War Path

Western Sanctions of Russia, Putin Over Ukraine Conflict Wrong-Headed

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    At the centennial remembrance of the beginning of World War I, the West risks repeating errors of that bloody conflict.

  • Facts


    • German journalism has switched from being levelheaded to being jingoistic in a matter of weeks.
    • The U.S. Congress is openly discussing arming the Ukraine.
    • The spectrum of opinions over how to respond to the Ukraine conflict has narrowed to the field of vision of a sniper scope.
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Two world leaders struggle to understand each other. Source: AP
Two world leaders struggle to understand each other. Source: AP


Every war is accompanied by a kind of mental mobilization: war fever. Even smart people are not immune to controlled bouts of this fever. “This war in all its atrociousness is still a great and wonderful thing. It is an experience worth having,” rejoiced Max Weber in 1914 when the lights went out in Europe. Thomas Mann felt a “cleansing, liberation, and a tremendous amount of hope.”

Even when thousands already lay dead on the Belgian battlefields, the war fever did not subside. Exactly 100 years ago, 93 painters, writers, and scientists composed the “Call to the world of culture.” Max Liebermann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Max Planck, Wilhelm Röntgen and others encouraged their countrymen to engage in cruelty toward their neighbor: “Without German militarism, German culture would have been swept from the face of the earth a long time ago. The German armed forces and the German people are one. This awareness makes 70 million Germans brothers without prejudice to education, status, or party.”

We interrupt our own train of thought to insist that history is not repeating itself. But can we be so sure about that these days? In view of the conflicts in Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, the leaders of the West suddenly have no more questions and all the answers. The U.S. Congress is openly discussing arming the Ukraine. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recommends arming citizens there for house-to-house and street combat. The German chancellor, as it is her habit, is much less clear but no less ominous: “We are ready to take severe measures.”

German journalism has switched from being levelheaded to agitated in a matter of weeks. The spectrum of opinions has been narrowed to the field of vision of a sniper scope.

Newspapers, we thought to be all about thoughts and ideas, are now marching in step with politicians in their calls for sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even the headlines betray the sort of aggressive tension usually characteristic of hooligans when they “support” their respective soccer teams.

The Tagesspiegel writes: “Enough talk!” The FAZ: “Show strength.” The Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Now or never.” And Der Spiegel calls for an “End to cowardice,” writing: “Putin’s web of lies, propaganda, and deception has been exposed. The wreckage of MH 17 is also the wreckage of failed diplomacy.”

“Every war is accompanied by a kind of mental mobilization: war fever. ”

Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt Publisher

Western politics and German media agree.

Every reflexive series of accusations brings the same result: Allegations and counter-allegations quickly become so entangled that facts are almost completely obscured.

Who deceived whom first?

Did it all start with the Russian invasion of Crimea. or did the West promote the destabilization of the Ukraine first?

Does Russia want to expand into the West or does NATO into the East?


Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, and Gabor Steingart, Handelsblatt publisher, in 2012. Source


Or, perhaps, did two world powers meet at the same door in the middle of the night, driven by very similar intentions to dominate a defenseless third power that now is paying for the resulting quagmire with the first phases of a civil war?

If at this point you are still waiting for an answer as to whose fault it is, you might as well just stop reading. You will not miss anything. We are not trying to unearth this hidden truth. We don’t know how it started. We don’t know how it will end. And we are sitting right here, in the middle of it. At least Peter Sloterdijk has a few words of consolation for us: “To live in the world means to live in uncertainty.”

Our purpose is to wipe off some of the foam that has formed on the debating mouths, to steal words from the mouths of both the rabble-rousers and the roused, and to put new words there instead. One word that has become disused of late is this: realism.

A Ukrainian sniper takes up a position during fighting against militants. Source: AP
A Ukrainian sniper takes up a position during fighting against militants. Source: AP


The politics of escalation shows that Europe sorely misses a realistic goal.

It’s a different thing in the United States, where threats and posturing are simply part of the run-up to the election.

When Hillary Clinton compares Putin with Hitler, she does so only to appeal to the Republican vote, that is, to people who do not own a passport. For many of them, Hitler is the only foreigner they know, which is why Adolf Putin is a very welcome fictitious campaign effigy.

In this respect, Clinton and Obama have a realistic goal: to appeal to the people, to win elections and to secure another Democratic presidency.

Angela Merkel can hardly claim these mitigating circumstances for herself.

Geography forces every German chancellor to be a bit more serious. As neighbors of Russia, as part of the European community bound together in destiny and as a recipient of energy and a supplier of this and that, we Germans clearly have a more vital interest in stability and communication.

We cannot afford to look at Russia through the eyes of the American Tea Party.

Every mistake starts with a mistake in thinking. And we are making this mistake if we believe that only the other party profits from our economic relationship and thus will suffer when this relationship stops. If economic ties were maintained for mutual profit, then severing them will lead to mutual loss. Punishment and self-punishment are the same thing in this case.

Even the idea that economic pressure and political isolation would bring Russia to its knees was not really thought all the way through. Even if we could succeed: What good would Russia be on its knees? How can you want to live together in the European house with a humiliated people whose elected leadership is treated like a pariah and whose citizens you might have to support in the coming winter?

Of course, the current situation requires a strong stance, but more than anything a strong stance against ourselves. Germans have neither wanted nor caused these realities, but they are now our realities. Just consider what Willy Brandt had to listen to when his fate as mayor of Berlin placed him in the shadow of the wall, and what sanctions and punishments were suggested to him. But he decided to forgo this festival of outrage. He never turned the screw of retribution.

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