The Rupture in German-Russian Relations and The Return of War as A Continuation of Imperialist Geopolitics in Europe
22.02.2022, Tomasz Konicz
Shock and awe – that’s the denominator of the massive Russian attack on Ukraine, in which dozens of targets have been shelled in a very short time to paralyze Ukrainian forces and prevent coordinated resistance to the Russian army’s advance in the east of the country (so far, Russian ground forces have been active only east of the Dnieper River). The large-scale nationwide attack, which targeted and partially destroyed Ukraine’s command structures, depots, and air force, is similar to the U.S. approach in the last Iraq war, when the U.S. Air Force also relied on an overwhelming assault against the ailing Iraqi regime’s military infrastructure.
The start of the war over Ukraine should teach the U.S. and the EU a lesson. By emulating the American attack on Iraq, the Kremlin wants to prove that Russia is militarily on the same imperialist level as the West, a fact that Washington, Berlin, and Brussels want to deny Moscow geopolitically. The imperial Russian sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space, which the economically declining Moscow was no longer willing to concede – is now literally being bombed back into existence by the nuclear power Russia, while the West has to watch impotently if it does not want to risk a nuclear doomsday. The Kremlin thus makes it clear that it will defend to the utmost its imperial position as a great power that wants to dispose of its “spheres of influence” just like the USA and Germany.
Germany and Russia: Close Economic Relations
The political and economic fallout from the war will be massive, especially for Berlin, as the Federal Republic continues to maintain close economic ties with Russia – even though these peaked after the pro-Western overthrow in Kiev in 2014 and the subsequent Ukrainian civil war. The German-Russian trade balance peaked at a volume of 80 billion euros in 2012, only to fall to 48 billion euros in 2016 in the wake of the sanctions. Last year saw a slight recovery to just under 60 billion. Germany mainly exports high-tech products such as machinery and cars, while Russia exports raw materials and in particular fossil fuels with a slight trade surplus. Around 55 percent of the natural gas imported into Germany comes from Russian deposits. Germany is still Russia’s most important European trading partner – globally, the FRG was overtaken by China as a trading partner only a few years ago.
A major setback for Berlin’s energy policy ambitions is the cancellation of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the commissioning of which would have made Germany a central European energy hub. Instead, Germany’s consumers and industry must prepare for rapidly rising energy prices. According to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, they are likely to reach $2,000 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas soon. This economic fallout, which is now imminent, may have been the most important reason for Berlin’s hesitant attitude toward Moscow. In Washington, in the U.S. press, Berlin’s refusal to supply weapons to Ukraine or to abandon the pipeline project in the North Sea was sharply criticized for weeks.
Now that even the Tagesschau considers the course of German Russia policy, characterized by “dialogue,” to have “failed,” a fundamental reorientation of Berlin is likely to take place. Thus, for the time being, Berlin’s strategy of a mainly economic penetration of the post-Soviet space has failed because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ultimately because of Moscow’s military means. German think tanks like to substantiate this German path to geopolitical power development with the term geoeconomics as a complex strategy in which “trade, technology, finance or energy policy are instrumentalized as means to achieve strategic goals.” Greece had to experience how such a geoeconomic conflict is played out in the course of the debt crisis in the summer of 2015, when the country, mistreated by the then German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, was driven to the brink of economic collapse.
German Geopolitics and Inner-Western Differences
But in reality there is no uniform German policy toward Russia; it has always been an expression of the shifting power constellation between Western-oriented forces within the German functional elites (often derided as Atlanticists) and the forces teased as “Putin whisperers,” who advocated a Eurasian orientation toward Russia, China, and so on.
There is no complete overlap between the political spectrum and the respective geopolitical preference, as Eurasians and Atlantists are found in varying proportions in almost all Bundestag parties – even if the SPD, Die Linke and, above all, the AfD have a particularly high proportion of “Putin whisperers.” Atlantists, on the other hand, are mainly to be found among the Greens. It is simply a question of the geopolitical orientation of the FRG as the dominant European superpower, within the framework of which its own global ambitions are to be realized: for example, the expansion of the German sphere of influence in eastern and southeastern Europe, which in the course of EU enlargement has long since been transformed into the extended workbench of the German export industry.
Against the background of this loose and changing faction formation within German functional elites, a double strategy emerged vis-à-vis Russia, which the German geostrategist Wolfgang Ischinger described as “congagement,” a portmanteau created from the words containment and engagement. Economic cooperation, in which Russia in fact assumes the peripheral position of a supplier of energy and raw materials, was accompanied, with varying emphases, by German efforts to minimize Russia’s geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet space. The phase of tumultuous economic and political expansion in the 1990s – when Berlin supported the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO – was followed by the phase of cooperation with Putin’s rise to power, which ended only in 2014 with the crisis in Ukraine.
In the wake of the pro-Western upheaval in Kiev, however, it also became clear that Berlin operates as an independent geopolitical actor and does not allow Washington to dictate its policy. In 2013, there was still agreement on the effort to remove Ukraine from the planned Russian economic union. At the time, Germany, through the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, built up the Klitschko party UDAR, which was aiming for a change of power through new elections and quickly came into conflict with more radical, U.S.-sponsored forces during the fighting around the Maidan. U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland’s famous “Fuck the EU,” published as a recording of a telephone conversation at the height of the crisis, reflects precisely these intra-Western differences, which also explain Germany’s current reticence.
Oceania vs. Eurasia
Washington has since sought to drive a wedge between Berlin and Moscow through additional escalation in order to prevent the formation of a grand Eurasian alliance, while Berlin has rather wanted to embrace Moscow to death and turn it into a periphery as part of a strategy of change through economic rapprochement. The declining empire in Washington sees China, together with a Eurasian alliance (keyword: New Silk Road), as the central threat to its eroding hegemony. The U.S. intervention in Kiev is therefore aimed at consolidating its own “oceanic” alliance, which extends as far as possible across the Atlantic and the Pacific and is ultimately directed against China.
Oceania vs. Eurasia – this is the denominator of the current global hegemonic struggle, with the imperialist camps striving to expand the boundaries of their spheres of influence. The U.S., for example, is trying to re-establish the German-dominated EU, which since the Trump era has increasingly wanted to act as an independent actor, firmly in its sphere of influence.
The increasing autonomy of action of the late capitalist states also comes to bear in the Eastern European countries, which, although economically dependent on the Federal Republic, at the same time tended to pact with the USA (above all Poland and the Baltic countries) when it came to torpedoing further rapprochement between Berlin and Moscow. The old Central Eastern European fear of a renewed division of the region between Berlin and Moscow, revived by the Nord Stream pipeline, provided the U.S. with a good lever of power in the economic “backyard” of the FRG to push this agenda.
Ultimately, the increasing military conflicts in the semi-periphery of the world system, including Turkey’s imperial ambitions, are due precisely to the imperial decline of the USA. Washington can no longer maintain the claim it made in the 1990s to be the “world’s policeman,” largely monopolizing the use of military means globally in bloody world-order wars. Regional powers are pushing into the emerging power vacuum to enforce their imperialist ambitions by military means if necessary.
Shaky World Order and The Crisis of Capital
This is, in a nutshell, the much-invoked “multipolar world order” in the socio-ecological crisis of capital. The decline of the USA has in fact resulted in the emergence of a number of small “baby USAs” that want to project the increasing social (and, in the long term, ecological) distortions caused by the crisis outward by military means: from the Turkish war adventures in Syria, the South Caucasus and Libya, to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the possible showdown between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.
Similar to the 1930s, the economic crisis is breathing down the necks of the shattered state apparatuses. The need to pass on the consequences of the crisis to others is growing steadily. In the course of its economic expansion, the Federal Republic literally managed to export the consequences of the crisis, such as debt or unemployment, by means of high trade surpluses – at the expense of the deficits of the importing countries of the German export offensives. The eurozone sovereign debt crisis of the last decade is a case in point.
In this context, it is not least the mercilessly over-indebted United States that is de facto forced to fight for the hegemonic position, since it must hold the dollar as the world currency. Without the greenback as the measure of value of all commodity things, which Washington until recently could print at will to finance the extreme U.S. budget deficit, the U.S. would degenerate into a gigantic, nuclear-armed debt state. Because of the social disruption at home, the U.S. elites have therefore long since developed a paranoia of Russian influence, similar to that which prevails in the Kremlin with regard to Western-financed “color revolutions.”
But in the end it is precisely the socio-ecological world crisis of capital, concretely in the form of increasing inflation, which prevents Washington itself from using “deficit spending” to whitewash the internal contradictions.
Danger of a Major War
War as a means of politics will thus gain in attractiveness for the late capitalist functional elites. It forms a catalyst of the economic and, in perspective, ecological crisis process: The resulting social distortions find in it a violent medium of external discharge, which ultimately executes the self-destructive tendency of capital – up to the threat of large-scale nuclear war. In the case of Ukraine, one can still hope that the nuclear power plants in the country constitute the only nuclear danger: NATO intervention seems unlikely so far, after U.S. President Biden ruled out direct military intervention even in the run-up to the war.
Nevertheless, a further escalation of the war cannot be ruled out. The powerless left currently has only the option of peace struggle and educational work: the emphasis on the survival necessity of a post-capitalist system transformation in order to prevent the barbaric collapse by means of a repeated large-scale war.
Originally published in analyse & kritik on 02/24/2022