120,000 Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border are an obvious threat to NATO and now the official recognition of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.

All hell is loose in the east

February 23, 2022, published 1 day before the start of the war. 120,000 Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian border are an obvious threat to NATO and now the official recognition of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. Was or is a third world war imminent? How much diplomacy is still possible now? And why the view of Belarus is of particular importance.

Was or is a third world war imminent?

The Ukrainian-born American expert on the National Security Council/NSC until 2020, now retired Lieutenant Colonel Aleksander Vindman, who is known as the whistleblower of Trump’s telephone conversation with Zelensky and as a result was bullied out of the White House in “Trump-like manner” in July 2020, warned in one Interview with American television station MSNBC: “We are on the threshold of a European war”. And further: “I think it is almost certain that there will be a major European war on a comparable scale to the Second World War. With air strikes, the Navy and attacks by ground troops.”

Also, many thousands of kilometers from Europe, the smaller (compared to their Chinese neighbors) democratic states of the North Pacific believe that “the prospect of a full-scale land war on the European continent is very real,” according to the Japan Times editorial team. And further: “Putin wants nothing less than a rewrite of the rules of the international order”.

The obvious solidarity between Russia and China, especially at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which the Chinese Global Times titled in its commentary: “If China or Russia are provoked by the USA, then they stand together,” them replies extreme alert.

Above all, the democratic flagship Taiwan, which is highly threatened by a Chinese invasion and which “is in some ways even more vulnerable than Ukraine because of its ambiguous diplomatic status”.

The editor-in-chief of the German NZZ also sees “the Ukraine as just one element in the Kremlin’s strategy” and sums it up: “The chess game for dominance in Eurasia has only just begun”.

And US President Joe Biden put it in one short sentence: “It will be a world war if Americans and Russians start shooting at each other”.

According to the Russian news agency Interfax, the permanent representative of Russia, Vasily Nebensya, categorically ruled out an invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops even if negotiations with NATO failed at the end of January. In general, the intention of such an invasion in Russia was and is repeatedly dismissed as Russophobic scaremongering and cynically ridiculed, as here, for example, the lately dating by the American President:

“When-when, Joe? I can’t, we’re playing ice hockey on the 16th”.

How much diplomacy is required now?

If the war ministers of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had kept a cool head in the heat of the summer of 1914, the most dramatic chapter in human history might have been averted. Are we in a similar situation again today, a good century later? Is it about preventing a third world war or do we not see the wood for the trees because of this danger? Russia’s best-known opposition figure and political prisoner, Aleksey Navalny, is quoted as saying in the cover story of the current issue of Time Magazine: “It’s not NATO that keeps Putin up at night; it is the space for democratic dissent that NATO opens along its border. This fear, Navalny argues, drives all conflicts that Russia has with the West. “In order to consolidate the country and the elites,” he writes, “Putin constantly needs all these extreme measures, all these wars – real, virtual, hybrid or just confrontations on the brink of war, as we are now seeing”… “Instead of this one Ignoring nonsense,” writes Navalny, “the US accepts Putin’s agenda and rushes to organize some meetings. Just like a scared schoolboy being bullied by a high school student.”

And indeed, Putin’s highly irritated game of poker triggered a veritable flood of travel among the heads of state of the NATO countries, who turned up in Kiev, Washington and Moscow. Nevertheless, yesterday (22/02/2022, a pleasing Putin date) Putin slammed the door in their faces with the solemn public recognition of the two breakaway people’s republics on the territory of Ukraine.

For many weeks there has hardly been a high-ranking politician who has not publicly commented on what happened. With so many opinions and comments in so many Western democracies with their pluralistic media worlds, the impression quickly arises of a lack of unity, of weakness and insecurity with plenty of steep templates for Russia’s state-controlled media policy.

A German defense minister touting the delivery of 5,000 helmets as a clear sign that Germany is on Ukraine’s side. A British Foreign Secretary who does not know where the Baltic States are, a domestically scandalous “trumpy” British Prime Minister who wants to consolidate his own foreign policy defense format with Poland and Ukraine. The search for Olaf (German Chancellor), who allegedly went into hiding, the insistence on integer demands from German arms deliveries. Another French president who has been scratched domestically and is trying to work out a solution to the conflict that will go down in world history, a former German Chancellor who accuses Ukraine of saber-rattling and the most well-known member of the Bundestag from the LINKE (left party) who speaks of Russia’s completely justified security demands.

These and many other examples, and not least the change of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to head the Norwegian central bank in the midst of the crisis, are burned to the boil in the state-controlled Russian media and its social networks.

What is the picture in the Russian media anyway? How does the autocratic president mediate the conflict to his citizens?

Basically quite simple – it turns everything that is said about the conflict in the western world upside down: Russia is the victim and the USA/NATO the aggressor. No one plans to attack Ukraine, but there are clear, fully legitimate state security interests that must be enforced in any case. Basically anything that somehow fits into this general line can be published.

In this castration of media diversity, those who can market themselves within this line with their own information and entertainment value, win. A striking example of this is the well-known TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov. His Sunday evening talk show, which gets high ratings, is something like the Russian counterpart to western political satire. Not only does it provide the viewer with facts by showing images from the international media world, it also carries him/her away with its excessive emotional indignation into a personal attack and at the same time implements an emotionally charged defense package with its cynical know-it-all counter-questions.

Here is a small comparatively harmless but easily understandable example after the excerpt of a press conference with Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman for the White House, has been faded in:

Solovyov: “Psaki abuses us. Was she specifically tracked down for this? A special type bred? … Where did they find this may butterfly? That level of idiocy? 100,000 (soldiers) on the territory of Russia – that is aggression! Well, they’re just sick! How many tens of thousands of American soldiers are in Iraq, in Syria, everywhere? And that’s not aggression?!… And of course the British Foreign Secretary competes with her. By the way, she is set to replace Boris Johnson. They say that she drinks the least in this team… the good woman, how can the Black Sea help the Baltic allies?! Who is the one hiring such?! … This level of degradation is phenomenal!”

Prof. Vitaliy Tretyakov (Dean of the Department of Television at Moscow’s Lomonosov University): “…in Russian there is an expression “sygrat durochku” (to play the fool)… they (the West) got what they wanted. Secretary of Defense – women, Secretary of State – women. What do you want from Psaki? Today in the West the argument that appeals to ignorance prevails. They’re not even ashamed of it. I think that fools are specially appointed for such posts. Because it’s very convenient when a fool announces something on behalf of a country. Just in case, one can still say that person is a fool, etc. Now there are these fools. Well, they are women, what should you expect from them…”

Another such propagandistic survivor of the Russian-speaking social media world, the Ukrainian exile blogger Anatolij Sharij, known for his criticism of corruption and ultra-nationalism against Ukrainian government officials, takes the same line from another quarter. In his video blog he “explains” how Kuleba (Ukrainian Foreign Minister) and Zelensky are fighting with Germany. Numerous statements from NATO countries are displayed that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is not on the agenda. “So why do they constantly mess with Germany alone? … “but the fact that they chose these Baerbock (German Secretary of State) for this fight and not all the others, that also says something about the courage of these people (Ukrainian government).”

So was/is the Russian military maneuver on the Ukrainian border nothing more than a diversionary maneuver for its own population, as claimed by Navalny?

Yes, it was a diversionary tactic of central importance to Putin’s policy, which, moreover, would not have worked just a few years ago. For many years, freedom of speech and freedom of the press were curtailed bit by bit, and at the same time the access points for Putin’s general line were expanded.

The average Russian citizen has long felt degraded and humiliated by the US and the EU. And now its territorial legal claims are being attacked. Especially for the older generation, the territorial size of Russia has an identifying meaning. The collapse of the Soviet system was not least due to a collapse of the economic system. After seventy years in the Soviet Union, the citizens there had become beggars compared to the western industrialized countries. This anguish was sublimated by territorial size and world power position.

After the Gentle Revolution, people had hoped to be welcomed with open arms and respected by the unknown, affluent society behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, they were met with disinterest and felt treated as second-class citizens.

As early as 2007, in his well-known speech in Munich, Putin made it clear that Russia would continue to hold its position as a world power and that a mono polar position of world power for the USA would be unrealistic and dangerous. Here he already described the eastward expansion of NATO as a clear and thankless provocation of Russian security interests.

The fact that this speech met with open rejection of this position in the West did not only hit the Russian hardliners. Many Russians still remember the headline of the Los Angeles Times at the time: “The louse that roared”.

And even if Russia remained the largest country in the world without the former Soviet republics, the Ukraine can of course not be compared with the Siberian hinterland. With France, it is the largest country in Europe, for Russia it is the front door to Europe and thus an integral part of this Russian imperial pride.

Added to this is the close historical connection with the Ukrainians, which has been conveyed in history books for centuries as a kind of holy trinity between Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.

The Russians still give him credit for the fact that Putin managed to “save the Russian jewel Crimea” in 2014. Against this background, his popularity ratings skyrocketed from 60 to 89 percent at the time.

These and similar typical sensitivities of the average Russian citizen of a population of 145 million could be played up and down daily with the “war maneuvers”, consolidated and expanded. This also applies to the close alliance with itself rather unpleasant China.

However, it is only effective under one axiom: Russia does not intend to take Ukraine militarily.

But did the threatening war scenario only serve as a diversionary maneuver to consolidate the country and the elites? Should “this nonsense”, as Navalny says, “simply be ignored”?

No, that has nothing to do with high diplomacy and it does not reflect the seriousness of the situation, either in domestic or foreign policy. One can certainly say a lot about Putin, but not that he is not an excellent domestic and foreign policy strategist, not a “global player”.

As early as 1996, together with the Shanghai five, he and China laid the foundation for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization/SCO, today the world’s largest regional organization, and the economic alliance with the BRICS countries has existed since 2011.

While Russia and China alone are almost twice the size of the whole of Europe and the USA together with more than twice the population, these political and economic alliance countries (SCO/BRICS) cover well over a third of the entire surface of the earth and represent almost the half of the world population. And that without the numerous indirect partners and applicants for membership of the SCO, for example just last year Iran applied for full membership.

So when the Russian and Chinese presidents use the international media presence of the Olympic Games to solemnly present their solidarity against NATO to the world public, then the extreme alertness of the democratic states in the North Pacific and their statement that “Putin wants nothing less than a rewrite of the rules of the international order” seems to be more serious in terms of realpolitik than the raised index finger of the German FDP finance minister with “the leaders of the Russian people must abide by the house rules in Europe”.

And yesterday, with the big pictures of his signing of the recognition, Putin showed clearly what he thinks of the EU’s house rules.

Is there any diplomacy at all? Let’s get back to Putin’s incisive “Munich Speech” from 2007.

It is quite clear that he already carried out this “recast” of the rules of the international order here 15 years ago.

From a Russian point of view, Putin was already banging on the table in a certain way back then and defending the humiliated pride of the great nation.

He has attacked the USA’s claim to world power, the hypocrisy and the aggressive missionary drive of western democracies, NATO and the OSCE and postulated that Russia has always been an independent world power center and will remain so.

Very banal and succinct, he portrayed the world as one big cake that the United States claimed for itself, which was completely unrealistic and unacceptable given future global political developments.

But despite all the clarity of Putin’s words and the unique international representation of foreign policy security and defense experts, his speech at the time initially caused great confusion. What exactly had he said now, why had he said it and how did he mean it?

And still today, almost 15 years later to the day, when just after the American civilians, the German civilians are being asked by their countries to leave Ukraine and a civilian population of 750,000 people from the two self-proclaimed Donbass People’s Republics to go to Russia “in Security”, even today, after yesterday’s pathetic speech and recognition of the separatist Donbass republics, the West lacks the mental disposition to fully grasp these events.

After Putin’s Munich speech, even the then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer reacted to the phobic indignation about NATO’s eastward expansion rather from a hollow stomach: How can one worry “when democracy and the rule of law are moving closer to the borders?” asked he.

But this is exactly where he got to the heart of the matter, because he is talking about democracy and the rule of law in the same breath.

A good century later, are we in a situation similar to that of the war ministers after the assassination of the heir to the throne in 1914?

Of course, that can hardly be compared, in Western Europe after several generations of a “99 balloon policy, there are no more Ministers of War and no one jets”.

In his speech, Putin outlined the danger of a monopolistic American world in which “only one master, one sovereign” rules. Also in this speech he defines democracy, which “is known to mean the rule of the majority, taking into account the interests and opinions of the minority.”

No wonder such talk of householders, sovereigns and majority rule give us a headache. If we’re talking about sovereigns at all, then the sovereign is the people, even if the Queen’s 70th jubilee is sure to be gloriously celebrated in Britain this year. When we talk about democracy, we take the rule of law so naturally that we can no longer tell the two terms apart.

Yet our current diplomatic efforts are focused exclusively on the “landlord, the sovereign” of Russia, and Navalny’s comparison with a “frightened schoolboy who was bullied by a high school student” cannot be entirely dismissed.

Admittedly, the NATO member countries quickly consolidated their position on this threatening military maneuver and agreed on a clear, smallest common mantra: “With the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, a border line has been crossed for NATO, which results in very tough sanctions for Russia”.

But at the same time it is said that Ukraine’s admission to NATO is not on the agenda and that no NATO troops will fight in Ukraine. With the very tough sanctions that have been “put on the table”, the SWIFT exclusion, the freezing of capital, especially in the London oligarch oasis and last but not least the German trump card North Stream 2, have long since been played out.

A cartoon on a well-known Russian blogger website shows Putin standing next to Lavrov, whispering under his hand: “If you start on the sanctions, try not to grin.”

It is not for nothing that Putin explicitly pointed out in his speech 15 years ago that “In terms of parity purchasing power, the combined GDP of India and China is already greater than that of the USA. The equally calculated GDP of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – exceeds the GDP of the EU. According to the experts, this development will continue. There is no doubt that the economic potential of new growth centers around the world will inevitably also translate into political influence and strengthen multipolarity.”

What if no poker is being played here about the security threat posed by NATO, about Ukraine, about democratic values, but rather the age-old king’s game of chess for the global political spheres of influence, specifically for the Eurasian region?

An invasion of Ukraine, a country the size of France with 44 million people who will certainly not stand in line with fluttering Russian flags, would bring into the world images that no one can even think of and the cardsharp as a war criminal for the rest of his life days behind bars. Such a war against the “faithless, but nevertheless own brother” would not find any support among the Russian population. Especially after weeks of constant sonications that it was absurd to think that Russia wanted to go to war against Ukraine. It’s one thing to get upset about the western aggressor in front of the TV in the evening and another to send your son into a bloody civil war after all. In addition to the heavy fines, this would devour enormous own resources and require the installation of a military junta. This would take the entire Russian army (from approx. 850,000 activists) and would thus lay bare all other fronts with a national border still over 20 000 km. China, the strong ally that Putin was just able to get on board, also made it clear shortly afterwards at the most recent Munich Security Conference that they “are not going along with this”, that for them too are value “the principles of sovereignty, independence and of territorial integrity”.

In this respect, many excellent Russia experts had clearly ruled out this Russian invasion of Ukraine and racked their brains as to what the great strategist Putin would ultimately like to achieve with this move.

Until yesterday.

The scenes of the glorious reception of the Russian Olympians, the joint “professional” advice of their own security experts on the official application for recognition of the people’s republics of Donbass, the one-hour pathetic speech to the people about the fact that Ukraine is not a separate state, but an integral part of Russia and the “final” signing ceremony of the recognition – That was madness, in the truest sense of the word.

The rumors about Putin’s Parkinson’s disease and cancer, which have been circulating for several years, seem to have been confirmed. Despite a long speech, a long security session, and a clean signature, his face appeared sallow and marked by steroid use. He isolates himself more and more, his circle of confidants is growing ever narrower, and what is left are almost exclusively hardliners of Russian great power and their own capital interests.

And yet we are overwhelmed again, under pressure to act. The “calculation” begins again. It is clear that the announced penalty for misconduct must now follow, but …

The king and his important figures are still in their starting position, and Russian troops have not yet officially entered Ukrainian controlled territory. However, the entire Donbass has been officially denied to Ukraine as a territory. Russia has gotten used to European sanctions, and the standard of living in the vast regions is still far below that of eastern industrialized countries. The extent to which the west will destabilize itself with the full package of economic sanctions cannot yet be foreseen.

When we engage in the game of chess, the point is to checkmate the king. And what’s a king without a pawn?

Western societies, their experts and representatives must now massively move towards Russian society.

But not with boos and pointing fingers. But with knowledge and understanding of the sensitivities, with human admissions of one’s own shortcomings, of systemic errors and omissions, with clarification of misunderstandings and elimination of lies.

There is a lot to be processed and clarified here, what the EU has been doing for many years in the financing of project work, but has not been able to reach the general public on site.

Today, these accesses are blocked more than ever, but they must be sought and used more than ever. And you should always come back to the heart of the matter: the rule of law.

Can’t we see the forest for the trees and how does a view of Belarus help?

Much can be argued about, about democracy, history, economy, but not about the rule of law.

Let’s look at “Russia’s other little brother”, Belarus which, as we all know, is fully supported by the Russian “sovereign’s” deputy and, of course, is also a member of the Shanghai Pact/SCO. Here there is no Donbass, no Crimea, no brother betrayal, no 44 million, but only 9 million inhabitants.

But since the peaceful protest movements in the summer of 2020, more than a thousand mostly young peaceful people have been behind bars here. Torn out of their little room with their parents by brutal Special Forces, without being informed of their rights, without the right to a lawyer, without the rights of a lawyer, for months, even years, in custody with constant interrogations, psychological and physical torture, without visitation rights, not even once of the parents without charge. Without the principle of proportionality, without taking into account social circumstances, (non-existent) previous convictions, imminent danger or any minimum requirements of a criminal procedure based on the rule of law. With draconian life sentences behind closed doors, with no defendant, no right of defense, no independent prosecution or judiciary.

With hundreds of thousands of Belarusian people, relatives and friends of these prisoners who can no longer sleep at night, with thousands of young people who have had to leave their homes and are separated from their loved ones…

It is these “brothers and sisters” who now need the Holy Little Russian Trinity and not a fratricidal war.

And finally, to come back to Putin’s Munich speech, he complained that the US wanted to impose its legal system on Russia and that nobody liked that.

But it is precisely this independent legal system based on the rule of law, the high principle of the separation of powers, which, regardless of the inherent disputability of a democracy, protects us from the state being able to inflict such extreme violence on its citizens.