The war in Ukraine and a “turning point in history”

It was, in the words of Scholz and his allies, a “Zeitenwende”—a turning point in history, a watershed moment made all the more pronounced by the German language‘s talent for sprawling, declarative nouns.

During a visit to Washington last week, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said that Germany “cannot look away or stand aside”, and that this “Zeitenwende cannot not be obtained free of charge”. After clinging to European visions of perpetual peace, the war in the heart of the continent had shaken Germany’s cautious political establishment.

For many on both sides of the Atlantic, the battles in Ukraine may even mark something more brutal – a “Zeitenbruch”, as former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer coined it, which is a break in the history, the closing of an age and the entry into another marked by an even deeper uncertainty and a great rivalry for power.

In Washington, not to mention the capitals of Western Europe, there is a palpable change in atmosphere. The heroism of Ukraine’s defenders and the atrocities reported by Russian forces have fired the imagination of the Beltway class, who, after years of quagmire and stalemate in the Middle East, now have a much more morally conflicting clear and potentially winnable behind.

American flags rarely fly in my Washington neighborhood on the left, but a brief Sunday stroll revealed myriad iterations of Ukraine’s blue-yellow bars hanging from fences and gates. European diplomats in the city speak of unprecedented solidarity among NATO allies and hail the leadership of the Biden administration in rallying support for Ukraine and imposing sweeping sanctions on Russia. Rarely has the West as a geopolitical entity been more united as a bloc and more coherent as a political project.

For some American commentators, Ukraine is not just ground zero for a confrontation with the Kremlin, but the battleground for the future of liberalism. “Yes [Russian President Vladimir] Putin succeeds in undermining Ukrainian independence and democracy, the world will revert to an era of aggressive and intolerant nationalism reminiscent of the early 20th century,” political theorist Francis Fukuyama warned. “The United States will not be immune to this trend, as populists like [Donald] Trump yearns to replicate Putin’s high-handed ways.

The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum has located Ukraine as the launching pad for an ever-expanding ideological war against illiberal autocracy. “Many American politicians would naturally prefer to focus on long-term competition with China,” she wrote. “But as long as Russia is ruled by Putin, Russia is also at war with us. The same goes for Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Hungary and potentially many more.

Yet for many outside the West, the moment is less a turning point than a reminder of the past. Critics point to a long tradition of Western double standards on the world stage. The Russian invasion prompted a rapid and comprehensive Western response – Ukrainian refugees were welcomed in, while governments imposed crippling sanctions on Russia for its violation of international law. Where was such action in other contexts, they argue, including those where the United States and its allies were complicit in ruinous wars and occupations?

“We have seen all the assets that we have been told cannot be activated for more than 70 years deployed in less than seven days,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki told a conference on the security in Turkey in March. “Incredible hypocrisy.

A delivery driver in Baghdad recently told The Associated Press that the Iraqi insurgency against US troops was as justified as the Ukrainian resistance to Russian forces. “If anything, the resistance to the Americans in Iraq was more justified, given that the Americans have traveled thousands of miles to come to our country, while the Russians are attacking an alleged threat next to them “, did he declare.

In the West, the struggle for Ukraine is seen with an almost Churchillian clarity. Elsewhere, particularly in countries that have reason to doubt Winston Churchill and Western moralism, suspicion and mistrust persist. “You never know when the United States will give you a bad surprise and start looking at you negatively, which the only Hindu-majority country in the world has to worry about,” right-wing Indian journalist Raghavan Jagannathan told my colleague Gerry Shih. . “You have an Abrahamic past. There is a strong binary of, ‘You are right or wrong, you are with us or against us.’ ”

Even in Germany, more than a month after Scholz’s speech, it is unclear how transformative this “Zeitenwende” can be. The war in Ukraine could become bogged down in a conflict of attrition, raising the stakes as it drags on. Scholz may have initiated a sea change in German defense policy, but has so far resisted calls for a total ban on Russian natural gas and oil imports, which fill Kremlin coffers while supporting a large part of the German economy.

“Zeitenwende’s speech broke some taboos in German foreign policy, but so far it has only been enough to appease the German conscience,” wrote Berlin analyst Oxana Schmies. “Economic opportunism has not yet been defeated either. Strategic thinking has yet to establish itself in the body politic.

“The problem is that no one knows how long the Zeitenwende will actually last, because now comes the hardest part,” said Rachel Rizzo, senior researcher at the Atlantic Council. “If the war starts to escalate, I’m afraid there’s a real desire for things to go back to the way they were, and that’s just not possible.”

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