“Militarisation does not guarantee peace”

Anna Schröder in conversation with MEP Özlem Demirel

The Russian invasion of Ukraine calls many political certainties into question, also for the European left. Can we still argue for disarmament in light of this war that violates international law? Or does Europe even need its own army after all? And how can there be peace with Russia in the future? Anna Schröder, Head of Office of the Brussels Office of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, spoke about these and other pressing questions with Özlem Demirel, who has been Member of the European Parliament for the German left party DIE LINKE. since 2019.

European heads of state and government met at a summit in Versailles in mid-March to discuss the EU’s planned military strategy, the “strategic compass”. How do you see the results of the summit?

Negotiations on the Strategic Compass are older than the war in Ukraine. They relate to how EU “interests” can be implemented strategically and autonomously in foreign policy. As early as 2016, it was stated that the EU needed be able to secure important trade routes and sea routes in its own interests – including militarily, if necessary. After the announcement that Britain was leaving the EU, Pesco (Editor’s note: Permanent Structured Cooperation) – at the heart of cooperation between Member States of the European Union, in the field of security and defence policy – represented a decisive step forward. The Strategic Compass incorporates the objectives, the instruments already created and military capabilities still “needed” into an overall strategy for the EU. The underlying commitment is clear: The EU is well equipped and an independent power at a time of great rivalry among world powers.

At the summit, we wanted to reassure one another that everyone is united behind this new military security strategy. Indeed, with the war in Ukraine, the discussion has once again come up as to what role NATO should play in this constellation. While France specifically insists on developing its own military capabilities and defining strategic interests independently of NATO – that is, the US – the Eastern European states, in particular, demand continuity and thus closer ties with the US.

Germany, on the other hand, wants to strengthen its own arms industry with strategic autonomy and, since it only has access to nuclear weapons via the USA, unlike France, does not want too much of a complete break with NATO. Behind the scenes, there have long been negotiations about how French nuclear weapons can be made available to Germany. It must be said that Germany is by far the strongest economic power in the EU and it does not want to become too dependent on France.

With the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, NATO and transatlantic forces in the EU and Germany are, as we all know, in a better position. Therefore, appropriate passages in the document have been adapted so that overall strategy and instruments are now to be expanded in line with NATO, which complements its capabilities. The war is accelerating the voting process among EU member states, which initially seemed difficult.

Is the attack on Ukraine being used as a pretext for promoting EU militarisation under Franco-German auspices?

Yes, because there is extensive arming and the war and suffering of Ukrainians are now being used to invest in the latest generation of faster, smarter, more effective military equipment.

We are all aware of the German Federal Government’s initiative. But extensive arming is also ongoing elsewhere. The supposedly neutral Austria wants to increase military spending by about 40 per cent and Poland by 30 per cent. Both are well above NATO’s 2% target. Denmark is now officially part of the Common Security and Defence Policy. Latvia and Lithuania agreed in early March to increase their defence budgets to at least 2.5 percent of their gross domestic product. France, meanwhile, is announcing “historic decisions” – particularly in terms of “strengthening investment in defence” under its military programming law.

The speed with which all this has now happened clearly shows that nothing has been thought up and decided upon on an ad hoc basis. We are talking about arming programmes that have been ready to go for a long time and which the EU is now taking advantage of the situation for. Without the war in Ukraine, their implementation would have been much harder. From the history of two world wars, the population has strong reservations against militarisation tendencies in Europe and Germany.

The Ukraine war has now unsettled many people and this is the opportunity that is being seized. However, this does a disservice to the security needs of the peoples of Europe. Militarisation does not guarantee peace, but prepares for future wars. Apart from that, social projects will be billions of euros short. The enormous costs will have to be paid for by the working people. This arms build-up will be financed at workers’ expense.

Even before the Ukraine war, and without the US, EU Member States spent around four times as much on their own military capabilities as Russia. Germany is now on track to pass the world’s third-largest military budget, behind the US and China.

The Ukrainian President Zelensky is calling for Ukraine to join the European Union immediately. Moldova and Georgia have also now submitted applications for accession. How credible are these applications and the reactions to them? What would an accession process mean and what could it change?

It is a fact that these applications have been made and they are certainly serious. But it is also clear that the EU is promoting two contradictory narratives: On the one hand, it is said that Ukrainians are also fighting for “our” values in this war. On the other hand, the EU stresses that Ukraine’s accession will be a long road. So the Zelensky government is being praised so that it keeps fighting and stays motivated. At the same time, expectations are already being lowered as a precaution. Zelensky has repeatedly made it clear in a roundabout way that he could agree to military neutrality – that is, renouncing NATO membership – but would like Ukraine to join the EU.

But the EU is dragging its feet, especially Germany and France. The Eastern European states are strongly linked to and dependent on the USA. In this respect, Ukraine would be another project for the leading countries Germany and France. Moreover, post-war Ukraine will be a destroyed country that needs to be rebuilt. What’s more, the country has a political system that is squarely dominated by powerful oligarchs. Time and again there have been statements from the EU that have reprimanded the insufficient rule of law, and corruption.

In this war, the divided West – and by this I mean the United States, France and Germany in particular – has come closer together again, but the contradictions between the United States on the one hand and Germany and France on the other have not disappeared into thin air. On the contrary, however quickly ranks have unexpectedly been closed for the moment, small cracks are already starting to show in this new instance of harmony. An example: While the US sought to isolate China for its abstention in the UN General Assembly, Germany and France agreed with China to broker a joint ceasefire.

All in all, EU membership therefore depends, in particular, on the extent to which Ukraine and its oligarch system adapt to the EU’s technical and economic, i.e., free market, rules. Otherwise, I would not be surprised if Ukraine’s accession ended up being handled in the same way as Turkey’s – that is, with accession negotiations that are very, very protracted. Currently they are even frozen, but are somehow kept alive by various EU support services. This is for the simple reason that this is beneficial in terms of geopolitics on both sides.

Many question how the Left Party can respond to the brutal war in Ukraine and support the Ukrainian civilian population. What concrete proposals can the Left Party make to stop the Russian government?

Above all, Russia’s own people can stop the Russian government, not the West – unless the latter intervenes militarily in the conflict. But that would officially be the start of a third world war. That is why the people of Russia now need our full solidarity. Banishing Russian art and culture from the West is the completely wrong approach for this reason alone. Many Russians see the Ukrainians as a sister people against whom Russia should not wage war.

However, we must not conceal the fact that this war has two levels: on the one hand, the war of aggression by the Putin regime, which I clearly condemn. Russia must immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine. And the second level: the power struggle between NATO (US and EU) on the one hand and Russia on the other.

In other words, Ukraine has actually become a battleground because of the power struggle of these imperial opponents. With regard to NATO’s Ukraine policy, it must be insisted on that the war must not be fuelled and prolonged. What we need is an immediate ceasefire and then a political solution to the conflict. However it is found, it must not be negotiated over the heads of Ukrainians. The people of Ukraine must have their own say. A solution must, of course, also include lasting peace in Ukraine itself, where a civil war has been going on for years with part of the majority-Russian-speaking Donbas.

The Left Party must make it clear here that we do not want bloody wars to be fought at people’s expense. The Left Party must also make it clear that the power struggle between the imperialists – Russia on the one hand and NATO (EU, USA) on the other – must not be fought at our expense.

You have strongly criticised the EU’s arms deliveries to Ukraine, financed by the European Peace Facility, as breaking a taboo. What do arms deliveries to Ukraine mean, why do you reject them and what is the EU hoping for from them?

Delivering weapons into an asymmetric war, but at the same time declaring that one will not intervene militarily, sounds perfidious to me. By the way, only old weapons stocks are being used up here, while we equip ourselves with war equipment 5.0.

It is clear that neither these arms deliveries nor the sanctions, including the Swift ban, will have a decisive impact on the war. Russia does not have to buy fuel for its tanks abroad and Russia is a military power. We must realise that there is no military solution to this war, only a political one. We must increase political pressure for a ceasefire and demand a solution at the negotiating table. By the way, the Ukrainians also demanded this. For war will not offer a solution, but only increase death and suffering.

The taboo has not just been broken. The so-called “peace facility” was designed as a war chest and officially launched last year. From this, weapons will be bought for one billion euros and exported to Ukraine. Even these weapons will not change the military balance of power, but each weapon will prolong the war and increase the death toll. The longer the war goes on, the more people will die or be driven from their home. War is always a calculation with a death toll. It seems to me that the calculation behind the arms deliveries is that they want to increase the cost of war for Russia and make it a second Afghanistan.

I can completely understand if emotions against the Putin regime are stirred in the population in the West, but nobody should be allowed to use the blood of Ukrainians to wage the power struggle between the West and Russia.

Many did not expect war so quickly and were overwhelmed by Putin’s attack. The Left Party in Europe seems at a crossroads. The Left Party MEPs voted differently on the resolution on the Ukraine war earlier this month, you were against it, the majority in favour. What were the key points?

I agreed with the passages condemning the war of aggression. But, as in Germany, the war in Ukraine is being abused to advance the militarisation of the EU. At the same time, this shows that we are experiencing a turning point, after which war is to become normality as a means of politics. This does not increase our security. We must oppose this. Militarism, by the way, is always accompanied by a dismantling of liberal democracy, and we must prepare ourselves for that too.

In the course of the annexation of Crimea in violation of international law, the Left Party had demanded the dissolution of NATO and instead voted for a pan-European collective security system involving Russia. Is this proposal acceptable today?

Even before the annexation of Crimea, the demand for the dissolution of NATO was part of Left Party aims. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, NATO has lost its own founding myth and should have been dissolved by the early 1990s at the latest – in favour of a new security architecture that includes the new Russia.

It goes without saying that the US, as the dominant force in NATO, has no interest in this. The question of why Europe has not managed to create an independent peace order for the continent is justified. Was there not even a request from Russia to be integrated into NATO? Why has it not been mentioned? These are interesting questions.

The US and the EU were not prepared to respond to Russia’s economic and technical demands, which were intended to limit Western capital’s share of the Russian market and serve its own capital. At its core, it was about securing the largest share of the flows of global capital for the West.

In this situation, leftists must question the systemic economic reasons for war. At the same time, they must increase the pressure to find political and diplomatic solutions rather than military escalations.

If we want to put an end to further arming, then it would make sense to increase the pressure so that the European states – beyond the EU – strive for this new security architecture. The OSCE provides us with the forum for this.

In no time at all, massive civil society protests against Putin’s war have been sparked worldwide. What is the task of the peace movement here? Of course, people are appalled by the war and are therefore taking to the streets. Yet ambivalent demands were also heard at the start of the anti-war protests. While the war was condemned, not everyone questioned the arming programmes. I note that this is slowly changing and I hope that a clearer line will be found here.

At this point, the experienced people in the peace movement must make it clear that any militarisation must be rejected. Ultimately, every bullet produced serves the war and that is why our arming will eventually hit us here too. This must be made clear.

What opportunities does this protest offer and what role should left-wing parties play in Europe?

We, in other words, left-wing parties in Europe and throughout the world, must correctly interpret the turning point I have just mentioned. This means that we need to refine our analysis. This war shows that the contradictions between the imperialist powers have increased.

Incidentally, there are other imperialist players and, in particular, little attention has been paid to the power struggle between the USA and China for the number one position as a world power and the decisive markets of the future, those in Asia, so far. We must communicate clearly where the real interests lie. And that also means stating that Ukraine’s freedom, as well as democracy and human rights, are serving only as fig leaves in the EU’s arguments and actions.

It is all about geopolitics – influence, economic and political power. We must make it clear that we do not tolerate intra-imperial power struggles at our expense – that is, at the expense of poor and working people. We must make it clear that we do not accept militarisation and wars built on the death toll of ordinary people. We must analyse internationalist understanding and prevailing international politics from a class perspective.