Ewald Engelen – Sleepwalkers redux

An analysis of the failed policy of corrupt and incompetent European NATO governments in Ukraine.

Ewald Engelen is Professor of Financial Geography at the University of Amsterdam

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The war in Ukraine has entered its twenty-sixth month. The destruction of buildings and infrastructure is huge, especially in the country’s eastern provinces. The European Commission has estimated the total repair and reconstruction costs at €453 billion, and counting. Estimates of the death toll on the Ukrainian side range from 40,000 to well over 100,000, while the numbers on the Russian side are anybody’s guess. In this war, too, truth has proven to be the first casualty.

Since the start of the invasion, the already battered Ukraine economy has shrunk by one-third, while over 6.5 million citizens — most of them of fighting age — have fled their war-torn country, out of a prewar population of 43 million. Ukraine’s government has only been able to withstand the Russian onslaught thanks to massive humanitarian, financial and military aid from the 32 member states of NATO and the European Union. So far, the Ukraine government has received $250 billion in support, an increasing share of which of late has been in the form of weapons.

There is a dawning realization on both sides that there is no easy victory in sight — and that a war of attrition is both the most likely and the worst possible outcome for all directly concerned. Yet, European leaders, deeply entrenched in their Brussels bubble, still maintain that sending more and more complex weapons (Taurus rocket launchers, F 16s) to Ukraine is the only option. The last few months have, indeed, seen an increasing parade of politicians, security experts and (former) generals appearing in established media, stating that Vladimir Putin’s imperialism presents a clear and present danger to Europe’s security concerns and that massive remilitarization is the only viable response. At the launch of her re-election bid, European Commission President Von der Leyen even went so far as to call for the EU economy to be put on a war footing. This message was forcefully reiterated by European Council president Charles Michel a week later, when he wrote that Europe “is facing the biggest security threat since the Second World War” and that hence “radical and concrete steps” were needed to “put the EU’s economy on a war footing.” Supposedly, violence is the only language that Putin speaks.

On February 27, French president Emmanuel Macron launched the next level of escalation. During a meeting with European leaders dedicated to Ukraine, Macron publicly announced that he refused to rule out sending French ground troops to Ukraine. Two days later, Dutch general Onno Eichelsheim reiterated the message. While other European leaders have so far excluded this possibility, Paris has dug itself in further by vowing that a Russian defeat is the only way to secure European safety. The Russian response three days later was entirely predictable. In his annual State of the Union address, Putin threatened targeted nuclear retaliation if NATO members became active participants in the war. Given that hundreds of NATO operatives are already active in Ukraine in technical and support functions, and that there is a thin line between advising and fighting, the risks of escalation should not be underestimated. As we speak, there is a tit-for-that between Russian and French spokespersons on the question of whether 2,000 French operatives are already fighting on the Ukrainian side.

These statements are clearly meant to massage European populations into accepting the end of the post-1989 peace dividend and the dawn of a new geopolitical era in which defence spending again eats into state budgets otherwise intended for welfare and green policies. It is a nightmarish script that was bluntly laid out in a candid speech delivered by the NATO Secretary-General of NATO, the Norwegian social democrat Jens Stoltenberg, in Washington in late January. In front of an audience of representatives of the US military-industrial complex, Stoltenberg triumphantly noted that the budgetary spigot had been turned wide open and that member states had committed to spending no less than $450 billion on new armaments, of which $120 billion over the last two years had been spent in the US. All alarm bells should have sounded when Stoltenberg went on to say that containing Russia was only a try-out for the big bang, i.e. containing and isolating China. Alas, no mentions or op-eds have so far appeared in Western mainstream media to warn citizens, raise questions, or express outrage.

This may not only serve as a vivid illustration of the geopolitical subservience of European NATO members to US imperial interests. It also perfectly encapsulates the geopolitical gullibility of Europe’s leaders: after having outsourced and offshored most of Europe’s industrial base to China, what could the EU have to gain from targeting China next? Finally, it also speaks of the striking extent to which the established media have bought into the dominant narrative about the war and are failing their commitment to an open, democratic and pluralist public sphere. Such European warmongering in fact contrasts strikingly with the growing chorus on the other side of the Atlantic, where ever more security specialists, some of them high ranking, have gone on record to state that Ukraine cannot win the war and that peace negotiations are the only way out. Why do European leaders instead steel themselves into pursuing the dangerous road of further escalation? Doesn’t the current stalemate present a perfect opportunity to do as some in the American security establishment are doing, and reconsider?

Analogies

The discipline of International Relations (IR) operates on the basis of drawing out differences and similarities between distinct cases of war and peace. As such, its key method is the construction of historical analogies and debating which analogies fit best. History is for the IR scholar what the lab is for the natural scientist. While there is much to say on the art of drawing analogies, and while — as any historian can tell you — the historical record is never fixed, resulting in an endless stream of reinterpretations of seemingly settled historical events, not much of these nuances and concerns can be traced in the Western discourse on the war in Ukraine.

On the contrary, the Munich agreement in 1938, when British premier Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Adolf Hitler, sold out Sudetenland to Germany and failed to prevent World War II, appears to be the only acceptable analogy. Anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is immediately branded as an appeaser. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that Putin is no Hitler, that 1938 is not 2024, that the invasion of Ukraine is not a stand alone event of Russian aggression but fits into a much longer chain of give and take between Russia and the US, and Russian and competing Ukrainian elites, as has been wonderfully described and analysed by the Ukrainian scholar Volodymir Ishchenko. Nor does it matter that NATO massively outspends Russia on armament and defence, and has been doing so for decades. Never mind that the latest historiography suggests that Chamberlain’s so-called “appeasement” consisted of deterrence and containment, was in its time applauded as a token of deft diplomacy, and forced Hitler’s hand, as the British historian Richard Overy has convincingly shown in his magnum opus, Blood and Ruins.Since the Russian invasion, many have pointed out that one’s choice of historical analogy is crucial for one’s understanding of the nature of the conflict and hence for one’s preferred solution. There have, indeed, been numerous attempts to change the narrative by suggesting different analogies. One is the work of the American security expert Benjamin Abelow, who in his 2022 book How the West Brought War to Ukraine and in numerous interviews since, has argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 could be an alternative analogy, with the US and Russia flipping sides and Cuba instead of Ukraine as the main bone of contention between the two superpowers. Abelow, who is trained in the realist school of geopolitics in the tradition of John Mearsheimer, sees “strategic empathy” (note: not sympathy) as key to sensible, prudent geopolitics. He claims that in the 1962 crisis John F. Kennedy’s adversary, Nikita Khrushchev, was sensitive to the suggestion that the Soviet Union had infringed upon America’s legitimate security concerns and was hence open to negotiations through diplomatic back channels.

The lesson that Abelow draws from the 1962 security crisis is restraint, empathy, prudence and de-escalation. In contrast, since 2014 NATO has waved away any Russian concerns on Ukraine’s future membership of the EU and NATO and — as an investigative report from the New York Times recently showed — the CIA has even established stations in Ukraine. Moreover, every diplomatic attempt to solve the Ukraine crisis has so far been torpedoed by the US and its allies, while Western leaders in their public statements have done their utmost to antagonize Russian leadership. According to Abelow, that is a direct consequence of the analogy of Munich 1938 in which Putin is constantly compared to Hitler and hence appears as the devil incarnate or at best as an unreliable madman. It is a crass infringement on the realist precepts laid down by Niccolo Machiavelli who advised the prince to never mythologize and criminalise his adversaries.

Sleepwalking

Striking about the current political conjuncture in the West is the discursive aggression with which everyone who argues for a different analogy and a different strategy is treated. Even when one argues for the minima moralia of “strategic empathy,” which does nothing else but ask for treating the Russian leadership as rational human beings who stand for interests of their own, one is immediately branded as at worst a Putinversteher (“Putin-understander”), as if “understanding” is the same as condoning, or at best as a cowardly “appeaser.”

This harms the quality of public debate and hence the quality of democratic decision making. In principle it is a mode of collective decision making that entails the possibility to correct blind spots, tunnel visions and group think, which can easily appear in any closed off elite and can remain undetected for a long time, with disastrous consequences for subjects and citizens alike. Take the recent statements from a European power player like Macron referred to above: once one has decided upon one’s frame of reference doubling down on one’s strategy is the only option. And cancelling anyone who dares to suggest otherwise follows naturally.

The widescale use in both the legacy media and on the socials of argumentative fallacies like the law of the excluded other (“tertium non datur”), guilt by association, ad hominems, disqualifications of one’s cognitive standing, as well as the unwillingness to adhere to basic conversational principles like assuming that your adversary has good reasons for their position and instead dismissing those very same adversaries by criminalizing and pathologizing them, has turned the public sphere into the opposite of the “ideal speech situation” once postulated by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas as the normative logic of a true, democratic public sphere.

The dominance of figureheads from the military-industrial complex in the legacy media, and the near complete absence of pacifist voices is a case in point. It is as we have collectively forgotten the wave of pacifism and anti-Americanism that flooded the European public sphere in the early 1980s over the intention to turn Europe into a launchpad for American nuclear cruise missiles. Just in the Netherlands, more than half a million people took to the streets to show that they were against escalation and for peace. Even larger numbers of concerned citizens made themselves heard in other European capitals. It was the era in which progressives naturally tended towards pacificism and in which Green and Socialist political parties’ programs still promised to leave NATO.

The contrast with what passes for the Left today could not be greater. The German Greens are among the most aggressive European warmongers, while the Dutch Labor/Green combination fully backs the Atlanticist geopolitics of the current centre-right government. Even the Dutch Party for the Animals, one of the forces behind the Dutch referendum against the EU association treaty with Ukraine, seems to have forgotten its pacifist heritage and now backs full-blown military support for Ukraine. The weekly peace demonstrations in Amsterdam, instead, remain under the radar of the legacy media and hence attracts only a small trickle of committed protesters.

All this comes directly out of the playbook of elite propaganda, as described in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s 1988 classic, Manufacturing Consent. If those who possess the definition power project only a single narrative and refuse to allow pluralism to do its sanitizing job, the danger of creating self-fulfilling prophecies is never far away. Or, to use another historical analogy: in this way we run the danger of “sleepwalking” into another world war, as charted in Australian historian Christopher Clark’s magisterial account of the run up to the Great War.

Global Resolution

Not surprisingly, surveys have shown that support for Ukraine’s war effort has a striking geography. The support appears to be strong and unwavering in the 32 member states of NATO and low or non-existent in the rest of the world. In the Global South, and especially among citizens of the so-called BRICS-countries, the war is perceived as a Western intermezzo and the US attempt to frame it as an attack on the global world order is treated with extreme suspicion. A similar geography can be traced in the responses of national leaders to the news that Putin gained a landslide in the latest Russian presidential election. While the leaders of the 32 NATO member states of NATO condemned the elections as “incredibly undemocratic,” congratulations flowed in from the leaders from countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. According to the Guardian, this “underscored the geopolitical fault lines that have been cleaved wider since the Russian invasion.”

These observations do not only suggest a shift in geopolitical power, away from the US and its allies to countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa. They also demonstrate the extent to which the consensus among the NATO member states is a construct of the interplay between politics and press. The mindless repetition of the same has done its work. This is how propaganda and, for that matter, marketing work. This is why we should call for a more pluralistic perspective on this complex matter, in this critical stage, and a more open engagement with dissenting voices. They are the ones that may help us avoid a conflagration no one wants but which the dynamics of escalation may force upon us.

The way out is not more of the same but rather the mobilization of massive global diplomatic pressure to force the two contending powers into an immediate ceasefire and lead them towards peace negotiations. The trajectory sketched by three Swiss experts in international law in August 2023 could serve as a template here: from globally enforced ceasefire to peace negotiations to a new European security architecture which does consider Russian security interests. Key here is the global nature of the diplomatic effort to end the war: it should be universally backed, by countries in the Global South as well as in the North, by member states of NATO as well as by unaligned countries, especially the BRICS member states, who represent more than half the global population.

The earlier historical chance to do so was by and large foregone as soon as the West early in the war decided to go at it alone, enforcing economic and financial sanctions on Russia without waiting for a fully backed UN resolution. The result has been a disastrous deepening of already existing geopolitical fault lines between the West and the rest. Moreover, failure to reach a global resolution is the root of the dismal failure of the sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine. While sanctions have a patchy history in terms of effectiveness anyway, the sanctions on Russia will enter the history books as an extreme example of self-harm. The objective was to cripple the Russian economy by cutting it off from Western capital flows (the SWIFT payments system) and block its access to Western high tech in an attempt to undermine the Russian war effort. Two years later, the outcome is the exact opposite. Germany is in an economic slump, is rapidly deindustrializing, while its workers have seen the largest real wage decline since the 1950s. The Russian economy, on the other hand, is doing just fine. Export revenues are up, especially from gas and oil; real GDP is growing much faster than in the eurozone, German GDP in particular; employment is up, predominantly in the defence industry; armament production is much higher than in the combined West. As the Economist grudgingly admitted: the Russian economy “continues to defy the doomsayers.”

All of this was entirely predictable. For one of the world’s most resource-poor regions (the EU) to cut itself off from one of the most resource-rich countries (Russia) and replace cheap Russian fossil fuels by expensive (and environmentally much more damaging) American alternatives, was always going to harm European households and industries. Moreover, doing this unilaterally without attempting to construct a wider coalition with states in the global south would always have risked the chance of Russia quickly redirecting its economy from the West to the unaligned countries. And thus it has panned out. This raises pertinent questions about the geopolitical “nous” of European leaders and, if polls are any guide, may well result in a huge electoral backlash against reigning elites during the European Parliament elections later this year.

Regrets

The only way out is an admission on the side of European leaders that grave mistakes were made, followed by a concerted attempt to get the unaligned countries on board in an effort to solve this international crisis before it spirals out of hand. That requires a dash of wisdom and prudence on the side of our leaders, such as has so far been far from apparent.

Judging by the remarks made by the French president Macron, who since 2022 has changed from dove into hawk, the opposite has happened. A Russian victory, Macron claims, would “reduce Europe’s credibility to zero.” Here the public promises made to the Ukrainian leadership to help Ukraine win the war are used to double down on a strategy that was doomed to failure in the first place. It is not unlike the definition of insanity.

The position that I have outlined in this essay is, of course, currently a minority one among the European elites who possess the power of definition. Hence my call upon the members of the chattering classes to adhere a bit more strictly to the basic principles of conversation, to be a bit more tolerant of dissenting voices, to debate a bit more precisely which historical analogy fits best, and to be a tad more critical of the nightmarish claims put forward by those directly or indirectly linked to the military-industrial complex. And above all, to end the nasty habit of silencing dissenting voices by cancelling them, denying them public standing, accusing them of guilt by association and attacking the person instead of the arguments. There is simply too much at stake to intimidate concerned citizens into silence.

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3 Comments

  1. Well put Ewald. Bringing together all these sources and combining them into the essay shows that the dominant narrative is non-sensical from the beginning. As is often the case, when one ‘follows the money’ the true beneficiaries of the dominant narrative come into view. Thanks to the new insights your essay gave me, it seems almost as if this Russian invasion of Ukraine was practically inevitable … the question is where do we go from here?

  2. “Estimates of the death toll on the Ukrainian side range from 40,000 to well over 100,000, while the numbers on the Russian side are anybody’s guess. In this war, too, truth has proven to be the first casualty.”

    They need hundreds of thousands of new troops and they have lost only 40 to a 100k? No way. Truth truly is the first casualty. And with these deflated numbers it’s easier to fool both the Ukrainian and NATO public.

  3. Good article and Mearsheimer is mentioned which is the litmus test for me in these dark times. Abelow is a sloppy academic. It was the Cuban-Turkish Missle Crisis. The Jupiter missles based in Turkey would have leveled Yerevan in a matter of minutes. The Jupiters were installed before the Soviets stationed anything in Cuba and they weren’t withdrawn until the spring of 1963. Looks like the Soviets were the ones who were accomodating and patient.

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