Wolfgang Streeck – The Return of the King

In addition to nurturing the new NATO members themselves, another task associated with the European Union’s new status as a civilian auxiliary to the Atlantic Alliance is to design economic sanctions designed to do as much damage to the Russian enemy as necessary, while minimising the damage to friends and allies.

Wolfgang Streeck is the Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany

Cross-posted from El Salto

Translation by BRAVE NEW EUROPE


If ever there was a question of who is the boss in Europe, NATO or the European Union, the war has settled it, at least for the foreseeable future. Long ago, Henry Kissinger complained that there was no single telephone number to call to contact the EU, that countless calls had to be made to get anything done, and that there was an inadequate chain of command that demanded simplification. Then, after the demise of Franco and Salazar, there was the southern enlargement of the European Union, which also brought with it NATO membership for Spain and Portugal. This reassured Kissinger and the United States of the vagaries of Eurocommunism and ensured that a military coup in both countries would only take place with the authorisation of the Atlantic Alliance. Subsequently, with the emergence of the New World Order after 1990, it was the task of the European Union to absorb most of the member states of the defunct Warsaw Pact and prepare them for NATO membership. The EU’s more or less enthusiastically accepted task of economically and politically stabilising the newcomers to the capitalist bloc, as well as guiding their processes of nation-building and state formation, was to endow these countries with the ability and desire to be part of the “West”, understood according to the US-led model in the new unipolar world.

Over the following years, the number of Eastern European countries awaiting admission to the European Union grew, as the United States pressed for admission. Over time, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia achieved official candidate status, while Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova waited without success. In the meantime, the enthusiasm of EU member states waned, especially in France, which preferred and still prefers “deepening” to “enlargement”, in line with the peculiar French finalité of achieving “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”: a collection of states, relatively homogeneous politically and socially, capable of collectively playing an independent, self-determined and sovereign role in world politics primarily under the leadership of France (“a more independent France in a stronger Europe”, as the newly re-elected French president likes to put it). This required that the economic costs of bringing the new member states up to European standards, as well as the required volume of institution-building brought in from outside, be kept within manageable parameters, given that the EU was already struggling with persistent economic disparities between its Mediterranean and northern member countries, not to mention the deep ties of some of the new Eastern European members to the United States. And so France blocked the entry into the European Union of longstanding NATO member Turkey (which will remain so even though it has just today sent Osman Kavala to prison, sentenced to a life sentence of solitary confinement without any possibility of parole) and several Western Balkan states, Albania and North Macedonia, but failed to prevent Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary from joining in the first wave of Osterweirterung [eastward expansion] in 2004. Four years later, Sarkozy and Merkel prevented the United States, during George W. Bush’s presidency, from securing the accession of Georgia and Ukraine to the Atlantic Alliance, anticipating that this should be followed by their inclusion in the European Union.

Changing the rules of the game

With the war, the game changed. Zelensky’s televised address to the meeting of EU government prime ministers caused a kind of excitement much desired but rarely experienced in Brussels, while his demand for full membership, tutto e subito, triggered an endless ovation from the audience. Super-enthusiastic as usual, von der Leyen travelled to Kiev to hand Zelensky the lengthy questionnaire that EU candidates must fill out to initiate admission procedures. Although it normally takes months, if not years, for national governments to assemble the complex details required in the questionnaires, Zelensky promised to finish the job, despite the siege in Kiev, in a few weeks and did so. We do not yet know the answers given by the Ukrainian government to questions such as the treatment of ethnic and linguistic minorities, especially Russian, the extent of corruption and the state of democracy, for example regarding the role played by Ukrainian oligarchs in political parties as well as in parliament and government. If Ukraine is admitted to the European Union as quickly as promised by European leaders and as its government and the United States expect, there will be no reason in the future to refuse membership not only to the Western Balkan states, but also to Georgia and Moldova, which applied together with Ukraine. In any case, all of them will further strengthen the anti-Russian and pro-American wing of the European Union, today led by Poland, which, like Ukraine, was an enthusiastic participant in the “coalition of the willing” assembled by the United States to pursue the goal of active nation-building in Iraq. As with the European Union in general, Ukrainian membership will become something akin to a preparatory school or fold for future NATO members. This is and will be the case, even if Ukraine can be officially declared neutral under the terms of a hypothetical peace agreement, which explicitly prevents it from joining NATO. (In reality, since 2014, the Ukrainian military has been rebuilt from top to bottom according to US guidelines to the point that in 2021 it actually managed to meet the criteria of what in NATO jargon is called ‘interoperability’).

In addition to nurturing the new NATO members itself, another task that comes with the European Union’s new status as the Atlantic Alliance’s civilian auxiliary is to design economic sanctions designed to do as much damage to the Russian enemy as necessary, while minimising the damage to friends and allies. NATO controls the arms, the EU controls the ports. Von der Leyen, fiery as ever, let the world know as early as the end of February that the EU-prepared sanctions will be more effective than ever and that they will “step by step dismantle Russia’s industrial infrastructure”. Perhaps because she is German, the President of the European Commission may have had in mind when she uttered these words something similar to the Morgenthau Plan, according to the version proposed to Franklin D. Roosevelt by his advisors, which aimed to reduce defeated Germany forever to an agricultural society. This project was immediately dismissed, as soon as the United States realised that it might need (West) Germany to implement its Cold War strategy of “containment” of the Soviet Union.

It is unclear who instructed von der Leyen not to overload the sanctions, but the shattering metaphor was not heard again, perhaps because what it implied might have amounted to active participation in the war. In any case, it soon became clear that the European Commission, for all its claims to a technocratic reputation, had failed miserably in planning for sanctions, as it had in planning for macroeconomic convergence. Remarkably Eurocentric, the Commission seemed to have forgotten that there are parts of the world that see no reason to join the boycott decreed against Russia by the West; for them military interventions are nothing unusual, including those by Western countries for Western countries. On the other hand, internally, when the situation turned ugly, the EU had difficulty ordering its member states what not to buy or sell; appeals to Germany and Italy to immediately stop importing Russian gas went unheeded, while both governments insisted that they had to take into consideration national jobs and the prosperity of their respective countries. Miscalculations abounded even in the financial sphere where, despite the incredibly sophisticated sanctions imposed against Russian banks, including the central bank, the rouble has recently appreciated, having gained around 30 percent between 6 and 30 April.

Royal purges

When kings return, they do so by implementing purges to rectify anomalies that have accumulated during their absence. Old lists of issues are reintroduced and new ones are drawn up, disloyalty revealed during the king’s absence is punished, disobedient ideas and improper memories are extirpated, and the nooks and crannies of the body politic are cleansed of the political deviations that have populated them in the meantime. McCarthyite symbolic actions are useful, as they spread fear among potential dissidents. Right now, all over the Western world, piano players or tennis players or proponents of the theory of relativity, who by chance happen to be Russian and wish to continue practising their profession, are under pressure to make public statements that would, at best, make life difficult for them and their families if they were to return to Russia. Investigative journalists discover a chasm of philanthropic donations made by Russian oligarchs to the world of music and festivals, donations that have been welcome in the past, but are now found to subvert artistic freedom, unlike, of course, the donations of their Western oligarch counterparts, etc.

In this context of proliferating loyalty oaths, public discourse is reduced to spreading the king’s truth and nothing more than that. Verstehen Putin [understanding Putin], or whatever it is we are dealing with, that is, trying to elucidate motives and reasons, looking for a useful key to see how the end of this bloodbath could perhaps be negotiated, is equated with verzeihen Putin [forgiving Putin]; the atrocities of the Russian army are relativised, as the Germans say, by trying to put an end to them by other military means. According to a recently revised wisdom, there is only one way to deal with a madman; thinking of other means advances his interests and therefore amounts to treason. (I remember the teachers of the 1950s teaching the younger generation that “the only language the Russian understands is the language of the fist”). Memory management is central: never mention the Minsk Agreements (2014 and 2015) signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, never ask what became of them and why what happened happened; never mention the negotiated conflict resolution programme under which Zelensky was elected president in 2019 by almost three-quarters of the Ukrainian electorate; and forget the US response, given through megaphone diplomacy, to Russian proposals for a joint European security system made in late 2021. And, above all, never to bring up the various US “special operations” in the recent past, such as the one in Fallujah, Iraq, which resulted in 800 civilian casualties in just a few days: to do so is to commit the crime, according to German Twitter, of “whataboutism , which is from a moral point of view, in view of “the images from Mariupol”, utterly colossal.

Imperial Reconstruction Policy

Throughout the West, the politics of imperial reconstruction is targeting everything and everyone deemed guilty of deviating, or having deviated in the past, from the US position on Russia and the Soviet Union, as well as on Europe as a whole. This is where the red line is being drawn today between Western society and its enemies, between good and evil, a line along which not only the present, but also the past, must be purged. Particular attention is being paid to Germany, the country that has been under (Kissingerian) suspicion since the times of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik [policy of openness towards Eastern European countries] and since the German recognition of the western border of post-war Poland. Since then Germany has been suspected in American eyes of wanting to have a say in its own national security and European security, at the time within NATO and the European Community, but in the future possibly in strictly European hands. That three decades later Schröder, like Blair, Obama and so many others, monetised his political past after abandoning his public responsibilities was never a problem; it was when it could be used as evidence of another case of disobedience such as Schröder’s historic refusal, hand in hand with Chirac, to join the US-led gang in invading Iraq and in so doing breaking exactly the same international law that is now being violated by Putin. (The fact that Merkel, then opposition leader, told the world, speaking from Washington DC just days before the invasion, that Schröder did not represent the true will of the German people may be one reason why she has so far been spared US attacks on what is now claimed to be one of the main causes of the Ukrainian war, namely her energy policy aimed at making Germany dependent on Russian natural gas).

Today, in any case, it is not really Schröder, obviously drunk on the millions with which the Russian oligarchs are showering him, who is the main target of the German purge. It is instead the SPD as a party, which according to Bild and the new CDU leader Friedrich Merz, a businessman with excellent American connections, has and always has had a Russlandproblem. The role of grand inquisitor is robustly played by the current Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, one Andrij Melnyk, a self-appointed nemesis in particular of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now president of the Federal Republic, who is pointed to as the personification of the SPD’s ‘Russian connection’. Steinmeier was between 1999 and 2005 head of Schröder’s Chancellery Office [cabinet of the government presidency], served twice (2005-2009 and 2013-2017) as foreign minister in Merkel’s government and was for four years (2009- 2013) leader of the opposition in the Bundestag. According to Melnyk, an indefatigable tweeter and interview star, Steinmeier “has over the years woven a web of contacts with Russia [in which] countless people, who now hold positions of responsibility in the German government, are trapped”. For Steinmeier, so goes Melnyk’s reasoning, ‘the relationship with Russia was and is something fundamental, something sacred regardless of what happens. Even the Russian war of aggression does not seem to matter much to him’. Informed by its ambassador, the Ukrainian government declared Steinmeier persona non grata minutes before he was due to board the train that was to take him from Warsaw to Kiev along with the Polish foreign minister and the heads of government of the Baltic states. While the other travellers were allowed to enter Ukraine, Steinmeier had to inform the journalists accompanying him that he was not welcome and was returning to Germany.

Steinmeier’s case is interesting because it shows how the targets of the ongoing purge are being selected. At first glance Steinmeier’s neoliberal and Atlanticist credentials would seem impeccable. Author of Agenda 2010, Steinmeier, as head of the Chancellery Office and coordinator of the German secret services, allowed the US to use its German military bases to round up and interrogate prisoners from all over the world in the ‘war on terror’, presumably as compensation for Schröder’s refusal to join the US adventure in Iraq. Steinmeier did not raise much of a fuss either, indeed none at all, when the US held German citizens of Lebanese and Turkish descent prisoner in Guantánamo, after they were arrested, kidnapped and tortured after being mistaken for other people. To this day, accusations have persisted that Steinmeier failed to provide adequate assistance to these detainees arbitrarily, as he should have done under German law. What is certain is that Steinmeier did contribute to Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, though not in the way his accusers claim. It was he who in 1999 negotiated Germany’s abandonment of nuclear power on behalf of the red-green coalition government headed by Schröder, an abandonment demanded by the Greens but not by the SPD. Subsequently, as opposition leader, he cooperated when in 2011, after the Fukushima accident, Merkel, having reversed the first nuclear phase-out plan, contradicted herself to opt for the second, cunningly hoping that this would open the door to a coalition with the Greens. A few years later, when Merkel put an end for the same environmental reasons to the use of coal, in particular lignite, which should indeed coincide approximately with the time of the closure of the last nuclear reactors, Steinmeier also cooperated in the implementation of this policy. However, it is he, not Merkel, who is being blamed for Germany’s energy dependence and collaboration with Russia, perhaps for reasons due to the enduring gratitude shown to Merkel for her assistance in the Syrian refugee crisis provoked by the botched US (non-)intervention in Syria. Meanwhile, both the Greens, the driving force behind German energy policy since Schröder’s first energy policy decision, and the CDU have managed to escape US wrath thanks to their relentless attack on the SPD and Scholz for their dithering over the delivery of ‘heavy weapons’ to Ukraine.

And what about Nord Stream 2? Here too Merkel was always in the driver’s seat, not least because the pipeline’s point of arrival on German soil was to be her home state, not to say her constituency. It should be noted that the pipeline never came into operation, a good deal of the Russian gas that goes to Germany being pumped through a pipeline system that runs in part through Ukraine. In Merkel’s eyes, Nord Stream 2 was necessary because of the chaotic legal and political situation in Ukraine after 2014, which raised the question of how to ensure reliable gas transit for Germany and Western Europe, a question that Nord Stream 2 elegantly solved. You don’t have to be a Ukraineversteher [someone who understands Ukraine] to realise that this new pipeline must have irritated the Ukrainians. It is interesting to note, however, that after more than two months of war Russian gas is still being supplied through Ukrainian pipelines. Although the Ukrainian government can close them whenever it wishes, it does not do so, probably to enable itself and its oligarchs to collect the corresponding transit fees. This does not prevent Ukraine from demanding that Germany and other countries immediately stop using Russian gas in order not to finance Putin’s war’.

Again the question arises, why Steinmeier and the SPD and not Merkel and the CDU or the Greens? The most important reason may be that in Ukraine, especially among the radical right of the political spectrum, Steinmeier’s name is known and hated above all because of his association with the so-called “Steinmeier algorithm” – essentially a roadmap or list of tasks suitable for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements drafted by him in his capacity as foreign minister in Merkel’s government. While Nord Stream 2 was unforgivable from Ukraine’s perspective, the Minsk Agreements were a mortal sin in the eyes not only of the Ukrainian right (among other things it would have granted autonomy to Russian-speaking areas of the country), but also of the United States, which had not been consulted on it, just as Ukraine was not going to be consulted on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. If the latter constituted an unfriendly act between business partners, the former constituted an act of high treason against a temporarily absent king, who had now come back to put things in order and exact his revenge.

To the extent that the European Union has become a subsidiary organisation of NATO, we can presume that its officials know as little as the average person about America’s ultimate war aims. The recent visit of the US secretaries of state and defence to Kiev suggests that the US has shifted the goal forward from defending Ukraine against Russian encroachment to permanently weakening Russian military power. The extent to which the United States has now taken control was clearly demonstrated when, on their return trip, the two US secretaries stopped at the US air base in Ramstein, Germany, the same base that the United States has used to wage the war on terror and mount similar operations. There they met with the defence ministers of no less than forty countries, whom they had ordered to appear to show their support for Ukraine and, of course, for the United States. Curiously, the meeting was convened not at NATO headquarters in Brussels, a multinational headquarters at least formally, but at a military facility considered by the United States to be under its sole and exclusive sovereignty, to the occasional silent disagreement of the German government. It was here, at an event presided over by the US under two flags, American and Ukrainian, that the Scholz government finally agreed to supply Ukraine with the long-demanded “heavy weapons” without, of course, being allowed to express any opinion on the exact purpose for which its tanks and mortars would be used. (The forty nations agreed to meet once a month to decide what other military equipment Ukraine might subsequently need). ) One cannot fail to recall in this context the remark made by a retired US diplomat, expressed at a preliminary stage of the war, that the United States was going to fight the Russians “to the last Ukrainian”.

As is well known, the attention span not only of the US citizenry but also of its foreign policy establishment is short. Dramatic events at home and abroad can drastically reduce national attention to a remote place like Ukraine, not to mention the impending mid-term elections and Donald Trump’s upcoming campaign to try to retake the presidency in 2024. From the US perspective, this is not much of a problem, because the risks associated with its foreign adventures are almost exclusively borne by the respective local populations, as the case of Afghanistan demonstrates. Much more important, one would think, would be for European countries to know exactly what the US war aims are in Ukraine and how they are changing as the war unfolds. After the Ramstein meeting, the object of discussion was not just the permanent weakening of Russian military capabilities – forget about reaching a peace agreement – but the achievement of an unqualified victory for Ukraine and its allies, which calls into question the conventional wisdom that a conventional war cannot be won against a nuclear power. For the Europeans the outcome will be a matter of life and death, which might explain why the German government hesitated for some weeks before sending weapons to Ukraine that could be used, for example, to penetrate Russian territory, perhaps initially to hit Russian supply lines and then to carry out other types of operations. (When the writer read the news about the new American aspiration to achieve “victory”, he was struck for an unforgettable moment by a deep sense of fear). If Germany had in any case had the courage to demand that its opinion be taken into account as far as the US-Ukrainian strategy is concerned, none of these scenarios would be before us: German tanks, it seems, will be delivered with carte blanche for entirely discretionary use. Rumour has it that virtually all of the numerous conflict simulations commissioned in recent years from US think tanks by the US government to analyse a hypothetical war between Ukraine, NATO and Russia conclude, in one way or another, in a nuclear Armageddon, at least in Europe.

A nuclear outcome is certainly not what is being communicated to the public. On the contrary, we hear that the United States assumes that defeating Russia will take many years, including a protracted stalemate consisting of a protracted stalemate simmering in the mire of ground warfare in which neither side is able to move forward: the Russians, because the Ukrainians will continually be given new economic resources and new war materiel, if not troops, by a “West” newly subservient again to US designs; the Ukrainians, because they are too weak to enter Russia and threaten its capital. To the US this might look like a convenient proxy war, with the balance of forces adjusted and readjusted at will according to its changing strategic needs. Indeed Biden suggested, in the wake of his request for another $33 billion in aid to Ukraine for the 2022 fiscal year alone, that this was only the beginning of a long engagement, which would be as expensive as the Afghanistan intervention, but worth the cost. Unless, of course, the Russians start firing more of their miracle missiles, unpack their chemical weapons and finally get around to using their nuclear arsenal, starting with the use of small explosive warheads dropped on the battlefield.

Is there, despite all this, a prospect for peace after the war or, less ambitiously, for a regional security architecture, perhaps once the Americans have lost interest in the conflict or Russia understands that it cannot or need not continue the war? A Eurasian settlement, if we want to call it that, will probably presuppose some kind of regime change in Moscow. After what has happened, it is hard to imagine European-Western leaders publicly expressing confidence in Putin or a successor made to his mould. At the same time, there is no reason to believe that Western-imposed economic sanctions against Russia will provoke a public uprising capable of toppling Putin’s regime. In fact, measured by the experience of the indiscriminate bombing of German cities by the Allies during World War II, sanctions could well have the opposite effect by causing the Russian people to close ranks behind their government. Deindustrialising Russia, a la von der Leyen, will not be possible in any case, because China ultimately will not allow it, given that it ultimately needs a functioning Russian state for its New Silk Road project. Popular demands in the West for Putin and his clique to sit before the Hague Criminal Court will not be met for these very reasons. It should be noted in any case that Russia, like the United States, has not signed the treaty that created the Hague Tribunal, thus ensuring its citizens’ immunity from prosecution. Like Kissinger and Bush Jr. as well as other US actors, Putin will remain basically unscathed until the end of his days regardless of how they end. Those European countries that for historical reasons do not exactly show an inclination towards Russophilia, such as the Baltic states and Poland, and certainly also Ukraine, may have a good chance to convince public opinion in countries like Germany or Scandinavia that relying on Russia may be dangerous for their national health.

However, regime change may also be necessary in Ukraine. Over the past few years the ultranationalist extreme of Ukrainian politics, characterised by deep roots in Ukraine’s fascist and indeed pro-Nazi past, seems to have gained strength in the new alliance with ultra-interventionist forces active in the US, which has not been without consequences including the disappearance of the Minsk Agreements from the Ukrainian political agenda. A prominent exponent of the Ukrainian far right is the aforementioned Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, who let us know in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that for him someone like Navalny is exactly the same as Putin when it comes to Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign nation-state. Asked what he would say to his Russian friends, the ambassador denied having any, stating that he has not really had any in his life, since the Russians by nature exist to annihilate the Ukrainian people. Ambassador Melnyk’s political family refers to the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, active during the inter-war period and under German occupation, with which its leaders collaborated until they discovered that the Nazis did not really distinguish between Russians and Ukrainians when it came to murdering and enslaving people. The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists was led by two men, Andrij Melnyk (same name as the ambassador) and Stepan Bandera, the latter somewhat, if possible, to the right of the former. Both committed, according to available information, war crimes under the protection of the German occupying forces, Bandera as head of the Nazi-appointed police in Lviv. Bandera was subsequently rounded up by the Germans and placed under house arrest, as had happened to other local fascists elsewhere (the Nazis did not believe in federalism). After the war, when the Soviet Union was re-established, Bandera moved to Munich, the post-war capital that was home to a host of former pro-Nazi collaborators from Eastern Europe, such as the Croatian Ustasha. In 1959 he was murdered there by a Soviet agent after being sentenced to death by a Soviet court.

Today’s Melnyk calls Bandera his “hero”. In 2015, shortly after being appointed ambassador, he visited his grave in Munich and laid flowers on it, leaving a record of his visit on Twitter. This prompted a formal reproach from the German foreign ministry, headed at the time by Steinmeier. Melnyk also expressed public support for the so-called Azov Battalion, a paramilitary group active in Ukraine founded in 2014, generally regarded as the military wing of various Ukrainian neo-fascist movements. It is not entirely clear to non-specialists exactly how much influence Melnyk’s current has in Ukraine’s government as of today; there are certainly other currents in the ruling coalition, whose influence, however, may decline further as the war drags on. Nationalist movements sometimes dream of strengthening their nation through the death of the best of their people on the battlefield, welding the new nation by heroic sacrifice. To the extent that Ukraine is governed by such political forces, which are supported from the outside by the United States, which favours a protracted Ukrainian war, it is difficult to see how and when this bloodbath will end, if not by the capitulation of the enemy or by resorting to its nuclear weapons.

Ukrainian politics aside, a US proxy war in Ukraine could force Russia to tighten its dependent relationship with China, securing the latter a captive Eurasian ally, which would offer it assured access to Russian resources at a very low price, given that the West would now no longer compete for them. Russia, in turn, could benefit from Chinese technology to the extent that it was made available. At first glance, such an alliance might appear to run counter to US geostrategic interests. Such an alliance would, however, bring with it an equally close and asymmetric alliance between Western Europe and the United States, dominated by the United States, which would keep Germany in check and suppress French aspirations for “European sovereignty”. In all likelihood, what Europe can deliver to the US would exceed what Russia can deliver to China, so that Russia’s loss to China would be more than offset by gains in reasserting US hegemony over Western Europe. A deceptive proxy war in Ukraine could thus prove attractive to the United States as it seeks to build a global alliance for use in its impending battle with China over the New World Order, unipolar or bipolar in old or new ways, to be fought over the next few years after the end of the end of history.

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