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7 February 2024

Sahra Wagenknecht’s plan for peace

Why the left-wing politician wants to free Germany from Washington’s grip.

By Wolfgang Streeck

In her speech at her new party’s first national conference, Sahra Wagenknecht called on the German government to stop supplying arms to Ukraine and end the oil and gas embargo against Russia. As far as the German media reported on this at all, they treated it as a combination of naive pacifism and high-treason Putinism. But Wagenknecht’s proposals could and should have provided an ideal occasion for a long overdue debate on Germany’s national interest under the conditions of the collapse of the US-dominated New World Order, a debate that is stubbornly refused by the established parties and their public.

This refusal has a long tradition. With the exception of the Willy Brandt era, it was considered axiomatic in postwar West Germany that there should be no special German interest outside the overall interest of a united West as formulated by the US, and certainly not in the area of national security. Anyone who took a different view, such as Egon Bahr or Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Brandt’s foreign policy adviser and Schmidt’s foreign minister, respectively, came under suspicion of a new German nationalism, expressed by the US as a means of maintaining alliance discipline. This is still effective today, with the exception perhaps of Gerhard Schröder’s refusal, in alliance with Jacques Chirac, to take part in the invasion of Iraq, and Angela Merkel’s veto in 2008, together with Nicolas Sarkozy, of George W Bush’s invitation of Ukraine to join Nato. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, in which not a day has gone by without the US waging war somewhere in the world, and despite the catastrophe of American global strategy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya and in Palestine – examples of a blithely negligent policy of worldwide intervention that leaves nothing but chaos in its wake – Wagenknecht’s call for Germany to break away from the American-determined Ukraine strategy and fundamentally redefine its relationship with the US, and thus also with Russia, should seem anything but adventurous, especially in view of the high likelihood of a second term of office for Donald Trump beginning only one year from now.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, it is to be expected that the war there, like the one in Afghanistan, will end in defeat for the US-led West, but above all for the local population. The fronts have been deadlocked for more than a year. On the Ukrainian side, almost 70,000 soldiers had lost their lives by last October, dying, according to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, “for our values”; a further 50,000, conservatively estimated, suffered such serious injuries that they cannot be sent back to the front. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government, encouraged by the US and Germany, is sticking to its maximalist war aims: a “victory” for Ukraine in the form of the reconquest of Crimea and all parts of the country occupied by Russia, including the Russian-speaking areas.

No one can say how such a victory can be achieved. New miracle weapons are constantly demanded and delivered, but they produce little more than test results and advertising films for their manufacturers. Ukrainians’ enthusiasm for the war declines accordingly. While the presidential elections are cancelled and the mass media are more aligned than ever, the wives and mothers of front-line soldiers who have had to stand in the field without leave since the start of the war, probably because no one wants to replace them, are demonstrating in the streets. The military’s high command is demanding the conscription of 500,000 more men. At the same time, 200,000 men fit for military service are now staying in Germany alone, illegally according to the laws of their country, as refugees who have no desire to die for Crimea. In Ukraine itself, corruption is flourishing in the district conscription offices and doctors’ surgeries, where conscripts are buying themselves out of military service in droves for between $3,000 and $15,000. (As always, it is the sons of the poor that have to die for the dreams of the middle class and the profit of the rich.) It seems reasonable to doubt, with Wagenknecht, that the supply of more and more weapons is doing anyone any good, apart from Rheinmetall and the other European and American arms producers.

In Ukraine, as is its habit, the US is in the process of withdrawing, leaving behind a field of rubble for others to clear up. Anyone relying on them must realise that, especially after the end of the bipolarity of the Cold War, they have no reason to think twice before getting involved militarily wherever it strikes their fancy: their location on a continent-sized island with only two neighbouring states, both in their pocket, makes them invincible. This explains the recklessness with which they devise their security and indeed insecurity policy: nothing can happen to them. In this respect, there is not much difference between Joe Biden and Trump. Biden wants to take Nato with him when he leaves Ukraine for China; Trump believes he can manage without Nato. Biden wants to use the conflict with Russia to keep western Europe in line with America and will therefore not agree to a peace agreement; Trump does not care about Ukraine. Trump’s withdrawal from Europe will therefore be disorganised, Biden’s not: unlike Afghanistan, we are likely to see an attempt to leave behind something like a US-serving order.

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In this, it seems that a special role is envisaged for Germany. Stuck in its postwar pacifism until the Zeitenwende – or “turning point” in German foreign policy – of 2022, Germany is now claiming a European leadership role, for the first time without trying to take France on board, at the insistence of Washington, but also of the Greens and the German defence industry, the latter represented by the liberal coalition partner, the FDP. In this role, Germany, as a placeholder for the US as it is moving on to Asia, is supposed to provide the necessary means for a Ukrainian victory as defined in terms of the Ukrainian-American war aims. The problem, for Germany in particular, is that this is way beyond the limits of the possible.

Between the beginning of the war in January 2022 and the end of October 2023 Germany spent €23.9bn on Ukraine, €13.9bn of which on taking in Ukrainian refugees alone – far more than the UK (€13.3bn) and France (€4.7bn). A doubling of direct German military aid from €4bn to €8bn is being planned for 2024. The EU has recently allocated €50bn to Ukraine, to be paid out over four years; that is, €12.5bn per year, of which €3bn will come from Germany. Whether this can be financed out of the EU’s regular budget is questionable. The US, which by October 2023 had contributed $71.4bn, is considering a Ukraine aid package, military only, of $60bn for 2024 alone; this, however, won’t pass Congress. There is no replacement possible of US aid by Germany, or by Europe under German leadership, especially considering the unforeseeable but gigantic costs of the promised “complete reconstruction” (Von der Leyen) of Ukraine, which is intended to begin already during the war. All of this will overburden Germany, especially as its constitutional “debt brake” in its current interpretation by the German Constitutional Court prohibits the federal government from procuring funds for the Ukraine war through additional borrowing, in order to avoid cuts in civilian spending certain to undermine domestic support for the defence forces.

The upshot is that for Germany, assuming leadership in the West’s war against Russia, as asked for by the US and several of Germany’s European neighbours, would be near to a suicide mission, even ignoring the additional risks to German national security likely to be associated with it. The longer the desired victory over Russia would fail to materialise, and very likely it would never materialise at all, the more Germany would become the scapegoat not only of the Ukrainians and the Americans, but of the rest of Europe as well. Ending German arms deliveries to Ukraine now, as demanded by Wagenknecht, would signal the strict rejection of this role and force German allies to think again on what they can and want to achieve in Ukraine; this alone would make it an indispensable element of a responsible German security policy in and for Europe.

And the resumption of oil and gas imports? It seems quite possible, as John Mearsheimer has suggested, that Russia is no longer necessarily interested in a settlement of the Ukraine conflict, after the spectacular failure of the West’s attempt to eradicate it as a state and an industrial society. No one can know whether Russia will be prepared to return to the Minsk agreements or the state of the Istanbul negotiations in March 2022, when Boris Johnson persuaded the Ukrainian government at the last moment that it could go the whole hog because the Western sanctions would finish Russia off in a few months. Perhaps after two years of by and large successful conventional warfare and the surprisingly rapid expansion of its arms industry, Russia feels strong enough to bet on a long haemorrhaging of Ukraine – on a mutiny of the soldiers, a collapse of the radical nationalist government, the emigration of the younger generation, a departure of the oligarchs to London and New York – and condemn it to languish as a failed state for decades to come.

A strong motive for this could be an understandable lack of trust in reaction to the West’s undisguised fantasies of destruction at the start of the war – from Biden’s “regime change” to the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock’s transfer of Vladimir Putin, to a The Hague tribunal to Von der Leyen’s hope that the Western sanctions would “gradually erode Russia’s industrial base”, not to speak of ruining the Russian central bank by cutting the country out of the international financial system. Merkel’s surprising claim, made in self-defence, that the Minsk negotiations were only held to buy time for the further armament of Ukraine is equally unlikely to have had a confidence-building effect. In this context, one wonders what Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now the federal president, would say about this, who in his capacity as Merkel’s foreign minister was not only present in Minsk but was in fact the author of the Minsk peace roadmap (which was why the Bandera faction of the governing Ukrainian right, long represented in Germany by the Ukrainian ambassador, showered him with public contempt and hatred)?

Wagenknecht’s call for a return to Russian energy supplies is in line with Germany’s interest in a secure energy supply, also to maintain the German industrial base. It is worth remembering here that Biden recently ordered the termination of the construction of American plants for the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). While allegedly this was at the insistence of environmentalists, it also was a reaction to the rise in domestic prices due to high foreign demand. Germany is particularly affected, where LNG is to replace Russian oil and gas under American pressure, and German nuclear power at the instigation of the Greens. In contrast, Wagenknecht is offering Russia, as a framework and incentive for ending the war in Ukraine, a prospect for a Eurasian community of states and economies, along the lines of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Common European Home, Bill Clinton’s Partnership for Peace and Putin’s Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. An international community of this sort, details to be worked out in obviously complex negotiations, comparable to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe negotiations of the 1980s, would be an alternative to a hostile division of the continent at Russia’s western border, waiting to become the front line for what Western war-mongers, instructed by the US, predict will be a Russian attempt to conquer the whole of Europe, to be expected in five years at the latest.

A division of Eurasia between Russia (allied with China) and the Europe of the EU and Nato, kept together by Germany as lieutenant of the US, would be the site of a dangerous arms race, involving in the West the nuclear powers of France and Great Britain, soon perhaps joined as such by Germany, to the delight of the arms industry, although certainly not of the taxpayers. What Wagenknecht’s new party offers instead are long-term economic relations – for which the Baltic Sea pipelines, blown up according to the US by unknown individuals, would have to be restored. Agreements on arms control and disarmament, such as the ones the US has systematically cancelled since the beginning of the century, would have to be added. The way for Germany to secure peace instead of war is to free itself from the geostrategic grip of the United States, guided by German national survival interests instead of Nibelungentreue, or loyalty, to America’s claim to global political domination.

Nibelungentreue? At the end of the Nibelungenlied, a medieval German epic, Kriemhild, now married to Attila, king of the Huns, has her three brothers, the kings of Burgundy, and their vassal Hagen, the murderer of her first husband Siegfried, in her power. When Kriemhild demands Hagen be handed over to her, the brothers refuse, citing their duty of loyalty (Treue) although they realised that this may mean their death and the end of their people. When in 1909 in the Reichstag, Chancellor Bernhard von Bülow pledged unconditional allegiance to Austria following its annexation of Bosnia, he invoked the Nibelungenlied and the Treue it celebrated – from then on referred to as Nibelungentreue. What became of it five years later is well known.

This is an English translation of an article originally published in “Frankfurter Rundschau” on 3 February 2024.

[See also: Joe Biden’s lost voters]

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