A few weeks ago, I sat with Green politician Anton Hofreiter in the Berliner Ensemble at a discussion centred around 8 May, Victory Day. As with so many things in recent weeks, it was a unique event.
Hofreiter, who belongs to the Greens’ left wing and was therefore prevented from becoming agriculture minister by party grandees, made a pitch for sending NATO weapons to Ukraine using leftist, sometimes even anti-capitalist rhetoric: Putin’s Russia was an imperialist colonial power, he said, and the fight for Ukraine was one in defence of a multi-ethnic state. Russian leftists were also of the view that the authoritarianism present in their country could only be stopped by means of force.
Raul Zelik is a writer, journalist, translator, and political scientist. From 2016–2022, he was a member of the national leadership of Die Linke.
This article first appeared in maldekstra #15. Translated by Ryan Eyers and Michael Dorrity for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
It’s a booming business for some, I said, when on the one hand you sell weapons to Ukraine, while one the other transferring almost one billion euro to Russia per day to keep the capitalist motor at home running smoothly. He countered that the most significant resistance to combating Putin was coming from corporations. It was capitalist big business who had thwarted the embargoes on oil and gas, he said. He seemed to omit the arms industry from this classification.
In my opinion, this discussion is a good illustration of where the problems lie in the current debates around war and peace: every conceivable argument is being combined with every single kind of political position. An army general makes the case for a diplomatic solution, since “every war is appalling” (Erich Vad, the right-leaning ex-military advisor to the Merkel administration), a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation office director calls for a no-fly zone and therefore for NATO’s entry into the war, and a leading Green politician depicts the stimulus package for German arms manufacturers like Rheinmetall as being anti-capitalist.
Of course, the generally confused nature of the discourse is related to the fact that alongside the war itself, many of its participants have their own interests in mind: European right-wingers are against participating in the war because they think the price of petrol is too high and want to see the downfall of the transatlantic alliance with the United States. Liberals sense an opportunity to conceal their failures in the fight against authoritarianism in their own countries by getting involved in a battle with an external enemy. As for the “political centre”, it is understandably pleasing when one can expand one’s sphere of geopolitical influence while also being able to market this as solidarity.
Thus in the arena of Realpolitik, there are only bad options: either tiptoe into war or legitimize Putin’s authoritarianism. A stimulus package for the arms industry or a display of indifference towards the people of Ukraine. Collaboration with NATO or trite requests to Ukrainians that they capitulate more easily. Orwellian newspeak is flying in all directions: “Rheinmetall means solidarity”; “Putin is peace”…
Those faced with such a false choice would do well to remember what actually brought about this situation and then to consider what a political answer could look like.
The first cause of this war is undoubtedly the “Putin system” itself, which has long used unfettered violence to achieve stability at home and geopolitical expansion abroad. The roots of Putin’s political-economic order lie equally in the Soviet secret service elites and the free global market — which could be sarcastically summarized as kleptocratic neoliberalism with a Stalinist character.
In a recent interview, Branko Milanović, formerly a lead economist for the World Bank in Russia, sought to bring attention to how Russia was practically turned into a victim of predatory capitalism in the 1990s. Supported by Western political advisors, Russia’s alcoholic president Boris Yeltsin liquidated his own country, privatizing state-owned enterprises and paving the way for a gang of unscrupulous nouveau riche to plunder its natural resources. Real-estate agents in London, the owners of high-end boutiques across the Mediterranean, and shipyards specializing in yachts for billionaires proceeded to make a killing, for they were the immediate beneficiaries of the post-Soviet wave of luxury consumption, while Russia itself was brutally pauperized. Average life expectancy for Russians fell to 65, criminality and violence became a common part of daily life, and the murder rate exploded.
A disintegrating empire on its way to third-world status. Putin, a former pupil of the Yeltsin apparatus, aligned himself with this political environment but halted Russia’s decline by strengthening state elites in relation to those in business. To put it another way: the plan of the “free West” was to transform Russia into a subaltern and dependent exporter of raw materials. Putin’s aggressive neoimperialism provided Russia’s elites with the opportunity to resume plundering resources while still being able to negotiate with buyers on equal terms.
The second major cause of the war is the absence of a European plan for peace. Listening to current debates, one might think that the opposite is true: that since the fall of the Soviet Union, Western European countries have spent far too much time trying to incorporate Russia and not enough money on military deterrence. But the numbers put out by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute are unambiguous: for years, NATO member states have been outspending Russia almost 20-to-one when it comes to armaments and the military, to the tune of over a trillion US dollars.
There is nothing that indicates that higher arms expenditure or a further expansion of NATO will make Europe safer. It is true that even without being in geopolitical competition with NATO, a Russian head of state could still have pursued an aggressive military policy and an assault on Ukraine. The nationalistic phantom pain concerning the downfall of the Tsarist empire is felt significantly enough on the Russian Right for that.
But a multi-lateral peace system with independent arbitration could have made war less likely. It is precisely this that the US and the EU chose to forgo after 1991. A plan for peace that would have put a stop to their own courses of action through treaties and watchdog organizations was precisely what they didn’t want. The absence of such a multilateral security system and the blocking of efforts to democratize the UN and the broader global order have taken us to the brink of a major war.
But no matter which newspaper you’ve been reading the past few months, the message has been the same: pacifism is to blame, or was at least irresponsibly naïve. To what extent is this true?
Reviewing the past 30 years, there are a lot of things that come to mind. The neoliberal policies that resulted in the economic shock, for example, that absolutely wrecked Russian society in the early 1990s. The brutal social inequality that the Putin system grew out of. A global economy in which countries — if they do not already belong to the leading industrialized nations — become victims or otherwise create an opening for themselves by means of aggressive nationalism. The previously mentioned refusal of the “West” to allow the UN to be democratized. The absence of an inclusive international peace plan. The mad craze to beef up militaries. Nationalism — in Russia, but not only there. The turning away from the multi-ethnic state. Stalinism. The power of secret services and corporation owners.
These can all be seen as lessons from the Russian war of aggression. Instead we are bombarded with false alternatives. We should not settle for them.