Germany: sanctions and weapons deals, follow the money

BERLIN – In Germany today, current references to Vladimir Putin evoke all too sharply recollections of German language used against every Russian leader since the start of World War I a hundred years ago. Indeed, in today’s Russia and its leader the mass media have found subjects of attack as welcome as all their varied predecessors.

BILD newspaper, with its millions of readers, led the charge: “Putin … wants to complete what the Tsar and Stalin could not achieve. He wants to create a Russia to which the rest of the world bows down. In the long run he will not succeed! … But the fear which he instills in others isolates Russia… For a moment Putin may be the mightiest in the world. But he is Russia’s evil spirit.”

The slightly more respected “Der Spiegel” magazine, though evasive about ascribing full blame for the Malaysian plane tragedy, nevertheless featured photos of its victims on its cover with the words in big print “Stop Putin Now” and editorialized: “Putin’s true nature has shown itself. The Russian president has been revealed not as a statesman but as a pariah of the world community… The shooting down may have been a tragic mistake. Whoever fired the missile probably did not want to hit a passenger plane… But it is the direct result of Russian military armament of the separatists in recent weeks. It is a symbol of Putin’s nefariousness – and of the failure of western policies thus far. The wreckage of MH17 is also the wreckage of diplomacy.”

Despite renewed doubts about the MH17, and disregarding evidence that Putin was basically interested in protecting Russia from total encirclement by an unceasingly expansive NATO, with the growing threat of military weaponry at its doorstep and to its southern seacoast defenses, the weapons makers stepped up pressure and readied the first six German Typhoon planes to join Portuguese F-16s in flying reconnaissance flights over Estonia – the closest German warriors have come to Russian borders since World War II.

But such operations were high in the clouds; Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and her supporters wanted ground action. Then, too, other business interests, not to be scoffed at – like oil and gas importers and machine exporters – were not happy about increased sanctions against Russia. A majority of the population was also decidedly against dangerous advances in this direction.

Then, while the Ukraine crisis escalated ever more tensely and dangerously, the more bellicose faction in Berlin’s political scene found a new crisis, which offered quicker perspectives.

This was the ISIS in Iraq – and soon in Syria as well. The misery and bitter tragedy of many thousands were involved, the aggressors’ clothes and beards made them even more easily distinguishable as evil-doers than those of the traditional Russian menace. And action was demanded.

One problem soon arose. Early in August, vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel had aborted a long-standing deal of the huge Rheinmetall Corporation for delivery of a modern military training installation to Russia. “I cannot take responsibility for this,” the Social Democrat stated. It would mean risking “military expansion, that military conflicts could be enlarged… It is not a matter of money but of human lives.”

Actually it was also a matter of German law, which expressly forbids the delivery of arms to areas of conflict. Nearly everyone approved Gabriel’s decision, even though this law had somehow lost its force in past years when Germany, the world’s third biggest weapons exporter – delivered everything from Heckler & Koch revolvers and rifles to “Leopard” tanks and Thyssen-Krupp submarines with atomic weapon potential to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria, Indonesia, Israel, Greece and Turkey, South Korea and many others.

But since Gabriel had so publicly revived this seemingly moribund restriction in the case of Russia, how could one disregard it in Iraq? Defense Minister von der Leyen defiantly urged military intervention – without interrupting her efforts to obtain military drones for future years. Others of various parties were quick to back her up. The mass media obliged with heart-breaking pictures of human tragedy (nor did they have to lie or exaggerate in this case). There were increasing calls – at first – for humanitarian help per helicopter – food, water, clothing, even toys.

But this did not suffice; military assistance was required, it seemed – of a non-lethal kind, of course, only bullet-proof vests, night goggles and the like.

Yet the ISIS remained as dangerous as ever. Soon enough, politicians like the Social Democrat Christoph Strässer, national Human Rights Commissioner, were insisting that in the case of the hard-fighting Iraqi Kurds a fight against terrorism was involved, those stuffy old rules and regulations should (again) be overlooked and military hardware sent in. And that is just what is happening.

The editor of the state-owned radio station in Bavaria (the state where most weapons are produced) triumphed: “It was high time to break this taboo. That basic tenet of German foreign and security policy is no longer worth the paper it is written on: ‘No weapons into conflict areas’ is now passé. The historical decision is risky but it has no alternative… The matter is now earnest.”

But Volker Kauder, top parliamentarian leader of Merkel’s CDU, indeed, her right-hand man (the stress on “right” perfectly fits this notorious homophobe and Muslimophobe), still stated clearly after a very safe visit to Iraq: “A deployment of German or European troops to fight the terror militia of the Islamic State is not necessary. True, this would provide a possibility to maintain control over weapons sent to Iraq. But at the moment I see no necessity for that.”

Only a few days later the same Volker Kauder informed us that Germany had after all sent six Bundeswehr soldiers to Iraq “to coordinate the delivery of German assistance and train Kurdish troops … As quickly as possible they need anti-tank weapons, anti-mine equipment as well as rifles and ammunition… Otherwise the terrorists from the IS will probably invade Kurdistan as well.”

Sympathy for beleaguered Christians was not surprising, the plight of the hitherto hardly-known Yazidis and other victims was also frightening and truly demanded assistance. But somehow the odor of hypocrisy clung to such official German sympathy for Kurdistan. Such sympathy had been remarkably absent during tragedies for civilians in Gaza, the Eastern Ukraine and many other areas.

Were there hopes for an oil-rich, independent Kurdistan, with no interference, regulations or participation from Bagdad? What hidden secrets existed? And did no one recall how after 1990 the newly-united Germany sent tanks and other weapons of the disbanded East German armed forces to Turkey – for the brutal, bloody suppression of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Some estimate fighter and civilian deaths at over 30,000. But then, unlike today’s Iraqi Peshmergas, the men and women in the PKK, who demanded autonomic and cultural rights, were left-wing Kurds. And their homes were in Turkey, a NATO ally. In Germany the PKK is still verboten.

This week the Bundestag is debating military aid to Iraq, although its vote will be an impotent one; in such matters a secret Cabinet group makes such the relevant decisions. But once again the debate will almost certainly show that it is the LEFT party, usually almost alone, which will, in accord with public opinion, vote No.

After a brief early dispute in its own ranks it quickly renewed its basic position that while humanitarian assistance is necessary and urgent, and that better Near East policies are long overdue, too many past disasters, old and new, have proven that German weapons and especially German troops should never again be sent outside German borders. Despite the most assertive humanitarian justifications of such exploits – from Kosovo to Kabul – not one has ever meant less bloodshed or suffering.

Photo: September 1, Die Linke: Wir sagen zum Weltfriedenstag klar: Nie wieder Krieg und Verbot aller Rüstungsexporte! We clearly say to the World Day of Peace: War never again! Ban all arms exports!


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled his U.S. Army post in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive, and became a freelance journalist and author. His latest book,  A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, is about his life in the German Democratic Republic from 1949 – 1990, the tremendous improvements for the people under socialism, the reasons for the fall of socialism, and the importance of today's struggles.