A change of seasons brings a change of perspective. With St Martin appearing on a white horse to signal the first snows in central and eastern Europe, with the mid- terms behind us and the cost to the west growing like a US budget deficit, the talk has turned to peace. There is a peace deal on the table for the Russians (details below); however, I doubt they will take it, despite the western media telling us the war is lost for the Russians. For the Russian spirit, and its endless cold horizon over the steppe, there is no doubt echoes of Tolstoy’s epigram – ‘The strongest of all warriors are these two: Time and Patience’. I would add another two: snow and boredom. This will favour the Russians and allow them to dig in. The relatively small Ukrainian victories are symbolic; the loss of the Kharkiv region and then Kherson. Yet all this depends on indefinite western commitment; countries bogged down in wintry recessions and ‘ennui’, French boredom, freezing the will of the Occident. For the Russians, the war in the Ukraine is merely one conflict in a line of conflicts from Afghanistan to Georgia. Perhaps it is Putin’s solution to boredom. The warring element had been, in history, far more natural in societies with ‘culture’ as the hegemonic aspect: they feel as if ‘protecting’ a homogenous traditional core. Liberalism, on the other hand, stares outward in missionary zeal. It feels as if exporting and assuring the neo-liberal idea. Yet now, in the age of the ‘grossraum’ war becomes a means to extend and protect the neo-liberal world and its resources. Once history had begun wars slowly began to metamorph from cultural conflicts to resource driven conflict; this was empowered by technology. Hence the collapse of a Westphalian system and the twentieth century’s freezing darkness of Jan Patocka’s vision. Patocka, the Czech dissident of Charter 77, saw the twentieth century as one of a crisis of ‘history’ and a collapse of the spirit. Man, alone, without meaning, becomes destructive. History was a ‘Faustian’ pact with modernity; the Platonic ‘care for the soul’ sold to a Brahmin elite who, without need for work or toil, could dream up conflict, war and self aggrandisement.
The peace deal offered to Russia resembles an ultimatum. Although armaments from the west appear to be stalling in supply, and there is the above ‘winter of discontent’ looming, there is a belief that the Russian nomenklatura, besides Putin, have lost the stomach for the war. The proposal (transmitted through a Ukrainian contact) has been drawn up by ‘some’ western countries (a euphemism for the US) and has been initially accepted by the Ukrainians. The cards on the table for Russia make interesting reading. In this agreement, there is a complete cessation of hostilities and a withdrawal of troops from the Ukraine (to include Donetsk and Luhansk) by Russia. The thorny question of NATO will be postponed and Ukraine will join ‘after a minimum period of seven years’. A ‘security zone’ 100 km wide will run along the borders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, policed by six western countries. Crimea will become a neutral area and the Russian navy would leave the Black Sea. This would be renegotiated after seven years. Russian nomenklatura and families will be given immunity from prosecution. This is perhaps the carrot to tempt the Russian elites to ditch Putin, or at least force him to play ball. It is certainly a better deal than Versailles or Nuremburg. Yet the cards on the table would mean certain defeat and humiliation for Putin. It also, along with large swathes of western media, presumes Putin is out of chips.
There are several things wrong with the presumptions of this leaked ‘peace deal’. Firstly Putin, even through passing the blame buck to Sergei Shoigu, will not escape dismissal or even worse. Putin is playing high stakes; he’s the Cincinnati Kid with one last throw of the dice. He now has little to lose to extend the conflict by the means mentioned at the beginning of the article: through boredom and snow. Bearing in mind it is not the Russians suffering from a lack of gas, they may be hunkering down for the freeze and waiting to see the post-thaw reality. That reality could be the west in a huge recession and associated social problems. Secondly, although the deal appears to give the Russian elites an escape route and immunity from prosecution at the Hague, it says nothing about ending the economic sanctions against these individuals and also, more broadly, sanctions against Russia. With Qatar signing a gas deal with China this week, it may seem to the Russians that they have nothing to lose by extending the war as they are increasingly isolated. Increased isolation and humiliation never worked very well at Versailles; it only increased the historical grievances.
Putin has, to all extent and purposes, rejected the ‘peace deal’ with the continued bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure. Perhaps it is intended to force a better deal; we are at a stand off with the Ukraine pushing for a continuation of the fight. We haven’t the gravitas of the past, the Metternich’s or the Talleyrands, or the Kissengers. We have an elite of career civil servants running the show. At Tilsit in 1807 Napoleon and Alexander refused to visit each other, so a raft was built on the river Neiman in the middle of two grand armies, where they spent several days ironing out an agreement to the detriment of Prussia. The deal on the table for Putin, however, appears like a continuation of a ‘Continental System’ of sanctions and the isolation of Russia. The primary aim of the US is to weaken both the German-Russian economic bloc and thwart any ‘Eurasian’ ambitions of Russia. The Ukraine is merely the raft upon which the realpolitik is played out upon. At Tilsit, in the evenings after negotiations, Napoleon and Alexander dined together, exchanged cravats, they walked together, holding hands and exchanging small talk. Although we can hardly imagine Biden and Putin waltzing around the gardens of Tilsit hand in hand, there needs to be some meeting in the middle, a rapprochement.
The Russian vision of the bipolar world, the one which has risen to challenge the hegemony of the US unipolar vision, arises from two sources. One is the ‘fall into history’, an extension of Patocka’s turn, the Spenglerian vision of the decline of the west. This is a philosophical and cultural turn. It can be seen in Russia, in the rise of ‘populism’ in the west and the growing zeitgeist, in some parts of the world, of liberalism as a valueless construct. The other is the imbalance and colonial nature of the unipolar perspective; that neoliberalism is presupposed on a global ‘deracination’ of labour. In this Labour is switched from local concerns to international capital; FDI and NGOs become the simulacrum of reality. Putin is manipulating these tendencies and with China is playing the long-term economic game of ‘Xiangqi’ – the ancient Chinese board game- the object of which is to surround your opponent by attrition, rather than a knock out blow like Chess. We are approaching the notion of the ‘Thucydides Trap’; where the new ascendant Chinese power attempts to displace the traditional one, in our situation, the US. The US is drawn into the commitment to Ukraine, all to the benefit of China. This confused US foreign policy will now focus on a pushback of the Chinese economic diaspora; an attempt to force Europeans to ditch the Huawei 5G schema and dismantle the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ for example.
It is not that this bipolar world is inherently unstable compared to the unipolar world. History is unstable. It has been since the turn away from ‘the care of the soul’. The existential threat is technology or technics. The high stakes card games are existentially threatening for the reasons of precarity, through ecological limits and nuclear weapons. The technological world replaced the natural world in the post- Enlightenment material and rational epoch. The west is at the precipice, at Nietzsche’s abyss, standing adrift on the tightrope. On the other side is the ‘ubermensch’, the ‘Superman’ and Nietzsche’s view that a new form of humanity can be grasped. This new humanity was to replace Christianity, yet the Faustian pact with materialism has left man dangling and helpless.