Transcript of podcast with Peter Decker on Youtube, May 31, 2022
What is the Ukraine war all about?
M: Peter Decker is the editor-in-chief of the Marxist theoretical journal GegenStandpunkt. The topic is: why and what are the three warring parties in the Ukrainian war actually fighting about? The core of the Western narrative so far seems to have been – it’s changing a bit right now, but so far – for completely selfless humanitarian reasons, we have to come to the aid of helpless Ukraine, which is being brutally invaded by a despotic aggressor. How does this narrative work from your perspective, and what fallacies about politics and state and nation do they harbor?
PD: If you are now asking what those in positions of responsibility are actually saying about why are they involved in this matter, then you have to say there are actually two reasons next to each other, which, if you take them seriously, actually completely contradict each other. The first one you just quoted, namely: we are on the side of Ukraine, which is under attack, and we are helping it assert itself against the aggressor. This reason is: we are compelled or obliged to help because of the atrocities of the Russians. The other argument, which contradicts this, we will deal with later, but first I want to say something about the idea that Ukraine has been invaded and we are almost humanly obligated to intervene to help. This is why victims are shown on television: corpses from Bucha, raped women, dead bodies, pictures that naturally arouse pity. This should be an argument for why one has to take sides with Ukraine in this war. And it is presented as a judgment about the enemy: “that’s how they are.” And the conclusion is drawn: that’s why they deserve the Ukrainian resistance and our hostility and commitment to Ukraine. So one pretends that the brutality in the war is the reason for the war or for one’s own involvement in the war. And this is always dishonest. It’s easy to notice that the other side does the same thing. The Russians, after all, can point to victims: Soldiers who were shot or badly treated after surrendering. Or Ukrainian citizens who identify more as Russians and are oppressed as second-class citizens. They can also cite the injustice, so to speak, of what is being done to their side, with the conclusion: therefore the enemy is evil and deserves our hostility. In both cases, it is not the truth. In both cases, however, there is a truth, just a completely different truth. Both cases show that in war people are the means and material and representatives of their state; they are considered and treated by their own state as its state substance, and the foreign state considers and treats them exactly the same way, as the state substance of its enemy. Ukraine imposes a duty of military service, stops men who don’t want to kill and die from escaping across the border, and puts them in prison. It uses its own population as living shields for the troops in the Azov steel plant and elsewhere. Their own state, as well as the foreign state, considers the people of the respective other state as its living state substance, no matter whether they identify with the will to wage war of their authorities or not. This living state substance, the power base of the other state, is killed or suppressed or mistreated in order to deprive the other state of its power base and to break its state will. Both sides, in the position they take towards their own people and the foreign people, and also with their complaint about the victims always produced by the other side, basically confess how much they treat their people as their means. And I would prefer that to be noted, rather than cheaply procuring a reason for taking sides by showing the victims of the particular side one sympathizes with. By the way, it is particularly unbelievable, not when Ukraine claims its victims are the reason for its enmity, which is also not true, but when the NATO countries say that the situation has changed because of the brutality of the Russians, and that’s why they have to deliver more and better weapons. No state rushes to the aid of another state when it is attacked by a third. Right now there is war in Ethiopia, war in Yemen: what is the situation there? States pick and choose where they feel called upon, where they feel their morals are being addressed, so to speak. And this help never comes based on the victims, but always based of the interest that a state takes in the circumstances. So if a state does not expect and can’t expect anything more from another state, from the self-assertion of another state, other than the triumph of a foreign nationalism, then it doesn’t help. So there will be other, better reasons. This, however, brings us to the second half of the reasons, which are no longer even concealed.
M: Against the background that you have just mentioned, on the one hand there is this enormous mobilization of state and society for this war and on the other hand there are heads of state who have formally emphasized again and again – this was said again by a NATO head of state a few days ago – that under no circumstances can NATO and the West enter this war. How does that actually fit together?
PD: I would suggest we postpone the question of why they are so keen on presenting themselves as a non-party to the war and why they stick to this “well, even though we are a war party, even though we are heavily involved, even though we are constantly judging war events according to whether they are enough for us or not, we do not want to be a party to the war.” I would postpone that a bit, because the first half of the question is no longer a big deal; in that respect, you can also keep the answer short. When the political leaders in our country discuss amongst themselves and with the press how much weapons assistance, how much logistical guidance, how much fire support the West can give Ukraine without Russia considering it to be direct entry into the war, then this is how they themselves admit that they are a party to the war. But, as I said, that is yesterday’s news. For example, last weekend, a panel sat together on TV and the discussants then said to each other: “Now it’s about time that Germany defines its war aims in Ukraine by referring to the fact that the other nations already have. The Americans have done it, the British have done it, yet the Germans are still unclear.” The German position is still more reserved than the others. But if the chancellor is now saying that Putin must not win, there must be “no dictatorial peace” (these are his words), then he is also saying that in this war we have an interest in proving to the Russians that war can’t be worthwhile for them. But, as I said, that is still the most restrained statement. The others say: yes, we must at least drive Russia back behind its borders and take Crimea and the Donbas away from them. The U.S. Secretary of Defense says we have to weaken Russia in this war so that it is never again capable of such a war. You can see that these are war aims that extend far beyond Ukraine, that have only so much to do with protecting Ukraine, that Ukraine is the means to achieve this aim, but it is not the ultimate aim of the whole intervention. We can now refer back to the initial forms and speeches: Come on, let’s go, we have to help Ukraine, which is under attack. And then you actually stir up a war, you feed it with bigger and bigger, more and more powerful weapons, so that it doesn't stop too soon. So that Ukraine doesn’t have to give in, so that this war of attrition of Russian power actually leads to its goal.
M: It sounds to me as if the West’s war goal is to weaken Russia, to crush it, maybe to protract the war. Why this long delay in heavy weapons shipments? Germany is being asked more and more to send weapons. Not at first heavy weapons, but heavy weapons are now being sent. And then a Melnyk or Zelensky appears in some parliamentary session and they have to be asked twelve times before they even send these supplies. If that was the goal of the war, why are they doing this, why are they putting on this show or this theater?
PD: Perhaps the word theater is not the right expression. Yes, the West is a war party, that’s for sure. And it hasn’t been as united as it is now in decades. At the same time, they attach great importance to not being a direct party to the war and to not getting involved. In the first instance, I think you can look at the German chancellor when he says: we don’t want to be drawn into the war, we are fearful of nuclear war. You then notice something: Yes, they are fighting a war here, or they are party to a war in which there is a nuclear power on the other side, and not just any nuclear power, but the only nuclear power that is on an equal footing with the Americans in terms of overkill and incineration of the planet. This power – this is actually what Putin is always pleading and what he can no longer get recognized – insists on something that was somehow true in the past, namely, that you can’t necessarily make policy against the interests of a nuclear power of this level. Its claims to power have to somehow be respected. All right, now you can say that there is still enough respect for the Russians’ claims to power so that they are careful not to end up as a warring party in a direct confrontation between NATO soldiers and Russian soldiers. But this is important: Fear is not the last word here, i.e. there is the concern that this escalation could happen, but at the same time there is the will to let Ukraine fight a proxy war in this case. The weakening of Russia is done indirectly, Ukraine is allowed to take care of it, and of course it is supplied with everything it needs for this. But you are not the perpetrator yourself. This is not only done out of fear, but precisely because in this way, as the West, one also retains all its freedoms in relation to whatever happens. One judges the military advances, but also the defeats of Ukraine. One does not stand or fall with them, but uses them for the purpose one is pursuing with them, which has been mentioned. But one does not pin one’s fate to the fate of Ukraine. This is a very cynical relationship with Ukraine, which one is claiming to help, which one supposedly helps, which one functionalizes in such a way that one lets it fight a battle against one’s own enemy and keeps every freedom open to oneself with regard to the outcome and the progress and the degree of one’s own engagement in the thing.
M: Let’s talk about this narrative of attack and defense. The West wants this war, has more or less been instigating it for years and decades – I’ll amp up the rhetoric now – and Russia is defending itself against this aggression. In fact, that’s exactly what Putin says. That’s even part of his justification for this war to his own people. So is he right? Is his war just in that sense, or is it not just a war of aggression, as we are told?
PD: Well, actually, the fact that Putin claims the same logic, the same justice for himself, as the West and Ukraine claim for themselves, shows that the right to self-definition is that of great powers. Yes, every state that wages war claims to defend itself. And every state that wages a war claims it is against one that is attacking it, that violates its rights. This is why, from an objective point of view, you shouldn’t participate in the debate about a just war. It is a mistake. There are categories being used now that that belong to war, offense and defense, which have a military meaning that you can read about in Clausewitz (what you have to do to make an attack work, where does the defender have advantages, and so on), but they are not used in this meaning at all, but used in the sense of a moral judgment: defense is good, attacking is bad. When military force is labeled “He started it!” it is a crime against all that is sacred. Military force with the same effect, which sends its people to the slaughter and uses them as cannon fodder for its self-assertion, if it is given the label: “It is a response to the one who started it!” then waging a war is good. This is exactly the right of every state and is ennobled in international law. This distinction belongs to international law, but you should not make this distinction your business.
So the moral meaning of attack and defense refer these military truths to a norm, with the accusation of a norm violation. What is the norm? The norm is what states have made up in international law: Attacking another country in order to seize its territory is not acceptable. The states have agreed on this, that’s true. At the same time, this agreement has more the character of a contract than of a law. The states agree on it, but they themselves are the judges, because there is no power over them as with domestic law. In the case of domestic law, citizens must obey because a state power stands over them and punishes offenses. In the case of international law, there is no higher authority, so there is also no law in the literal sense. The contracting states are those which claim to be subject to the law, but at the same time stand above it, because there is no authority which could or should enforce the validity of this law. So the states themselves are at the same time the interpreters of the law. They are not merely the subjects of the law, they are always at the same time the courts and the judges. And because nobody stands above them, the law has no meaning either – except that they adhere to it as long as they consider it useful for themselves. International law testifies much more to this – and this is a more interesting point than taking it as: ah, now we have a prohibition on the use of violence, that’s so nice – to the fact that states are nothing but institutions of violence and there is nothing but violence between them. And that peace is nothing but what was created by the last war and lasts as long as the parties involved do not budge this balance of violence between powers. But first, one has to distance oneself from the whole thing, from the everything that is happening, so that you don’t let yourself be morally taken in by categories such as: Defense is good, offense is evil.
M: A question about equidistance. Actually, you just stay out of it and say that two parties are fighting each other and you have nothing to do with it. Isn’t that making it too easy for yourself?
PD: I would like to oppose this, so let’s step away from the point a bit. But ok, on the keyword “equidistance.” Equidistance is almost too involved, because it now raises the accusation: You are an enemy or friend to both. I want some distance first. Please don’t let yourselves be taken in by a cause that is not about you at all. We are facing a struggle between two world powers, over Ukraine and in Ukraine. And in this struggle, what is important to you – you don’t have to be a leftist, what’s important to you as a normal person – is not up for discussion in any way. The people are buying into a conflict between powers: Ukrainians think that life under Russian oligarchs with Russian corruption would be unbearable, but life under Ukrainian oligarchs with Ukrainian corruption would be wonderful. Anyone who thinks this is on the wrong track. And getting involved – i.e. “I have to take a stand, it’s my business” – is wrong. If it is, then it is our business theoretically, we must make clear what is going on here, who is fighting here and what people are dying for. But that’s different than saying: hey, there’s a war going on, who are the good guys and who are the bad?
M: What are the three warring parties each ultimately about? You’re talking about three warring parties. What do you mean by that?
PD: We already had the idea earlier: Because every party, every state is both the judged and the judge in questions of international law, i.e. because it interprets for itself to what extent it meets the requirements of international law or does not: it is therefore quite clear that every state that wages war claims that it is only defending itself. That applies to Ukraine, it applies to the Russians, it also applies to the West. But it depends a bit on the following: You can take this phrase, that everybody defends themselves, from the side of the lie and from the side of a truth. And it’s important that one does not simply dismiss what you hear from politicians as a cheap lie at this point, in the sense of: we don’t believe them – and that’s that! But one also always has to take the truthful side of their messages. So if they are defending themselves, I want to say, on the one hand, it’s a lie. A lie in the sense of: If you identify the defense of your country with the protection of people, of cities, with the protection of livelihoods, and so on, and you can hear a lot about that from the Ukrainians right now: “We need a lot more long-range artillery so that we can keep the Russians out of the villages.” There the means of war is directly expressed as an instrument for protecting the lives of the citizens. On the other hand, defense is a lie, because the lives of the citizens, the livelihoods of the people, even the economic livelihoods, all of this is jeopardized in war and for war and, if necessary, sacrificed for the self-assertion of the respective state. So on the one hand, this “we are defending ourselves” is an untruth. But it is also a truth. States do not go to war lightly. Especially for capitalist states, war interrupts or destroys the use of other states, which is the most important thing. Economic relations are interrupted. This can be seen right now in the economic war they are waging to go along with the firearms in the Ukraine war. There the economy is being taken into state service through its destruction, including the state’s own. Capitalist states don’t casually do something like that. They really only do that when they come to the conclusion that everything they are, everything they have in terms of the respect they demand from other states, everything they have in terms of vital interests that have to be absolutely respected, when all that is at stake unless they put a stop to another country’s claims. In this respect, the step to war is always a defense of rights, that is, of rights that states ascribe to themselves. And with regard to this self-definition of defense, it is quite bad to now ask the question: Which state is serious? Which do we believe? Which state is just pretending and using the good title of defense wrongly? This is quite wrong in that they are defending only what is an essential condition of existence for them as a power; they defend only that. In this respect, they are all deadly serious. In this respect, it is not a question of the extent to which they are defending themselves or not. Rather, the question is: what are they defending? What is the self-definition they see at stake and that they are actually taking up arms to protect? And here, of course, states differ. Not all of them have the same thing to defend.
Now let’s go through the warring parties and see what each has to defend. Let’s take the first war party, Ukraine. It’s still the easiest. It’s defending its sovereignty. What is its sovereignty? The sovereignty of a country that was connected to Russia for more than three quarters of a century, where the populations were intermixed, where the economy was set up as part of the Soviet Union’s division of labor; a state like this can have an independent sovereignty, can assert itself without regard to its neighbor, only as as an anti-Russian program. Internally, as a purging of the country of all that is Russian – and there’s quite a lot to be purged. And outwardly, as the self-assertion of a nation that rejects and resists doing what basically all smaller nations have to show their bigger neighbor, namely, that they will accommodate to get along with it. For this resistance, Ukraine has made itself into the front line state of an enmity that is not all committed to the Ukrainian will to self-assertion. This is Ukraine’s aim in the war.
The Russian war aim is also defensive. What are the Russians defending? They are not simply defending national borders. The Russians are defending their status as an autonomous nuclear power capable of waging world war, which decides issues of force around the globe on par with the United States. They are defending this status. They see it threatened by Ukraine being accepted into NATO and by NATO weapons being brought right up to Russia’s southern borders. The argument is always of nuclear threats that could destroy Moscow in minutes, meaning that advance warning times are broken. What’s the matter with this? It is Russia’s concern that its nuclear second strike capability, that is, its ability to threaten nuclear war or, conversely, to counter a threat of nuclear war with a corresponding threat is being undermined, perhaps even diminished. So that’s what they are defending. It has nothing to do with sympathy for the cause or an apology. Rather, they are defending the ability to terrorize the world just like the Americans can. They consider this ability to be their right. Like the Americans, they demand to have a say in the violent actions of the world; to be able, like the Americans and NATO, to make decisions about which states have a right to exist and which do not. And they do not want to be excluded from this. That’s their goal.
When its comes to the EU and NATO, they are defending something bigger. And that’s what they say. They say: Russia’s war is an attack on “the European peace order.” They are not defending a country or a region or anything like that, they’re defending a peace order: a principle of how states have to deal with each other. This shows, by the way, that if the word “imperialism” fits anywhere, then it fits much more on the side of the West, because an entire order of states, an entire order of violence in Europe and beyond, is the object of concern and defense: a peace order.
The words “peace order” are accurate. It is an order in which the capitalist states have not been at war with each other for 70 years. What is its basis? The basis is the supremacy of the USA, which conquered them in the last world war and incorporated its former enemies and allies into this American order of force. And on that basis, the Americans have imposed a renunciation of violence on the rest of the world of states. States are not allowed to wage war – except those who are the overseers of this order. According to their own explanation, they only wage wars for the purpose of maintaining respect for this order. And those who elude it, that is, who take the liberty of waging wars autonomously, are punished to prove that violating the West’s monopoly on the use of force is suicidal. It is this order of violence that the West sees threatened. And it must be said, rightly sees it threatened by a power that has armed itself with the ultimate nuclear warfare capability, not like India or Pakistan who have a few nuclear bombs to throw at each other.
A power that possesses this ultimate capability of nuclear war denies the unconditional validity of the prohibition on the use of force. And with it the unconditional subordination of all states to this regime, in which it uses its force to offer the outlaws in the Western world order – let’s say, Syria or Libya – were such cases, protection, weapons assistance, a guarantee of existence and undermines the voluntary nature of subordination to this regime. So it’s objective and beyond what the Russians are doing with their power – the mere fact that they can do this is a challenge to the Western world, not only since the Ukraine war, and is perceived by the West as intolerable and opposed by it. But now in the Ukraine war, this is outrageous in the sense that the Ukraine war proves that the West’s deterrence regime didn’t work at this point. So it has to be fought through.
M: You say that the West, unlike other states, has no real interest in appropriating foreign territory. It’s not about that at all; it’s about deterrence and maintaining this order, this peace order. Isn’t this idea contradicted by the history of NATO’s eastward expansion? The fact is that NATO and the West have expanded and eaten their way more and more into the territory of the Russians. To be sure, most of these countries were incorporated into the West without direct military force. And it’s not disputable that they have been incorporated into the Western sphere of influence, is it?
PD: Absolutely. You can say: the West has countries in its sphere that are members of NATO, that is expressed as protection from any other force, that’s what it is, if you like; and as subordination: Being a NATO member then also means subordinating one’s own reason of state to this Western order and voluntarily placing the use of NATO’s military at one’s disposal and subject to the proviso that there is a NATO agreement to use one’s own military only in the service of maintaining this global regime. You can also say that NATO has expanded eastward, that’s true, and you can also say that the West has expanded its sphere of influence. But what I find more interesting is the other formulation: the West’s accusation of the Russians that Putin wants to create a sphere of influence in the area of the old Soviet Union.
M: Restore great Russia.
PD: Von der Leyen says Putin wants to restore Great Russia or just the Soviet Union, but others have too: Russia has not understood that the days of spheres of influence is over. And I would rather read the sentence sideways: In fact, the West does not accept any sphere of influence other than its own, but much worse, much more far-reaching: it does not accept any zones of exclusive jurisdiction on the globe. And every such zone that any state wants to establish – the Chinese are known to have such zones too – is seen as an attack on the world order. And one gives appropriate answers, depending on the situation. You can believe the NATO countries when they say, “We didn’t want to conquer Russia, Russia feels threatened by us, but we don’t want to conquer it.” You can accept this from them. They really just want to surround it with weapons so it seems futile from the outset for Russia to use weapons for their own purposes. It is about subordinating this state, not occupying it. In this respect, the phrase “we don't want to conquer you” is not wrong, but it expresses the other kind of domination that is at stake.
M: You have said that the guardians of the world order do not tolerate exclusive spheres. It’s not just that there is this one exclusive space – and then it’s only attributed to NATO or the U.S. – but there are no exclusive spaces where then the rules of this world order are not the last word. Can you maybe say something about those rules? It sounds like there is no explicit motive on the part of the U.S. and NATO, and so they then de facto would not actually be a threat to Russia if they were standing on the border with their weapons and nothing happens. Then perhaps Putin is also simply wrong when he feels Russia is threatened?
PD: Yes, its role as an autonomous world power is threatened and really contested. This is what he is denied. This is not the same as conquering the country and dividing it up among NATO countries or something, but in this respect Putin is not wrong when he says he is being threatened. But as what? As this nuclear power capable of autonomous global political intervention. That is denied to him.
M: My question is whether this world order expands towards Russia and incorporates more and more countries bordering Russia. There should be no more zones of influence there. What is this world order? What is it actually about? What are the rules that you have to play by in order to be part of this world order?
PD: This world order is not just abstract domination and subordination, but has a content. What is the content of this world order? Well, that has already been said to a large extent. There is a prohibition on violence for all states. What does that mean on the other side? All states are obligated to manage their relations with the outside world without violence. Namely, in accordance with the rules of world trade that are in effect today and that make up the American world order. What is that? It is the obligation of all states to pursue their progress, their enrichment, only in the form of really peaceful exchange, i.e. by means of trade, capital exports; all states are obligated to produce capitalistically, and they are obligated to make their own progress – now one really has to say: only in the most unhindered free comparison of capital productivities – which they can organize in their own country.
This means that states may only enrich themselves and increase their power – because wealth increases power and money buys weapons – by extracting more globally valid value from their people than other countries. So you really have to consider – and this is also a swerve away from those leftists who say that imperialism is when you look at a country and then of course you reliably discover an oil well or a gas deposit or rare earths or something somewhere, and then some say: imperialism is when you want to have access to it. Against this, you first have to say: in this world order, access to resources of all kinds takes place through buying and selling, you buy the oil, you don’t steal it – capitalism is an economy of exploitation of labor and competition with its results, not an economy of robbery, maybe like in the days when Captain Drake sailed the oceans. That is no longer the case. And there you misunderstand and condemn capitalism or modern imperialism by a standard that used to apply, but has long since ceased to apply. That is like comparing modern capitalist exploitation with slavery in order to be able to criticize it.
M: I will try to summarize in my own words what has been said. The U.S. was and is concerned, even if perhaps in a decreasing way, with implementing free market relations globally or between nations, knowing that the U.S., because it is economically still by far the strongest power, will then win this competitive game in the end and therefore the free market of nations is in its national interest. Countries like Russia, or perhaps Iraq, for example, which try to somehow put a stop to this and say, yes, I’m now restricting trade, I’m practicing protectionism, or I’m even starting to somehow militarily annex other countries, they can’t then be tolerated in this order. They don’t have to be territorially annexed, but they have to be defeated in any case, so that this global competitive order remains in place or is established. In this sense, then, the Ukraine war, the NATO expansion to the east, and the Iraq war in that time, would not be an expansion of this sphere of influence or an appropriation, but simply the enforcement of global capitalism, if I may put it in such a brief way. Have I understood that correctly?
PD: Yes, two things about that. One is that this war – let’s leave aside the old ones, it’s easier if we stick with this one – is not about expanding the sphere of influence, but that the Western powers, with the U.S. at the head, are waging their war from the point of view of enforced world domination. They do not have the problem: we will grab one country and then another one, but are actually the ones who have the world under control. And they can’t stand the fact that there is a nation that disputes this. But now you have to be careful. How does this nation dispute this? The interesting thing is that Russia is not accused of being protectionist, of not allowing the free comparison of productivity or the free movement of capital. That is not the case at all. Russia is not being reproached in economic terms. That applies much more to other countries. Russia isn’t being targeted because it is somehow blocking the free movement of capital; there is no dissatisfaction with the country at all about this. On the contrary, it is considered, at least it was until now, an incredibly reliable supplier of raw materials. Russia is intolerable only at the level of control, not at the level of usefulness. That is also the strange thing. They turned to capitalism. They used to have a system that withdrew from the world market. That didn’t allow capitalist use, at least at most in homeopathic doses. That brought on the Cold War. Now they have changed the system, now they are actually playing along in the same way. Now, however, it is not at all the case that this would spare them the enmity, but because they have inherited the power from their predecessor state, precisely this nuclear armament: That is why they are and will remain the non-classifiable partner in the world economy, in which they otherwise actually play along quite normally.
M: Is there anything else you want to mention or that we haven’t mentioned yet?
PD: One more point, which is also explanatory. We have talked about the fact that this Western world economic order, dominated by the USA – and the EU is now absolutely the second tier player – sets the rules of the world market. But the subordination of the world of states to this regime goes much, much further. The fact is that the U.S. in particular not only determines the forms of trade, but also the substance of the world economy. All states must earn dollars. The dollar is the backbone of the international credit system. Anyone who needs the classic capital advance so that growth can occur, i.e., anyone who wants to finance something before money has been earned so that money can be earned, is necessarily referred to financial sources that are, in the last instance, on Wall Street or are domiciled on Wall Street. In this respect, this American rule is built into the reason of state of all states in a completely different way than Russia has ever achieved or could achieve.
Russia stands, on one hand, in this world as a military power and, on the other, as a moderately developed emerging market or as a mediocre capitalist country. America makes states dependent on itself in a completely different way, namely by providing the state’s means of life, the foundation on which nations are managed, and thus also subjecting them to its sovereignty. We can see this now in the sanctions regime, when the Americans say that Russian banks are no longer allowed to do business with banks in the rest of the world, that it is not the American banks that are cut off from business, but the Russian banks. So that’s what’s called imperialism, which is creating a whole system of dependence and subordination of states. That goes further than the military power behind it. That is essential to ensuring inescapability. But subordination is not enforced by the military in each case, but subordination is already in the means of life of the nations themselves. And against this Russia stands as a foreign body, as a mere military power. I wanted to add that to the peculiarity of what is called imperialism today.
M: There is the accusation: How can you not take a position now? In 2003, leftists did the same during the Iraq war. They took a stand against imperialism. Here, the comparison to the Second World War always comes up. Should one not have taken the side of the Allies in the Second World War, either as a leftist or as a Marxist? It’s not like the Allies wouldn’t have prevented Europe from being enslaved by the Third Reich. We would probably also have said that moral condemnation was useless, since they were all just imperialist states fighting each other anyway. But if I made these comparisons with World War II, what would you say?
PD: First of all, I would definitely say: The person who makes this objection has understood quite well what we are trying to say. Moral condemnations are useless. These are only imperialist states, and we have nothing to gain from them. Yes, I would agree with all of that, that’s the way it is. The things that normal people are concerned with are not being negotiated. So it’s not something to get involved in. You try to get clarity about what kind of world you live in, what your living conditions depend on, what purposes you are subjected to without ever having chosen them. Everything that is due to the issue. But taking sides is quite different. And if you take the issue with Hitler and the German war in the 1940s, then you first have to say: Yes, that applies over longer distances too. And at the same time, it applies to people who are not really, shall we say, affected by the war, in the sense that they are in the line of fire. Yes, if you are now a Ukrainian and are not allowed to run away because the state will arrest you and you can only decide whether to let one or the other side shoot at you? Or whether you shoot them faster? Yes, you are forced to make a choice, it’s terrible and in no way a choice in which victory or defeat results in something that you benefit from. Then you are in trouble.
And maybe one more excursus. People like to talk about genocide. Bucha was a genocide. And Putin, for his part, says the Ukrainians are committing genocide or want to commit genocide in the Donbass. Genocide has become the small change of justification. Why? Because genocide is the combination of state purpose, state self-assertion, and human beings, which in and of itself is always untrue: This war does not aim to destroy the Ukrainian state, but to kill all the Ukrainians. Yes, if I have taken this as a lesson, if I am Ukrainian and if it is even true. That can be said above all of the German war in the East: If there really is an extraordinary situation in which a state wages a war, not to break the will of a foreign state, but to clear areas of people because they want German settlement space, so actually the war aim is to exterminate the population, then an exceptional identity between defending my own life and defending the state comes about which of course ultimately leaves me no choice: I would rather fight than be killed. But please, this is the special case where a war is for the purpose of wiping out the population. And this is not the norm in modern wars, which are about breaking the will of the foreign state. And even in the latter case, it is of course still the case that if you defend your own life, in the end you are basically confronted with the fact that, if your state manages to survive, it then tells you what to do next. So negatively, for oneself, one has only managed to survive, because the enemy really wanted to get rid of the people. But of course the whole thing ends up being pocketed by the government, which says it has now won and how the people will have to live in the near future. So the contradiction – that, in being deployed, one only strengthens, creates or keeps the power over oneself alive – is not gotten rid of in this situation either.
M: How would you see that in relation to Yemen or Kurdistan, for example? In the end, we also have similar backgrounds there, and the arguments you brought up about how states function and how imperialism functions are just as valid. Is that also something that we as leftists should distance ourselves from, as you said at the beginning?
PD: Now you’re asking me questions about the war in Yemen, the war in Syria, and the war with the Kurds. You would really have to first look at which purposes stand against each other. I can’t say off the top of my head who wants what. It is usually the case that a will to rule makes use of national ethnic classifications and secures loyalties. But actually, I have to say, I can’t talk about it now.
M: Let’s move on to the questions from the comments. There is, after all, again and again this argument of Ukrainians fighting voluntarily, asking for help and now wanting to defend their country, their home, their tractor, their farmland. And, of course, there are also so-called anarchists in Germany who are taking sides with the Ukrainians as soldiers. What is your assessment of this situation?
PD: Is it an argument or a question or an objection? Someone wants to say: but there are those who are doing this out of conviction. Do I understand that correctly?
M: That’s how I would understand it.
PD: Yes, sure they do it out of conviction. But what kind of conviction is it? What do I think about the conviction? I don’t deny them their conviction, but I can only say: to believe that life in a Ukrainian oligarch state with Ukrainian corruption would be a blessing and that life in a Russian oligarch state with Russian corruption would be impossible to put up with, if you have nothing else to choose but the two alternatives, well, I wouldn’t want to stake my life on that. That’s the only argument I have to say about it.
M: Isn’t the subordination of the world under the rule-based dollar world order currently being undone by the Russian actions, which is also supported by China and others?
PD: If you take this as a proper theoretical question, then here you can say yes and no. On one side, there is the indisputability of the West’s ability to dictate. On the other side, this is disputed by the fact that Russia says: I still exist, I am also a dictatorial power. On the side of the content of the world order and global capitalism, all countries are compelled and obliged to participate in the competition for the world’s money and to gain their livelihoods from this competition – on that side, nobody wants to abolish the world order. Not the Chinese, not the Russians, nobody. So this is quite peculiar. They want to be subordinated to the economic principles of the Western world order which gives the Americans and the Western states their power and wealth. They don’t want to renounce their subordination to this, but want to renounce their subordination to political domination. In this respect, it is clear that this is not an alternative imperialism that proposes a different way of life, a different economic mode of existence for the world, or wants to impose it on the world, but rather a struggle within the Western defined world order for the ability to have a say in the formation of this order and in decisions about third countries. In this respect, one can say that Russia’s military self-assertion is a denial of its unconditional subordination to political will. And it does so without even wanting to dispute the economic order for which political will is needed – because all the regulated conditions only exist through the dominance of the Americans.
M: Is it objectively correct or desirable for a Marxist to call for the surrender of the Ukrainian army, since it makes no significant difference whether people in the Donbass are exploited by the Russian or the Ukrainian capitalist class?
PD: You have to let go of the idea that I want to recommend anything to any one of the warring parties here. I have nothing to recommend for their purposes. I am not involved and I recommend that others not get involved. Someone makes the argument: I see a big difference in the living conditions of Russians on this side of the Ukrainian border and on the other side. To me, this would not be worth a life and death fight. When I say that, I am saying something about the unreasonableness of the people who go for it. But I am not then saying that I think it would be a good solution to the situation if the Ukrainians surrendered. Nor am I saying the Finlandization of Ukraine would be a blessing. Or vice versa: that a Russian victory would be a blessing. Then what would happen? Then the Russians would be in charge. You have to see: it is powers in conflict here, so there is no reason at all to get involved in their conflict in a partisan way.
And maybe another argument is important: You have to realize that it doesn’t matter whether I recommend that the Ukrainians surrender or persevere, whether I deny or grant the Russians the right to defend themselves, or grant or deny Ukraine the right to exist: I have no say here. Ordinary people are spectators to events here, and they can use them to study the conditions they live under. But they are not a co-equal subject, they should not allow themselves to be addressed as co-equal subjects, and they should not let themselves be sucked in by this war in the following way: You have to find out who the good guy is and who the bad guy is, and then you have to take one side or the other, or you have to make a recommendation to one side or the other. No, you have to keep your distance from these stories. If everything that is out there in terms of alternatives is not a case where you say to yourself that you find one thing right and good and you want that, you want to live and die for that, and the other thing is the opposite. If that is not the case, why get involved? Why get involved fictitiously? Because there is only one kind of real involvement: You support your own state in what it is doing anyway. And, by the way, you don’t need to do that. It is doing that anyway.
M: Why has Russia drawn the red line in Ukraine right now and said that you will not push back our influence here? Why didn’t they do that before, for example, with other countries that were part of NATO’s eastward expansion?
PD: Well, the Russians did. They initially left it with verbal notes, objections, threats. Then, eight years ago, they annexed Crimea. They weren’t going to let their access to the Black Sea, their military position on the Black Sea, be taken away from them. It’s not like this is coming out of the blue now. What is different is that decisions to wage war are now ripening. They are getting closer and closer to the Russian border, encroaching on a more and more important country. Ukraine is a huge country, it was a big part of the industrial base of the Soviet Union: heavy industry, a weapons industry, also high-tech developments like the Antonov aircraft. Of course, the interest in this country is different than, say, Georgia, which is more peripheral. You also don’t have to think too much about: Why war right now? We can see that the Russians are now of the opinion: this is as far as it goes. So the question – couldn’t they have decided this yesterday or couldn’t they perhaps decide tomorrow or the day after tomorrow? – is a bit moot. Yes, they could have decided this earlier and Putin could have renounced it at this point. But the reasons for the war are objective, and they are independent of whether the decision is made today or tomorrow or whether it is made by Putin or perhaps his successor.
M: To what extent does Ukraine have its own war purposes and to what extent is it an independent party in this war and not simply a proxy between two directing imperial powers?
PD: One can follow or agree with the question to the extent that one has to concede that everything that Ukraine scrapes together militarily on the battlefield is the product of arms, training, and intelligence cooperation with the United States. And above all, let’s not forget, the product of lots and lots of money pouring into Ukraine from the West. The whole state can only survive – not just since the war, but before that – because its state budget is financed to a significant extent by the West. In this respect, it is a nation that has been sponsored, that has been made to fit the purpose. On the other hand, without the very fanatical national self-assertion of a non-Russian Ukraine, of course, the whole instrumentalization would not be possible. So one should not twist it to the point of saying that it is a proxy without its own subjectivity. Yes, this state, especially with its fanatical will, is the right partner for this purpose. It had to be found, it couldn’t just be created.
M: Isn’t the war for Russia also an attempt to invoke national unity in order to distract from the miserable economic situation within Russia itself?
PD: There is always the question when a war is waged: Isn’t the head of state waging the war to rally the people behind him and marginalize the opposition? Yes, wars do have that effect. And why do they have it? Because they can count on the nationalism of their own people. Nationalism itself says that if the homeland is attacked or if the homeland is in need of self-assertion, then I will stand behind it. It does have that effect, but one misjudges history if one thinks that major foreign policy events and, in this case, a war which really poses the existential question: Can Russia assert itself as a militarily independent great power, as a world power, or will it be further dismantled? Such major events are not initiated by a state with the idea that it would be better and more favorable for the next election if I could once again create a bit of national euphoria. You simply misjudge the circumstances. Yes, the people are so stupid: When there’s a war, they support the government and the head of state can take this as a free gift from them. But as a reason for war, such euphoria, which doesn’t last forever, is simply disproportionate to getting involved in something like that.
M: What would you do if you were President Joe Biden for a day with respect to this war?
PD: This question is symptomatic, it almost sums up the mistake in this debate, this national debate, as if through a magnifying glass. I am not the U.S. President, I don’t want to be. I don’t have any recommendations for how to better champion U.S. policy and the purposes of the U.S. state. I’d like to see it cease to exist, like any other state. But I have no recommendation for doing anything better. And you have to see that these are worlds apart. You explain this thing to yourself and you think of yourself in the role: If I were chancellor, would I rather supply more weapons or would I prefer to supply fewer weapons or whatever? No, I don’t think of myself in that role at all. I understand how he thinks, and that’s what I am criticizing. But I’m not improving it. It also can’t be improved.