Today's sleepwalkers

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By MARCO D'ERAMO*

Paralyzed by the horrors perpetrated in Ukraine, we no longer notice the escalation unfolding before our eyes.

We will all be radioactive and happy. Contaminated and hypocritical. The Geiger counter will run furiously as democracy triumphs over barbarism. Lo and behold, in Europe, fingers crossed, we are going full steam ahead to a nuclear showdown. We are rushing into the abyss with that gleeful disregard with which the great powers plunged into the First World War. This is what the beautiful work of Christopher Clark tells The sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012). But unlike those days, sleepwalkers today are in a state of induced torpor.

Paralyzed by the horrors perpetrated in Ukraine, we no longer notice the escalation unfolding before our eyes. I'm not just referring to the intensification of Russia's war effort and the senseless brutality displayed by its armed forces. Nor the West's ever-heavier sanctions against Moscow, or the influx into Kiev of increasingly powerful and sophisticated weaponry from NATO member states. Instead, the most worrying escalation is in the rhetoric of war. In today's conflict, the propaganda field is decisive, perhaps even more so than the battlefield itself.

In recent weeks, all the tropes of “war crimes”, “genocide” and “atrocities” have been adopted (before the war started, I wrote for the website Sidecar on the use of atrocities as a political tool). Let's be clear: atrocities have certainly been committed – and more will happen. War is atrocious by definition; otherwise it would be more like a sporting event, a wrestling tournament. However, it is unusual to call the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a genocide or an atrocity. Atrocities are committed in all wars, but tend to be denounced only in a few. These categories are invoked with the specific aim of excluding any possibility of negotiation.

It is no coincidence that poor Emmanuel Macron (snubbed by the US and ridiculed by Vladimir Putin after hours of useless tete à tete) objected to the verbal intensification represented by the accusations of “genocide”. You cannot negotiate with a war criminal; deals cannot be made with a mass murderer. If Putin is the new Hitler, the only thing left to do is raze the new Reich. There is no room for reasoning, so no remedy is possible.

No space, actually. Who remembers the four rounds of negotiations between Russia and Ukraine held between February 28th and March 10th (three in Belarus, one in Turkey)? An agreement then seemed possible; now it is inconceivable. The feeling that we all had from the beginning – that the United States would not be unhappy with a Russian invasion and that it would do very little to prevent it – was confirmed more and more as the months went by.

As early as March, when it became clear that no one wanted to negotiate a peace agreement, one of the leading scholars of Stalinism, Stephen Kotkin (not exactly known for his tenderness towards Russia), warned in an interview with the The New Yorker: “The problem… is that it's hard to figure out how to de-escalate, how to get out of the spiral of mutual maximalism. We keep raising the stakes with more and more sanctions and cancellations. There is pressure from our side to “do something” because Ukrainians are dying every day while we are sitting on the sidelines, militarily, in some ways. (Although, as I said, we are providing weapons and operating in the cybernetics realm.) The pressure from our side is to be maximalist; however, the more we corner the Russians, the less Putin has to lose; thus, he can raise his stakes, unfortunately. He has many tools that he has not used that can hurt us. We need a de-escalation of the maximalist spiral; we also need a bit of luck and good luck, maybe in Moscow, maybe in Helsinki or Jerusalem, maybe in Beijing, but certainly in Kiev”.

Since then, two months have passed and the situation has deteriorated. On April 26, James Heappey, the British Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, told Ukrainians that they should take the war into Russian territory. These Western foreign policy establishment figures are well aware that, contrary to what common sense would dictate, Putin's stalling of the military advance has actually undermined hopes for peace.

The Kremlin could never expose itself to Russian public opinion and sit down to talk without having achieved any of its war objectives, as that would be evidence of the failure of its offensive. And NATO, for its part, has no interest in diminishing the conflict. It will not spare Russia punishment, either for its atrocities in Bucha or for its insubordination to the hegemon North American.

The trajectory of the war showed that Russian military power was overestimated. Just as Germany was defined as an economic giant and a political dwarf, Putin's Russia was, until recently, seen as an economic dwarf and a military giant. But a dwarf giant is an oxymoron, and Moscow's military might is more realistically commensurate with its economic capabilities – a GDP larger than Spain's but smaller than Italy's.

All this became evident on April 14, with the sinking of the guided missile cruiser Moscow, the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Whatever the truth about her disappearance, whether she sank because of a fire – implying that the Russian Navy is in such a dire state that it was unable to put out the fire – or due to a Ukrainian missile strike – indicating that Russia does not have the technology to repel an offensive against its most advanced vessel – the calamity demonstrated what the deadlocks of land warfare already suggested: that the Russia of Vladimir Putin can also be defined by the sardonic phrase once used by a reporter of Financial Times to describe the USSR under Gorbachev, a “High Volta with rockets”.

More concretely, however, the shoddy anti-missile defenses of the Moscow taught the Pentagon that if this is the condition of Russian electronic systems, the risk posed by its nuclear arsenal is relative. As Andrew Bacevich observes in The Nation, “most embarrassingly for American strategic policymakers, the failure of Putin’s “special operation” exposes the general Russian “threat” as essentially fraudulent. Barring a suicide nuclear attack, Russia poses no danger to the United States. (Emphasis added to those who think slowly). Nor does it pose a significant threat to Europe. An army frustrated in its efforts to overcome the forces that were patch-built to defend Ukraine will not get very far if the Kremlin chooses to attack the European members of NATO. The Russian bear has effectively become much smaller now.”

Andrew Bacevich was too hasty to exclude the possibility of a suicide nuclear attack, but he is also wrong on another point. It is true that Russia poses no serious threat to the United States and its defensive arsenal, itself protected by a network of satellites and cutting-edge technology. But what about Europe? European cities are really at risk, both because of their more modest protections and because of their contiguity with Russia (that is, the relative speed with which Russia could reach them). Berlin is just 1.000 km from the Russian border.

Let's not forget that the conflict between NATO and Russia took place entirely in Europe; it would be the third time in little more than a century that the United States would fight a war on the European continent without having to face its consequences at home (in March, former CIA director Leon Panetta admitted that the US was already fighting a war for power of attorney in Ukraine).

At this point, NATO and the US began to talk like winners, openly discussing what punishments to inflict on a defeated Moscow. “We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can't do the kinds of things it did by invading Ukraine,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Meanwhile, Francis Fukuyama predicts that "Russia is heading for a total defeat in Ukraine" - a defeat that "will make possible a "new birth of freedom".

Here is how this author thinks. It will get us out of our nightmare about the declining state of global democracy. The spirit of 1989 will live on, thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians. Furthermore, writes Fukuyama, the war will be a good lesson for China. Like Russia, China has built seemingly high-tech military forces over the past decade, but they lack combat experience. The dismal performance of the Russian air force would likely be replicated by the People's Liberation Army Air Force, which is also inexperienced in managing complex air operations. We can hope that the Chinese leadership does not delude itself about its own capabilities, as the Russians did when contemplating a future move against Taiwan.

In short, “thanks to a bunch of brave Ukrainians”, the defense of the free world becomes an unexpected occasion to reaffirm US global hegemony and consolidate an empire that a few months earlier had been diagnosed with irreversible decline. As Pankaj Mishra writes, “The humiliation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home by Donald Trump, has demoralized both exporters of democracy and capitalism. But Vladimir Putin's atrocities in Ukraine have now given them an opportunity to make America look great again." (Everyone takes advantage of the war to settle personal scores: Boris Johnson, for example, is using the conflict to make trouble for Germany, taking a little revenge for the humiliations suffered during the post-Brexit negotiations).

The main problem is that the more Russia finds itself cornered, the more it will be humiliated by its military weakness and the more it will be tempted to compensate with nuclear threats. We know from experience that threats cannot be prolonged indefinitely – sooner or later they must be carried out, even if they are totally counterproductive (as Putin saw, at considerable cost, with the decision to start the war itself). “Don't put too much pressure on a desperate enemy” – warned Sun Tzu, some 24 centuries ago.

This is a different climb from the one described by Kotkin, but its effect is the same. As Russia weakens in Ukraine, its enemies are no longer forced to negotiate; they therefore become more intransigent and change the terms of the negotiation, leading Russia to intensify its efforts, and so on. The first victim of this cycle is the Ukrainian people. The result of the stalled negotiations is the bombing of more cities and the death of more civilians. The West will continue to trumpet its values ​​over its corpses (unless it decides to intervene directly and trigger a nuclear war). To paraphrase an old saying: it's easy to play the hero when someone else's neck is on the line.

Meanwhile, the Russian invasion has already done irreparable damage. He showed just how much the environment matters to those insightful elites who govern our societies. Any global crisis becomes yet another opportunity to relegate the future of our planet to the lowest rung of the order of priorities. There is a pandemic so forget the environment. A war in Ukraine? Let's start producing more oil. We have to go back to swallowing the return of nuclear energy. More coal plants, more gas from our “democratic” ally Al Sisi – behold, anything is better than making a deal with the perfidious Kremlin.

The second casualty of the Russian invasion is the European Union, which will be in shambles even if it is spared the missile attacks. The German fantasies of a new Ostpolitik disappeared from the horizon, French dreams of (relative) military autonomy were dispelled, and relations (maintained during the Cold War) between Rome and the Kremlin were severed. Above all, any notion of the EU's political autonomy is now defunct. Europe in its entirety has realigned with NATO, the same organization that Macron called “brain dead” in 2019. Mister President: today there are queues outside the NATO ticket office.

But there is more: the Russian invasion, with the aim of “denazifying” Ukraine, also gave renewed legitimacy to neo-fascism and authoritarianism across Europe. The right is no longer judged on its dictatorial impulses, but on its relative hostility or sympathy for Vladimir Putin. Poland, on trial by the European Union for infringing its rule of law, finds itself miraculously elevated to a bulwark of democracy, while Hungary is further ostracized because of its tepid anti-Russian stances.

Vladimir Putin performed two miracles. The first was the creation of Ukraine. If to exist politically a nation must first be imagined as a community, and if that community can only be imagined when the dead become our dead, then the Russian invasion really gave birth to Ukraine, not just as a geographical entity, not even as a political-diplomatic construction (recall that from the 1991th century until XNUMX Ukraine was always under foreign control), but as a community, as a feeling of belonging to a people.

The second miracle was the legitimization of the Ukrainian neo-Nazis in the eyes of the world. Mention is made here, for those who have not read them, of two fine reports on the European extreme right published before the invasion of Ukraine: one on Harper's and another on Time and patience. Both dealt with the Ukrainian neo-Nazis, their organization and their leaders, the Azov Battalion (now a Regiment). When Russian tanks crossed the border, the Azov Battalion became a hotbed of heroes.

This transformation borders on the ridiculous – if it weren't already tragic. This was shown in interviews such as the one that appeared in La Repubblica, who quotes the commander of the second regiment as saying, "I'm not a Nazi, I read Kant to my soldiers." The commander goes on to quote the well-known conclusion of the Critique of Practical Reason: “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me, and the moral law within me.” All this is reminiscent of the SS, who were known to have an exquisite taste in German romantic music.

This shows that, in advertising wars, the law of the excluded middle does not hold. It is not true that if the opponent is wrong, then the opponent must be right. Lies in war are not symmetrical; two enemies are perfectly capable of lying simultaneously. That is why it is childish to accuse anyone who questions the Western narrative of the war of philo-Putinism. The fact that Vladimir Putin is, to use Roosevelt's words, "a son of a bitch" does not mean that his enemies are angels. Behold, the opposite is also true. Western political cynicism cannot turn Putin into a saint.

It is impressive to see that the US always plays the same script, presenting itself as the Empire of Good, now colliding with the Empire of Evil, now facing a rogue State or a crazy criminal. For more than eighty years this same western appears in the media. In reality, however, human history is more like a spaghetti western than the image created by the American cultural industry; a story without heroes and villains, where everyone acts unscrupulously in their own interest, or what they (often wrongly) perceive as such. Let's just hope this story doesn't end with Joe Biden riding alone into a sunset obscured by a billowing mushroom cloud.

PS: Unlike most self-respecting commentators, I would be extremely happy to be contradicted by the facts, even admitting to having made a huge mistake. I would be happy above all just to be alive.

*Marco D'Eramo is a journalist. Author, among other books, of The Pig and the Skyscraper (To).

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the website of New Left Review.

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