially war rained from the skies or aimed from a distance. Waging war, against civilians, even against young uniformed “adversaries,” is inherently wrong. But I will not bow my head to this modern “Gessler’s hat”, no matter what epithets I may be pelted with (crossbows are rarely available). Actually, for my last Berlin Bulletin, while some readers accused me of being too “pro-Putin” others said I was too “anti-Putin”!
Despite my horror at the death, destruction and misery I see daily on TV, my entire background demands a careful analysis of a conflagration which may yet fling flames across more borders and can all too easily kindle atomic annihilation. Why did Russia send an army into Ukraine? Was it pure imperialism? A terrible miscalculation? Did Putin see it as a dire necessity? Or was it a baited trap?
To start with, I cannot forget, deny or ignore what I have seen happen since 1945; how the Pentagon, White House, Congress and those behind them sought the defeat of one pro-socialist effort after another. They failed in Cuba and Vietnam, they succeeded in Ghana, Grenada, Chile – and, most important, in Europe! By utilizing every weakness, blunder, even offense, and exerting every form of pressure, Poland was won by a team led by Ronald Reagan, “Polish Pope” John Paul II, the CIA and a few experts in the AFL-CIO. In 1989-90 it was the GDR’s turn, with help from US Ambassador to Bonn Vernon Walters, a former CIA Deputy Director who had played a major role in Poland. In 1991 came the glorious victory over the USSR, where Yeltsin, an alcoholic marionette, opened the gates to ten years of chaos, desolation and sell-out to new Russian oligarchs and not so new US corporations.
That’s when Putin stepped in, just in time to save Russia from total collapse, using his own set of oligarchs, crossing himself piously as he knelt in church but keeping a tight state hold on banks and basic resources. This was not at all what American businessmen and politicians wanted. So the US-led military pact NATO, breaking its promise of 1990 not to move an inch eastwards, advanced, one regime-changed ally after the other, towards complete encirclement of Russia: in 1999 Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, in 2004 Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania; then the hinterland in fragmented, bombed ex-Yugoslavia: Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia. Only a few more were needed to close a tight ring around Russia. Afghanistan did not pan out, nor did Georgia (though attempts are vigorously continuing). But most important was Ukraine, which could block Russia from the Black Sea and reached to within 400 miles of Moscow.
The elected president of that huge gem, unwilling to become part of the encircling noose, sought a more neutral position. “Not enough!” said NATO and sent in Nuland. Victoria Nuland, a deputy in Hillary Clinton’s State Department (and wife of a top cold war strategist), went to Kyiv, dealt out at least $5 billion and even tasty cookies to a largely right-wing, anti-Russian crowd, and maybe a few to the mysterious snipers who forced the president to flee for his life. In a famous hacked phone call she personally chose the next Ukrainian ruler, banker-politician Yatzenyuk, a man supported by the “Freedom Party” of Oleh Tyahnybok, who had denounced a “Jewish-Russian Mafia” and praised Ukraine’s new hero Stepan Bandera, who led in murdering thousands of Jews and Poles in 1941.
One of the new rulers’ first measures discriminated against the many Russian-speakers, limiting the use of all but Ukrainian, making them second-class citizens and in Crimea angry enough to vote, with a big majority, to break with Ukraine and rejoin with Russia (to which they had belonged until 1954) and in eastern Donbas to form two separate republics, much as Albanian-speaking people in Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 2008. In such decisions national pride, or self-defense – superseded complex international rules. Military operations against Donbas were soon launched, using the fascistic “Azov” militia units.
With Ukraine now a new segment in the ring around Russia, USA-NATO built up its strength there, first with “non-lethal” arms and trainers, letting allies like Lithuania pass on bigger stuff. Then came a series of military maneuvers. Defender-Europe 20 was hindered by Covid-19 but, in 2021, Sea Breeze was conducted in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea with more than 30 warships and 40 planes from 32 countries not far from the Russians’ southern naval base of Sevastopol.
Then it was Operation Cossack Mace, this time to “improve compatibility between British and Ukrainian military formations, strengthen mutual relations, joint planning and perform battalion and tactical operations.” Two British-built naval bases were planned near the short Russian coast.
In September 2021 it was Rapid Trident 21. -“To increase combat readiness, defense capabilities and interoperability, the exercise features joint jumps of Ukrainian and U.S. paratroopers and, for the first time, service members will conduct battalion tactical exercises of a multinational battalion with combat shooting in a single combat order … The purpose is to prepare for joint actions as part of a multinational force during coalition operations.” Joining the USA and Ukraine were Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Lithuania, Moldova, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Turkey and the UK.
Such activities were allegedly for peace, defending Ukraine against “authoritarianism.” But Russia viewed the threat of cutting it off in the Baltic and Black Sea, plus 700 or 800 big or small USA bases on six continents, in a very different way. Washington was a safe 7800 miles away; St. Petersburg and Moscow were under the noses of those missile launchers, warplanes and warships, and the USA alone had a 13-1 preponderance over Russia in military spending. Bipartisan American politicians were outdoing themselves in reviling Russia, nor could the Maidan events with Victoria Nuland be forgotten.
As for Putin, like him or hate him, it is hardly surprising that he was alarmed, perhaps even for personal reasons in view of the fates of other leaders disliked by Washington: Allende, dead in his bombed residence, Lumumba, tortured and murdered, Saddam Hussein, hanged, Muammar Gaddafi, fatally sodomized, the Afghani Najibullah, castrated and stringed up, Usama Bin Ladin, shot in his rooms and dumped into the ocean, Slobodan Milošević, mysteriously dying in a prison cell. (Fidel Castro was luckier, surviving over a hundred bungled CIA assassination attempts.)
In a 14-page historical summary, Putin wrote:
“We respect the Ukrainian language and traditions. We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous.” … “Russia is open to dialogue with Ukraine and ready to discuss the most complex issues. But it is important for us to understand that our Ukrainian partner defend its national interests not by serving someone else’s, that it not be a tool in someone else’s hands to fight against us.”
That was in July 2021. How sincere were such words? What did they mean in February 2022? Daring to ignore the “Gessler hat,” I think basic Russian policy must be seen not as expansionist but as defensive. In 2015 Russia agreed to the Minsk II agreement to avoid further warfare in Donbas and resolve the conflict with negotiations and compromises. Kyiv ignored, indeed undermined Minsk II; Germany and France, its co-sponsors, abandoned it. Foreign Minister Lavrov made proposals to discuss a neutral Ukraine. At first Zelensky seemed interested – until pressure from Washington and London to “stay tough” prevailed; Lavrov’s further requests to negotiate differences, above all to remove NATO troops and maneuvers from Russian borders, were rejected in December 2021 by Secretary of State Blinken, as “very obvious nonstarters”. Was that rejection Putin’s “red line”? Who knows? I only wish they had been “starters” instead – for the White House and Pentagon. That could have saved the Ukrainians immense suffering and exile – although it might have meant fewer billions for Northrup-Grumman or Raytheon.
And on February 24? Did Putin perhaps march into an elaborate trap – as Russia had once done in Afghanistan? Did he consider a big impending Ukrainian offensive against the Donbas republics and their Russian-speaking population, where 14,000 had died in ten years of battle, as an immediate danger to Russia? Did the many US-Ukrainian biological laboratories – admitted to by Victoria Nuland in a US Senate committee hearing – seem an immediate threat? I cannot know.
One commentator, turning to history, recalled the surprise attack on the USSR by the Nazi armies in 1941, resulting in up to 27 million deaths and vast destruction. He surmised that Putin, seeing a growing, hostile Ukrainian army, with NATO (or the USA leaders) guiding it from the wings, decided that a first attack was necessary to prevent any repetition of 1941.
Putin defended the invasion of Ukraine with the following words:
“Today we are told that we started a war in Donbas, in Ukraine. No, it was unleashed by this same collective West which organized and supported the unconstitutional armed coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014, then encouraged and justified genocide against the people of Donbas …
“The West is fighting Russia with all the tools that are also used in a war: weapons, sanctions, money, media, diplomacy. The only thing that slows the West down from intervening with its own soldiers is the danger of nuclear war.
“Ukraine is only the unfortunate sacrificial pawn of the West, which had been prepared for this role since 2014 and with which the West has provoked Russia (with the Maidan coup in 2014, arms deliveries, construction of NATO bases, etc.) until Russia saw no choice but to take military action to protect its own security interests. At the beginning of February 2022, the West rejected the security guarantees proposed by Russia in December 2021 and even refused to talk about them.”
That is Putin’s position. True or not, and for whatever reason, invasion was a tragic choice! Aside from the misery in Ukraine it has led to a dangerously explosive polarization, painfully splitting the world’s weak left-wing forces for peace and progress.
And in Germany? For years the unified country was torn between two forces. Some economic groups, like gas importers and exporters of manufactured and agricultural goods, wanted to get along with Russia (and even more with China), a policy symbolized by Angela Merkel and the Baltic pipelines. This was angrily opposed by men along the Potomac, in Charles Koch’s Wichita HQ and similar locations, who wanted both to export fracked gas and to head off even limited German-Russian reconciliation. They were aiming at the eventual defeat of Russia, then China, as major barriers to their plans for world hegemony, prudently labeled “the rule of order,” democracy, liberty (and free markets!) as against “authoritarianism.”
Closely beholden to them was that force in Germany, the Atlanticists, whether because of ideology, intertwining corporate and financial interests, or perhaps even personal career hopes. After February 24th, inside and outside the governing coalition, the Atlanticists won full victory, filling the media with angry denunciation of everything Russian, working to permanently break off all commercial ties with Moscow, starting with the Baltic oil pipelines, even though this may well cause industrial shutdown s and maybe very chilly room temperatures. Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, and first and foremost the Green party joined the attack, with the young Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock demanding that as many and as heavy weapons possible to be sent to Kyiv, with her cherished goal the “ruin of Russia”.
The Social Democrats were not so clear, with Chancellor Scholz hesitant about sending heavy weapons to Kyiv and getting deeply involved in what could become an open war, NATO vs. Russia. But media attacks grew fiercer, and Scholz bowed to that “Gessler hat,” siding with NATO and Washington, stationing more German troops in Lithuania and demanding an unprecedented sum of €100 billion for more armaments to “protect German security”.
The competition in denouncing Russia grew strong enough to revive half-forgotten tones from the 1930s, like when Lars Klingbeil, a leading Social Democrat, claimed that “Germany’s allies have great expectations and Germany must fulfil them… It is time for it to exit the end-of-history mode and become a leading power on the world stage after almost 80 years of holding back.”
Frightening words! Even more frightening were those of top air corps General Ingo Gerhartz: “For a credible deterrent, we need both the means and the political will, if necessary, to implement nuclear deterrence.” The “old guard” in the established parties were beginning to summon up past glories!
The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is all out for those past glories but, like some other far-righters in Europe, did not join the verbal attacks on Russia and opposed armaments for Ukraine! Their main mission in nearly all matters is opposition – above all to the European Union. But as dyed-in-the-wool nationalists, they also support a big German military build-up, a renewed draft and/or compulsory civil service for young men (as also recommended by President Steinmeier!).
The Left – Die Linke – has always stood out as the one party of peace, opposing deployment in Serbia, Afghanistan, Mali or anywhere outside German borders. Now it was split, with the main bone of contention the Ukraine war. Actually, disagreement on related issues was by no means new, though rarely so emotional as at the party congress session in late June.
It was a disastrous year for The Linke. In the September elections the party received only 4.9%, down from 6.9% four years earlier. Its caucus in the Bundestag was only just saved by a special rule; if three or more delegates were elected directly in their districts the caucus was saved, even without 5%. Exactly three scraped through, but proportional representation now gave it 39 deputies, not its previous 69; no longer the strongest opposition party, it had become the weakest. The urgent party reassessment and changes called for by this disaster failed to materialize and the party lost bitterly in three state elections: Saarland – from 12.8% to 2.6%, Schleswig-Holstein, 3.8 to 1.7% and in the key industrial North Rhine-Westfalia from 4.9 to 2.7%! Few workers voted Left. Some prominent members quit. The magazine Der Spiegel falsified a sex-related event (some obscure member’s alleged assault) into a malicious “Me-too” attack on the more militant co-chair Janine Wissler for allegedly covering it up. Her “reformist” co-chair, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, quit her leadership position in a huff, and with new leadership elections now necessary, the party faced total defeat, perhaps a split and even its demise!
In the main dispute the so-called reformers weakened the party’s basic opposition to NATO in hopes of being accepted in a government coalition with the pro-NATO Greens and Social Democrats. Such dubious hopes were rendered fully impossible by the Left’s poor election results. But the reformers still tended to play down or absolve the NATO’s current role, giving Russia and Putin the entire blame for the Ukrainian tragedy while the militant wing of the party viewed the NATO, especially the USA, as provocateurs, whose expansionist policy of deploying armaments and maneuvers along Russian borders was clearly looking for trouble – and, sadly, getting it. The quarrel reflected a deeper rift – between those who called for improvements in child care, pensions, minimum wages but saw socialism only as a future goal in vague clichés while basically accepting a systemic status quo in which they strove to become accepted, despite the growing menace of the billionaires. The militants, while not calling for revolution tomorrow (like some ultra-leftists), nevertheless saw a rejection of the capitalist system as vital – and basic opposition a necessity. The one group accepted NATO, the other opposed it. Their differences colored often hot but very brief Congress debates, which were dominated by the reformers, who won out in the end with about a 60-30 ratio – and managed to slip some very ardent pro-NATO advocates into leading positions. Janine Wissner was re-elected as co-chair (thus rejecting the malicious media smear). For co-chair, the usual male-female, East-West, leftish-reformist balance formula was maintained, and the militant, popular Sören Pellmann from Leipzig, one of the three delegates to save the Left caucus by winning a seat in his district, lost out to the rather moderate Martin Schirdewan, till then a delegate in the European Parliament, who promised to put far more stress on working-class struggles while opposing armament sales to Ukraine and organizing for peace. He seemed to seek Left reconciliation – and, at last, action.
Some on the left deplored the Congress results. Others were glad there had been no split, some political positions had been rescued, a threatened stress on “gender issues,” even in grammar and punctuation, had been averted and a shaky compromise arrived at. It remain to be seen whether The Left can regain roots among working people for the many hardships and big menaces now looming. And much may yet depend on its position regarding Gessler’s hat. A side note: In the famous play by Friedrich Schiller, the events involved led to the Swiss rebellion against Habsburg tyranny.