Ukraine and us: Never again war?

Photo: IMAGO /​ Olaf Schuelke

So far, the people of Ukraine have borne the burden of the war all alone. For the German precept of “never again”, this is a reality shock, comments Marieluise Beck.

What does “Never again” mean to you?

That question was posed to members of the German Bundestag by an exhausted and disap­pointed President Zelensky.

That same “never again” was also at the heart of the debate about military inter­ven­tion amongst the Greens.  The four wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia subjected their party to a stress test with the potential to tear it apart. The first of these was so short, it was easy to turn a blind eye, but then came the atroc­i­ties in Vukovar and the bombard­ment of Dubrovnik, there was no over­looking those, and then, in the final act, the mass killing of Bosnians.

This mass murder was carried out by para­mil­i­tary combat­ants and units of the former Yugosla­vian Army, which had secured a weapons stockpile of the latter for use in the war against the Bosnians. The forces defending Bosnia had effec­tively no access to military equipment.

In trainers in war

In line with the watchword “no weapons to conflict zones”, the Western world laid an embargo on the region. This didn’t bother the Serbian fighters even one tiny bit. The ones it did impact were the victims. They were unable to defend them­selves: the embargo prevented them from building up an army that could put up anything approaching a defence. I still remember those young men well, in their gym shoes, without helmets or vests.

The West sat back and watched this going on for quite some time.  Until the drama of Srebrenica put an end to the watching. Eight thousand young men, hardly more than children, were delivered into the hands of their murderers in an UN-desig­nated “safe zone”, which wasn’t.

This came as a shocking blast of reality for all those who had thought that the mantra “Never again” alone would be enough to stand up against the evil in the world.  It was – and we should not forget this either – Marek Edelman, a Jew who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, who asked the inter­na­tional community to intervene, long before Srebrenica.  And then it came: the end of the funda­mental “no” to weapons for use in self-defence or the protec­tion of others. NATO’s defence mission went on for ten days.  How many lives might have been saved had the decision to act been taken earlier?

Four years later, it was Kosovo’s turn. Again, the OSCE was the first to get involved. Unarmed, and as observers. They counted the military convoys deployed from Belgrade. The first groups of Kosovar refugees set out south­wards, on the trek to Macedonia. The first mass graves were discov­ered. The UN had no mechanism for the preven­tion of yet another genocide. This obvious paradox was resolved through unilat­eral action on NATO’s part. Not unequiv­o­cally legit­i­mate under inter­na­tional law, justified by the convic­tion that it is necessary to prevent a possible genocide.

From Yalta to the Maidan

A jump back in time: The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the return of inde­pen­dence to countries that had previ­ously been part of the Soviet empire or separate members of the Warsaw  Pact. Countries that had disap­peared behind the “Yalta divide” suddenly reap­peared on the political map: Poland, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and Ukraine – countries that were seldom seen in the West as separate entities at all while they were still under the umbrella of the Soviet Union. Espe­cially Ukraine. Yet Ukraine made itself noticed, taking its place among the other countries striving for freedom that had once been granted as unwilling vassals to Stalin. 2004, the “Orange Revo­lu­tion”: a president installed in office in a rigged election is given the boot. A populace buffeted by disap­point­ment returns him to office four years later though.

Maidan 2014: A big public festival. At first. Russian rock bands perform Western politi­cians’ stream in, cheering the crowds on stage and mingling with them. Did even one of them begin to under­stand that this encour­age­ment was giving rise to a respon­si­bility? A respon­si­bility to stand with the Ukrainians if the festival were to become an inferno?

It did not stop with Crimea

The annex­a­tion of Crimea. A coup de main. Not bloody, but still brutal. At least in the aftermath, when the Crimean Tartars were robbed of their rights and their culture – a second time, after their depor­ta­tion by Stalin. And with the arrests of those unwilling to bow to the will of the Russian regime.

Placatory words are spoken by many here though: one had to under­stand how essential Crimea was to the heart and soul of the Russian people. They were way off base. It wasn’t only about Crimea. Putin’s forces crossed the border, prepared by the GRU and assisted by a fifth column of bandits and shady characters.

It was not NATO that encircled Russia. Russia encircled Ukraine

Putin does not bother with trying to disguise his inten­tions. Ukraine, he says, is an inalien­able part of the common history, culture, of the “spiritual space”. For those willing to look, it was plain to see: Putin was not going to let it rest at that.  The inalien­able part that had strayed, the  “brother people”, must return to the empire. Like the Erl-King: … boy, if you are unwilling, then force I’ll employ.

Slowly but surely, this force took shape around Ukraine, according to a system­atic and strate­gi­cally consis­tent plan.

Quiet Tones from Berlin

It was not NATO that encircled Russia. Russia encircled Ukraine. To the north, in Belarus, to the east along the border with southern Russia, to the south over the Black Sea.

These prepa­ra­tions for war, only flimsily disguised as manoeu­vres, were accepted. The second pipeline through the Baltic Sea continued to be presented through a rose-tinted lens as purely a business project. The foreign-policy experts were moni­toring the troop deploy­ments “with concern”. A statement is issued describing an attack on Ukraine as unac­cept­able. It remains unclear what that was supposed to mean.

It was the USA that began to voice the opinion, in increas­ingly clear language, that Putin was going to order the attack on Ukraine.  A flurry of shuttle diplomacy, with little effect.  They all made the pilgrimage to him – one at a time, needless to say. Audiences were granted in tsarist style. Everyone returned from Moscow with empty hands. Bottom line: Putin couldn’t have cared less about what was being offered to him in the way of dialogue. He wanted Ukraine. Ukraine is not part of NATO, so NATO assis­tance was out of the question, and weapons were not to be supplied to crisis zones – or so said the German doctrine, and others.

The terror should be visible

What happened after that is well known. The events in Mariupol, for instance. According to an initial expert legal opinion by Prof. Otto Luchter­handt, they meet the legal defi­n­i­tion of genocide. For over two weeks now, 350,000 people have been living under siege, deprived of elec­tricity, heat, food and water. Bombs are being delib­er­ately aimed at civilian targets. The Russian shelling makes flight impossible.

A reign of terror has descended over the country. There is no attempt to hide it: it is supposed to be visible. The aim is to wear down the population’s resolve and morale. A paedi­atric clinic in Lviv has to resort to triaging because medical resources are in such short supply: just for one minute, imagine what that must be like.

There is no doubt: since the Maidan, the Ukrainian army has grown from a small group of expe­ri­enced soldiers who had inter­na­tional deploy­ments under their belts into a regular army. A regular army that is poorly equipped, though, and nowhere near a match for the Russian army.

The German Govern­ment stuck to its principle of not sending weapons to crisis zones for far too long. Now, we are watching a desperate defensive war being fought by inad­e­quately equipped men and women, unex­pect­edly stubborn men and women paying a bloody toll to hold the Russian troops at bay but who are doing it – so far. How much longer can they keep this up?

It’s time for a down payment

The Jewish president of Ukraine begs the world for modern military equipment. Because the less well-equipped his fighters are, the more of them will die. The less they can do to hinder the butchers, the more civilians will lose their lives. It sounds histri­onic when the Ukrainians insist that they are fighting for our freedom, too. But the Georgians, Moldovans, the people of the Baltic countries and the Poles know full well what they mean.

Ukraine’s defeat would bring the Russian military to Poland’s border. Iskander missiles with nuclear warheads would draw even closer to us. And what happens if Ukraine isn’t enough to satiate Putin? What if he keeps wanting more? Georgia and Moldavia are a given, a Republika Srpska and Serbia in the Balkans, and then perhaps he’ll decide to take the Baltics after all? The corridor connecting these vulner­able countries to other EU and NATO members is only 65-kilo­me­tres wide.

Is this truly only the Ukrainians’ fight? What happened to “Never again”?

The “watershed moment” is here. The chan­cellor speaks of necessary defence, of military precau­tions. Appar­ently, the threat of war and the notion that Russia poses a genuine danger are no longer being dismissed as unre­al­istic. The reality is already here for Ukrainians.  Should they manage to win, our security will be assured. A hundred billion euros to invest in a new Bundeswehr. It is time to pay an instal­ment to those who are bearing the burden of the war for us. Give them what they need in order to do so. Our own security is also at stake.


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