The argument about how the West should help Ukraine runs in a mirror image. Two fears vie for recognition. On the one hand there is the fear of Russian imperialism, which goes far beyond Ukraine and leads to a renewed subjugation of many states in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, there is the fear of using Russian nuclear weapons, which would result in a third world war involving NATO.
Statements by Vladimir Putin are of central importance in both discourses. What does the Russian President mean seriously? When is he bluffing? The first camp feels its fears confirmed by the analogy that Putin has now drawn between himself and Peter the Great. In the war against Sweden, he “didn’t take anything, he took it back,” said Putin. It is impossible to build a fence around a country like Russia. The first camp considers the threat of nuclear weapons to be a bluff.
The second camp argues the other way around. Putin’s warnings of a nuclear escalation must be taken seriously. The dangers of renewed Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe would be exaggerated. How amazingly close we are, despite opposing positions, is expressed in the sentence: Putin is capable of anything. Most agree with that.
Because fears cannot be overcome with the means of reason alone, historical comparisons are increasingly used. Is Putin a second Hitler, as Poland’s President Andrzej Duda thinks? Is the West pursuing a policy of appeasement towards Russia, as it did in Munich in 1938, when Hitler was granted land in what was then Czechoslovakia to appease him? Does Germany bear the “same historical responsibility for Ukraine as for Israel” as its ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, says?
Such comparisons are often as wrong as they are right – why isn’t Putin more associated with Stalin? – but it’s not about gaining knowledge. Instead, whether for polemical or strategic reasons, the pressure to act should be increased. The rhetorical ammunition serves to speed up the delivery of real weapons to Ukraine.
But that can also go wrong. When Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke before the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in March and compared Russia’s attack on his country with the Holocaust, it was immediately met with outrage. The words of the Ukrainian president “border on Holocaust denial,” it said.
How important it is to carefully weigh your words, especially in this already heated atmosphere, was shown most recently by the farce about why Olaf Scholz didn’t say: Ukraine must win the war. Of course, wisely, not a single Western head of state says that, neither Joe Biden nor Boris Johnson, neither Emmanuel Macron nor Justin Trudeau. Meticulous care is taken not to prejudice any conditions for a ceasefire.
The West’s goal must remain to support Ukraine to the best of its ability, to weaken Russia and to deter other countries, such as China, from acts of aggression. Neither the fear of an escalation of the war nor the fear of Russian hegemony should be ignored. Anyone who does not keep this in balance is acting negligently.