The Ukrainian vacuum

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On the morning of 24.02.2022, what had been doubted the day before was confirmed. Russia, at the behest of President Vladimir Putin, has launched an invasion of Ukraine. Russian missiles were fired at strategic facilities across the country, airports and military bases, and cyber attacks were also launched. Rockets also fell near the Polish border, i.e. in Lviv. Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border and appeared in the suburbs of Kharkiv, among other places. Ukraine has severed diplomatic relations with Russia and announces a fight against the aggressor.

The sanctions the West has used against Russia – hitting the interests of some Putin-linked oligarchs – have proved ineffective and too mild to deter Putin from carrying out his intentions. For too long the West has believed that the Russian autocrat is in fact a harmless carnage with whom one can even enter into joint ventures. No one knows exactly what Putin wants to achieve by attacking Ukraine. Some believe that war is his now traditional way of consolidating power as it wanes. Others argue that he is pursuing the idea of building a great Russia within the borders of the former USSR.

What is troubling is the attitude of China, which in official government communiqués has basically conceded Putin’s point: he can do whatever he wants to pursue his interests, even if he commits “military operations” on the territory of other countries. On the one hand, China may be preparing the narrative for the takeover of Taiwan, on the other hand, it may be signaling its desire to form a permanent anti-Western alliance with Russia. While Russia alone is a weak organism, Russia and China are a dangerous tandem that makes one consider the scenario of further escalation of the conflict.

The space between Germany and Russia has been the home of all the greatest wars of the last two hundred years. Not just the First and Second World Wars, not just the Cold War, but earlier military conflicts since at least the Napoleonic Wars. There is no indication that anything is about to change in this regard. Once again, the theater on which the fate of the Western World will be decided for the next several decades will be Central and Eastern Europe. Not the Pacific Basin, but the same miserable lowlands as for the past centuries.

Great national wars never have a single cause. They are never the result of pure coincidence or the overgrown ambitions of one man. These are always ancient times, processes the understanding of which requires a longer and wide-angle perspective. Hence, the war for Ukraine should not come as a surprise, nor should it be viewed solely through the prism of the dictatorship of a group of post-Soviet kleptomans.

Central and Eastern Europe, with Ukraine on its outskirts, lies on a geopolitical fault for which the Ottomans, Habsburgs, Romanians, and then their heirs: Germany, Russia and the Soviet Union have competed for centuries. In the past two hundred years, empires have come and gone. Russia and Germany took turns increasing and losing their sovereignty. From the mid-nineteenth century, the region underwent major transformations. This was, of course, a period of very dynamic changes throughout Europe, but few have encountered such a concentration of contradictions, contrasts and tensions in the Industrial Revolution. It changed not only the economic landscape of Europe, but also social and cultural relations, demographics, trade, and with them relations between nations. The demographic expansion of Russia and the disintegration of the Ottoman state on the one hand, on the other – the population growth and federalization of Prussia and to top it all off the rapidly growing ambitions of the British Kingdom practically shattered the treaty concluded in Vienna in 1815.

The new Europe, with its national-democratic aspirations, proletarian claims and colonial dreams, simply could no longer fit into the tight monarchical corset of the ancient European families. World War I changed Europe in many ways. Weapons changed, thinking about the state and politics changed, the names of states changed, and life was never the same again.

The biggest geopolitical change, however, was the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, which for a good hundred years ensured balance in Europe and filled the space between Russia and Germany. The void left by the Habsburg monarchy was now to be filled by a mosaic of nation states. Most of them had barely regained their subjectivity and were ready to defend it to the last man. A rekindled nationalism and a desire to make up for lost years were to provide an effective dam against the imperial ambitions of Germany and Russia. The midwives of the new Europe were France and Great Britain, the only powers that could be said to have emerged victorious from the war.

The Great Four architects of the new political order gathered at Versailles in 1919 – British Prime Minister Lloyd George, American President Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau from France and Victorio Orlando, Prime Minister of Italy – hoped that by dispersing Central European lowlands and building a new reality, they would also change geopolitical realities. This concept, however, had no chance of surviving without the support of Western powers. Instead of creating a new reality, the West created a new threatening vacuum. The states of Europe, at odds with each other and internally divided by factional disputes, turned out to be easy to play by predatory, communist and fascist dictatorships on both sides of the European lowlands. Two extreme leftist regimes. Both were elevated on a wave of bursting social expectations. Regardless of whether their ideological binder was Marxist class revolution or Nazi racial domination, for both, territorial expansion and enslavement of foreign states was a political creed. No wonder that the fascists and the communists quickly came to an agreement. In the semi-secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the fascists and communists divided the “orphaned” countries of Central Europe between themselves.

Of course, Poland, and earlier the Czech Republic, had the guarantees from France and Great Britain, but alliances are usually worth as much as military capability and willingness to sacrifice. Both were lacking in the West. Britain and France were virtually defenseless. Influential pacifist movements to force demilitarization of Western armies have made their way on both sides of the LaManche Channel. Weak armaments and political defeatism forced Chamberlain and Daladier to surrender the Czech Republic to Germany at Munich, and a year later made them wait passively for Hitler and Stalin to split up Poland. In 1938 Hitler may not yet have had the potential to defeat all of Europe, but after Munich he took over the excellent Czech armaments, including 88 mm howitzers successfully used later in the conquest of Poland. After cutting Poland off from Europe, he eliminated another 39 divisions and became an overlord.

Central Europe increasingly resembled that of the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Divided between two ruthless sole rulers from east and west. It could go on for another hundred years, but this time the German-Russian alliance turned out to be particularly fragile. This relationship, born of hatred for Western values, has just crashed into the fat, black lands of Ukraine. In Hitler’s superpower plan, Ukraine and the eastern lowlands of Poland were to serve as a granary for the German nation. For Russia, on the other hand, Ukraine is not only a base of agricultural production, but also the Ukrainian gorges, which at the time seemed critical for further expansion into Central Europe. Today, natural geographic formations are obviously no longer as important as they were in the 20th century, but it is still a critical gateway for influencing events in Europe.

The dispute over Ukraine turned out to be a breakthrough for the fate of the world and Europe. With American help, Europe defeated Hitler. In Yalta in 1945 it was agreed that Soviet Russia should keep Germany in check, even at the price of Central European countries. As a British ministerial official wrote to his American colleagues: “they must be left for the wolves to devour.” This was to be the time for France and Britain to rebuild their superpowers and regain the colonies lost in the fire of war. France and Great Britain moved directly from the front of World War II against the liberation movements of Algeria, Palestine, Egypt, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Angola, Kenya, Guinea, Mozambique and the Spanish Sahara. Raised in the memory after the horrors of World War II, we have conveniently forgotten that in fact the war, or wars, were still going on long after the Potsdam Conference. It was only when the colonies proved unreclaimable that Europe began to look around for a new idea to rebuild its superpower, but still no one here had the presence of mind to consider what would happen with the void left in Central Europe.

Prominent historian Timothy Snyder wrote in his book “The Road to Freedom” that the genius of the EU was not in learning from the horrors of war, but in its instinct for self-defense. It was expressed in the ability to pick up after the collapse of the former imperial power and to glue what was left of the former glory, those remnants, into one organism. It was a community of the defeated to save what had been preserved and what had to be further defended against the raging plague of communism, internal strife and further pauperization.

The Union was to be a lifebelt for free sovereign states. As Snyder so neatly puts it: “Usually the fall of an empire is the fall of civilization. Europe has managed to do the opposite: save face and improve the image of its civilization. ‘ Euro-enthusiasts like to tell us that democracy in Europe survived thanks to the Union. It is true that democracy has survived, but as a condition of coexistence, not as a product of it. Democracy as a fuse – a guarantee that no country in the Union will be ruled by autocratic forces who wish to rebuild the empire at the expense of other countries. Democracy fortified by institutions independent of the voice of the masses was to be the guarantor of continuance in this strange alliance. Meanwhile, on the other side of the central European plains, Stalin effectively took advantage of the West’s inattention. Under the guise of building a stable order in Central Europe, he created his own colonies in the West. As Anne Applebaum wrote in her book The Iron Curtain, he has consistently built a machine to finance his empire.

It is arguable whether the moment we find ourselves in is more reminiscent of the period before 1914 or even earlier, from the time of Tsarina Catherine, when Moscow was just sorting out its immediate surroundings and further expansion to the east was only a matter of the next several decades. The fact is that geopolitics is once again revolving around the same axis.

In 1948, the United States became convinced that the real threat to the stability of Europe would be the Soviet Union, not Germany. But things had already gone way too far. After building the Berlin Wall, the world entered a new stage of the Central European War. If there was no exchange of fire, it was only because of the nuclear threat. Russia was quite successful in strengthening its rule by successively cracking down on liberation movements in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Central Europe became the Soviet political, economic and military space. It was a symbol of Moscow’s imperial power, held in the chains of Brezhnev’s doctrine, and was the key to Russian power and the cause of the West’s weakness.

Things began to change again in the 1980s, but not on their own. Part of the reason for this was Reagan’s hardline policies, which on the one hand drove Russia into a spiral of arms spending and on the other managed to force Arab countries to produce record amounts of oil, thus depriving Russia of hard currency to finance its extensive economic system. The economic crisis in Poland, the collapse of military operations in Afghanistan – all this together meant that First Secretary Gorbachev began to look for help in the West and agreed for allevation in the satellite countries. It was not America, not Europe, and not NATO that took advantage of this new void. The peoples of Eastern Europe themselves rejected the Soviet “order”. How? Successive color revolutions have developed the space between Russia and Germany. A mosaic of countries has emerged anew. Internally divided, still with traces of moral depravity, with the influence of former communist elites and Russian agents. States were created, but the void remained. And let’s remember that except for the people of Central European countries, no one at that time seriously thought about pushing Russia further East. To this day, I remember my conversations with the then Undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration, Strob Talbot, responsible for negotiations with Russia, when he explained to me that Central Europe should be a free space under the limited influence of Russia, in order to maintain its sense of security.

On February 9, 1990, James Baker, then US Secretary of State, told Gorbachev: “We believe that consultations and discussions under the 2 + 4 mechanism should ensure that German reunification will not lead to the expansion of NATO’s military organization to the East.” The next day, Chancellor Helmut Kohl reiterated: “We believe that NATO should not expand its sphere of action.” Declassified documents from the National Security Archive at George Washington University show that assurances to stop NATO expansion to Soviet leaders came from Baker, Genscher, Kohl, Gates, Mitterrand, Thatcher. The only person from the beginning talking about Poland’s admission to NATO was George Bush. He ordered the rhetoric to be muted and refused to sign any documents on the matter. It wasn’t until President Bill Clinton officially ignored the non-expansion promise that he managed to expand NATO eastward in 1997, accepting new members in exchange for a $4 billion “bribe” to Boris Yeltsin, waht president Yeltsin himself confirmed.

The loss of Ukraine meant a strategic defeat for Moscow.Even if the Russian politicians of the time did not see it, the KGB and their analysts were well aware of the consequences. Neither Putin nor most of the post-Soviet elites have ever come to terms with losing Ukraine.Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania – they could get over it, but Ukraine was the end of Russia’s imperial dreams. It was humiliation and marginalization.

One is reminded of the history of the last western enclave in the east, the Novgorod Republic, which was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Moscow in 1478.

Russia, for all intents and purposes, could not stand being next to a commercially strong and western-ruled state that got along with the Chinese and the French, successfully resisted the Vikings, and knew how to negotiate with the Tatars. When the time was right, of internal strife in the Republic, the Tsar invaded the Republic without any pretext. The Novgorod Republic was a historic opportunity for the fate of Eastern Europe to take a completely different course. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Suffice it to say that – as Viktor Shvets writes in his excellent book Great Rupture – “this victory determined Russia’s place forever.” Practically until today. Russia is a powerful eastern force, with its own culture, mentality, which, even if it has embraced Christianity, has chosen a path forever hostile to western values.

Historical ramifications, of course, do not explain the state we find ourselves in in February 2022. The Ukrainian void is largely due to the West, and in particular to Germany and its model of rebuilding its superpowerhood after 1945, after the victorious powers stripped Germany of the most important attributes of national sovereignty at Potsdam. They were given strict regulation of freedom of speech, a licensed press, radio and television, supervision of the armed forces, strategic sectors of the economy and state monopolies, and even licensing of political parties. We are talking, of course, about West Germany, because East Germany, was an occupied and economically exploited state by Soviet Russia, without any rights or appearance of sovereignty.

West Germany did not have a full-fledged and fully sovereign state after the war, and there was no indication that it would be able to throw off that shackle in the near future. What they could do was level the battlefield and try to make the sovereignty of others secondary as well. The slogan “European integration”, ironically, in their mouths was a call to national disintegration. From the beginning, Germany was the greatest supporter of the Union, and was also the first big loser in the colonial wars. The German colonial crusade launched in 1884, sometimes referred to as the belated “race for Africa,” interrupted by World War I and then the failure of the vision to take over Ukraine and Poland, effectively buried the colonial dream.

After the Second World War, they were deprived of their colonial delusions. Hence, Germany accepted the initiative of the Coal and Steel Community with open hands, understanding that the only way to restore its former glory is to build a supranational Europe. The vehicle of German greatness this time was to be the European-wide bureaucratic institutions and industry, which was to provide more effective tools of expansion than tanks and bombers.

Germany carefully planned the next steps for many years ahead, preparing the ground for its domination and using each crisis effectively, managed to create a Europe according to its own model and needs. This is a work that no German leader in history has managed to accomplish before. By controlling European finances, energy, monetary and trade policies, Germany has become the real hegemon in Europe and, most importantly, it has actually developed the space separating them from Russia for good. A near-perfect layout. This time, without secret pacts and agreements, but based on mutual trust and, above all, on a common interest. We give you money, you give us gas. Recently, the website wrote: “When in the fall of 2008 Moscow waged war in Georgia, the German political and business elite gathered at the Russian embassy in the country’s capital for a lavish ball, which included caviar, champagne and singing.” From Georgia to the Crimea and the downing of a passenger plane, Germany has always stood by its partner. However, the question of Ukraine was still unresolved. What to do with this void? Who is to ultimately develop it and how?

Nord Stream 2 was undoubtedly a generous gesture from Berlin. If Ukraine lost revenues from transporting Russian gas to the West, it would lose billions of dollars and probably also access to gas from Russia. It itself would fall into Putin’s trap. The thing, however, began to drag on for an alarmingly long time. Certification stretched, pressure grew, and the EU wanted to limit Russia’s subjectivity in managing the pipeline. And Ukraine was doing what the countries of Central Europe had done before. It developed the void itself. It carried out reforms, privatized, started cracking down on the oligarchs. It was on a straight line to build a pro-Western state with a chance to join the EU and NATO. The pipeline wasn’t enough anymore.

We have to say one thing out loud: no country has done more than Germany to allow Russia to take over Ukraine in the spirit of the Vienna Treaty.

The occupation of Ukraine is not an accident, it is not one man’s madness, it is the same epic all over again, the detailed fate of which may still be hard to predict, but the trajectory we know. We have known it for at least 200 years. The question is, who will now lean on what is left in Central Europe after the Ukrainian void is developed? How much will overt peace treaties be worth this time, and what other treaties have been signed in secret?

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