Dispatches from the “Civilized World.” The Ukraine War and the Depoliticizing Effects of Crisis in Permanence

Mark Terkessidis

The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, after the NATO bombing on May 7, 1999

“My generation, but also all those born since 1945, are now experiencing this form of interstate war in Europe for the first time,” a university lecturer in modern and recent history recently wrote in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). Here and elsewhere we learn that the “war of aggression” is back in Europe. What is more, this war of aggression is supposedly led by an irrational president trapped in the “building of his self-made madness” who has taken on the “civilized world” (all quotes from various articles in SZ).

There can be no doubt that this war is to be condemned, just as there can be no doubt that Putin’s clique has been redesigning the Russian Federation for years according to the ideas of the “New Right.” Nevertheless, after a few weeks, one should perhaps refresh one’s memory a little. Wars of aggression existed in Europe before. In 1974, Turkey—today’s mediator in the conflict—intervened in Cyprus. The intervention was not completely unjustified, as it was preceded by a fascist coup. What was unjustified, however, was the conquest of more than a third of the island, which Turkey had occupied since—in violation of international law.

In 1999, NATO—without a mandate from international law—attacked the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The reason was the alleged genocide in Kosovo. No doubt, a repressive apartheid regime was ruling in Kosovo, however, information about it had to be inflated by way of shameless lies of all kinds to enable comparisons with the Holocaust among the political elites in the West. The fact that the conditions in Kosovo were suddenly classified as a reason for war also seems astonishing in view of what was then and is now tolerated not only outside but even within the European Union. In 2019, for example, the Bulgarian city of Plovdiv became European Capital of Culture with a supposedly inclusive approach toward the Turkish-speaking Roma minority. But hardly any of the projects announced in the bid were implemented. The totally segregated district of Stolipinovo, inhabited by this minority, continues to have problems with sewerage, drinking water and electricity supply; the population is shamelessly discriminated against. After the Capital of Culture award, Stolipinovo was forgotten again—apart from a few human rights and Roma activists, no one was really interested in it anyway. For this reason alone, Stolipinovo is worth a visit. Things were not that bad in Kosovo at that time.

NATO’s 1999/2000 deployment followed a few months after the first step in its eastward expansion by admitting Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, pushing the alliance right up to the border of the Russian Federation. Moreover, since the war, the United States has maintained one of its larger military bases in the world, with 7,000 troops at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. The People’s Republic of China, which vehemently opposed the intervention at the time, had to accept the bombing of its embassy in Belgrade—the building was hit “accidentally,” despite the fact that the compound was located rather in isolation. Who could have imagined that this attack on a state definitely connected with Russia, viewed together with NATO’s recent eastward expansion, could have had something to do with a demonstration of power?

Be that as it may, today is the right time for the German foreign minister to tweet on the death of Madeleine Albright, who had stood up for the “strength and freedom of democracies,” without mentioning that her erstwhile American colleague was in charge of the NATO intervention in former Yugoslavia at the time. “Our” wars of aggression are always waged for the good cause, in the name of humanity, peace, “civilization” or “our” lessons from history. And I haven’t even talked about Afghanistan and Iraq. Of course, “we” are not committing war crimes either.

For years, strategists in Moscow have taken perverse pleasure in parodying NATO’s rhetoric of humanitarian intervention: The attacks on Georgia in 2008 and on Ukraine in 2014 (apparently not wars of aggression in Europe either, see above) were unceremoniously declared as peacekeeping operations in the name of threatened minorities. Currently the same rhetoric is deployed: We have no idea, the Kremlin claims, what kind of war they are talking about in the West, this is just a “special military operation” against Nazis… It is amazing how much the Western public ignores how “we” are being mirrored our own hypocrisy and double standards.

None of this relativizes the war in Ukraine. Recently, Ukrainian intellectual Volodymyr Artiukh accused his leftist friends in the United States of “US-plaining” because they explained away the war in quasi-ethnocentric ways. Artiukh pointed out that in the meantime the Putin clique was creating its own reality with the military power of the Russian Federation from its own dynamics. This is true, although it is not the irrational work of a madman. Putin has been elaborating on his authoritarian Eurasianist philosophy in speeches for years, drawing from different (but not at all incoherent) sources—Soviet primordialist ethnology (Lev Gumilyev), Slavophile or later “white” reactionary thinkers (Leontiev, Ilyin, Danilevsky, Soloviev, and others), and current neo-fascist discourses, again mainly of Russian provenance (Alexander Dugin).

One may find this abysmally horrible, “irrational” it is not. Nor is it surprising. Because this ideological ground preparation was reported in the past years by Walter Laqueur, Michel Eltchaninoff or publications by the US military academy in Fort Leavenworth for that matter. It is not for nothing that Putin is the hero of the Far Right in Germany. Richard Gebhardt recently reminded me of the fact that some of the biggest protests by the Far Right in the last decade (Monday vigils and Pegida demonstrations) were largely motivated by the change of power in Ukraine in the wake of the Euromaidan protests. The Russian president’s incessant invectives against “homosexual culture” in the West have also, of course, gone down well in these circles.

The Ukraine war is now the third major crisis in a sequence (after the so-called refugee crisis and the pandemic) that seems to come out of nowhere. But it doesn’t come out of nowhere, any more than the other two. In 2015, I once had to listen to a representative of the Bavarian government sneer at me, saying that I was also someone who had known everything about it beforehand. In fact, I knew it beforehand—Tom Holert and I have published a book titled Fliehkraft in 2006 about the interrelation of flight, migration and tourism at the EU borders. I don’t know anything about virology, but it is clear that all experts assumed that a pandemic was imminent. And now the Ukraine war, which has actually been fought as a “hot” war since 2014 (with about 15,000 dead), seems to be descending upon “us” like a natural disaster. Couldn’t “we” have known, for example, that Russia’s GDP per capita has dropped by about 30 percent since 2014, and what a problem this poses for whoever is portraying himself as the embodiment of the Russian people’s will? Or to be able to listen to the voices that have warned that another attack on Ukraine is only a matter of time?

But good grief, until yesterday Ukraine was far away, as far away as Syria, which is also just across the EU’s external border. I vacationed in Odessa in 2015; on the one hand, because Odessa is an important part of the “Greek” map of the world and I always wanted to go there; on the other hand, because it was obvious that such an international and heavily tourism-driven city would hardly be visited due to a war (which was still raging far away from Odessa at the time). I don’t want to make this a big deal at all, it was just a vacation, but I was very surprised at the reactions I got in Germany at the time: most people hardly knew where this place actually was, but my trip was seen as some kind of exotic suicide mission to the post-Soviet insanity. And now suddenly it is totally self-evident that Ukraine belongs to “us”? Flags, war rattle, arms deliveries, 100 billion for the Bundeswehr. An even more intense version of the mobilization in the “mass cultural war” that we experienced in 1999 (and about which Tom Holert and I wrote the book Entsichert in 2002).

The moral self-righteousness of people whose front line is in their own living rooms would actually be laughable if they weren’t all bitterly serious. The fewer political categories there are for analyzing the world, the more capitalized the next crisis will be: Now “we” have to do something, there is no other way—now “we” have to write, demand, hold panel, help and call for interventions against “genocide.”

Yes, Ukraine has been attacked, the helpfulness and also the partisanship are justified without question. But the permanent crisis is a false form of government that keeps us permanently stuck in the present. If the crisis no longer has a political history, then we can only decide in the moment; alternatives are then very limited. And what about the consequences of what “we” are doing now?

If the negotiations do not come to an early result, then Ukraine could also turn into the European Afghanistan. True, Putin probably has no intention at all of conquering western Ukraine, which is not part of his Eurasian spatial idea; but war in the east could also take a long time: it took Stalin ten years after World War II to defeat the rival remnants of Stepan Bandera’s nationalist army. What about the young men to whom all kinds of weapons are now being distributed. How exactly do “we” send them back home? At what point do “we” realize that we might disagree politically in part with these beloved freedom fighters?

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”—this phrase by Carl Schmitt has been quoted up and down since the 1990s. And the phrase is wrong, for:

Sovereign is she/he who has a plan.


Mark Terkessidis is a freelance writer and independent scholar on migration and colonialism, among other things. Together with Natalie Bayer he just finished editing the volume Die postkoloniale Stadt lesen. Historische Erkundungen in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg (Verbrecher Verlag, May 2022).

April 5th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 05