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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