Putin's fight and our illusions
In mid-February, the Arabic-language news channel Al Jazeera suddenly sent war reporters, whom I knew from Baghdad, Gaza, Beirut and Kabul, to Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa – European cities buzzing with life that I have come to know and love on many trips. It was not yet clear whether Putin really would attack, but when I saw the Al Jazeera reports in Ukraine, I could no longer banish the thought from my mind that here and now, peace in Europe was ending. Like a wild animal that had fixed its eyes on more juicy prey, the chaos that had been raging in the Muslim world since 2001 was now bearing down on us, the affluent societies of Central Europe and their long-neglected front yard, Ukraine.
Hunting the wrong enemy
For 20 years, our politicians and experts have had the wrong enemy in their sights, namely political Islam. How harmless it seems when looked at through today's eyes! At no point did it pose an existential threat of a kind comparable with the war that is currently raging. Crisis-ridden Islam was an obliging opponent. An ideological crusade was launched in order to de-radicalise Muslims, to convert them to "Western values". The thing is that most Arabs and Muslims have long shared these values – as Arabic literature would show us, if only we would read it!
While the Americans were searching for terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, creating new ones in the process and waging hopeless "asymmetric" wars on terror, the greater threat on our own doorstep was being studiously ignored: 'Bin Putin', a terrorist in possession of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. For 20 years, instead of keeping a close eye on him, we coddled him and fed him, forgave him his raids in Georgia, the Crimea and Donbas, accepted his use of nerve agents and political assassinations in our cities and did business with him as much as we possibly could – and indeed still do.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, doesn't have to hide in a cave and has no need of suicide bombers. Playing the gentleman in a dark suit and red tie, he can wage his wars in accordance with the Hague Convention of 1907 respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land. If his tanks and fighter jets are not enough to win the war, he has enough nuclear weapons to blow the whole world to kingdom come. Our security experts were chasing the wrong enemy. The right one is now breathing down their necks. Can we really believe them when they say that he only wants to conquer Ukraine and is not seeking the big conflict with "the West"? A real world war that would make Putin a name that the surviving part of humanity would never forget?
Advance notice of war
This total failure of our security experts is reminiscent of the lead-up to 11 September 2001. Although the CIA had been monitoring Osama bin Laden and some of the men who would later be involved in the attack, they did not draw the right conclusions, underestimated the threat and got bogged down wrangling over responsibilities. Just a few days later, aeroplanes were hijacked and steered into the World Trade Center. The Americans learned from that. This time, they warned that war was coming. But once again, it was too late. Putin had long since made the decision to attack, as evident from his essay "On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians" dated July of last year.
The threat posed by Putin and his entourage was well known. Friends and colleagues who came from Russia to the Academy of the Arts of the World in Cologne, did not return home in 2014. They knew why. The Russian sociologist Lev Gudkov described the following future scenario in 2015: "The escalation of armed conflict between opposing sides begins in Ukraine, 'forcing' Putin to directly and openly introduce the Russian army into Ukraine's eastern and southern regions. One could expect some sort of previously inconceivable war adventure (for example, an attack on Kiev and the seizure of central Ukraine, with the subsequent annexation of the eastern and southern regions to Russia)."
In the same boat
Gudkov believed that Putin would lose first such a war and then his grip on power, but that is cold comfort. As with September 11, the attacker achieves his goal the moment the war begins. This goal is to tip the pre-war world that the attacker so despises onto the ash heap of history. In this, Putin has succeeded. Everything we took for granted before 24 February 2022 now seems as distant as the 90s' culture of fun that preceded the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
After all, the rules of the game automatically change as soon as the attack begins. If we want to keep up, we have to play according to new rules. As a result, we change; we are no longer the people we were before: just a short time ago, the eternal pacifists who did not want to spend any money on armaments; before 9/11, the idealist disciples of multiculturalism. When everyone gets swept along, there is no good way out for anyone, no victory of any kind. The best that can be hoped for is damage limitation. Whether we like it or not, we are now in the same boat as Putin. All around us is the ocean of an uncertain future, where anyone can pull the plug and sink the ship.
Europe's 'new right' – Putin's fifth column
Putin's war also casts an unexpected light on the domestic quarrels in Europe and the USA of the past 20 years. Since the "refugee crisis" of 2014/15 at the latest, supporters of the 'new right', who have defined themselves primarily in terms of Islamophobia since 9/11, have entered into an alliance with Putin and his propaganda that is reminiscent of the way Western communists were in thrall to Moscow during the Cold War.
The fact that critics of Islam and Putin are marching in step is no small matter, it is all part of Putin's plan for this war and could one day decide it in his favour – at the very latest when Trump's Republicans win the next election. Lest we forget: Trump still has a bone to pick with the Ukrainian president. In 2019, Zelensky wanted to buy anti-tank weapons from the United States. In return, Trump asked him to prosecute Joe Biden's son, who had business activities in Ukraine. The scandal ended in the first impeachment of Donald Trump. There is a great risk that an America led by Trump's Republicans could drop Ukraine and Europe like a hot potato and start trading again with Russia.
New talk of a clash of civilisations
Another reason Putin's authoritarian appeal to the 'new right' remains strong is because he uses familiar anti-Western rhetoric. He breathes new life into the age-old conservative notion of the clash of civilisations and cultures. The logic of differentiation and marginalisation that is reinforced in this way can then be applied to any grouping at any time, whether it be to Muslims, Africans, Chinese ...
So the currently celebrated invocation of "the West" does not augur well. This "West" is in the process of being taking in by its own propaganda. Putin has not (yet) attacked "the West", but a country that up until recently hardly any politician would have considered part of the West. In view of this fact, the shameless assertion that Ukrainians are defending "us", democracy and, indeed, the whole "free world" is astonishing. It is burdening the Ukrainians who are bravely battling against the odds with the mantle of the world's saviour, a role they cannot and should not assume.
Memories of Afghanistan
The scenario brings back memories of Afghanistan after 9/11. At the time, there was a lot of talk about wanting to "defend our freedom at the Hindu Kush". But from beginning to end, it was above all the Afghans who paid the price. Nevertheless, we were ultimately not willing to count these Afghans as "our own" and to take them in, as illustrated by the half-hearted evacuation of locally contracted staff in the summer of 2021. As Emron Feroz recently wrote, we never did count the soldiers of the Afghan army, who did indeed fight "for us" for 20 years, as one with us.
The unflattering conclusion is that the West is a community of shared values that has perfected the art of getting others to fight for it without really giving them anything in return. By claiming that the Ukrainians are fighting "for us", we don't have to do the dirty job of entering into a military fight with Putin ourselves. This is the deeper reason for our flag-waving identification and solidarity with Ukraine – but to say so is taboo.
The proof is in the pudding: as soon as things look like becoming really painful, we step back: accession to the EU would be very complicated, a fast-track approach would be against the union's principles, a no-fly zone would be too dangerous, doing without Russian oil and gas too expensive. As soon as more is needed than flag-waving and celebrating the Ukrainian "hero president" (as the German tabloid Bild calls him), the differences between "us" and "them" become apparent. While it is right to help the Ukrainians when they ask for help, it is equally false to pretend that we consider them to be just like us and that they are, above all, fighting "for us". It is just as arrogant and false as Putin's claim of the "Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians".
To conclude: it is not only Russia that needs a face-saving exit strategy for this war – as is often said – so too do the Ukrainians and "the West", which is so intoxicated by its belief in its own matchlessness. If we don't succeed in finding this exit strategy, Putin's megalomaniacal dream will come true and he really will wage war against "the West". The first step towards de-escalation is to take a decisive stance against the war propaganda that is raging on all sides and the perfidious, right-leaning rhetoric relating to a clash of values, cultures and civilisations.
© Qantara.de 2022
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan
Stefan Weidner is an author and translator. In 2021 he published "Ground Zero. 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart". His travel essay about Ukraine, "Ins Griechenland des Ostens" ("Into the Greece of the East"), has been published as an e-book by Amazon.