The worldwide consequences of an avoidable war

The war in Ukraine. The conflict between the United States and Russia and the economic and social consequences for Europe.

In two interviews in June, Angela Merkel, speaking after a few months of silence, attacked Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. But, at the same time, defended the policy towards Russia that she led throughout her sixteen years as chancellor, stating that she would do exactly the same policy again. An important statement, considered her fundamental role in establishing relations with Germany in that long period full of political changes in Europe and worldwide.

1.  It is worthwhile to return briefly to relations between Germany and Russia during her long chancellorship. A premise is required. The special relations between Germany and Russia were not new. We have to go back to the end of the 1960s to grasp the turning point under the chancellery of Willy Brandt who astonished Europe with his trip to Warsaw and the visit to the cemetery where the Jews killed by the Nazis were buried.

A few decades later, with the unification of Germany and the end of the Soviet empire, Germany definitively assumed a central role in Europe. Putin, just elected at the head the Russian government, went to Berlin to meet the Chancellor Schroeder and, on that occasion, also visited Angela Merkel at the head of the opposition CDU. A meeting that we can assume to be friendly and, in some ways, familiar. Merkel speaks Russian and Putin is fluent in German having spent five years in East Germany when he was a member of the KGB.

For Angela Merkel, who will lead Germany for sixteen years - the longest period ,together with Kohl's, at the head of the government - relations with Russia have become an essential part of Germany's European policy. A policy that encountered a growing hostility from the United States aiming at the isolation of Russia.

2. The relationship between Germany and Russia intensified in the following years. After the Maidan demonstration in Kyiv in 2014 an important meeting took place between the new Ukrainian government, Germany, France and Russia.

The European initiative aimed to start a new path after the detachment of Crimea, which, on the basis of a popular referendum, had been associated with Russia; and after the clash in Donbas, a region that had claimed  its autonomy within a federal organization of Ukraine.

It has to be remembered that Donbas is a region where Russian is the predominant language. (According to 2004 official statistics, fourteen million people speak Russian in Ukraine). Language differences are no exception. In Spain Catalan is an officially recognized language along with Castilian spoken in Madrid. As well as in Belgium Flemish is spoken in the northern regions while French is the language of Wallonia.

But it is a prospect that, although current in Europe, the new government of Kyiv rejected. Despite France's attempts at conciliation with Russia, the armed conflict in the Donbas intensified, causing destruction and thirteen thousand deaths.

3.   In December 2019, a new meeting between the representatives of the four signatory countries of the Minsk agreement was held in Paris. The meeting was attended by Angela Merkel, Macron, Putin and Zelensky, at the head of the new Ukrainian government. The meeting ended successfully. Putin declared himself satisfied. And the agreement was to be defined in detail in the first months of 2020.

But, once again, the deal didn't work out,. Under the government of Zelensky a new Constitution was ratified, definitively excluding the federal configuration of the country and the legitimacy of the Russian language in the regions where it is historically spoken as is the case of  the Donbas provinces and, as a complementary language, on  other regions including the capital Kyiv.

The agreement realized in Paris was once again destined to failure. The government of Kiev with American assistance was strengthening the armament. The commitment of Germany and France to realize an agreement with Russia, was once again frustrated.

Nonetheless Angela Merkel was convinced that at the center of European politics there must be a relationship of collaboration with Russia. Therefore, In August 2021, less than a month before her term ended, she traveled to Moscow to meet Putin. The meeting ended positively and a large bouquet of flowers was given by Vladimir  Putin to Angela Merkel.

The second pipeline, despite clear American opposition, had already been completed and would have been operational within weeks. Adding this second pipeline, Germany could dispose of a total of over 100 million tons of gas per year. Enough to replace nuclear energy, already close to its term, and also to achieve a sharp reduction in the use of coal. But the illusion of a new order in the availability of energy didn’t last long.  

4.   The United States sees Russia as its main opponent in the Western world. The gas pipelines connecting Russia to Germany were considered the signal of a political dislocation in the heart of Europe. The agreement reached between Putin and Angela Merkel, no longer at the helm of Germany, was blocked.

Olaf Scholz, the new Social Democratic head of the German government, had promised to push Merkel's policy forward. But in the coalition that supports his government, the Greens have a distinctly opposite position. According their platform, Germany  must free itself from its dependence on gas distancing itself from Russia. And, as wrote Der Spiegel, in order to the current war “They are now among the loudest voices calling for heavy weapons to be delivered to Ukraine and have placed considerable pressure on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to do so” (“Germany's Greens Have Transformed in the Face of Russia's WRa”, Der Spiegel 06.05.2022).

The European Union is divided. French President Emmanuel Macron, who took over the presidency of the EU in January, would like to find a solution to rebuild relations with Russia. The central-eastern countries, Poland and the Baltic countries in particular, have instead position against any compromise.

At the end of January there still was a high-level meeting between the US and Russia, but the United States excluded the question of Ukraine's entry into NATO, stating that it is up to each country to choose its own international position. Substantially, according to the US position, Crimea had to be returned to Ukraine, and the Donbas  provinces could not have an autonomous regional status. within Ukraine. The meeting proved not only useless, but an accelerator of the confrontation.

After the failure of the negotiation, the United States heralds the invasion of Russia to the Zelenski government. And , in effect, on February 24, Russian troops invade Ukraine.

The war has to be condemned for the consequences of destruction and death that it entails. Russia could still bet on France's position, and on a possible readjustment of German policy, in an attempt to redefine acceptable relations with the European Union. War was avoidable. The main contenders were clearly Russia and the United States.

5. The United States, which has conducted (and lost) many wars over the last half century from Vietnam to Afghanistan, has the advantage of not having to employ its own armed forces. The goal is the isolation of Russia in order to focus American policy on China's confrontation.

In fact, the opposite is happening with Russia strengthening its relations with Chine and other Asian and middle-eastern countries. A first pipeline carrying gas from Siberia to China's borders has already been inaugurated in 2019. A second one that will pass through Manchuria will supply additional gas to China, which, with a population three times that of the European Union, needs large supplies of gas to reduce the use of coal.

At the same time, Russia extends its relations with  the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, tripling the current limited gas supply. Taken together, the most populous countries on the planet, with almost three billion inhabitants, become tributaries of Russian gas.

The gas and the oil needed by European industry, will have to be provided by an increase in existing supplies from Algeria, Libya, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. A new source of gas could be in Nigeria via the Sahara. The United States is also interested in sending liquefied gas. In any case, all  uncertain and expensive sources compared to the conditions of supply from Russia that Europe had successfully experienced in the past.

It has to be added that Russia is not only an exporter of gas and some important raw material  but also an importer of industrial products made in European countries, as it is the case of Germany and Italy. Ursula  von der Leyen, head of the European Council, wrote in January: “You should not forget that the European Union is the biggest trading partner to Russia. Around about 40% of the trade and goods is done between Russia and the European Union. The European Union is also the biggest foreign investor in Russia — 75% of the foreign direct investment is coming from the European Union” The question is whether the damage to Europe is only in trade or whether war is the source of greater consequences.

The ECB will rise interest rates and, as a result, the cost of public investment increases, while the purchasing power of wages decreases along with employment levels. The consequences of an avoidable storm could not have been worse for Europe.

Angela Merkel - despite the heavy responsibilities attributable to Germany in the years of the European economic crisis exacerbated by the German deflationist position - had recently tried to place the European Community in an intermediate, not subordinate, position between the United States and Russia. The attempt failed. Post-electoral France could relaunch its political initiative and post-Merkel Germany could resume an active role. The European Union could try to get out of the corner where it has been confined.

But any prediction risks turning out to be unfounded. For now, all that remains is to acknowledge the consequences of a wrong policy as happened in the crises that have hit a great part  the planet in recent decades. This time the consequences could directly reduce Europe to a peripheral condition with respect to the dislocation of the economy and politics on the shores of the Pacific.

Antonio Lettieri

Editor of Insight and President of CISS - Center for International Social Studies (Roma). He was National Secretary of CGIL; Member of ILO Governing Body and Advisor for European policy of Labour Minister. (