Europe Daily Bulletin No. 13115

7 February 2023
Contents Publication in full By article 27 / 27
Kiosk / Kiosk
No. 076

Le monde de demain

The titular world of tomorrow as presented by Pierre Servent restricts itself to the consequences of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and bears a very close resemblance to the world in which we are already living. Although the author, a senior reserve officer known for his appearances on the French television channel TF1-LCI in his capacity as an expert on defence and geopolitics, undertakes to describe the planetary effects of the shock wave produced by the invasion of Ukraine, his narrative is tainted by deep resentment towards Vladimir Putin, which can only serve to discredit the work in the eyes of those who are still determined to believe that there is a way out of this conflict by means of negotiation. No doubt a vain hope, in the author’s view. But to put across the situation we find ourselves in, should he have exposed the work to the criticism of those who find it too subjective? Although in a minority, there are many people all around who are susceptible to Russia’s particularly effective propaganda machine. All forms of subjective and aggressive discourse can, unfortunately, only feed into their conspiracist views and pro-Russian sentiment. This does not, however, detract from the fascination of this work, throwing sunlight onto a conflict that has already become “globalised” (our translation throughout).

Where Putin was expecting a generalised rout, the European Union has shown economic courage (the heavy sanctions against Moscow) and has got itself into battle order to wean itself off Russian gas and oil. This has not been entirely without problems or tension (Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is going it alone), but it has set out on a virtuous path. Let us hope that the moderation in energy usage necessitated by the war will prompt us to bring about a veritable ecological revolution (…). Although still not without its fragilities, particularly because of its dependence on Russian gas, the European Union is offering spirited and effective support to Ukraine”, writes Servent, who is not wrong, in that the rout anticipated by Putin looks very much like the natural inclination of a European Union that is struggling to see itself as a power in anything other than the commercial field. Certainly, Putin’s war helped it to make a breakthrough, but as spirited as it is, its support for Ukraine is still unfortunately slow at being set into place, as shown by the admittedly national decisions to supply heavy weapons and tanks, which may well arrive too late to be of any use in countering the next Russian offensive. The same goes for the sanctions, the effects of which are watered down by countless exemptions.

Putin “is counting on the harshness of winter 2022-2023 to weaken the frozen European populations and industrial sectors penalised by the excessive cost of access to fossil energies. He is counting on wearing down the Western governments over time. He is firmly convinced that all resilience and resistance to suffering is on the Russian side. He is also hoping that his domination over 16 to 18% of Ukrainian territory (which becomes Russian by a single wave of a magic referendum wand), his out-and-out theft of the Sea of Asov, the pressure he is bringing to bear on the strategic port of Odessa will wipe out all memories of the lamentable spectacle of his campaign”, the author writes, adding that “in the face of the model Russian 20th-century army, which is vertical, brutal and shaky, the Ukrainians, with the help of the West, have managed to field a 21st-century civilian and military 3.0-type force which is horizontal, collaborative and imaginative. It is the clash between the Soviet boot and the Ukrainian box: that of an overground expeditionary corps growing increasingly violent and punitive, engaged against a people who have taken up arms to fight their ‘Great Patriotic War’ [a reference to the name given by the Russians to the Second World War: Ed] against the Russian invader with the instruments of modernity”.

Pierre Servent does not believe that Putin will use tactical nuclear weapons directly on Ukrainian soil. “The combination of troops on the ground, the presence of pro-Russian [or Russian-speaking: Ed] civilians, the proximity of Russian-allied countries or zones (Belarus, Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia) would make a strike of this kind difficult, yet not impossible”. “On the other hand, the Russians could take advantage of the presence of stocks of chemical fertilisers (…) to attempt an operation of terror… attributable to the Ukrainians”, he writes, pointing out that the Russian authorities once blamed the use of chemical weapons by the Bachar el-Assad regime on the Syrian rebellion.

Without regime change in Russia, Europe is at war, openly or latently, and will be for a long time, as Putin will not waver and he will not sit round a negotiating table that does anything other than confirm his spoils of war. And Zelenskyy, for his part, cannot give an inch. There will be no room for diplomacy in this scenario with nuclear at both ends of the chain: initial threat to inhibit powers that could potentially come to the rescue and then at the end, using the atom to ring-fence the proceeds of the crime – or how to vassalize your neighbours and get away with it”, the author argues, pointing out that elsewhere on the planet, developments in this scenario are being closely followed, with a possible view to following suit.

Certain people in Europe pretend to cleave to the false idea that a good diplomatic negotiation in Ukraine (in other words, Kyiv agreeing to lose a good chunk of its territory) would allow us to go back to life as it was before. Others play the music of renunciation, cowardice and fear. They call for the sanctions against the Russian invader to be lifted so as to go back to normal”, he observes, adding that “as in the 1930s, as danger intensified, the pro-Putin fools and devotees are not disarming, out of ideology, out of intellectual laziness or out of cowardice”.

Although “China and Russia are scary”, Servent makes the case that they are nothing but “paper tigers”. It is true that they have considerably increased their defence budgets and that “their appetites for revenge on History are limitless”, but the Ukraine war might be one war too many for the fourth-largest army in the world. And even “the Chinese are under no illusions about Russian power”, the author notes, quoting the former Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine, Gao Yusheng, at an internal colloquium of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences: “the economic and financial force of the Russian army, which is not up to the level of its so-called military super-power, could not support a high-tech war costing hundreds of millions of dollars per day (…). Modern wars are necessarily hybrid wars, in the military, economic, political, diplomatic, public opinion, propaganda, intelligence and information fields. Not only is Russia in a passive position on the battlefield, it has lost in other fields. It is now only a question of time until it is definitively beaten”. China, meanwhile, is struggling, with an economy that “has not been in such bad shape for 30 years”, as confirmed by a growth rate of barely 3% over the whole of 2022, as against 3.6% of the EU, according to an initial Eurostat estimate, whereas the most recent Chinese forecasts still stood at 5.5%.

Although we can legitimately question both how much real power the Russian and Chinese allies have and how solid the contract of confidence is, we can also observe that the Western front has been made more solid by the Ukrainian crisis, if anything”, writes Pierre Servent, arguing that it is no exaggeration at this stage to speak of an “alignment of the planets between NATO (dominated by the United States) and the European Union”. He adds that “the European Union, therefore, faces a double challenge: to fuel a renewed and relevant transatlantic dialogue (with no submission or empty arrogance – the latter point aimed at France) and reinforcing the European pillar of NATO, particularly its industrial centre within the EU. Paris and Berlin must now take on strong leadership in this complex field, where industrial interests do not always coincide with national sovereignty imperatives. Brussels still remains an oasis of virtue in a brutal world, but it is going to have to build up its leg muscles and work on its right hook. Fortunately, the word ‘power’ has finally been added to its dictionary. It must now feed its definition in specific terms. Now that Berlin has moved away from its pacifist stance, [Germany] must take on a role in the field of defence that it has so far always eschewed in favour of concentrating on its own welfare and its role as the economic driver of its little European friends. The other keyword of the whole affair is solidarity. The Europeans must adopt Belgium’s motto: ‘unity makes strength’”.

He adds, by way of conclusion: “we are already trembling at the Russian mastiff. He can smell our fear and this is stirring up his predatory instincts. War is won with weapons, but also, and in particular, in a confrontation between hearts and minds. It is not a foregone conclusion that barbarism and tyranny will dominate. We must hold onto the spirit of peace that is our great European heritage, after two devastating World Wars, whilst preparing themselves for war”. (Olivier Jehin)

Pierre Servent. Le monde de demain (available in French only). Robert Laffont. ISBN: 978-2-2212-6587-1. 286 pages. €20,00

Voter pour le tsar ?

In this article, philosopher Marion Bourbon examines Russia’s “plebiscitarian democracy” and makes the point that “democracy can never be reduced to a vote or an election, even when they are ‘free’” (our translation throughout).

It is a great paradox: the Russian regime, which is by no means a democratic one, is a massive user of voting, with the people called to the polling stations very regularly, for local, parliamentary or presidential elections, when they are not being surveyed (on a weekly basis) by public bodies at the behest of the Kremlin. It is hard to argue that these votes with their plebiscitarian results reflect genuine popular opinion, firstly due to the low turn-out rate, but also, and more particularly, because the elections are effectively not free, any more than the expression of any opinion critical of Putin’s power, which invites repression”, she writes. “By depriving the citizens of the democratic debate, by eliminating any real political competition, Putin’s regime has established the plebiscite as the only possible option”, the author explains, adding that “it is people themselves, and imaginary people built and shaped by the autocrat in his own image, as his emanation. In it, he contemplates his own reflection”.

The plebiscitarian regime works in the sense that the ‘people’ are maintained in the greatest passivity, without which their survival is threatened. They must therefore make sure that they supply the conditions for this depoliticisation of the people, in other words a depoliticisation of public, space as a forum for democratic dissent, particularly when they show signs of resistance, as is the case with the young people of Russia in particular”, Bourbon argues, adding: “the imaginary imperialist may appear frighteningly efficient: by building the figure of an external enemy, threatening national unity (the ‘Nazi’ Ukraine, identified with the ‘anti-Russian’ West and now Satan), the internal conflict becomes (…) projected outside and thereby bolstered inside. What could be better than a ‘defensive’ war to fuel the fantasy of national unity?

Externally, the popular uprisings of the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013-2014 and in Belarus in 2020 are taken as threats to the Putin regime itself, as they embody the possibility of a real alternative to the Russian regime, one of democracy and freedom, which the Russian citizens may decide to experience for themselves. In view of this threat on all fronts, an urgent response by military aggression is required, but also, internally, an unprecedented wave of reactionary reforms aiming to further tighten the ideological yoke of propaganda. This is where the plebiscitarian regime radicalises its fascist tendencies: from the prohibition on the association Memorial to the reform of educational programmes and the reinforcement of military training; it is about transforming the people from spectators of this war into active accomplices”, the author observes, stressing later on that “at the time when we are dealing with the question of standing up to Putin’s war, we should possibly remember that the unity of democratic peoples, which is always underestimated by empires, was the only safeguard against ‘defensive’ imperial wars and the exactions they permit. This was what it cost to defeat Hitler”.

In the view of Bourbon, who refers here to Aeschylus and Thucydides’ Funeral Oration of Pericles, “which reminds us of the Russian case, it was a vital lesson as long ago as the Greek problematisation of freedom: the essence of democracy can reside only in an effective practice of collective deliberation, which presupposes the space and time for debate and criticism, in other words a patient examination in which common ground is produced and discussed, and without which the vote can only be an empty shell”. She goes on to say that “this is also to say that the danger irreducibly of concern to any democracy (…) is that of passivity and disengagement. From this point of view, it is to be regretted that those who regularly call for the democratic ‘renewal’ never stop exemplifying it by recourse to the referendum, or extending the electoral ‘offer’, in which the citizens are supposed to see themselves better reflected because they are ‘better represented’”.

She concludes by saying that “it is therefore not voting that defines democracy first and foremost, but a process and a dynamic that define an ethos, a way that can be enabled by a spirit of criticism (…). There is no democracy where this critical return and dialogue are not enabled, which can only be allowed where there is a genuine policy of education. This is where the subjects’ capacity for emancipation plays out, without which this ‘imaginary establishing collective’ remains a chimera”.

Read the article in the review Esprit, the latest edition of which includes a fascinating dossier dedicated to modernity and its “paradoxical accomplishment”. (OJ)

Marion Bourbon. Voter pour le tsar ? – La démocratie dans le miroir russe (available in French only). Esprit. Edition 493-494, January-February 2023. ISSN: 0014-0759. 205 pages. €20,00