Even without the current troop deployments on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border, the tensions between the West and Russia are once again extremely dangerous. It is not enough to defuse the escalated situation. A new policy of détente is urgently needed!
by Leo Ensel
Ukraine, the West and Russia - or: De-escalation, now!
In the past few days, alarming headlines in the media have included: "Putin demands NATO end eastward expansion"; "Poland: Site of NATO nuclear weapons? - Minsk would then station Russian nuclear weapons"; "Lavrov: Nightmare scenario of military confrontation returns to Europe", quite rightly the Russian Foreign Minister stated here: "The nightmare scenario of military confrontation that our continent experienced after the famous NATO double decision is returning." The situation, he said, was on the verge of US medium-range missiles reappearing on European territory. And finally: "Putin: Mach-9 hypersonic weapon tested - Five-minute approach time to hostile decision-makers", the commissioning of weapons of this type will be Russia's answer to a US deployment of short- and medium-range missiles in Europe.
One can see that the tensions between the West and Russia, which did not only exist yesterday, would already be dramatic enough without the current troop build-ups in Ukraine and Russia, about which there is hardly any confirmed information. 'Petrol barrels' have long been piled up to the sky on both sides anyway. In this already tense situation, every spark can act as a fatal accelerant and, in the worst case, blow up everything in Russia and the West.
It has already come to that!
But let's take a step back for a moment. What is happening on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border right now? What exactly do we know? And how is it being reported?
The facts and the discourse
According to Western and Ukrainian sources, Russia has been "massing troops on the Ukrainian border", named the Russian town of Yelnya, for about three weeks. The number of stationed soldiers is reportedly now around 92,000. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in turn, announced on Wednesday that Kiev had assembled up to 125,000 troops in the Donbass, an exact location was not disclosed. According to the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, this is about half of the Ukrainian armed forces. - This is essentially all the information already available to media consumers - including the author of this text.
Western media and NATO leaders from Acting Foreign Minister Maas to Secretary General Stoltenberg and US Secretary of State Blinken have been using the Russian troop concentration near Yelnya for weeks now as an opportunity to warn in the shrillest tones of a possible imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, even a simple glance at the little information provided reveals a number of inconsistencies.
If one enters the Russian town of Yelnya, where the Russian troop units are supposed to be, into Google Earth, one finds that it lies east of Smolensk, about 400 kilometres - the Tagesschau erroneously writes 250 - from the nearest Ukrainian border and about a thousand kilometres from the rebel republics in the Donbass. The border with Belarus, on the other hand, is only half that distance (200 kilometres), so that one can't help wondering why - if anything - there is no mention of a Russian troop deployment on the Belarusian border! If the Russian figures of 125,000 Ukrainian soldiers massed in the Donbass are correct, the picture would be even stranger: they would obviously not even be expecting a Russian attack, because otherwise they would not be stationed in the eastern Donbass, on the border to the rebel republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, but - please look at the map! - be stationed on the northern Ukrainian-Russian border! So apparently, despite all official pronouncements, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence also seems to assume that the events in the Yelnya area must be a Russian manoeuvre. (Which, by the way, is Russia's right).
So what is the point of the permanently thundering alarm bells, what is the point of the continuous media fire about a possible war by Russia against Ukraine? A war that, as the Kremlin surely knows very well, would only cause massive damage to Russia and whose international consequences would be unforeseeable! Could it be that in Western discourse it is not primarily about the facts, but about the "wording"?
The importance of interpretation
Political action is always also an action of naming, interpreting and interpreting. It is obvious that this is precisely where a wide space for manipulation and propaganda opens up. The interpretation that prevails - that is enforced - determines the future consequences at the level of action. To summarise pointedly: Even more important than the facts themselves is their naming. Perception creates reality. More flowery: It is not birth that decides, but baptism!
A recent example: In the summer of 2008, in the shadow of the Olympic Games in Beijing, the then Georgian President Saakashvili tried to reconquer the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force. Russia hit back hard militarily - the new Russia's first military operation outside its own territory - and Georgian troops suffered a crushing defeat after five days. The fact that Saakashvili was indeed the aggressor - and not Russia, as almost the entire Western mainstream trumpeted at the time - was confirmed a year later in the report of the "Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Conflict in Georgia" set up by the EU under the leadership of Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini. But by then it was already too late, because Saakashvili, who had been washed in all the American PR waters, had in the meantime managed to stage himself extremely skilfully as a persecuted innocent - which people in the West were happy to buy. In short: Russia had won the five-day war in the Caucasus militarily, but lost it hands down in terms of publicity! (No one should be surprised that the country has been investing more in soft power since then).
Since the interpretation that little Georgia had out of the blue become the victim of an insidious attack by its unpredictable big northern neighbour (all that was missing was the proverbial "bear"!) had gained widespread acceptance - it is still held by the German leading media - the aggressor Saakashvili was also able to enjoy increased military, economic and journalistic support from the West, including the (vague) prospect of NATO membership for his country. One can see how decisive for the future consequences the respective interpretation, the 'baptism', including a precisely tailored narrative including "wordings" can be! (The same applies to the "annexation of Crimea in violation of international law").
White spots in Western coverage of Ukraine
Which brings us back to the current Ukraine crisis.
If the interpretation prevails that Russia 'once again' wants to attack Ukraine, this time even that a large-scale Russian attack is imminent, then from the Western perspective almost all measures of military support - apart from direct intervention - are not only permitted, but urgently required in the service of 'peacekeeping'! If, on the other hand, it is only a manoeuvre on the country's own territory, as in the spring of this year - Russia ended it after a few weeks, by the way, without invading Ukraine - then the situation could be handled much more calmly.
The shrill alarm bells in the West and Ukraine suggest that the interpretation in terms of the invasion may not be so inconvenient there. Whether anyone actually believes in this scenario, however, is questionable. Both actors seem to want to make the most of the Russian troop build-up for their own interests. Ukraine is doing everything it can to get hold of Western military aid - in which it is already highly successful - and to draw the West as deeply as possible into the conflict with the rebels in the Donbass and Russia in order to get closer to the long-term goal of NATO membership. Russian security interests do not count. For NATO and the USA, the loud sabre-rattling is a welcome tailwind to sell the public on the alleged necessity of the two-percent target and the increase in Western military presence, including state-of-the-art weapons systems on the Russian border. Moreover, it is not entirely out of the question that President Biden will also escalate verbally in order to be able to present himself as a hardliner and peace saver after a - foreseeable - agreement with Putin in the coming days.
The sabre-rattling of politicians and the military is flanked by a Western media storm that has some remarkable white spots with regard to Ukraine. For example, the fact that Kiev, with the obvious acquiescence of the West, has not fulfilled its central obligations under the Minsk II agreement for more than six and a half years - the adoption of a constitutional reform by the end of 2015 (!) in the sense of decentralisation, taking into account the special features of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions ("South Tyrol solution") - is hardly ever discussed, at best only in passing. It is also little known in the West that Ukraine not only buys Turkish combat drones of the type Bayraktar TB2, which "proved their worth in the Karabakh War" and recently fired them against the rebel positions near Donetsk, but is also already negotiating with Turkey about a licence production.
Completely unknown in this country, however, is the fact that the USA has been conducting annual manoeuvres with Ukrainian troops on the territory of Western Ukraine since the mid-1990s under the label "Rapid Trident" (formerly: "Peace Shield"), most recently from 20 September to 1 October this year together with soldiers from countries such as Bulgaria, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Jordan, Moldova, Pakistan and Poland. The same applies to the US naval manoeuvres "Sea Breeze" off the coast of Ukraine in the Black Sea since 1997. This summer, units from no fewer than 32 states were involved.
Imagine what would happen in the West if Russia, together with soldiers from Belarus, Serbia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and other states, undertook annual troop exercises in Mexico or naval manoeuvres in the Gulf of the same name off the coast of Florida!
De-escalation, now! - For a new policy of détente
Let us return to the geopolitical framework, to the new Cold War in which the current Ukraine crisis is playing out. If, in the worst case, this could be the spark that causes the petrol barrels piled up everywhere to explode, then it is obviously not enough to eliminate this spark just in time. Because in this tense situation, a new spark can occur at any time. So, to stay with the metaphor, it is a matter of gradually dismantling the barrels of petrol piled up to the sky! As long as this does not happen, the greatest danger is that things - by whatever chance - will slip away from all the actors, become independent and everyone could slip into a scenario like that before World War I. This could lead to the end of the war. World War I scenario, to which everyone contributed, but which no one would have wanted. The III. World War III could be a second World War I!
In concrete terms: It is not enough for Presidents Biden and Putin to establish direct contact with each other in the coming days via an online conference - as urgently as this is necessary - in order to hopefully defuse the current Ukraine crisis. Substantial steps towards de-escalation must finally be taken! One consequence of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the establishment of the famous Red Telephone. Today, almost all bilateral and multilateral discussion formats, which, like the NATO-Russia Council, were created precisely for such crisis situations, no longer exist. They urgently need to be reactivated or replaced by new crisis-proof formats. Equally necessary is a de-escalation in the choice of words. Wars can also be conjured up! It is like thinking and acting in worst-case scenarios, which only make the worst case more and more likely.
However, the 'petrol barrels' could only be dismantled step by step within the framework of a policy of détente 2.0. Concepts for this have long been available - among others from the long-standing Moscow correspondent Gabriele Krone-Schmalz - so that it is sufficient here to briefly summarise them once again: Binding implementation of all Minsk II agreements, negotiations between the USA and Russia on the non-stationing (preferably: elimination) of medium- and shorter-range delivery systems, dismantling of the Western missile 'defence' system Aegis with its modules in Romania and Poland as well as parallel withdrawal of the Russian Iskander missiles from the Kaliningrad oblast and finally holding a major "Conference on Common Security in Europe and the World". If NATO were to withdraw the accession perspective for Ukraine and Georgia here in a legally binding way, Russia, for its part, could agree to a stationing of international peacekeeping troops under UN mandate in the Donbass, if this were then still necessary. It would also be conceivable to negotiate a withdrawal of NATO and US troops from Poland and the Baltic States, if Russia were willing to simultaneously redeploy its troops close to the border from the western military districts and the Kaliningrad Oblast. These measures could be expanded into a demilitarised corridor between Russia and the western littoral states as far as the Black Sea. Manoeuvres would be announced again and foreign observers invited, which would put a stop to countless rumours and speculations. - All these steps would make Europe considerably safer, promote the reconstruction of trust between the actors and clear the way for disarmament negotiations at the strategic level.
However, it would be naïve to expect that this détente 2.0 could be implemented without pressure from below, i.e. without pressure from a political public that has finally woken up. Four decades ago - long, long ago - it was almost common knowledge that the fight against the destruction of the environment and the fight against global armament were two sides of the same coin. The magic word back then was "ecopax". This is exactly where we need to pick up again today.
We need not only "Fridays for Future", but also "Sundays for Deescalation"!