By Fabian Scheidler / Original to ScheerPost
The Pentagon Leaks have shown that, from the U.S. military’s perspective, the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine has reached a stalemate. Neither side can win in the foreseeable future, according to the assessment. Senior military leaders, such as General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said so publicly before. This makes negotiations, as difficult as they may be, the only rational option. For a continuation of the war under these conditions would lead to endless bloodshed, to a new Verdun, without achieving the restoration of Ukrainian territory. At the same time, nuclear escalation would become increasingly likely.
Any ethically sound position in such a conflict must weigh the risks and sacrifices to be made for a goal against what can realistically be achieved. Yet even the question of how many people in Ukraine should die in order to shift the future course of the border by how many kilometers is considered cynical and lacking in solidarity by many who loudly pose as friends of Ukraine. But isn’t it, on the contrary, cynical not to ask this very question in the current situation? After all, those who die are Ukrainians and Russian soldiers, not those who muse in Berlin or Washington about war aims and noble principles. And those affected in Ukraine themselves currently have no opportunity to express their views on the matter by voting.
The question raised here leads to the important distinction between what Max Weber called “ethics of ultimate ends” and “ethics of responsibility.” Proponents of an ethics of ultimate ends are content to defend abstract principles no matter what the consequences. Those who favor an ethics of responsibility think in terms of the desired outcome. In our case, that would mean to ask: What steps do I need to take in the real, often messy world to save as many lives as possible, give Ukraine a future, and prevent nuclear war?
The policy of détente pursued by Former Chancellor of Germany Willy Brandt and Former State Secretary in the Chancellery of Germany Egon Bahr, for example, was based in many respects on an ethics of responsibility. Even if we strongly disapprove of the rulers in the Kremlin, even if we think they are the incarnation of evil, we must talk to them and even negotiate. First, to achieve concrete relief for the people, and second, to prevent us all from dying in a nuclear war. To achieve this, grandiloquent moral lessons and an invocation of “Western values” are often counterproductive. They may make one feel morally uplifted and on the right side, but they do nothing to defuse the situation. On the contrary, as in the case of the war on terror after 9/11, self-congratulation obscures the view of reality and can thus lead to a spiral of destruction.
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Geopolitical and ecological tipping points
The question, which kind of ethics we choose, goes far beyond the consequences of war in the narrower sense and relates to the entire global situation. The world faces a whole series of dangerous tipping points, both geopolitical and ecological. For one thing, a lasting new bloc confrontation greatly increases the risk of nuclear war. Even a “limited” nuclear exchange would lead globally to a nuclear winter and wipe out a large part of humanity. For this reason alone, diplomacy based on an ethics of responsibility is the only rational option.
Second, the new cold and hot war destroys the chances of preventing climate and biosphere collapse in several ways. If we cross some of the imminent tipping points in the climate system, the Earth threatens to enter an entirely new state that climate scientists call Hothouse Earth. Entire regions of the Earth, including parts of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, would become uninhabitable. To prevent this, most of the fossil fuels in the Earth’s crust must remain in the ground. For this, in turn, intensified international cooperation – including with China and Russia – is indispensable.
As far-fetched as this may seem at the moment, the West must make Russia offers on how it can transform itself from an exporter of fossil fuels into a producer of renewable energies – because the largest country on earth has enormous potential for this. If Russia remains a pariah from the Western perspective, a nation with whom one does not talk, such a perspective is unthinkable.
The new bloc confrontation also threatens to channel the resources urgently needed for a socio-ecological transformation into the most destructive and climate-damaging of all sectors: the military. This portends a fatal repetition of the post-9/11 dynamic. The “Cost of War” project from Brown University puts the cost of the war in Afghanistan to the U.S. budget alone at $2,100 billion – the equivalent of an unimaginable 300 million per day, over 20 years. The wars in Iraq and Syria cost $1,800 billion. By comparison, the budget that developing countries have been demanding for years to combat the worst consequences of climate change amounts to 100 billion dollars – a tiny sum in comparison, but one that the rich industrialized nations have still not made available in full.
According to the calculations of U.S. economist Robert Pollin, an effective Global Green New Deal that could still prevent devastating climate chaos would cost about $4.5 trillion annually – about 5 percent of global GDP. This sum would be affordable, but only if global military spending were curbed at the same time. The new arms buildup on both sides as a result of the Ukraine war threatens once again to block the path to serious ecological transformation. And with it, the last chance to preserve the Earth system as we knew it is likely to be buried.
At this point, it also becomes clear why the peace and climate movements belong inseparably together. The enormous efforts of the climate movement will be in vain if they are not combined with a realistic peace policy perspective. And conversely, there will be no peace if we slide into climate chaos with 14,000 nuclear warheads and a billion small arms in existence on the planet. This is why there is a great responsibility on the currently deeply divided movements to reach out to each other, build bridges and act together, despite all differences.
The question of sovereignty
The urgent need for negotiation initiatives is often brushed aside with two arguments. One, it is said, is that one cannot negotiate with a monster like Putin. But the history of the March 2022 negotiations, which had led to significant rapprochements between the two sides, proves otherwise. Secondly, it is repeatedly pointed out, especially by the U.S. government, that it is not up to us to propose compromises, that it is exclusively up to the Ukrainians. Of course, it is up to Ukraine and especially its citizens – who, however, have not even been consulted about any of this for years – to make decisions about war, peace and negotiations. But it is completely out of touch with reality to pretend that this war is taking place in a geopolitical vacuum. The positions of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and especially the United States have significant influence on the decisions of the Ukrainian government, just as the positions of China and other countries in the Global South have influence on Moscow. Kiev is completely dependent on Washington financially and militarily; without the aid, the state would collapse in no time. In this situation, to pretend that the Ukrainian government is completely self-sufficient and sovereign is absurd.
It is also interesting that the argument against interference comes from the U.S., of all countries, which has massively interfered in Ukraine’s affairs for a long time. In early February 2014, when the Maidan uprising that later led to the overthrow of the Yanukovych government was in full swing, the leak of a phone conversation between Victoria Nuland, then U.S. chief diplomat for the EU, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Kiev, surfaced. The phone call became notorious for Nuland’s saying “Fuck the EU.” Less well known, but more important, is the way Nuland and Pyatt discussed what Ukraine’s future government should look like. Here is an excerpt:
NULAND: I don’t think Klitsch should be in the government. I think it’s not necessary, it’s not a good idea.
PYATT: Yeah, I mean, it’s better to leave him out and let him do his political homework. I think in terms of the process moving forward, we want to keep the moderate Democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyagnibok and his people. [Oleg Tyagnibok was chairman of the far-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party]. (…)
NULAND: I think Yats is the man who has the economic experience, the government experience. He is the man. What he needs is Klitsch and Tyagnibok outside. He should talk to them four times a week.
“Yats” (meaning Arseniy Yatsenuk) and “Klitsch” (Vitali Klitschko): One cannot help feeling that Nuland and Pyatt viewed the main opposition politicians at the time as essentially puppets to be shuffled around the Washington green table. In fact, Nuland’s wish that “Yats” become prime minister of Ukraine became a reality only weeks after the phone call. Is this what it looks like to deal with a sovereign country that makes entirely independent decisions?
The Ukrainian war is a global conflict, it is being waged to a considerable extent for geopolitical motives, and it affects the survival chances of all people on Earth. The U.S. government must finally use its influence to do something to end it, instead of brushing aside negotiation options with flimsy arguments. Brazil, China and South Africa have launched new peace initiatives. Western countries should join them.
Fabian Scheidler is the author of the book “The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization,” which was translated into several languages (www.end-of-the-
megamachine.com). His most recent book is “The Stuff We Are Made Of. Rethinking Nature and Society”. Fabian Scheidler has written as a free lance journalist for the Berliner Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Wiener Zeitung, Taz, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Jacobin, The Progressive, Radio France and others. In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for critical journalism.