War Drums and the Focus with which They Are Played

Andrés Ortega

11 mins - 22 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

From being one of the few European leaders to hold a dialogue with Putin, from demanding “not to humiliate Russia”, Emmanuel Macron has gone on to describe Russia as an “existential threat” and become the standard-bearer of the danger posed by the former superpower. A vision that is spreading with a large dose of irresponsibility. Stirring up the spectre of Hitler’s “appeasement” in Munich in 1938, Macron even suggested the possibility of sending Western military to Ukrainian soil. The latter was immediately rebutted by almost all his allies, fearing an escalation that could lead to nuclear weapons. These drums of great war have their historical focus wrong. This story does not look the same from 1938 as it does today, or from 2022, with Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine, as it does from 2014, 1999, 1991, 1989, 1939, or 1919. Depending on the distance at which you zoom in, depending on the past reference point you take, the film of the present changes. And of the future.

Reflecting a stance that is gaining ground among Western policymakers, Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles stated in a recent interview that “the threat of war is absolute and society is not fully aware” and that “the government is fully committed to this war scenario”. If this is the case, citizens deserve more explanation, and Parliament an in-depth debate. Pedro Sánchez, like almost all heads of government, flatly rejected the suggestion of putting Western boots on Ukrainian soil, as he knows that this would imply an escalation that would transform the Ukrainian war into a direct conflict between NATO and Russia.

The spectre of the disreputable “appeasement” of Hitler in the Munich agreements of 1938 was very popular at the time in France and the UK. No one questioned why Germany had been left to rearm in the years before. The Soviet Union, in fact, contributed to this. More appropriate references, as the fine diplomat Luis Felipe de la Peña points out, would be 1919 and 1991. The first date, because of Germany’s humiliation at Versailles, criticised in his day with clairvoyance by John Maynard Keynes. The second, for the year in which the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself were dissolved. In 1999, the third reference to add, NATO’s eastward enlargement towards Russia began, when Gorbachev had been promised in 1990 that it would be limited, with German unification, to the former Democratic Republic. Gradual enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance criticised by the wise and unsuspicious George Kennan, the intellectual architect in 1946-47 of the policy of containment towards the USSR. In 1990-91 a good opportunity was missed to build a pan-European security architecture, which should be considered for a lasting peace in Ukraine and on the continent as a whole. It is worth adding 23 August 1939, the date of the ignominious German-Soviet pact, which was not purely tactical but had its roots in the historical relations between Berlin and Moscow which, I dare to predict, will return because history and geography weigh heavily. Not forgetting 1948-1989, the long Cold War whose demise has changed so many things, even if we are not aware of many of them. In short, depending on how you zoom in, history appears in one way or another. And it depends, of course, on how you look at it.

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At least now Victoria Nuland is leaving the stage as she retires from her post as US Assistant Secretary of State, having served as ambassador to Moscow and been present and haranguing the masses at the Maidan in Kiev in 2013-2014. This was largely triggered by the EU’s allegedly technical demand on Kiev to choose between the EU and Russia as the framework for its trade relations, which had led a year earlier to the collapse of Ukraine’s Association Treaty with the EU. The Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine followed. Again, a question of zoom. 

Recently, in an interview on CNN calling for more funds to arm Ukraine, Nuland explained that this money is coming home as it is going to US arms factories. She admitted that Putin’s Russia “is not the Russia we wanted” – regime change policy? Beware of wishful thinking. Today, with or without the controlled plebiscite that has yielded the expected result, Putin’s future replacement may be even worse than the current long-serving Russian president.

Why is Macron acting like this and why is his alarm spreading? The atmosphere, and the creation of an atmosphere. It is true that unresolved wars and ominous tensions, various crises in different parts of the world, the rise of the far right, the uncertainty about who will lead the US from next January or what will happen internally in the world’s still leading power, and the unease caused by the technological revolution in various dimensions are all adding up. Global entropy is increasing with the polycrisis. But Macron (and others) have, above all, their sights set on 9 June, the date of the European elections in which the RN, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, can win by a landslide and use them as a springboard for the 2017 presidential elections, which the current centrist president will not be able to run for because his two terms have run out. Macron is making this supposed threat of war a central plank of his policy. It remains to be seen whether voters will follow his lead.

Although he tried to disguise it in a subsequent meeting, Macron has distanced himself from Germany, due to disparity of interests and similarity of character with Olaf Scholtz. Scholtz, who a few months ago proclaimed a ‘change of era’ (Zeitenwende), is now presenting himself as Friedenskanzler (chancellor of peace) in the run-up to next year’s elections, even if on the way he cracks the tripartite government and the Bundeswehr is still plagued by weaknesses, despite spending more than France. Opposing him, the Christian Democrat leader Friedrich Merz is in favour of higher defence spending and a possible agreement with the far right, with the AfD. Macron, with his ‘unlimited support’ for Ukraine and his call for a European ‘strategic shock’ against Putin’s Russia, has managed to shock Europeans. Even more so when not so long ago he considered NATO to be “brain dead”.

France has signed a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine, and Macron has passed it through the French Assembly. The far right has been accused of being pro-Putin and funded by Russia. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal rivals Le Pen’s dauphin Jordan Bardella for youth and brilliance. The far right has abstained, while remaining opposed to Ukraine’s EU membership, a position that will tend to gain ground in much of the Union. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Unsubmissive Left and the Communists voted against. The Socialists, now in decline, and the Greens voted in favour. A foretaste of positions in much of the EU ahead of a European election that the centre-right wants to focus on this war and the need to maintain deterrence against Putin’s other possible fickle moves.

By insisting on the need to maintain “strategic ambiguity” – Putin and any country with nuclear weapons, too – Macron has also underlined the importance for European post-Brexit deterrence of an independent French nuclear weapon, all the more so with the prospect of Trump returning to the White House. And he has. But many allies still prefer, or rely more on, the US nuclear umbrella. They have been training for decades to drop US tactical bombs from their aircraft or artillery, should the need arise. This is Europe. A Europe that does not just spend more on defence, but needs to spend better, more European, and less nationally. Not forgetting that, after the US, France is the country that is exporting the most arms, according to SIPRI, overtaking Russia in this ranking, in the face of a new general boom in military spending in the world. Cause or effect? Of course, Macron will call for a ceasefire for the duration of this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris.

It seems clear that this war is dragging on, rather than Ukrainian coups, because of Russian political and military leaders’ perception that time and the military balance favours them. They have more ammunition, soldiers, and weapons than the Ukrainians, that is, than the West is providing to Ukraine, notwithstanding the importance gained by the relatively cheap drones of all kinds that are defining this armed conflict. Putin must have concluded that he can still advance positions on the ground before he opens himself to negotiating a peace, or any lasting ceasefire. A year from now, time to know who he will be dealing with in the White House? Moreover, neither Putin nor Zelenski want to decree a general mobilisation that would be extremely unpopular in both countries. In NATO, too, professional soldiers are resigning, which may raise the question of the need in several countries to reintroduce compulsory military service.

Russia will not lose this war, and Ukraine will not win it. This is a view that sottovoce finds its way into many Western analyses, while in public discourse the opposite thesis is often maintained. However, the opposite is not to say that Russia will win, and Ukraine will lose, but to presage a frozen conflict, Korean-style – 1953, another zoom – or an ending that satisfies neither side fully. Of course, it is not a war between Ukraine and Russia, but has become an indirect conflict between the West, NATO, and Russia, which no one wants to turn into a direct one. For the greatest risk is that of an escalation that, by its logic, would get out of the parties’ control and go nuclear. Hence the limits that have been respected so far: no Western combat soldiers in Ukraine (they have been there as advisors almost from the beginning, imposing military doctrines that may not be useful for this war), and no Western weapons in Ukraine that could reach deep into Russian territory (immense territory, by the way). Russia, for its part – is it any wonder - does not attack the transport of these weapons from Poland and other countries to Ukraine.

Much of the so-called Global South, which increasingly counts, sees this conflict as a European war. Western credibility is damaged, not only by Ukraine, but by the precipitous exit from Afghanistan in 2021, ordered by Biden; the shameful, and contrary to European interests, French withdrawal from the Sahel, where the Russians are filling the military vacuum and the Chinese the economic one; and the different standards in the Gaza war. Withdrawal from the Sahel when it is ‘one of the main areas in sub-Saharan Africa where terrorist violence has increased exponentially’, according to Spain’s latest National Strategy against Terrorism, a wave that can reach Europe. The EU considers itself a geopolitical actor, but it does not have a good clinical eye.

Not to mention the great zoom back to August 1914, when Europe blindly entered a war, a European civil war. Watch out for the drums. They not only warn but can end up generating realities.
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