War in Ukraine and the problems deriving from a weaker autocracy

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By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

While the atrocious war in Ukraine is being fought, causing great losses of innocent civilians and soldiers as well as immense material damage, the war dynamic is escalating to the point where even the “nuclear war option” can no more be excluded. In a totally irresponsible way, the US, NATO and the European allies have now decided to offer more and more “offensive” weapons to the Ukraine, which means that in the near future more European nations will potentially be pulled into this war transforming Europe into a major battlefield.

Pope Francis is one of the few representatives world-wide who has come out demanding fervently an immediate end to the war, and called for peace. On April 6th 2022, during his Wednesday General Audience in Rome he stated that “ever more horrendous cruelties (are occurring) even against civilians, women, and helpless children. They are victims whose innocent blood cries out to heaven and implores. (…) May this war cease! May weapons fall silent. Stop sowing death and destruction,” while at the same time he unfurled a Ukrainian flag that came from the war-torn city Bucha near Kyiv.

Pope Francis’ visit to the island of Malta April 1-3rd was also overshadowed by the war. In an address to the Members of the Maltese Government and the Diplomatic Corps, aside religious and civil authorities and representatives of social and cultural life, Pope Francis spoke, aside the burning problem of migration, about the Ukraine, deploring the fact that “from the East of Europe, from the land of sunrise, the dark shadows of war have now spread. We had thought that invasions of other countries, savage street fighting and atomic threats were grim memories of a distant past. However the icy winds of war, which bring only death, destruction and hatred in their wake, have swept down powerfully upon the lives of many people and affected us all. Once again, some potentate, sadly caught up in anachronistic claims of nationalist interest, is provoking and fomenting conflicts, whereas ordinary people sense the need to build a future that will either be shared, or not be at all. Now, in the night of the war that has fallen upon humanity, please let us not allow the dream of peace to fade!”

He further added that “infantile and destructive aggression threatens us embedding the risk of an ‘enlarged Cold War’ that can stifle the life of entire people and generations. That ‘Childishness’”, as he put it, “has reemerged powerfully in the seductions of autocracy, new forms of imperialism, widespread aggressiveness, and the inability to build bridges and start from the poorest in our midst. Today it is difficult to think with the logic of peace. We have gotten used to thinking with the logic of war. It is from there that cold wind of war begins to blow, and this time it has been encouraged over the years.”

In contrast to the assurances given by NATO to the Ukraine, that they are going to deliver more offensive weapons, the Pope harshly condemned “weapon trade” as an underlying cause for war, by stating that this war has been in fact prepared for some time by “great investments in weaponry and a massive trade in arms. It is distressing to see how the enthusiasm for peace which emerged after the Second World War, has faded in these recent decades, as has the progress of the international community, with a few powers who go ahead on their own account, seeking spaces and zones of influence. In this way, not only peace, but also so many great questions, like the fight against hunger and inequality are no longer on the list of the main political agendas.”

Instead of more “rearmament”, the Pope strongly emphasized that we needed an even more “expanded dialogue” as well as organizing “international peace conferences, where the theme of disarmament will have a central place, where our thoughts will turn to future generations. And where the enormous funds that continues to be destined to weaponry may be diverted to development, health care and nutrition.”

Former Kremlin advisor Sergey Karaganov about the war in Ukraine

In a recent interview, Sergey Karaganov, who is honorary chairman of the Moscow think-tank for Foreign and Defense Policy and former presidential advisor to Jelzin and Vladimir Putin, gave an insight into the thinking of leading strategists around Putin and revealed the paradoxes as well as wishful delusion in their assessment. This interview was conducted by Bruno Maçães, Portuguese former Minister in the magazine “The New Statesman” and was published April 2nd . Karaganov, as Maçães wrote in the introduction, is one of Putin’s advisors who formulated some of the ideas that led to the war in Ukraine — though he also expressed disagreement with the idea of long term occupation of the country. Being asked by Maçães, why Russia invaded Ukraine, Karaganov replied:

For 25 years, people like me have been saying that if NATO and Western alliances expand beyond certain lines, especially into Ukraine, there will be war. I envisioned that scenario as far back as 1997. In 2008 President Putin said that if Ukraine’s membership of the alliance became a possibility, then there will be no Ukraine. He was not listened to. So the first objective is to end NATO’s expansion. Two other objectives have been added: one is the demilitarization of Ukraine; the other is denazification, because there are people in the Russia government concerned with the rise of ultra-nationalism in Ukraine, to the extent they think it is the beginning for that country to resemble Germany in the 1930ies. There is also an aim to free the Donbass republics of eight years of constant bombardment.” (…) But the real war is against Western expansion.”

Russia cannot afford to lose, we need a kind of victory”

When he was asked what would be considered a “successful outcome” for the invasion, Karaganov responded that while not knowing what the outcome of this war will be, he thought it will involve the “partition” of Ukraine one way or another. “Hopefully there would still be something called Ukraine left at the end. But Russia cannot afford to ‘lose’, so we need a kind of victory. And if there is a sense that we are losing the war, then I think there is a definite possibility of escalation. This war is a kind of proxy war between the West and the rest – Russia being, as it has been in history, the pinnacle of “the rest” – for a future world order. The stakes of the Russian elite are very high, for them it is an existential war.”

In terms of the potential risk of a direct clash between NATO and Russia, Karaganov emphasized that there is the “growing probability of a direct clash”. He added that while he considered Art 5 of NATO worthless, on the other side he knew from the history of “American nuclear strategy that the US is unlikely to defend Europe with nuclear weapons. But there is still a chance of escalation here, so it is an abysmal scenario and I hope that some kind of peace agreement between us and the US and between us and Ukraine can be reached before we go further into this unbelievably dangerous world.”

In respect to Ukraine, Karaganov showed a lack of reality which may be typical for some people in the Russian elite. He stated at one point that he didn’t know, whether the Ukraine will survive because “it had very limited, if any, history of statehood and it doesn’t have a state-building elite. May be something will grow from below, but it’s an open question and the war will decide (…) Maybe the Ukrainian nation will be born: I will be happy if Ukrainian have an effective, viable government, unlike the situation during the last 30 years. They were the absolute losers after the Soviet Union, because of their lack of state building elite.” According to Karaganov “some of Ukraine will become a friendly state to Russia; other parts may be portioned …. But we are in a full-on war; it is hard to predict. The war is an open- ended story.”

Talking about the “losers” and “winners” from this war, Karaganov emphasized that “the big losers are, in addition to Ukraine, Europe, especially if it continues with this mysterious zest for independence. But China is clearly the victor of this whole affair… I think the biggest loser will be Ukraine; a loser will be Russia; a great loser will be Europe; the Unites States will lose somewhat, but still it could very well survive as a huge island over the ocean; and the big victor is China.”

Concerning future Russia /Europe relations, Karaganov argued that while “we could have solved the crisis peacefully, there’s no question that parts of Europe would have oriented themselves not toward Russia itself but greater Eurasia, of which Russia would be a key part (…) That scenario is now postponed, but Europe needs to develop a relationship with Greater Eurasia. We lived through world wars and cold wars, and then we built our relationship. I hope that we shall do that in ten years….”

Karaganov underlined that for Russia this war in Ukraine is an “existential war”. “If we do not win, somehow, then I think we will have all kinds of unforeseen political repercussions, which are much worse than at the beginning of the 1990s. But I believe that we will avoid that, first because Russia will win, whatever that victory means, and second, because we have a strong and tough regime, so in any event, or if the worst happens, it will not be the dissolution of the country or collapse. I think it will be closer to a harsh authoritarian regime than to the dissolution of the country. But still, defeat is unthinkable.” At one point, he said “we need a kind of solution, which would be called peace which would include de facto the creation of some kind of a viable, pro-Russian government on the territory of Ukraine, and real security of the Donbass republics.”

A “stalemate” or “defeat” is, according to Karaganov, not viable and would only lead “to an escalation”. In the face of an existential threat – and that means a non-victory, or an alleged defeat – “Russia could escalate and there are dozens of places in the world where it would have a direct confrontation with the United States.”

Nuclear option?

To the question, could there be an escalation “towards the possible use of nuclear weapons?” Karaganov replied: “I wouldn’t rule it out. We are living in an absolutely new strategic situation.” He stated that “we are witnessing the collapse of an economic system – of the world economic system – globalization in this form is finished. Whatever we have had in the past is gone. (…) Personally I am tremendously saddened. I worked for the creation of a viable and fair system. But I am part of Russia, so I only wish that we win whatever this means.” It would be completely foolish for other Western strategists, to simply discard Karaganov’s theses as some kind of aggressive talk dating back to the times of Cold War. Rather than blinding themselves by self-delusion, they should take into serious consideration what Karaganov stated and commit themselves in major peace efforts.

German Historian Jörg Baberowski “Putin has no other choice but to win, if he wants to stay in power.”

German historian, Prof. Jörg Baberowski, teacher at the Humboldt University in Berlin, being an expert on Russian history, especially the period of the Soviet Union and Stalinist violence, in a lengthy interview with Neue Züricher Zeiting (4.04.22) reiterated that Putin had no other choice but to win, if he wanted to stay in power.

He underlined that once war begins it is changing and transforming everything: the attacker and the attacked. Baberowski pointed out that the war is becoming even more cruel if there is weakness. “Putin apparently presumed that nobody would resist his invasion. And now he has no other choice but to win, if he wants to stay in power. From this weakness immense cruelties of war are born.”

Baberowski expressed particular disgust about the present mood which manifests itself in the German political scene, where people, who before were passionate defenders of peace, now are falling into the other “extreme”, by speaking about the pride of the defenders and by hailing that more weapons be sent to Ukraine. He criticized the dominant Western view which characterizes the present conflict as a fight between “liberal democracy and autocracy.” That the view, if once the despot is overthrown, democracy would follow, has been disproven by what was seen f.i. in Syria and Egypt.

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