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The war cannot be won

The Jean Jaurès maxim, "Capitalism carries war like the cloud carries rain," is more relevant than ever. Only in another - post-capitalist, social-ecological - Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, can peace and justice become a reality. Whether this is a realistic scenario? That is up to each and every one of us.
"The war cannot be won"

A Conversation

by Silvia Federici, Etienne Balibar, Michael Löwy & Marcello Musto

[This article posted on 8/24/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The Russian war of aggression poses new challenges to the left. How does it position itself in the turmoil of imperial rearmament, legitimate self-defense and new bloc confrontation? Étienne Balibar, Silvia Federici, Michael Löwy and Marcello Musto talked about this.

Marcello Musto: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has once again brought the brutality of war to Europe. Now the world is faced with the dilemma: how to deal with this attack on Ukrainian sovereignty?

Michael Löwy: As long as Putin still pretended to protect the Russian-speaking minorities in the Donetsk region, his policy at least had the appearance of rationality. The same can be said about his rejection of NATO's eastward expansion. But for his brutal invasion of Ukraine, with all the bombed cities, the thousands of civilian victims - including old people, children... - there is no justification at all.

Étienne Balibar: The war that is raging here before all our eyes is a "total" war. A war of destruction and terror, waged by the army of an overpowering state whose government is waging an irreversible, imperialist campaign against its smaller neighbor. The most urgent and immediate imperative of the hour is for Ukrainians to maintain their resistance. To do so, they must be supported by action, not just expressions of sympathy. But what kind of deeds? This is where the tactical discussion begins, i.e. the weighing of the benefits and risks of defense versus attack. Waiting and seeing is not an option.

Marcello: The justified Ukrainian resistance aside, the equally crucial question is how Europe can avoid being seen as a party to the war. Instead, European governments must contribute as effectively as possible to a diplomatic initiative to end the hostilities. It is in this sense that the demand of a significant part of the population that Europe should not participate in this war should be understood - regardless of the war rhetoric of the last three months. The most important point here is that further suffering of the population must be prevented. Because there is a danger that the country, having already been reduced to rubble by the Russian army, will be turned into a weapons depot and permanently supplied with supplies by NATO. And then a protracted war will be waged on behalf of Washington, where it is hoped that Russia will be permanently weakened and Europe will become more economically and militarily dependent on the United States. Should this occur, the conflict would go beyond the legitimate defense of Ukrainian sovereignty. Those who have warned from the beginning about the dangerous spiral of war that would drive the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine are fully aware of the violence that takes place there every day. They certainly do not want to simply abandon the population to Russia's military superiority. "Non-aligned" by no means means neutrality or equidistance, as has been claimed in many a distorted account. It is not a matter of principle of abstract pacifism, but rather one of concrete diplomatic alternative. This means carefully examining every action or statement: Does it bring us one step closer to the current supreme goal of initiating serious negotiations to achieve peace?

Silvia Federici: I don't see any dilemma: Russia's war against Ukraine is to be condemned. Nothing can justify the destroyed cities, the killing of innocent people or the terror under which thousands and thousands are forced to live right now. Much more than Ukraine's sovereignty has been violated by this act of aggression. But I agree that we must also criticize the many actions of the U.S. and NATO that helped prepare the ground for this war in the first place. And also the decision of the U.S. and the EU to supply weapons to Ukraine, because that will prolong the war indefinitely. The arms deliveries should be rejected not least because the Russian invasion could have been prevented, namely if Russia had received a guarantee from the U.S. that NATO would not be extended to Russia's borders.

Marcello: Since the beginning of the war, one of the main points of discussion has been what kind of assistance Ukraine should receive to defend itself against Russian aggression, without at the same time creating the conditions for even more massive destruction and the international expansion of the conflict. In recent months, this has included President Selensky's call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, the scope of economic sanctions against Russia, and, more importantly, the issue of arms deliveries to the Ukrainian government. What decisions do you think would be necessary to reduce the number of casualties in Ukraine as much as possible and prevent further escalation of the conflict?

Michael: There are many things to criticize about Ukraine today: the democratic deficits, the oppression of the Russian-speaking minority, the 'Occidentalism' and much more. And yet Ukrainians* have every right to defend themselves against the Russian invasion of their country - and the brutal, criminal disregard for their right to national self-determination.

Étienne: I would say that Ukraine's struggle against the Russian invasion is, in the sense of legal history, a bellum justum, that is, a "just war." I am well aware that this is a questionable category and that the history of this conceptualization in the West is far from unproblematic. And yet I can't think of a more appropriate term. So I want to appropriate it, emphasizing that in my view a "just war" is one in which it is not enough merely to acknowledge that it is legitimate to defend against aggression - that is, the international law criterion. But that it is also necessary to show solidarity with the defenders and to take sides with them. And finally, it is a war in which one does not have the choice to remain passive - not even people like me, for whom every war in the current world order is unacceptable and catastrophic. The consequences of such passivity would be even worse. So even if I am not enthusiastic about this, I am consciously positioning myself against Putin.

Marcello: I can well understand this perspective, but I would emphasize more strongly how necessary it is to prevent a general conflagration, that is, how urgent a peace agreement is. The longer that fails to happen, the more the danger of a widening war grows. It is not a matter of looking the other way and ignoring what is happening in Ukraine. But we must realize that it is illusory to believe that the war against Putin - that is, against the nuclear power Russia, a country where, incidentally, there is currently no peace movement worth mentioning - can be won.

Étienne: I am very afraid of a military - even nuclear - escalation. That is a horror scenario that clearly cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, pacifism is not an option. It is the order of the day to support Ukraine in its resistance. So let's not go back to the old canard of non-intervention. The EU is already involved in the war anyway. Even though it is not sending troops, it is supplying weapons - and I think it is right to do so. It is a form of intervention.

Marcello: On May 9, 2022, the Biden administration approved the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act: a package of more than $40 billion in military and financial aid to Ukraine. A gigantic sum, to which must be added aid from various EU countries. And it seems to be about financing a long lasting war. Biden himself reinforced this impression when he announced on June 15 that the U.S. would provide additional military aid worth $1 billion. The ever-increasing deliveries of military equipment by the U.S. and NATO encourage Selenskyj to keep postponing much-needed talks with the Russian government. Moreover, it is a legitimate question whether these deliveries are really being used exclusively to push Russian forces off Ukrainian territory, considering that weapons have also been delivered to war zones in the past and, in many cases, later used by third parties for entirely different purposes.

Silvia: I think the most sensible thing the U.S. and the EU could do now would be to guarantee Russia that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was also promised to Gorbachev, but never in writing. Unfortunately, there is little interest in reaching a solution. Many actors in the U.S. military and political power apparatus have been challenging and preparing for confrontation with Russia for years. Now the war serves as justification to drastically expand oil production without regard to global warming. Already, Biden has broken his campaign promise to end oil production on indigenous lands. So among the biggest winners in this war is the military-industrial complex, which is just being boosted by the detour of billions of dollars. Peace, however, will not be achieved by escalating the fighting.

Marcello: Now to the question of how there has been a reaction on the part of the left to the Russian invasion. Some organizations, albeit a small minority, made a fatal political mistake in refusing to unequivocally condemn Russia's "special military operation" - a mistake that, quite apart from anything else, also makes future condemnation of aggression by NATO or any other actor much less credible. This reveals an ideologically one-dimensional view of politics, as if all geopolitical issues must be judged solely on the basis of whether they are aimed at weakening the United States. At the same time, all too many others on the left have succumbed to the temptation to become more or less openly enthusiastic supporters of this war. The positions of the Socialist International, the Greens in Germany, or the few progressive members of the Democratic Party in the U.S. have not surprised me much - although there is always something shrill and effervescent about the sudden defection to militarism of people who just the day before professed pacifism. But I am thinking especially of certain forces on the "radical" left that have currently lost any independent voice amid the pro-Selenskyj chorus. I think that if progressive forces don't position themselves against war, then they lose a central element of their raison d'être and end up adopting the argument of their political opponent.

Michael: It is no coincidence that "radical" left parties around the world -even those considered particularly nostalgic for the Soviet Union, such as the Communist Parties in Greece or Chile- have, in their vast majority, condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, in Latin America, important left-wing forces and even governments, as in Venezuela, have sided with Putin or else taken a supposedly "neutral" position. The left is thus faced with a choice: either the right of peoples to self-determination - which Lenin once also advocated - or the right of empires to invade and annex other countries. You can't have both, they are incompatible positions.

Silvia: In the US, representatives of social and feminist organizations like Code Pink have condemned Russia's aggression. Nevertheless, it has been denounced that the US and NATO are very selective in defending democracy. Just consider their roles in Afghanistan, Yemen, or Africom operations in the Sahel region. And the list could go on. The hypocrisy of the U.S. is evident, among other things, in the fact that in the case of Ukraine, the U.S. government speaks of defending democracy, but says not a word about Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine, or about the permanent destruction of Palestinian lives. Moreover, the U.S. opens its doors to Ukrainian refugees, while they remain closed to migrants from Latin America. Although the flight from their home countries was and is for many just as much a question of life and death. Looking at the left as a whole, it is indeed a shame that the institutional left - starting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - has come out in favor of supplying arms to Ukraine. I would also like to see the critical media scrutinize more closely what we are being told at the institutional level in the first place. For example: Why is Africa "starving" because of the war in Ukraine? What international trade policies have made African countries dependent on Ukrainian grain supplies in the first place? Why is there no mention in this context of the massive land grabs by international corporations, the so-called "new race for Africa"? Hence my question: whose lives are really considered valuable and worth protecting? And why do only very specific forms of death trigger outrage?

Marcello: Despite the great support for NATO in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - witnessed in particular by the official membership applications of Finland and Sweden - it is necessary to argue even more vehemently against the general notion that the largest and most aggressive military machine in the world (NATO) can help solve global security problems. After all, NATO has repeatedly proven itself to be a dangerous organization that, through its drive for expansion and unipolar dominance, stirs up tensions around the world that ultimately lead to war.

However, we are also currently experiencing a paradox: barely four months after the start of the war, we are in fact realizing that Putin has not only relied on the wrong military strategy. He has also ultimately strengthened the very enemy - and in particular its ability to build international consensus - whose influence he actually wanted to push back: NATO.

Étienne: I am a proponent of the view that NATO should also have been dissolved with the end of the Cold War, in parallel with the winding down of the Warsaw Pact. But NATO had not only an external function, but also - possibly even mainly - the function of disciplining the Western camp internally, not to say bringing it into line. All of this undoubtedly involves a form of imperialism: NATO is one of the instruments used to prevent genuine European geopolitical independence from the U.S. empire. That is one of the reasons why NATO was preserved in the aftermath of the Cold War. And I would agree with the statement that the consequences of that have been devastating for the whole world. NATO has propped up dictatorships in its own sphere of influence. It has covered up or condoned wars in which crimes against humanity have been committed. What is happening right now because of Russia has not changed my opinion about NATO there.

Michael: NATO is an imperialist organization that, dominated by the United States, is responsible for countless wars of aggression. It is a fundamental task of democracy to smash this political-military monster that the Cold War once produced. NATO's weakening in recent years prompted France's President Macron to say as recently as 2019 that the alliance was "brain dead." Unfortunately, Russia's criminal invasion of Ukraine has now breathed new life into the same alliance. U.S. troops are stationed in Europe in large numbers, and Germany recently approved special spending on 100 billion euros worth of rearmament, despite refusing to increase its military spending just two years ago - and despite unrelenting pressure from Trump. Putin has thus saved NATO from its slow decline, perhaps even disintegration.

Silvia: It is already very worrying that Russia's war against Ukraine has created a complete amnesia, namely regarding NATO's expansionism and its support for the imperialist policies of the EU and the US. It would be time to refresh memories of NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia, its role in Iraq, as well as in the violent breakup of Libya. The examples in which NATO has expressed its utter and fundamental disregard for democracy - that universal value it now claims to defend - are too numerous to even list. I do not believe that NATO was truly doomed before the Russian attack on Ukraine. Rather, its march through Eastern Europe and its current presence in Africa point to the exact opposite.

Marcello: This amnesia seems to have afflicted many leftist forces, especially those with government involvement. In a complete repudiation of their historical principles, the majority of the Finnish Left Alliance's parliamentary group recently approved their country's accession to NATO. In Spain, a large part of Unidas Podemos joined an interparliamentary chorus of deputies who voted in favor of supplying arms to the Ukrainian army and immediately gave their approval to the enormous increases in arms spending. A party that does not have the courage to speak out against such policies is ultimately only contributing to the expansion of U.S. militarism in Europe. For such servile political behavior, left-wing parties have often been punished in the past whenever the opportunity arose, including at the ballot box.

Étienne: It would be best for Europe to be able to defend its own territory. It would also need an effective system of international security - that is, a democratic renewal of the UN and the abolition of the veto in the Security Council. But the more NATO gains in importance as a security structure, the more that of the UN declines. In Kosovo, in Libya, and especially in Iraq in 2013, it has always been the goal of the U.S. - and by extension NATO - to weaken the UN in its ability to mediate, regulate, and enforce international law.

Marcello: In conclusion: What course do you expect the war to take and what future scenarios do you think are possible?

Étienne: The upcoming developments can only make us deeply pessimistic. For me, at least, that's the case, and I rate the chances as very low that a catastrophe can still be averted. I see at least three reasons for this. First, further escalation is likely, especially if resistance to the invasion can be sustained over the long term: And such an escalation would not end with conventional weapons - partly because their distinction from weapons of mass destruction has become very blurred anyway. Second, if the war ends with a "result," it will be disastrous in any case. It would be fatal, of course, should Putin achieve his goal and defeat Ukraine. This would only encourage him to further similar ventures. The same would be true should he be forced to retreat and the world return to a policy of rigid bloc confrontation. Either scenario would bring a long-lasting resurgence of nationalism and hatred. Third, war and its aftermath block - indeed, accelerate - global mobilization against climate catastrophe. Too much time has already been wasted.

Michael: I share these concerns, especially with regard to the now protracted fight against climate change, which has been completely eclipsed by the arms race of all countries that have been alarmed by the war.

Silvia: I am also pessimistic. The U.S. and other NATO countries show no willingness to give Russia any guarantees that NATO will not expand to Russia's borders. So the war will continue. And it will have devastating consequences for Ukraine, Russia and far beyond. Only the coming months will show to what extent other European countries will be affected. For the foreseeable future, I cannot imagine any other scenario than a continuing, permanent state of war, which is already a reality in so many parts of the world. This includes the extensive use of public resources for destructive purposes that would be so badly needed in the area of social reproduction. It pains me that there is currently no powerful feminist movement taking to the streets, on strike, and determined to fight for an end to all wars.

Marcello: I also have the impression that the war will not end soon. A peace that may not be perfect, but immediate, would certainly be preferable to prolonging the war. But there are too many forces pushing for a different solution. Every time a government declares that it will "support Ukraine until it emerges as the clear winner," the prospect of negotiations recedes further into the distance. Therefore, I think it is more likely that we are looking at a permanent prolongation of the war. A war in which Russian troops face a Ukrainian army equipped and indirectly supported by NATO. The left should fight tirelessly here for a diplomatic solution and against higher military spending. The cost of this is ultimately borne by the working population, so that even more economic and social crises will be fueled. If this happens, it will benefit parties of the far right, which are already shaping the European political debate in an increasingly aggressive and reactionary manner.

Étienne: In order to present a constructive perspective for a solution, we should advocate for the reordering of Europe - taking into account the respective interests of Russia, Ukraine and our own. And in a way in which questions of nation and nationality would be entirely rethought. Even more ambitious would be the project of creating a multilingual, multicultural, cosmopolitan Greater Europe, instead of declaring the militarization of Europe to be the most important task for the future - no matter how alternative it may seem in the short term. The goal would be nothing less than to prevent a clash of civilizations, of which Europe would otherwise become the epicenter.

Michael: In the sense of a more positive ambition, I suggest: We should strive quite fundamentally for a different Europe and a different Russia, namely each freed from capitalist, parasitic oligarchy. The Jaurès maxim, "Capitalism carries war like the cloud carries rain," is more relevant than ever. Only in another - post-capitalist, social-ecological - Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, can peace and justice become a reality. Whether this is a realistic scenario? That is up to each and every one of us.

Silvia Federici is a feminist activist and professor emerita of political philosophy and women studies living in New York City.Linksnet is a project of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and sees itself as a technical platform for left-wing journals for politics and science. We offer direct access to current topics of left-wing politics with a large number of articles by renowned authors.
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