Thursday, February 19, 2015


The conflict in and around Ukraine is one of the two major issues that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is dealing with now. And it has necessary connections to the other, the euro crisis. At the moment, both seem to be going pretty poorly.

This recent article by Paul Schäfer from the Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik is useful in looking at the multi-faceted nature of what being "pro-Russian" (really or allegedly) means in the present political moment. Ressentiment vs. Aufklärung: Die »neue Friedensbewegung«. He is specifically addressing the current German political scene, in which some far-right political actors really are pro-Russian and anti-American and in which people with esoteric beliefs and/or a fondness for conspiracy theories are in momentary agreement with self-consciously left activists on the undesirability of a Western policy of military escalation in Ukraine.

The specifics don't translate smoothly into the American political scene, in particular because the overt admiration of Putin's authoritarian model has few explicit adherent among the American far right. I've read that there are some fundamentalist US Christians who overtly admire Putin's posturing as a defender of Christianity and enemy of gays and lesbians. But both Republican Party conservatism and factional far-right politics in the US are very heavily influenced by fundamentalist Christian doctrines and apocalyptic beliefs, and that tradition has seen Russia as an End-Of-Times bogeyman since even before the Bolshevik Revolution.

There has been some fairly comical posturing among Republicans praising Putin's manly manliness as a virile contrast to President Obama's lack of sufficient warmongering.

But it's also true for anyone who wants to criticize the dominant narrative, or question the image created by media reports informed by that narrative, when an influential body of thought like that of the neoconservatives pushing the war narrative, critics have to have a thick skin. The neoconservative tradition today has long since left behind its Troskyist intellectual heritage from the 1930s. But it comes out very clearly in their polemical style. During the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002-3, they constantly accused anyone who argued that the war was stupid, misguided, criminal or just plain unnecessary of being "objectively pro-Saddam." If there was even some tiny sect in the United States that actually viewed Saddam's Iraq as some kind of desirable political model, I never heard of them. But it didn't stop the accusations.

Bottom line: an article like Paul Schäfer's is a good place to look at important nuances and contradictory political considerations. If you're trying to organize a peace march, or attempting to get across an anti-escalation message in 15 or 30 seconds in a media advertisement or news appearance, you don't have time for squeezing in 10 or 20 nuances. You have to focus on a clear message like, "Encouraging a protracted civil war in Ukraine is crazy." And, yeah, war advocates will call you "pro-Russian" no matter what. Like most areas of politics, peace activists need to develop a thick skin for hostile criticism.

Economist Jamie Galbraith, who is on the same page with Yanis Varoufakis about Merkel's economic policies, describes Merkel as "the most successful and dominant political personality in modern Europe." ('The Prospects and Consequences of a Possible Syriza Government' Economist's View 01/23/2015) I'm not sure if he's counting "modern" there from 1945 or from 1492. Still, there's no denying she's been an incredibly successful politician. But Galbraith's praise can't be suspected of journalistic "beat-sweetning" deference.

But, as Galbraith and Varoufakis both recognize, the economic policies on which she's built her current position are as demonstrably disproved, both in Heinrich Brüning's time and in Merkel's. So I view her current position as very much a high-wire act. The euro crisis was always going to play out on something like the route it's currently taking. But the Ukraine conflict also highlights the high-risk nature of Merkel's policies. Germany and the EU have important business relationships with Russia which aren't benefiting from sanctions and increased tensions with Russia. And not only is the eurozone economy in depression conditions that are being prolonged indefinitely by austerity policies. The IMF is imposing similar crippling austerity policies on Ukraine. Not exactly the optimum approach if Europe is trying to win the proverbial "hearts and minds" of Ukrainians.

Merkel has had a good run as a politician, thanks also to the SPD deciding to embrace Heinrich Brüning economics as thorougly as the CDU. But I doubt that the results of her leadership are going to be remembered well by most people. Even though, like Margaret Thatcher, she will be recognized as a major figure who showed that a woman can be as competent as a man as a political leader. She certainly has outplayed the current male leaders of the SPD!

Also, from Robert Alexander, Angela Merkels Spiel ist nun ausgereizt Die Welt 14.02.15: "Obama lies Merkel die Spielräume gegenüber Russland nutzten, die er nicht hat." ("Obama allows Merkel to use the latitude toward Russia that he doesn't have.") I have no doubt that there was considerable coordination between the US and Germany on their public positions in the negotiations, though the differences were real enough. But the idea that Obama has no room to manuever politically on Ukraine is incorrect. In the US, the less able people are to located Ukraine on a map, the more likely they are to be in favor of an aggressive policy there. Obama let the neoconservatives, including Victoria "F**k the EU" Nuland, run point on his Ukraine policy. It would actually be politically beneficial for his Democratic Party if he took a clear position opposing the neocon policy of escalation in Ukraine.

James Meek also has a useful look at Russia's outlook under Putin in What does Russia want? LRB Blog
James Meek 12 February 2015:

The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it.

President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine cannot admit this publicly; he would find it hard to admit it privately. But Ukraine lost the war to keep the far east of the country last summer, in a little reported series of battles on the frontier. Ukrainian border guards, and troops trying to enforce control of the border, came under massive artillery barrages from the Russian side of the border. They couldn’t fire back into Russian territory without inciting a full-scale Russian military assault. Accordingly they were massacred, or they surrendered, or they ran away.

Ever since, a large section of the border has been under Russian-separatist control. As long as Ukraine can’t lob shells into Russia, and Russia is prepared to lob shells into Ukraine, that is how it will stay. [my emphasis]
Having "the West to pay for it," Meek argues, would come in the way of establishing a government in Kiev that would be a de facto Russian puppet regime but nominally independent and Western-oriented. "And since Ukraine is, financially, dependent on the West, it is the West that would pay."

This sounds a little hinky to me. The West via the IMF is applying Hoover/Brüning austerity policies to Ukraine, which is a fairly perverse way to provide financial support. Ask Greece how that works.

He hopes for freezing the conflict more-or-less along the present lines held by the opposing sides:

But to stop the war permanently will be much, much harder. It demands a recognition that for all the Kremlin’s lies, there is a genuine separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. It demands an acceptance that a frozen conflict is likely to be more amenable to Ukrainians on both sides of the ceasefire line than an attempt to shoehorn the rebel enclave back into a country nominally under Kiev’s control. It demands a Ukrainian culture that finds a way to combine the dissonant histories of its nationalist and neo-Soviet nostalgists, its Ukrainophones and Russophones, its Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox believers. It demands Ukrainian will and Western help for reform. And it demands a wiser, less frightened leader in the Kremlin. In that sense, Angela Merkel’s instinct is right. Putin’s unnecessary war is unjust. Freezing the conflict might be seen to reward aggression. But if it buys time for independent Ukraine to thrive, and Putinism to wither, it will have been worth it, for Russians as much as for Ukrainians. [my emphasis]
It's important to remember in these discussions right now that in Europe, "reform" has become a buzzword for anti-labor, deflationary, deregulatory policies. The current Greek government seems to be trying to redefine "reform" to emphasize two features that are part of the standard neoliberal litany but are very low priorities for neoliberal advocates: fighting corruption and improving the efficiency of tax collection. You'll know the last two are beginning to bite when we start seeing articles in the business press and hearing whining on CNBC about how "the radical government in Athens is discouraging investment by punitive tax-collection policies and arbitrary regulations nominally aimed at controlling corruption."

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