Although it was plain since March 2014 for Ukrainians — but unfortunately only for them in the Western world — that Russia was waging a war against their country, Ukraine decided not to call it a war. Reasons and circumstances are easy to understand: 1) Crimea’s Anschluss had been so swift than it could hardly be perceived as a military operation, and the international reactions, which led to the sanctions policy, referred to the illegality of annexation, not to the military means of invasion. 2) Labelling the combats in Donbas “ATO” meant denying any legitimacy to the separatists and consider them as terrorists. However appropriate, the language of anti-terrorist operations has the great inconvenience of obscuring the nature of the conflict instead of calling a spade a spade. The same confusion between police and military operations has its part in the disastrous consequences of the “War on terror” launched by George W. Bush in 2001. I feel more comfortable with the current official designation of the Donbas situation. French writer Albert Camus wrote once that “misnaming a thing is adding to the misery of our world”.
Now, the difficulty to call a war a “war” is not peculiar to Ukraine. One could say that since 1945, democratic societies experience a growing difficulty in understanding and in naming war. There has been and there are numerous wars since the end of WWII, but all of them are either not named “war” at all (instead: “events”, guerilla, frozen conflict, police operations against crime, humanitarian intervention, etc.) or “war” with some qualification, as if the word “war” tout court had been ruled out: war, it seems, has to be “cold”, “hybrid”, “asymmetrical”, “unconventional”, etc. Notably, the Cold War has dramatically obscured the concept and the perception of war: the deterrence based on mutual assured destruction has made the war both omnipresent and evasive because unlikely if not impossible.
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Such was the Western mindset, but not the Soviet one. Either in the hot phases of the Cold War, or in the phases of détente, the so-called balance of terror did not prevent USSR to conceive, prepare, and be ready to wage conventional wars, including on the European theatre. In the 70’-80’, despite or because of its economic failure, USSR kept on developing for this purpose a strategic doctrine and highly efficient military forces, swallowing the greater part of its resources and of its brainpower in the military, without mercy for the civil needs. Few experts at that time realized that USSR was preparing the war for real, that is it had a strategy of defeating the West by brute force, through aggression and intimidation. most experts and leaders did not agree, they believed that détente was inescapable, that USSR was ripe for peaceful normalization, and should be encouraged on this path, even at the cost of a risky military self-restraint from the West.
This view prevailed specially in Europe, as if war on their soil had become unconceivable for Europeans. Appeasement had no military alternative, not only because of the huge superiority of Soviet conventional armed forces, but first because of a lack of strategic thought by the Europeans, who believed ultimately that they did not need any, since they relied exclusively on the so-called nuclear umbrella of the United States (supplemented by French and British nuclear forces). “Cold War” did not mean anymore the threat of an actual war, it had become, so to speak, a post-modern negative concept, the de facto ruling out of war by deterrence. This vision was widespread not only among politicians and public opinion, but also among high-ranking military strategists. General Lucien Poirier, one of the fathers of the French nuclear force, wrote in 1978: “We are now in an era of mandatory political and strategic rationality (…) it is a strategy of the imagination, in which weapon systems have only a semiotic [sic!] function. (…) It is precisely because strategic models convincingly describe ‘what would happen if…’ that nothing will happen.” (quoted by Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, Facing the war, Paris, 1981). Three decades later, General Poirier, then retired, stuck to the same faith: despite the end of the American-Soviet duopolistic game and the proliferation of nuclear States, he said, “I still believe in the rationalizing virtue of the nuclear force” (Le Monde, May 27, 2006). This naïve (or paranoiac) “logic” still paralyzes Western strategic thinking. Actually, the “end of history”, which means nothing more than the belief in the disappearance of war, had already begun decades before its official date of birth in 1991, after the end of USSR.
Indeed, facts backed this comforting opinion: after the disaster of Afghanistan (1979-1989), the Soviet empire seemed to have given up. Those who believed that the West was facing war because the crumbling “land of socialism” was still an aggressive military empire, had been mistaken. Even the domestic use of military force was abandoned by Brejnev, who persistently refused to intervene in Poland against Solidarnosc in 1981, despite the desperate calls from the Polish communists. Gorbatchev took later the same stand when asked by Honecker to “defend socialism by arms” in East Germany. The end of the ideological empire entailed, it seemed, the end of the military empire.
This strategic and intellectual horizon is worth recalling because it is a remote but critical cause of Western pusillanimity in front of Russia today. We don’t want to face the war because we have lost track of the concept of war. War means achieving political ends by force and stratagem, but “political” here does not entail necessarily a rational connection between means and ends (Clausewitz pointed out this feature — war as “rise to extremes” — but tried nevertheless to rationalize it with his famous and misleading aphorism: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”). Willingness to win by force leads to readiness to all kinds of “rational” calculations: rationality is extremely flexible here. This was the game played by Soviet Union despite some tactical retreats, and the same game has been resumed by Russia at least since 1999. Facing the war does not mean necessarily choosing or accepting the perspective of an armed conflict but coping with the readiness to war of the other. The issue is not whether Russia wants war or not, “Russia does not want war, it wants victory”: this sharp and ironic statement by Castoriadis in 1981 still holds. Between the West and the East, there was not only a “Cold war” and an ideological competition, but also a plain war. Realizing this is so uncomfortable that statesmen and public opinion prefer to repress the idea. The West may have “won the Cold war”, but it did not fully understand what happened. And here we are still, despite clear-headed intellectuals and strategic experts like Phillip A. Petersen today (see The Ukrainian Week #10) or like Castoriadis in the 80’.
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To get free from Russian lies and to stop being baffled and paralyzed in front of the multifarious perils it faces, the West needs to disentangle the Cold War from the Soviet/Russian imperial war against the West. One war ended in 1991, the other is still ongoing. And in this war, Ukraine is just the frontline of a wider theatre.
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