War in Europe? Ukraine and the Threat of Wildfire

By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: 'We Are Thinking Back to 1914' Photos
Tomas Senkar/ CTK Photo/ DPA

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."

When he was deployed as a soldier in the Ukraine, in 1943, Fausten was struck by grenade shrapnel in the hollow of his knee, just outside Kiev, and lost his right leg. The German presence in Ukraine at the time was, of course, part of the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But, even so, Fausten didn't think he would ever again witness scenes from Ukraine hinting at the potential outbreak of war.

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.

Münkler argues that, as a rule of thumb, there's an ideal of "heroism of masculinity" in poorer and less developed counties in which notions of war and defense of the homeland are idealized. In "postheroic" societies, however, which tend to be well-developed and prosperous, war is deemed to be aberrant. According to the newspaper, he argued that Eastern Europe isn't prosperous enough to discourage young men from this idea of heroism. Indeed, politicians can often profit if they are able to tap these emotions. When it comes to Putin's policies, he argues, this heroism aspect makes the situation unpredictable. "Dynamics are being toyed with that, at some point, will no longer be controllable," he said.

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.

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1. Failure of NATO and the UN
DarwinEvolved 04/29/2014
The Second World War was the size and intensity it became due to the inaction and ineffectiveness of the League of Nations. France and the UK had no stomach for pressuring Hitler when he was rebuilding the military and moving into the Ruhr. A good hard slap could have foiled much of what Nazi Germany was able to do later.
2. Ukraine and Germany
patang 04/29/2014
It is time Germany stood up as a great people and nation once again. You cannot ignore the fact aggression unchecked can lead to worst consequences. Case and point Hitler. Today Russia is testing the West's resolve Putin is a bear in sheep clothing. Russia is a failed state, they have nothing, they are a crude nation which has not progressed. He is dreaming of the old satellites where they would sell their junk to build the biggest this and the biggest that, yet the people lived like herd animals. Germany the powerhouse of Europe has to sacrifice it's trade with Russia, if it wants to remain un occupied. The Russian will not stop in Ukraine, they will proceed west in their quest for glory.Germany is selling the Russian everything the same way they sold things to Saddam, principles not money should be the driving force now, as we are going to witness the destruction of Europe once again if we do not put a resolute end to this Russian adventurism.
3. Another example of Multi/culty failure
Inglenda2 04/29/2014
War could of course be avoided, but there are few politicians on either side who would be willing to give up their standard positions, in order to do that which would be in the interest of normal citizens. The Ukraine has always been a land of victims, its position between Poland and Russia makes it an ideal target for whichever power is the strongest in Europe. It is perhaps the very example of what can go wrong, within a nation which has a community consisting of various ethnic groups. Switzerland overcame similar difficulties by creating cantons for each area of language division. To do this in the Ukraine would demand a great deal of patience, but is possibly the only chance for the people of this country. However, as long as leaders in East and West are only interested in pushing through their own prosaic and impractical ideas, there will be little hope for lasting peace.
4. invasion
spon-facebook-10000713367 04/29/2014
Europe has been invaded can we please stop pretending.
5. Good Article -- Germany should lead on this problem!
1cjcarpenter 04/29/2014
The German people's position on Ukraine is in my view an expression of good sense far more than the product of any shrinking from military confrontation. They are right too, in my view, to question American leadership over the last sixty years. Happily, I think our current U.S. President is in substantial agreement with the German people on those two points. The issue in any event shouldn't be Russian intervention -- but the right of the people of Ukraine to decide their own destiny whether the East or West approves of the result or not. That, it seems to me, is a principle that NATO should be willing to fight for.
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