Actually, I am once again motoring through the US of A, this time focusing on West Virginia, the home state of Senator Joe The Powerful, who is strangling President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, with my antennas out for the odd and the wacky along the road. But the war in Ukraine is stifling the joy in the venture.
During the day I listen to the updates from National Public Radio, America’s distant cousin of the BBC, and at night I watch Fox News for a view into the alternative universe. Both less than uplifting experiences. The ladies at NPR’s microphones are smarmy to the point of revulsion and the lads at Fox push the obnoxious to untold heights, though not as far as ex-President Trump who touted Putin’s raid on a neighboring country as the work of “genius”. Trump takes the cake. While the bile of the Foxers is to be expected (the war is Biden’s doing, the US has no dog in the fight etc.), the style of the NPR presenters is kind of a surprise. The usual cool detachment has given way to oily compassion oozing through the steady stream of live interviews with Ukrainian civilians (the “wows”, the “oohs”, and the audible sighs). One NPR desk lady in Washington, D.C. made the guinea pig of a Ukrainian member of parliament a prominent feature in her what-do-you-do-now segment from outside Kiev. She takes a cake, too.
The first thing to note here in the US is that the traditional “bipartisanship” in times of war is gone. In my encounters with West Virginians and Kentuckers I have not met a single person who would feel existentially threatened or ready to support the President in his bellicose rhetoric. The old adage that political differences in America stop at the water’s edge is history. While Biden’s Democrats are showing some kind of rhetorical unity behind the President’s course, the Republicans are split between Trump/Fox-ists (keep US out) and superhawks (kick Russia harder). All bemoan the steadily rising gasoline prices (I pay 3.20$ for the gallon, which translates into 0.8 Swiss Francs per liter or less than half the price in Switzerland).
Words are plentiful in the last days, but words are cheap. We should turn our attention to the deeds and their effect. The upshot is: Ukraine gets a lot of pats on the shoulder but is left alone, like Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968. Russia will do with Ukraine how Russia pleases, certainly absorbing the “republics” in the East, surely replacing the elected government, maybe leaving a rump under a vassal and maybe not. The choice appears to be between “Kongresspolen” and “Generalgouvernement”.
Once Ukraine is dispatched with, European politics will – or should – start in earnest. This is a European matter in the first place. Not a NATO-matter, because despite of Biden’s steely rhetoric one must not trust American assurances about “an attack on one is an attack on us all”. Already you can hear on Fox that it might not be wise to risk an all-out American war for Estonia (“the size of Massachusetts”). This is why it now is up to Europe to organize and prepare for its own security, including military security, including an answer to Putin’s threat about resorting to nuclear warfare, possibly a nuclear answer.
If taken seriously, such a task will require a European security debate beyond NATO, one that includes the European Union and the special-needs cases. It is the resumption of the aborted debate of the early 1990s (“Western European Union” vs. NATO). It could start with a few inconvenient truths revealed by the thuggery in Ukraine. Here are a handful:
- We are not “waking up to another world” nor is any “old order dead” (as stated this week). What we are witnessing is a further consolidation of the order which was de facto established after the end of the Cold War. Its first rule is: Might goes before right, the strong ones win and the strongest rule their fiefs. That’s what China does in Asia (ever heard of a Security Council meeting about the ruthless stomping out of the rebellion in Sri Lanka?), what the United States have traditionally done in Latin America (Trump’s kowtow before the new Tsar roots in the belief that the US should deal with Mexico that way) and that’s what Russia now does in Ukraine. One could be sardonic: What has been established as accepted practice in the business world after the fall of the wall is becoming established practice in international politics.
- What happened this week is an international crime, the crime of aggression punishable by the International Criminal Court (my country Switzerland was among the first to adhere). If Henry Kissinger can be labeled a war criminal (he might have been), Putin can pass as war criminal too. Europeans holding up the rule of law and the international legal order (“right before might”) could say so. It will be interesting to watch how far the habitual Putin-defenders and Russia trolls left and right of the mainstream will go there.
- Crime begets crime. The Russia army in Ukraine will most probably act like it acted in Afghanistan, or in Chechnya or in Syria. Putin the Poisoner will go after protesters and opponents in Ukraine the same way he goes after them at home. Or, if necessary, in London. Or St.Moritz. There will be crimes against humanity.
- War is unpredictable. Up to now, what happened on the ground is not so much a surprise as a military textbook operation. Russia does what General Schwarzkopf did in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 (this one sanctioned by the UN Security Council and technically a global policing operation): Build up “overwhelming force”, blitz and blind the opponent, then attack from all sides. Act II could follow the playbook from the second Iraq war: prolonged warfare against the occupier, stalemate, quagmire. As there, consequences here could be unintended. This is where the seemingly clear-cut distinction between Non-NATO Ukraine (left on its own) and its NATO-neighbors (covered by Article 5 guarantees) gets murky. What if some violent action swaps over into Poland? What if Russia’s cyber-operations paralyze Romania? What exactly constitutes an attack in NATO’s definition? At which point is an attack considered meaningful enough to trigger the “attack on all” clause? How far would the game of response and counter-response play out? The dilemmata of “Nachrüstung” in the 1980es are back on the table.
Ah yes, the Swiss. They are lucky again. Switzerland is a candidate for the UN Security Council, elections being held in June. There are two seats for Western Europe and only two candidates (the other one being Malta). There is no contest and therefore little appetite for deep-vetting pf the hopefuls. Such vetting could unearth inconvenient questions to a government who is “clueless” in the current situation, as Finance Minister Maurer revealed on TV. Questions like: How come you are on the one hand a champion of international law and on the other hand the only country not taking part in the sanctions against the Russian aggressor on your continent? Could this have something to do with Swiss banking business in Russia? With Switzerland as a preferred retreat for the richer among the Russians? With Switzerland as a hub in the global pi; trade? What is your answer to the European security challenge posed by the war in Ukraine?