War in Europe? Ukraine and the Threat of Wildfire
Following the apparent failure of the Geneva agreements, the inconceivable suddenly seems possible: the invasion of eastern Ukraine by the Russian army. Fears are growing in the West of the breakout of a new war in Europe.
These days, Heinz Otto Fausten, a 94-year-old retired high school principal from Sinzig, Germany, can't bear to watch the news about Ukraine. Whenever he sees images of tanks on TV, he grabs the remote and switches channels. "I don't want to be subjected to these images," he says. "I can't bear it."
For anyone watching the news, these recent images, and the links between them, are hard to ignore. In eastern Ukraine, government troops could be seen battling separatists; burning barricades gave the impression of an impending civil war. On Wednesday, Russian long-range bombers entered into Dutch airspace -- it wasn't the first time something like that had happened, but now it felt like a warning to the West. Don't be so sure of yourselves, the message seemed to be, conjuring up the possibility of a larger war.
'A Phase of Escalation'
Many Europeans are currently rattled by that very possibility -- the frightening chance that a civil war in Ukraine could expand like brushfire into a war between Russia and NATO. Hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would limit his actions to the Crimean peninsula have proved to be illusory -- he is now grasping at eastern Ukraine and continues to make the West look foolish. Efforts at diplomacy have so far failed and Putin appears to have no fear of the economic losses that Western sanctions could bring. As of last week, the lunacy of a war is no longer inconceivable.
On Friday, leading Western politicians joined up in a rare configuration, the so-called Quint. The leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy and the United States linked up via conference call, an event that hasn't happened since the run-up to the air strikes in Libya in 2011 and the peak of the euro crisis in 2012 -- both serious crises.
Germany's assessment of the situation has changed dramatically over the course of just seven days. Only a week ago, the German government had been confident that the agreements reached in Geneva to defuse the crisis would bear fruit and that de-escalation had already begun. Now government sources in Berlin -- who make increasing use of alarming vocabulary -- warn that we have returned to a "phase of escalation."
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk spoke of a "worst-case scenario" that now appears possible, including civil war and waves of refugees. Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has even gone so far as to claim that "Russia wants to start a Third World War." (Though, of course, Yatsenyuk also wants to instill a sense of panic in the West so it will come to the aid of his country.)
There may not be reason to panic, but there are certainly reasons for alarm. After 20 years in which it was almost unimaginable, it seems like a major war in Europe, with shots potentially being fired between Russia and NATO, is once again a possibility.
"If the wrong decisions are made now, they could nullify decades of work furthering the freedom and security of Europe," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) told SPIEGEL in an interview. Norbert Röttgen, a member of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament, said, "The situation is getting increasingly threatening." His counterpart in the European Parliament, Elmar Brok of the CDU, also warned, "There is a danger of war, and that's why we now need to get very serious about working on a diplomatic solution."
'Against the Law and without Justification'
Friday's events demonstrated just how quickly a country can be pulled into this conflict. That's when pro-Russian separatists seized control of a bus carrying military observers with the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and detained the officials. As of Tuesday, seven observers were still in detention, including four Germans -- three members of the Bundeswehr armed forces and one interpreter.
The same day, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the de facto mayor of Slavyansk, told the Interfax news agency that no talks would be held on the detained observers, whom he has referred to as "prisoners of war," if sanctions against rebel leaders remain in place. On Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, condemned the detentions, describing them as "against the law and without justification." He called for the detainees to be released, "immediately, unconditionally and unharmed." German officials have also asked the Russian government "to act publicly and internally for their release."
The irony that these developments and this new threat of war comes in 2014 -- the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and the 75th of the start of World War II -- has not been lost on anyone. For years, a thinking had prevailed on the Continent that Europe had liberated itself from the burdens of its history and that it had become a global role model with its politics of reconciliation. But the Ukraine crisis demonstrates that this is no longer the case.
'All Signs Point to an Armed Conflict'
The question now becomes: How far will events in Ukraine go? Fausten, the retired school principal, says he doesn't believe they will lead to war. "The Ukrainians and Russians are still grappling with the aftermath of the world wars," he says. "I can't imagine that the Russians will allow this to come to that."
Others in Germany are beginning to fear the worst. Pastor Heribert Dölle, 57, of the Catholic Church parish in Düsseldorf's Derendorf and Pempelfort districts, has been gathering other impressions. One of the churches in the parish is shared by Düsseldorf's Catholics and Ukrainian Christians. "It feels almost as if we are experiencing the conflict right at our front doors," Dölle says. "We know each other and fears about what is happening right now in Russia and Ukraine are rising."
In Berlin, Christian Mengel is just one of the droves of tourists who continued to make their way to the capital city's dramatic Soviet War Memorial. "All signs point to an armed conflict, but I do not believe that NATO will intervene and I certainly hope they do not," he says. Visitor Hans Pflanz echoes his sentiment. "I'm afraid that this conflict could expand into an international crisis," he says. "I think our politicians don't understand the Russians' intentions and motives." He says he would prefer the West to remain acquiescent to Russia-- an opinion shared by the majority of Germans, according to pollsters.
Germany Harbors Unique Fear of War
Since 1945, Germany has been been particularly afflicted by worries about wars. As in other countries, millions of Germans died on the fronts and in the cities during the two world wars, but here, an additional factor has weighed heavily: guilt. Even today, Germans remain uncertain whether the Prussian militarism and unconscionable obedience that influenced the country during those wars has been banished entirely or whether it might rear its ugly head again in a time of crisis. Postwar Germans have and continue to long for peace, partly to remain so with themselves.
Germany's fear of war has provided the country with a fertile soil for pacifism. Over the past decades, the German peace movement has fought against the arming of the German Air Force with nuclear weapons as well as plans for the stationing of middle-range missiles by NATO in the 1980s.
The protests against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s and again during the first Iraq War in 1991 were always infused with some anti-American sentiment. The peace movement's fear of war led it to consistently demand peace from NATO and the West, but when it came to the Soviet Union, its efforts tended to range from friendly to indifferent.
Since the 1970s, peace marches have taken place during the Easter Holiday in Germany and other parts of Europe. It's an important annual event for pacifists, but this year only a few thousand people turned out for them in Germany: Neither Putin's aggressions nor NATO's reactions to them seem to have done much to awaken the slumbering peace movement. Nevertheless, the pacifist mentality is still alive and well. "War is crap. I'd rather stuff flowers into rifle barrels," German film and theater director Leander Haussmann says of the current crisis.
Three-Quarters of Germans Oppose NATO Intervention
Three-quarters of all Germans oppose a military intervention by NATO in the Ukraine crisis and one-third say they can sympathize with Putin's decision to annex Crimea. These sentiments, it seems, stem at least in part from Germans' latent fear of war.
Prominent German political scientist Herfried Münkler uses his theories of "heroic" and "postheroic" societies to describe the phenomenon. At the recent Petersburg Dialogue in Leipzig -- an important forum between Germany and Russia that has brought together representatives of the worlds of politics, culture and business since 2001 -- Münkler said this "postheroism" is essentially an expression of prosperity, the German daily Die Tageszeitung reported. Those who have it good don't want to jeopardize their good fortune.
That sense of heroism was recently on display on Maidan Square in Kiev, where, five months ago. the current crisis began. There, three men stood in front of a barrel on a sunny spring day and used their powerful voices to sing an impassioned song about the "Cossacks' blood-bought glory" and the "Moskaly," a pejorative for Russians. "When the Moskaly cross the border, we'll finish them off," says Dmytro, a 30-year-old whose head has been shaved clean, save for a small tail. He says an invasion by the Russians is only a matter of time, but that his people will be undefeatable if it comes to war. "A Ukrainian with a tail on his head like mine and a weapon in his hand will sit behind every bush," he says.
- Part 1: Ukraine and the Threat of Wildfire
- Part 2: Germany's Allies Less Timid than Berlin
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