Negotiations and Escalations

Whose peace is the Manifesto for Peace about?


One fact is simple and relatively uncontested: on February 24th, 2022, Russia invaded the neighbouring state of Ukraine. A year later, a German petition, which attracted thousands of protesters to Brandenburger Tor on Saturday, finds this situation rightly unacceptable. It calls for “solidarity” with the “Ukrainian people, brutally invaded by Russia.” It also calls for an immediate stop of weapon deliveries to the Ukrainian army. What do the initiators of this petition offer to the Ukrainian people instead of weapons? Negotiations.  Thankfully, these do not propose any “surrender.” But they do mean “making compromises, on both sides.”

After a speedy victory of either Russia or Ukraine is not in the offing, the big question is how and when the war will end. The so-called “Manifesto for Peace,” of Sahra Wagenknecht and Alice Schwarzer, offers no vision of that beyond “compromises.” But the obvious question is not answered: what concrete compromises should Ukraine make? Cede territory? Pay war reparations to Russia? Replace its government and cut ties with the EU and NATO? All of the above?

Another obvious question ignored by calls for “immediate peace” is that of responsibility. There are those who would blame the invasion of Ukraine entirely on NATO’s Eastward expansion. A modicum of common sense helps us quickly realize that Putin and the Russian government are not simple geopolitical automata, and they have enough free will to deserve at least some responsibility for the invasion. Luckily, such common sense is still possessed by German pacifists.

There is, however, a catch. There is a phrasing that we tend to dismiss when it comes to prejudice: folk wisdom tells us that “I’m not racist, but…” will invariably be followed by a racist statement. That “but” does not save what follows. On the contrary, it draws attention not only to the racism, but also to the shoddy attempt at masking it. Ultimately, it points out that even the speaker knew what was said would at least be perceived as racist.

What do we make, then, of a statement such as that of Christina Buchholz? “Putin is fully responsible for the attack on Ukraine. But the war has a double character. It is a legitimate fight for the right to self-determination for Ukrainians against an imperial occupying force. But it is also a proxy war by NATO, the USA and the EU against their imperial competition Russia. Finally, it has led to a dangerous escalation.” Unless they bite the bullet and just call Zelenskyy a fascist, the so-called “anti-war left” hardly needs the qualifier about responsibility and self-defense. Does it save what comes after the “but”? It’s hard to believe. How can Putin be “fully responsible” for a war that has a double character? How can Ukrainians engage in “legitimate self-defense in a proxy war“?

Calls for peace have taken this form – of accepting the simple fact of the invasion, and then immediately following it with a “but.” The magic word that allows them to do that is “escalation.” Russia did invade Ukraine, but Ukrainians/NATO/Zelenskyy/Olaf Scholz then escalated the war. DIE LINKE warns about an escalation of the war driven by weapon deliveries to Ukraine. Marx21 claims that Putin is “fully responsible” for the attack, but is not “guilty alone” of the escalation. Both imperialist blocs, the US and Russia, have contributed to it.

There are two issues here: the first concerns definitions, and the second a simple counterfactual. For the first, we must ask where the line between self-defense and escalation is being drawn? How much resistance can the Ukrainian state and people pose to the Russian invaders before German leftists accuse them of making the war worse? What type of war can be defensive enough for it not to be “an escalation?”

Perhaps the answer will come in the form of foreign intervention. When arms are delivered by NATO, with its undeniable imperialist interests, then this is an escalation. But this is where the counterfactual comes in.

Let’s imagine that Ukraine had not received aid in the form of weapons. What would have happened then? Perhaps Russian dreams of a blitzkrieg would have come closer to being realized. Or, more optimistically, perhaps “resistance from below” in both Ukraine and Russia would have been enough to stop the war.

Except they haven’t, as actually resistance from below already exists. There have been anti-war movements in Russia, and there is no reason to believe that they would have resisted state crackdowns more effectively – if Ukraine had not received external support. And there is also no reason to believe that the bottom-up organizing of Ukrainian resistance would itself have been more successful without NATO and European weapons. How could it? Supporting Ukrainians’ “right to armed self-defense” while also demanding an end to supplying them with actual arms amounts to just closing your eyes and hoping for the best.

In reality empty hope instead of solidarity is all that calls for peace have to offer. Hope that Russia will stop its attack if NATO stops weapons deliveries. Hope that China, Mexico, Brazil or anybody else will manage to diplomatically pacify Putin’s government. Or hope that a compromise of some sort will be an acceptable price for Ukrainians to buy peace.

Negotiations will indeed have to take place at some point for the war to end. The belief that NATO weapons are what stops them from happening, however, puts the burden of the negotiations on the victim, and not on the aggressor. Even while accepting that many Ukrainian wartime actions, as well as the Western response, can be criticized, we cannot deny that the majority of the lives lost and the cities destroyed are Ukrainian. As Buchholz herself notes, this is not a matter of the suffering of “the German people,” with which the “Manifesto for Peace” is concerned, but the suffering of Ukrainians. There are no Ukrainian voices, however, among these calls for peace. Hence the slogan of the Ukrainian counter-manifesto: “Talk with us, not about us.”

The simple fact of the invasion also means that there is only one simple ending to the war – the Russian attack on Ukraine must stop.

Let’s engage, then, in another counterfactual about what could happen to Ukrainians, according to the Saturday protesters’ demands. Let’s say that weapon deliveries are stopped tomorrow. Wagenknecht and Schwarzer’s Manifesto claims that this is the road to peace. But what will that road look like?

One option, the one they hope for, is that Putin’s war is only against NATO’s support for Ukraine, and not against Ukraine itself, and thus that Putin will stop his invasion if the support also stops. Perhaps he might be more open to negotiations… Or, why not – perhaps – he might even give up on his territorial ambitions; stop the violent oppression of Russian queer people; and distance himself from virulent Russian nationalism, while he’s at it.

The second option is that Putin will see this as a sign that his war is unopposed. His campaign of attrition will continue and Ukrainians will eventually run out of weapons and ammunition. At this point the losses will be much higher, the suffering much greater, and Ukraine would be defeated. This might mean peace for some Germans – but the counter-protesters who came out to oppose the Manifesto for Peace on Saturday know that there is no peace under Russian occupation.

Hopefully, most leftists who support the Manifesto are aware of this and have simply placed their bets on the first of these two options. It’s a risky bet, however; a wilfully ignorant one based on a narrow understanding of the war and the extent to which it targets Ukraine and Ukrainians themselves. Much worse, it is a bet with other people’s lives.