Today I’m putting up a guest post about the situation in Ukraine. While our gaze is fixed on the protest at Parliament, don’t forget the bigger politics that also place us in peril.
“In a nuclear winter, at least we won’t have to worry about global warming.”
The above is the black humour currently circulating in Kyiv (Kiev), Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. We are living in the time of the greatest political crisis in Europe since the outbreak of the Second World War. Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing huge numbers of troops close to the Ukrainian border – a move that could very easily turn into a Europe-wide conflict. In a recent statement, US President Joe Biden spoke of the danger of a world war if American citizens living in Ukraine were harmed. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and Russia – the two largest nuclear powers in the world – are facing each other in Eastern and Central Europe.
Reading two widely circulated New Zealand newspapers over the weekend, the first (syndicated) article on this historic crisis appeared on page 5. The preceding pages showed pictures of anti-vaccination activists in Wellington wearing Trump hats, and a motorcycle doing a burnout. Being originally from Europe, my geopolitical focus may differ a little bit from that of many other New Zealanders. But since New Zealand made enormous sacrifices in two previous world wars – and since many New Zealand soldiers were also involved in the conflicts between Soviet Russia and the USA during the Cold War, and in the proxy-wars in Vietnam and Korea – I find the almost complete local media ignorance of the current global crisis extremely surprising and worrying.
Politicians like to remind us, when they ask their populations to make bigger efforts in terms of competition, that we live in an economic and political global village. But what about peace initiatives? Or just detailed and responsible information about international current events? I am afraid that, in this respect, we do not live in a common village but in almost complete isolation. Perhaps our geographical location contributes to this. But, as Amnesty International President Agnès Callamard recently submitted: “A further armed conflict in the very centre of Europe involving a nuclear power and potentially drawing in other countries threatens to disrupt the entire system of geopolitical checks and balances with unpredictable implications on human rights globally” (emphasis mine).
So what’s going on in Europe? I’ll try to outline it briefly from my Central European-New Zealand perspective. When Russian president Vladimir Putin negotiates with his German counterpart Olaf Scholz, Putin speaks German. Since his time as a KGB officer in Dresden (formerly in East Germany), Putin is a fluent speaker of German. He even had an ID card from the East German secret police – the Stasi – for whom he was a liaison officer. After the peaceful revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Putin returned to Russia and continued to work for Russian secret services before he became a politician. The 1989 “Velvet Revolution(s)” in Czechoslovakia, Poland and East-Germany had traumatised him. He didn’t see these events as decolonisation, but as a loss of power. And this is probably the main motive for his trying to claw back power in Ukraine and in East-Central Europe. The illegal annexation of Crimea and the support of the military in the Donbas region are violent examples. Interestingly, the Chief Executive of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is also a former Dresden Stasi officer, Matthias Warnig.
But this is not the whole story. After the peaceful revolution of 1989, many countries (e.g., Poland and the Baltic States) that were part of the former Russian-dominated Soviet bloc became members of NATO and the European Union. Peace-loving Russian politicians like Gorbachev who had supported German and European unification, kept pointing out the importance of having a demilitarised zone between Russia and NATO. Because Russia was not just a colonial power during the Cold War. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia was itself attacked several times from western and central Europe, including by Napoleon, Hitler and Pilsudski. However, the West has paid little attention to this situation. And it has also only been marginally involved in real political and cultural partnership with Russian people – many of whom are not supporters of Putin. It is also noteworthy in this context that Hunter Biden, the son of the American President, was a lobbyist for the energy company Burisma in Ukraine for a while.
The military-economic complexes in Russia, the USA, Germany, France, Great Britain, and also China, are a huge part of the world economy and are extremely profitable for the shareholders, bureaucrats and politicians involved. Unfortunately, New Zealand has very little economic leverage to stay out of any proxy wars or major conflicts between these powers in the 21st century. Yet it’s important to take note of the situation and become proactive. It is important to reactivate the domestic peace movements and also to support international peace activists. Internationally, people listen to Kiwis, because Aotearoa New Zealand has a lot of mana, not least because of the principled strategy of staying nuclear free. But three decades of international neoliberalism make things difficult: internationalism and multilingualism, for example, are the monopoly of big business these days. Trade unions and labour parties, as well as many churches and other faith communities, no longer have much of an international outlook but have become rather provincial. Who still speaks Ukrainian or Russian, or Korean or Urdu for that, today? Who knows anything about Chinese history? What do we do to support heritage languages and the knowledge of overseas-born Kiwis who could bring their experience to the task of international conflict resolution (as well as the export industry)? Misunderstood identity politics may also be part of the current problem: many years of monolingualism, small-group interests and cultural navel-gazing are now making it more difficult to show international solidarity among the advocates of peace.
What can we do? We can ask our own politicians, academics and media gurus to think outside the box and act in accordance with the seriousness of the international situation. We can write emails and letters to the embassies of Russia, Ukraine, the USA and the EU, urging them to further negotiate for peace. We can encourage and sign private peace treaties as members of political, cultural or religious groups. We can lobby for more language and history learning at schools. Amnesty International, PEN International, the World Council of Churches, etc., are not-for-profit organisations that still operate internationally and advocate peace. We should not, as in 1914, sleepwalk into a world war. And we have to act fast: the Olympic Peace only lasts for a few more days.
Give Peace a Chance, gib dem Frieden eine Chance, дайте миру шанс.
Dr Norman P. Franke is a Hamilton-based poet, academic and former member of the West-German Peace Movement.