War and Indignation. The West’s Red Line Dilemma

[This article is also available in Italian on Reset]

77 years after the end of the Second World War and 33 years after the end of a fragile peace maintained only through a delicate balance of terror, disturbing images of war have returned – right outside our door and unleashed arbitrarily by Russia. The medial presence of this war is holding sway over our daily lives in an unprecedented manner. A Ukrainian president who is fully aware of the power of images continues to ably press his striking messages while the new scenes of raw destruction and shocking suffering produced each day are finding a self-reinforcing echo in the social media channels of the West. The novelty of the broadcasting and calculated publicity of those unpredictable war events, to be sure, may exert a greater impact on the elderly among us than on the younger ones who possess greater media fluency.

But regardless of the adept presentation, these are facts that strain our nerves, made all the more shocking by our awareness of the territorial proximity of the violence. The result is a growing disquiet among onlookers in the West with each death, a growing shock with each murder, a growing indignation with each war crime – and the urgent desire to do something about it. The rational background against which these emotions are swelling up around the country is the obvious partisanship against Putin and a Russian government that has launched a massive war of aggression in violation of international law and which is pursuing a systematically barbaric manner of warfare in violation of humanitarian international law.

Despite this unanimous partisanship, in Germany a strident, media-fueled debate has erupted over the type and extent of military assistance the country should supply to Ukraine. The demands for assistance coming from a blamelessly attacked Ukraine, which has unhesitatingly transformed the political misjudgments and erroneous policies of former German governments into moral accusations, are just as understandable as the emotions, empathy and need to help we feel are self-evident.

And yet I am bothered by the self-assurance with which the morally indignant accusers in Germany are going after an introspective and reserved federal government. In an interview with the newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the German chancellor summed up his policy in a single sentence: “We are confronting terrible suffering that Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine using all means possible, without creating an uncontrollable escalation that will cause immeasurable suffering across the entire continent, perhaps even throughout the world.” With the West having made the decision to not intervene in this conflict as a belligerent, there is a risk threshold that precludes an unrestrained commitment to the armament of Ukraine. This risk threshold has once again been thrust into the spotlight by the solidarity displayed by the German government with our allies at this week’s meeting at the Ramstein Air Base, and by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s renewed threat of a potential nuclear escalation. Those who ignore this threshold and continue to aggressively and self-assuredly push the German chancellor toward it have either overlooked or not understood the dilemma into which this war has plunged the West – because the West, with its morally well-grounded decision to not become a party in this war, has tied its own hands.

The dilemma that has forced the West to choose among alternatives in the range between two evils – a defeat of Ukraine or the escalation of a limited conflict into a third world war – is clear. On the one hand, we have learned from the Cold War that a war against a nuclear power can no longer be “won” in any reasonable sense, at least not with the means of military force within the limited timeline of a hot conflict. The nuclear threat means that the threatened side, whether it possesses nuclear weapons or not, cannot end the unbearable destruction caused by military force with victory, but at best only with a compromise that allows both sides to save face. Neither side is forced to accept a defeat or leave the battlefield as a “loser.” The cease-fire negotiations now taking place concurrently with the fighting are an expression of this insight; they enable for the time being the reciprocal view of the enemy as a possible negotiating partner. The Russian threat potential, to be sure, depends on the West believing that Putin is capable of deploying weapons of mass destruction. But the CIA has, in fact, warned in recent weeks of the danger that “tactical” nuclear weapons could be used (weapons that were apparently only developed to enable nuclear powers to wage war against each other). That gives the Russian side an asymmetrical advantage over Nato, which, because of the apocalyptic scale of a potential world war – with the participation of four nuclear powers – does not want to become party to this conflict.

It is now Putin who decides when the West crosses the threshold defined by international law – beyond which he views, formally as well, the West’s military support for Ukraine as participation in the war.

Given the risk of a global conflagration, which must be avoided at all costs, the indeterminacy of this decision allows no room whatsoever for risky speculation. Even if the West were cynical enough to allow for the risk implicit in the “warning” that such a “tactical” nuclear weapon may be deployed – i.e., to accept such a deployment in a worst-case scenario – who could guarantee that such an escalation could be stopped? What remains is a latitude for arguments that must be carefully weighed in light of the necessary expert knowledge and all the requisite information, not all of which is publicly available, to make well-founded decisions. The West, which, with the drastic sanctions it imposed early on, has already left no doubt about its de facto participation in this conflict, must therefore carefully weigh each additional degree of military support to determine whether it might cross the indeterminate boundary of formal entry into the war – indeterminate because it depends on Putin’s own definition.

On the other hand, the West – as Russia well knows – cannot allow itself to be continually blackmailed. Were the allies to simply leave Ukraine to its fate, it wouldn’t just be a scandal from a political-moral perspective, it would also be counter to the West’s interests. Because then, it would have to be prepared to play the same game of Russian roulette in Georgia or Moldova – and who might be next on the list? To be sure, the asymmetry that could drive the West into a dead end in the long term only endures for as long as it continues to shy away – for good reason – from the risk of a nuclear war. Consequently, the argument which holds that Putin should not be driven into a corner because he is capable of anything is countered by the contention that precisely this “policy of fear” gives the opponent a free hand to continue escalating the conflict step by step, as Ralf Fücks recently pointed out in this newspaper. This argument, too, of course, merely confirms the nature of a situation that is essentially unpredictable. Because as long as we are determined for good reason to avoid becoming a party to this war to protect Ukraine, the type and extent of military support we offer must also be qualified in view of such considerations. Those who object to pursuing a “policy of fear” in a rationally justifiable manner already find themselves within the scope of argumentation of the kind that Chancellor Olaf Scholz correctly insists on – namely that of careful consideration in a politically responsible and factually comprehensive fashion.

That consideration, however, presupposes the observance of what we view as Putin’s agreeable interpretation of a legally defined limit that we have imposed on ourselves. The indignant opponents of the government line are, to the extent they deny the possible implications of a fundamental decision they do not call into question, being incoherent. The decision to avoid participation does not mean that the West simply leaves Ukraine to its fate in its fight with a superior opponent up to the point of immediate involvement. Arms deliveries can clearly have a positive impact on the course of the war, which Ukraine is determined to pursue even at the cost of serious sacrifice. But is it not a form of pious self-deception to bank on a Ukrainian victory against Russia’s murderous form of warfare without taking up arms yourself? The bellicose rhetoric is inconsistent with the bleachers from which it is delivered. Because it doesn’t minimize the unpredictability of an opponent who could bet it all on a single card. The West’s dilemma is that it can only signify to Putin, who may be willing to accept nuclear escalation, that it insists on the integrity of national borders in Europe by providing self-limited military support to Ukraine that remains on the safe side of the red line legally defining involvement in armed conflict.

The sober consideration required for such self-limited military assistance is further complicated by the evaluation of the motives that led the Russian side to its clearly erroneous decision to invade. The focus on Putin has led to wild speculations that our leading media outlets are spreading in a manner similar to the peak era of speculative Sovietology. The currently prevailing image of a determined, revisionist Putin requires at the very least a juxtaposition with a rational estimation of his interests. Even if Putin believes the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a huge mistake, the image of an eccentric visionary who – with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church and under the influence of the authoritarian ideologue Alexander Dugin – views the step-by-step recreation of the Russian Empire as his political life’s work can hardly reflect the entire truth about his character. But such projections are the foundation for the widespread assumption that Putin’s aggressive intentions extend beyond Ukraine to Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, and perhaps even to the Nato member states in the Baltic region and then even far into the Balkans.


Can this war against a nuclear power be won?

This personality image of a delusional and obsessed ruler eager to turn back the clock stands against a curriculum vitae of social advancement and a career as a KGB-trained, calculating power-seeker whose disquiet about political protest within increasingly liberal-minded circles in his own country was intensified by Ukraine’s turn to the West and by the political resistance movement in neighboring Belarus. From this viewpoint, his repeated aggression would best be understood as a frustrated response to the West’s refusal to engage in negotiations over Putin’s geopolitical agenda – primarily over the international recognition of his conquests in violation of international law and the neutralizing of a “buffer zone” to which the Russian president would like Ukraine to belong. The spectrum of this and similar speculations only deepens the uncertainties of a dilemma that “requires extreme caution and reserve”, as concluded by an instructive analysis published recently in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

How, then, can we explain the domestically heated debate that has erupted over the policy – repeatedly affirmed by Chancellor Scholz – of solidarity with Ukraine in consensus with Germany’s EU and Nato partners? In the interest of disentangling the issues involved, I am going to leave aside the dispute over the policy of détente – a policy which proved successful up to and even beyond the end of the Soviet Union – and its continued and, from today’s perspective, clearly erroneous application to an increasingly unpredictable Putin. I am also going to leave aside the errors made by successive German governments, which bowed to economic pressures and made the country dependent on cheap energy imports from Russia. Historians will one day pass their judgment on the short memories displayed in today’s controversies.

But it is a different story when it comes to the debate over a “new German identity crisis,” as it has been gravely termed – a debate which initially took a sober approach to the “watershed” shift in German policy announced by Chancellor Scholz at the beginning of the Russian invasion and its implications for the country’s approach to Russia and for its defense budget. Because this debate, which has produced numerous examples of the astonishing conversion of erstwhile peaceniks, supposedly heralds the historic shift in the German postwar mentality – a hard-won mentality that has repeatedly been denounced from the right – and thus the end of the broad pro-dialogue, peace-keeping focus of German policy.


This reading fixates on the example of those younger members of our society who were raised to exhibit sensitivity on normative questions, who don’t hide their emotions and who have been the loudest in demanding a more forceful engagement in support of Ukraine. They give the impression that the completely new realities of war have torn them out of their pacifist illusions. It is reminiscent of Germany’s newly iconic foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who, immediately after the war began, gave authentic expression to the shock felt by many using credible gestures and admissions of dismay. Not that such expressions don’t represent the compassion and impulse to help that are widespread in our population, but she also lent a convincing voice to the spontaneous identification with the vehemently moralizing insistence of a Ukrainian leadership that is determined to win the war. And with that, we have arrived at the core of the conflict between those who have rushed emphatically to make their own the perspective of a nation fighting for its freedom, liberty and life – and those who have learned a different lesson from the experiences of the Cold War and have developed a different mentality. The one group can only view war through the lens of victory or defeat, while the others know that a war against a nuclear power cannot be “won” in the traditional sense of the word.

Roughly speaking, the more national and more post-national mentalities of populations provide the background for different attitudes toward war in general. This difference becomes clear when one contrasts the widely admired, heroic resistance and self-evident willingness to sacrifice displayed by the Ukrainian population with what might be expected of “our,” generally speaking, Western European populations in a similar situation. Mixed in with our admiration of Ukraine is an element of amazement at the certainty of victory and the unbroken courage of the soldiers and recruits of all ages, grimly determined to defend their homeland from a militarily far superior enemy. By contrast, we in the West rely on professional soldiers who we pay so that we, should the situation arise, do not have to take up arms to defend ourselves and can be defended by professional militaries instead.

This post-heroic mentality was able to develop in Western Europe – if I might make a broad generalization – during the second half of the 20th century under the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. Given the devastation made possible by nuclear war, a view took hold among the political elite and the overwhelming majority of the population that international conflicts can essentially only be solved through diplomacy and sanctions – and that, should a military conflict break out, the war must be settled as quickly as possible since the difficult-to-calculate threat of the deployment of weapons of mass destruction means that victory or defeat in the classical sense are no longer potential outcomes. Or, as the German author Alexander Kluge has put it: “War can only teach us to make peace.” This view doesn’t necessarily translate into principled pacifism, meaning peace at any price. The focus on ending destruction, human suffering and de-civilization as quickly as possible is not synonymous with demands to sacrifice a politically free existence on the altar of mere survival. Skepticism of military violence hits a prima facie limit when it comes to the price exacted by a life stifled by authoritarianism – a life in which even the awareness of the contradiction between forced normality and self-determination would vanish.

My explanation for the about-face of our former pacifists, as hailed by the right-wing interpreters of Scholz’s watershed, is that it is a product of a confusion of those contemporaneous but historically non-simultaneous mentalities. This distinctive group shares the Ukrainians’ confidence in victory but is in the first place outraged by the violations of international law. After Bucha, calls for Putin to be delivered to The Hague rapidly spread. This immediate cry is in general indicative of the self-evident nature of the normative standards which we have grown used to applying to international relations today – that is, the true extent of the shift in corresponding expectations and humanitarian sensibilities among the populace.

At my age, I can’t deny a bit of surprise: How deeply upturned must be the soil of our political culture and its taken-for-granted norms and value-orientations on which our children and grandchildren live if even the conservative press is calling for the prosecutors of an International Criminal Court which, however, has not yet been recognized by Russia and China, or even by the U.S.? Unfortunately, such realities also betray the hollow-sounding foundations of an impassioned identification with increasingly shrill moral indictments of German restraint. Not that the war criminal Putin doesn’t deserve to be brought before such a court, but he still holds a veto in the United Nations Security Council and can continue to threaten his opponents with nuclear war. An end of the war, or at least a cease-fire, must still be negotiated with him. I see no convincing justification for demands for a policy which – despite the excruciating, increasingly unbearable suffering of the victims – would de facto put at risk the well-founded decision to avoid participation in this war.


The conversion of the former pacifists leads to mistakes and misunderstandings

Allies should not reproach each other for different political mentalities that historically do not match in view of being still involved in the becoming of a nation state or having passed that kind of formation process. Rather, such differences should be accepted as fact and cleverly accounted for in cooperation. But as long as these perspective-defining differences remain in the background, they only result – as was the case in the reactions produced among German lawmakers to the moral appeals delivered by the Ukrainian president in his video address to the Bundestag – in emotional confusion; confusion between immediate approval, sheer understanding for the position of the other and necessary self-respect. The neglect of historically founded differences in the perception and interpretation of war doesn’t just lead – as was the case with the brusque withdrawal of the invitation to the German president to visit Ukraine – to significant mistakes in dealing with each other. Even worse, they lead to a reciprocal misunderstanding of what the other actually thinks and wants.

This realization also shines a more sober light on the conversion of the former pacifists. Because neither the indignation nor the dismay and compassion that form the motivational backbone of their exaggerated demands can be explained by a rejection of the normative orientations that have consistently been mocked by so-called realists. Rather, they come from an overly optimistic reading of precisely those principles. They have not transformed into realists, rather they are essentially overflowing with idealism. Certainly, there can be no moral judgments without moral feelings, but the generalizing judgment is also a correction to the limited scope of emotions stimulated by proximity.

It is, after all, no coincidence that the authors of the “watershed” are those leftists and liberals who –faced with a drastically altered international constellation and in the shadow of trans-Atlantic uncertainties – want to take serious action in response to an overdue insight: namely that a European Union unwilling to see its social and political way of life destabilized from the outside or undermined from within will only gain the necessary political agency if it can also stand on its own two feet militarily. The re-election of Emmanuel Macron in France provides a reprieve. But we first must find a way out of our dilemma. This hope is reflected in the cautious formulation of the goal that Ukraine “must not lose” this war.


This article was originally published in Süddeutsche Zeitung on April 29, 2022.


Cover photo: Louisa Gouliamaki / AFP.

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4 thoughts on “War and Indignation. The West’s Red Line Dilemma

  1. Reading a philosopher is always difficult. Thera are so many questions, and so many confusions that we can not simply say yes. My question is: should the West negotiate, which is what we all finally would like, this will meant to approve Ucrania being cutted into two separated countries? Russia side , the Eastern part, and European side, the Western part? like Germany after Second World War?

    • The only solution that will ensure peace is the complete victory of Ukraine and a return to the 1991 borders. Russian imperialism envisages the eradication of the Ukrainian people and their culture, as can be seen from what has happened and is happening at this very moment in the occupied Ukrainian lands (or in Georgia and Chechnya). Russia’s mentality has not changed and will not change in the near future. No negotiations and concessions to Russia will stop its further false flag operations and attacks on the rest of Ukraine. Unfortunately, people in Western countries still fail to understand what a huge threat Russia is to the countries surrounding it, to their culture, and basic rights and freedoms.

    • eric d. meyer says:

      Why, if the West (Biden, Macron et al.) knew that Putin was preparing to invade Ukraine, did the West not immediately begin negotiations to stop it? And why, even when the stakes of the Russia-Ukraine conflict have escalated to possible nuclear war, does the West still not make efforts to persuade (compel?) the two sides to negotiate? Does the West (the US?) somehow want the Russia-Ukraine war to go on, despite the risk of nuclear war and the fact (as Habermas points out) that victory is not possible for either side? While I respect Habermas’ position, I’m afraid it is too ‘idealist’ (i.e., decisionist)—that is, Habermas still believes that decisions by world leaders will decide the outcome of the war, when the war is actually being driven by multinational military defense contractors who are making fortunes from selling military materiel to Ukraine with Western funding ($15 billion from the US alone. (But does anybody notice that once the US war on terror ended, the Biden administration immediately began looking for another source of revenues for the military-industrial complex? by setting another bear-trap in Ukraine.) And in the final analysis, victory/defeat in the Russia-Ukraine war (ii possible) will be decided by whether Putin/Russia can compete with Western cartels in supplying Russian troops with cutting-edge technology to compete with the sophisticated US/UK weaponry. Ukraine, of course, cannot be allowed to lose, and so Western supplies of weaponry must continue if necessary (but for how long?). But the West must immediately begin pushing both parties (Putin and Zelensky) toward negotiations (despite the Russian veto in the UNSC etc.). And beyond Ukrainian patriotism and Great Russian imperialism, those negotiations must be realistic, meaning each side must be willing to sacrifice its grandiose goals to achieve the greater goal of a sustainable peace that will not result in a resumption of hostilities when the international media hysteria has ended and will not continue to threaten the whole world with nuclear holocaust.

  2. Paul Wartelle says:

    The whole factual premise that a nuclear power cannot be defeated on the battlefield is patently wrong. Viet Nam defeated America. So did the Taliban. The Afghan rebels defeated the Soviets. One might say that a nuclear armed maniac cannot be defeated; but that isn’t Professor Habermas’s argument; because he denies that Putin is a lunatic or even an irrational actor. Nor does he recognize that the moral tenor of this confrontation with Russia has primarily been framed by the United States, which has taken a much more assertive posture than the SPD has permitted itself. The American line that Ukraine should be able to dictate a negotiated peace from a position of strength on the battlefield and that the US will provide the means to shape those victorious negotiations seems far more robustly realistic than the timid position Habermas advances that a nuclear power can never be forced to acknowledge its mistakes. And it gains credence from the fact that America under Biden did exactly that in Afghanistan.

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