Putin’s new world orderWhat does the war in Ukraine mean?
Danger lurks whenever the attention of the public is persistently focused on a single issue. This is particularly true when this focus goes hand-in-hand with a strong, dominating narrative – as is the case with the war in Ukraine.
The Russian attack on Ukraine seemed to belong in another era, which is why it took so many by surprise. The seeds for the political responses triggered in the West by this offensive were sown in the current generation of politicians when they were still at school, in social studies or civics class. Back then, in the 1970s and 80s, the Slavic world cast a long shadow over Europe. In the face of this shadow, freedom and democracy had to be defended – if necessary, robustly. Although the Red Army withdrew from East Germany without firing a single shot, it is nevertheless reassuring for people when the things they learned in their childhood later prove to be correct.
Freedom and democracy – and also civilisation, law, and humanity – must be defended in Ukraine by force of arms. This has been the prevailing response of German politicians across the board, from Anton Hofreiter of the Greens to Friedrich Merz from the centre-right CDU. Cautious dissenting voices are being drowned out by the thunder of the howitzers sent to the Donbas region. Letters to the German chancellor warning of what might happen – even when such missives are penned by prominent figures such as science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar or writer Martin Walser – are being obliterated in the mud beneath the caterpillar tracks of the Gepard self-propelling anti-aircraft guns being transferred to Ukraine.
Don’t draw conclusions based on the current situation
Now revealed to be a mask, the media-friendly suavity of the aggressor's face successfully concealed an archaic brutality and cold, cynical calculation for far too long. Being against Putin – the unmasked person in question here – is a common denominator upon which many people from across the political spectrum can agree, proponents of the "free market economy" and those calling for "climate protection" alike.
Yet the torrent of flat ideology that accompanies the debate and the political response invites scepticism. Freedom and democracy must be victorious in the battle for Ukraine. This is no longer just a value judgement, but a practical certainty ever since the Russian advance has been successfully halted and the theatre of war has been restricted to the east of the country.
Many in history have made the mistake of drawing conclusions in their mind based on the current situation – particularly in times of war: troop convoys rolling unhindered through Belgium at the beginning of the twentieth century led some to the conclusion that great victories were to come. Summed up as a culture of short-term gain at the expense of future generations, the Dictatorship of Now – a phenomenon of liberal democracy judged problematic by a number of critical observers – could also unleash its power in the geopolitical challenge posed by the war in Ukraine.
The politically astute have always known how to capitalise on such situations, doing things that would otherwise have earned them a rap over the knuckles at international level. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, can now rest assured that his campaign against the Kurdish PKK in northern Iraq and Syria will go largely unnoticed. For his part, the former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon launched a military operation in the West Bank on 12 September 2001. Regardless of the very real significance of both these operations, they are – or were – quite literally, sideshows. People are happy to overlook bloodshed or starvation in Yemen or Ethiopia. The key interests of the West are not affected by such marginal events.
Blind spots in times of crisis
That global society has blind spots in times of crisis is nothing new: it was illustrated in an exaggerated manner by German novelist Erich Kaestner in his 1931 novel Fabian ("Going to the Dogs. The Story of a Moralist"). In the novel, an editor of a Berlin newspaper has to fill a blank in a column at short notice. With no other news item to hand, he decides to make something up: "Street fighting between Mohammedans and Hindus has broken out in Calcutta. Although the police soon had the situation in hand, the casualties were fourteen dead and twenty-two injured. Order has now been fully restored." Horrified, a trainee pointed out that there had been no unrest in Calcutta. His objections were promptly dismissed by the editor with the words: "No fighting in Calcutta? [...] Will you kindly prove that? There's always fighting in Calcutta."
Still, the degradation of other remaining problems to the point of utter insignificance is not important. What is important are the weaknesses of the prevailing narrative being used to convey the main issue: the war in Ukraine. The fight for freedom and democracy emphasises an ideal that is richly subjective. In the deluge of solidarity with Ukraine, one fact is at risk of being overlooked: in the region between the Donets and Dnieper rivers, the empire that started the war (the Russian one) is not the only one involved. It is facing off against a second empire (the American one), which is seeking to defeat the aggressor.
Following the Afghanistan debacle, President Joe Biden is hoping to restore the global standing and supremacy of the United State of America. He has dusted off the classic textbooks on interventionist foreign and military policy down off the shelf, which lay idle during the Trump years, and – as America's commander in chief and supreme tutor – has drummed their contents into his staff. More than anything else, Biden is keeping a close eye on China's ascent. The current contest between imperial powers is reminiscent of the situation on the eve of World War I, which was characterised by a series of smaller wars, such as the ones in the Balkans.
At the end of April, Biden sent his secretary of defence, Lloyd James Austin, to Ramstein Air Base in south-western Germany so that Austin could summon his European colleagues, including German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht, to a meeting. This meeting, which was held far from the diplomatic theatre of Berlin and during which Austin dictated the West's direction of march in Ukraine, was a message. The U.S. considers Europe to be a deployment zone that could turn into a major battlefield at any time. Much will depend on whether China ultimately stands by Russia in the same way that the German Empire stood by Austria-Hungary in 1914. Objectively speaking, more will depend on this than on the calibre of the weapons Germany is currently delivering to Ukraine.
Consolidating Europe's ability to defend itself and building up independent, credible armed forces have both been discussed at length. However, nothing has come of the debate. Instead, the political cracks within the union have deepened. The United Kingdom, a nuclear power, has left the EU, while Poland and Hungary are openly challenging democratic principles such as the separation of powers. In the midst of all this came Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which was a shock, above all for Germany. As one experienced, retired politician said off the record, Berlin has a "headless chicken" problem when it comes to foreign policy. The Biden administration is dictating the direction to be taken by the West. Its closest partners in Europe in this matter are the Eastern European members of the EU (with the exception of Hungary), the UK, and, of course, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
The Ukraine war’s gruesome harvest
The jagged lines of the front are cleaving the world into good and evil. Such antagonism could make people forget something absolutely essential: the unity of the era. Vladimir Putin has breathed new life into a term that seemed to belong to another age: Karl Marx’s Menschenmaterial, literally “human material”. The German linguistic committee that decides on the "’un-word’ of the year" had good reason to declare the term Menschenmaterial the "unword of the twentieth century". Since the massacres in Mariupol, Chernihiv and Bucha, and since our contemporary, Dictator Putin, has proven he can send tens of thousands of young soldiers to their death without fear of a revolt, this term has become horribly topical.
Since then, at the very latest, there is a need to dig deeper. After all, Putin has let slip his tendency to view humans as material before. It has been evident in the way the Russian forces of intervention have waged war in Syria since 2015, carpet-bombing densely populated urban areas, causing large-scale death, destruction and – almost more so than both these things – the resulting mass displacement of people. Displaced Syrians have become a trump card that Putin plays at will in his cold, calculated interaction with nationalist parties in Europe and against the governments of EU member states.
Karl Marx coined the word Menschenmaterial as an ironic commentary on the social self-confidence of the propertied, exploiting class. The German warmongers and directors of concentration camps in the twentieth century used the term very literally, stripping it of all irony. Putin himself doesn't even use the word; it is through his actions alone that he has revived the term "human material" – post-cynically, one might say.
Democracy has given itself the task of protecting freedom, dignity and the autonomy of the individual. And it goes without saying that everyone who is outraged that Putin is trampling these rights and the right to live underfoot is in the right. The renaissance of Menschenmaterial is the gruesome harvest of the war in Ukraine.
Yet it would not be right to ascribe this tendency to the Russian empire alone. The question as to whether human freedom and autonomy really flourish in democracies as they stand today must be critically examined. The USA proved in Iraq that democracies are also capable of waging outright wars of aggression. Moreover, “human material” can take many different forms: gridlock on the motorway, people packed into a cruise ship, the Twitter community, the target group and consumers of superfluous commodities and services, exploited factory workers, sewers and seamstresses, and perhaps also – subject to shifting public opinion well-equipped German soldiers, willing to fight.
When the post-materialistic order new things on Amazon to cheer themselves up during the pandemic, you could be forgiven for worrying that these individuals might one day fuse with their material. If necessary, oligarch Jeff Bezos will be in the privileged position of being able to leave all the rubbish behind him and fly to another planet or a satellite with a few close friends.
Some commentators – and certainly not the most stupid of them – consider the key issue of the twenty-first century to be whether free and enlightened humans are still capable of rising to their responsibilities and maintaining the natural basis of their existence.
This challenge is now being radically reformulated. It has become a fight between political systems, between democracies and autocracies. It sounds a little like a collective flight; as if we are going into an exam not actually believing that we can pass it. People would rather regress and be consumed as Menschenmaterial. It's like committing suicide for fear of dying. Indeed, this general trend – regardless of the systems or trenches involved – is the unifying element of our time.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
The author works as a television journalist for the ARD political magazine Panorama.