The common enemy is usually one door further away

This article is a translation of "De gezamenlijke vijand is altijd één deur verder"

For the second time in one and a half year Kees van der Pijl, professor emeritus in Global Political Economy, had come to Enschede to speak on the geopolitical background of the raging fires of war. In May 2013 this concerned Syria; last night the focus was on Ukraine. When asked in Amsterdam why he again had to travel all the way to Enschede his reply was that there an active peace group continued its activity, organising meetings like this. 


Recently Gorbachev was cited as have said that ‘the West by its reckless policy in Ukraine has brought the world to the edge of the abyss’. Van der Pijl propose to modify this slightly because the West as such does not exist. There is, also regarding Ukraine, a clear dividing line between the Anglo-Saxon West (the US and the UK in particular) and continental Western Europe, which Donald Rumsfeld during the Iraq War of 2003 referred to as ‘Old Europe’ and in which Germany calls the tune.

We have seen this rift also in previous conflicts. During the wars in former Yugoslavia for instance, Germany at the outset supported Slovenia and Croatia in their aspirations for independence whilst the United States sided with the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo. Thus the Western allies were divided until they found a common enemy in Serbia against which they could march in unison. We can observe that that is a recurrent mechanism. A common enemy, living one door further down the street from the country over which there is disunity and internal rivalry. This common enemy is then selected as the target to be attacked by the NATO alliance/ That happened in the wars in former Yugoslavia of 1994 to 1999.

In 2003, during the war in Iraq, we saw again the US and its allies and Germany with its allies, although all part of the ‘West’, in direct confrontation. At the time the US and the UK were really isolated and it was only by a common stand against Iran that this isolation was overcome. In Libya in 2011, Germany again refrained from participating in the attacks [although it did join in the intervention in Mali a year later, JS] and today we see the same in Ukraine.

In fact Ukraine is an even more pronounced source of discord between Germany and the United States. Germany wants to colonise Ukraine economically, whilst the US interest in Ukraine is guided primarily by military-strategic considerations. To overcome this rivalry, the enemy is found one door down the street, in Russia.

Why we should modify Gorbachev’s statement somewhat is that the reckless policy of the West is not a preconceived violent design, but really a ‘violent reconciliation’ between the different Western strategies regarding Ukraine and Russia.

To understand the background of these different Western strategies we should go back more than a century. Around the turn of the 20th century there was growing concern in Britain about railway construction on the European and Asian continents [Russia was constructing the Trans-Siberian Railway and Germany was involved in the Berlin-Baghdad rail link – JS]. These projects might endanger Britain’s world hegemony as a maritime power. In 1904 the British geographer, Halford Mackinder, explained his ‘heartland theory’ by which he labelled the central part of the Eurasian continent. Whoever controlled this heartland, would rule the ‘world island’ (Eurasia) and with it, the world.

British strategy was accordingly aimed at breaking the alliance between Germany and Russia so that the two continental empires in the First World War ended up facing each other. At the end of that conflict the strategy of the American president, Woodrow Wilson, was to project a ring around Russia. Not just to keep communism in check but also for geopolitical reasons.

However, this strategy ran aground in the immediate aftermath of the war. When the victors of the First World War convened a conference on war reparations and debts in Genoa, the representatives of the German Weimar Republic and Soviet Russia were denied access. As if in the waiting room, in this case in the small town of Rapallo near Genoa, they got into a conversation that ended with signing a political and economic treaty that went straight against the intentions and preferences of the victorious powers. The treaty brought about the collaboration between German industry and the Russian raw material base dreaded by the adherents of the Heartland theory. Remarkably, the Treaty of Rapallo (1922) was applauded especially by the rightwing forces in Germany, whereas the Social Democrats in the Weimar Republic preferred normalising relations with the West.

Today the ‘Rapallo syndrome’ still plagues Western strategists and with American politicians especially there is a perennial concern about the slightest sign of rapprochement between Europe and Russia, certainly now that Russia is advocating a Eurasian Union.

After the Second World War the United States intervened in Europe by the Marshall Plan (which in today’s money was worth 130 billion dollars). This intervention was underpinned by the condition that business with Russia would be discontinued. This led to a crisis in Czechoslovakia, which, like Ukraine today, was economically dependent on trade links with both western and eastern Europe. This crisis in Czechoslovakia led to a communist coup which in turn was the reason for the establishment of NATO. Few people according to Van der Pijl are aware that the real reason for the founding of NATO in 1949 was not the military danger posed by the USSR, which was still recovering from the consequences of the Second World War. Much more acute was the danger of communist takeovers in a number of European countries were communist parties were very strong at the time, such as in Italy.

As noted, the crisis that we saw happening in Czechoslovakia we see again today in Ukraine. This too is a country which has economic ties with both its eastern and its western neighbours but now is being compelled to make a choice for economic collaboration with one side or the other. This tears the country apart: western Ukraine is historically and economically linked to Poland and other Central European countries; eastern Ukraine with Russia.

Initially several EU countries, led by Germany, were ready to compromise, but the US and the UK in particular were intent on playing hardball and force Ukraine indeed to make a choice for one or the other. This has now led to a far-reaching economic boycott of Russia which is most detrimental to the continental EU member states. The EU has trade with Russia amounting tot 460 billion Euros annually, the US and the UK have much less trade and are therefore not really affected by this boycott. Simultaneously with the boycott the US and the EU are negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Pact (TTIP) which will have tremendous consequences for our economy but also for investment in what still is our public sector. Thus not only Ukraine but the EU as a whole is being compelled to reduce the economic ties with Russia and upgrade those with the US and the UK.

In our media there is no space for this broader picture of the historical, world-political and world-economic backgrounds. Rather we get a picture of a New Cold War in which Russia is the aggressor. Certainly Van der Pijl argues that Russia has a role that can be criticised and is not above reproach. On the one hand it is correct in concluding that the West had breached its promises made to the Soviet Union at the time of the fall the Berlin wall and after. NATO expansion, the establishment of military basis on the territories of the former Warsaw Pact countries are examples. Even in the discussion concerning the annexation of the Crimea Russia has a point when it responds to Western criticism by referring to the embrace of statehood for Kosovo, South Sudan and Montenegro. Often our criticism of aggressive behaviour by others fails to take into account how aggressive the West behaves in the international arena.

In the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, there was a report today that Turkish president Erdogan has announced a humanitarian intervention in Mexico on account of the thousands of victims that continue to be made by the drugs war. We laugh about such reports, but when the American president announces something comparable we consider that normal.

Whilst we may acknowledge that the Russians had a point on these issues, there have also been developments in the last 25 years that make Russia a less sympathetic place. At the start of the 1990s Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Republic, was supported by the US to remove the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin did this, jointly with the presidents of Belarus and Ukraine, by abolishing the Soviet Union so that Gorbachev was the president of a state that no longer existed. 

Yeltsin’s Russian Federation, the prime heir of the defunct Soviet Union, remains a multinational state in which live 194 peoples. One way of holding such a vast multinational entity together is a strong, centralised state form like the one that France has, in which provincial prefects are appointed by the central government in Paris. This led the West to support Yeltsin in forming a centralised government with a supremely powerful president. The West even supported Yeltsin when he ordered tanks to attack the Russian parliament in 1993 to overcome resistance to his usurpation of power. There were many casualties but this event has largely disappeared from our memory. Once parliament had been neutralised, Yeltsin was able to begin the fire sale that led to the privatisation of state property and brought a factual oligarchy to power in Russia. The process lasted till 1998, when there was not only an economic crisis in Asia but in Russia too the bubble burst.

In her book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein argues that far-reaching privatisations are easiest to push through in acute crisis situations, During a crisis democracy can be suspended and measures taken that would never have been supported by a parliamentary majority.

That also happened in the economic crisis of 1998 when Putin came to power and inherited the power apparatus that Yeltsin, with Western support, had built up in the previous years. The West had assumed all along that the Russian president (as Yeltsin had) would remain a kind of puppet of the West. In fact Putin, the Russian president is also a strongman representing the oligarchs who hold real power in Russia. Hence the Russia that in Ukraine appears to draw a line beyond which it will not tolerate further expansion of the Western sphere of unfluence is in fact equally motivated by capitalist, predatory motives to which a dangerous nationalistic and revisionist twist is being added.

In the short run Russia has incurred serious economic losses because of the current sanctions, but the sanctions might also be a blessing in disguise for Russian agriculture which might develop without the persistent competition of cheaper agricultural products from Europe. In addition Russia currently is deepening the economic ties with China. The strategy of the US and the UK to cut the economic ties between continental Europe and Russia therefore appears to be succeeding. 

We would do well to continue to realise that the Ukraine policy of the US and the UK is part of this strategy, and certainly not aimed at the economic development. Here too they prefer a shock doctrine contrary to the economic plans and interests of the continental EU member states which are geared towards economic cooperation with Ukraine.
What we are witnessing, according to Van der Pijl, is a violent interruption of every chance of a rapprochement between continental Europe and Ukraine, which then scuttles the deal. Thus when in February 2014 there was an agreement with Yanukovych for an amnesty and a settlement of the political crisis in the country, there was a serious sniper attack that swept away the deal and cause Yanukovych to leave the political stage altogether. A range of such incidents can be identified, with the last ‘incident’ in the series the downing of flight MH17 right at the moment that Merkel and Putin were in an advanced stage of negotiations about an agreement concerning Ukraine and mutual cooperation. As a consequence of MH17 that was kept in abeyance and the current rift between Russia and continental Europe is the result. Van der Pijl would not be surprised if it turns out that the perpetrators of the shooting down of MH17 are to be found in the West or rather, the pro-Western Ukrainian government in Kiev. There is (indirect) proof for that, such as the fact that the information from the black boxes is not made public and yet foreign secretary Timmermans revealed by accident that one passenger had apparently had the time to put on an oxygen mask, which rules out the missile impact scenario.

(The presentation was followed by a lively discussion, reported in the Dutch version)

Report by Jan Schaake

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