The difference between wanting to and being able to by Peter Wahl, co-founder of Attac, 2/20/2024

The difference between wanting to and being able to

War in Ukraine

By Peter Wahl

[This article posted on February 20, 2024 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kiev’s highly anticipated offensive has not only failed, but the Russian military is on the offensive. One spectacular example is the capture of the fortress of Avdiivka. On the causes of illusions in the West.

A fundamental turnaround in Ukraine’s favor is not in sight. Firstly, because Kiev is running out of soldiers. Even if it managed to recruit another half a million, it would take several months to train them. Who knows where Moscow’s troops will be then. Secondly, there is a shortage of ammunition and equipment, and not only because of the blockade in Washington, but also because production capacities even in the USA cannot meet demand so quickly, as Foreign Affairs reports. Even if Washington were able to release the blocked aid package immediately, it would take months before the Ukrainian army could be adequately supplied. A proxy war only works as long as the proxy is capable of waging war.

However, this is now a very dangerous situation. The West is faced with the dilemma of either accepting the hopelessness of a military victory and making the Kremlin a negotiation offer that is sufficiently accommodating for it to be interested in negotiations. Or it would have to escalate dramatically. And this would go far beyond the Taurus missiles, which would be unpleasant for Russia, but no more of a game changer than the Leopard tanks or HIMARS missiles were in the past. Such an escalation, however, in turn carries the risk of an expansion of the war with incalculable consequences.

Against this backdrop, the question arises as to how the illusion of a victorious peace and the hurray-Bellicism of the political and media mainstream could come about. Even in parts of the social left, although criticism of the military is considered part of their political DNA. Three interacting factors seem to be at the forefront here, which act as a kind of “operating system” for bellicism:

Considerable deficits in the geopolitical analysis of the balance of power in the world, in particular the historically notorious underestimation of Russia,

an excess of affective/emotional handling of the conflict instead of sober, rational analysis,

a shrinking of political options for action to moral imperatives instead of diplomacy and political solutions as required by the UN Charter.

Recognizing geopolitical realities

In international relations, the balance of power is ultimately the decisive regulatory principle. International law and rules are only observed as long as they suit one’s own interests. This applies to all major powers, as well as smaller ones, as can be seen from the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The more power resources a country has – i.e. military strength, economic and technological potential, political influence and “soft power” – the higher its position in the hierarchy of the international system, the more diverse its options for action.

After the end of Cold War 1.0, the USA was the only superpower and the undisputed number one in the world. In its slipstream, the rest of the West could also feel like the winner of history. The NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999 was also an easy victory. The wars in Libya and Iraq were also won, at least militarily, even if chaos and failed states were left behind. But the limits of the West’s ability to intervene became clear in Syria and Afghanistan. Even the interim report of the Bundestag’s commission of inquiry into Afghanistan has now confirmed that the “defense of our freedom in the Hindu Kush” (former Defence Minister Peter Struck) was a strategic failure.

Now it is being defended again – on the Dnieper. The fact that Russia has once again been underestimated is a tradition, at least since Napoleon experienced his disaster at the Berezina after the capture of Moscow.

Russia was again underestimated, and not only in military terms. According to the IMF, in 2022 the country was the sixth largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity behind Germany, ahead of Indonesia and Brazil, while the UK and France only ranked ninth and tenth.

The fact that the sanctions are neither influencing the Kremlin’s warfare nor ruining the country is not only due to the size and robustness of the Russian economy, but also because the Global South – first and foremost China, India and the other BRICS+ – has no interest in joining the Western wagon train. Instead, they maintain normal relations with Russia. What’s more, they work together with Moscow in the BRICS or in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

With the Gaza war and the one-sided partisanship of Washington and most EU member states, as well as the double standards in the face of Israel’s treatment of human rights and international law, this has become even more entrenched. The fact that the USA will have to veto the vote in the UN Security Council on February 20 alone in order to prevent a ceasefire speaks volumes.

The balance of power in the world has therefore shifted. In 1900, Europe still accounted for 25 percent of the world’s population. The EU’s share currently stands at 5.6 percent and will continue to fall. In 1980, its share of global gross domestic product was 25 percent; by 2020, it had fallen to 14 percent and is forecast to drop to 9 percent by 2050. The focus of the global economy is shifting from the transatlantic region to Asia. China’s rise to superpower status, Russia’s comeback as a great power, the great power ambitions of India and other emerging countries, the self-confident appearance of the BRICS – the result of all this is that the West’s dominance of global politics is a thing of the past. This is the real turning point.

There’s no need to go into raptures about it. The multipolar world order that is emerging harbors great potential for conflict and enormous risks. It is only real progress if it goes hand in hand with respect for the UN Charter. But we must not bury our heads in the sand in the face of change. Or worse still, to think that it is business as usual and to continue a war in blind hubris, whatever the cost.

Affects are bad advisors

It is time to understand the new geopolitical realities and to analyze them with a sober mind instead of reacting with emotion. Anger, disgust and indignation are not the way to make policy.

Of course, the use of military force is an extreme transgression of boundaries that evokes the strongest emotions. These include not only compassion for the victims, but also an increased willingness to be aggressive, enthusiasm for war, hatred to the point of fanaticism and a thirst for revenge. Even Sigmund Freud, who knew more about the psyche of Homo sapiens than almost anyone else, wrote at the outbreak of the First World War: “All my libido belongs to Austria and Hungary.”

But security policy in the 21st century cannot be based on anger and indignation. Hatred and revenge in turn provoke hatred and revenge, and in this way, they mutually push each other ever higher. Hate makes you blind.

In addition, all these negative emotions are instrumentalized by warmongering interests and profiteers of war and militarism. These days in particular, with the Ukrainian – and Western – defeat in Avdiivka, the death of Navalny and the second anniversary of the Russian invasion, we are experiencing a veritable tsunami of whipped-up emotions in politics and the media.

Moralizing claim to absoluteness

After two years of war, a continuation of the war can no longer be justified by the Russian invasion in 2022. That would mean absolutizing it as a singular event that exclusively and monocausally determines everything else. The view of a complex conflict shrinks to one day and one event. “I can no longer hear the word context,” was a sentence typical of this attitude from a columnist in Springer’s WELT. It was aimed at Gaza, but it also applies to the war in Ukraine.

Any context of the wars should therefore be ignored. Basically, the demand is to switch off thinking and only empathize with Israel after the Hamas massacre and with Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. This is a complete rejection of enlightenment, critical social theory, conflict research and common sense.

In the meantime, the war has exacted an enormous price in terms of human lives, destruction, economic and political collateral damage in Ukraine, in the EU and worldwide. Its continuation would further increase the horrors.

In addition, the war has changed shape: it has become a proxy war and a war of world order between the West and Russia.

It is no longer possible to proceed according to the maxim: Fiat iustitia et pereat mundus, i.e. justice should be done, even if the world perishes as a result. Heinrich von Kleist portrayed the anatomy of the problem in a vivid way in his Michael Kohlhaas: Two horses are arbitrarily taken away from the horse dealer Kohlhaas by a squire. His legal action is first delayed for a long time and then dismissed. Further attempts to obtain justice also fail. As a result, he becomes a fanatic, ruins his family and, together with a gang, embarks on a campaign of revenge involving murder and pillaging. The novella ends with him finally getting his two horses back, but being sentenced to death for his murderous arson.

The message is clear: the initially legitimate pursuit of a morally and legally legitimate claim can turn into immorality and injustice. For the war in Ukraine, this means that the good cause of helping international law achieve a breakthrough by no means justifies all means. The price for achieving the goal must be morally and legally justifiable. This is a similar logic to the principle of proportionality in the rule of law. In the Gaza war, the principle is constantly being repeated, albeit without consequences, even by the West.

In this spirit, the UN Charter also obliges all states, first and foremost the permanent members of the Security Council, not only to keep the peace. But also to end wars as quickly as possible through diplomacy and negotiations.

Peter Wahl studied Romance languages and literature and social sciences in Mainz, Aix-en-Provence and Frankfurt am Main. He is a co-founder of Attac and works on international relations and geopolitics.

The war and the left

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *