When Russia-fearing Polish leaders ostentatiously offered all their Soviet-era MiG 29 “Fulcrum” fighter aircraft to Ukraine, their idea was to simply fly them to Ramstein Air Base in Germany; they had not consulted with NATO or the U.S.A. Ramstein is held jointly by the U.S.A. and by NATO, and for the Polish Air Force’s 28 Fulcrums to simply land there seems designed to embarrass the U.S.A., NATO, and Germany while enraging Putin. If the U.S.A. made up the loss with F-16s for Poland, the right-wing government there would have a much stronger air force, and Ukraine would have additional fighter jets that its pilots already know well. Thus, there would be even more pressure for Biden to institute a “no-fly zone” over war-torn Ukraine.
This aggressive move by Russia-hating Poland to trade its fleet of Soviet-era jets for use in Ukraine was an offer Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken wisely, if sadly, rejected at the time.
Ramstein Airbase isn’t actually German, although it is located in our NATO ally Germany’s Rhineland-Pfalz state near Kaiserslautern. In 1973, my partner and I rented a flat in the Kaiserslautern region near Ramstein while I taught American GIs Western Civilization classes for the University of Maryland. The 3,500-acre U.S. military installation includes several NATO command centers, including NATO headquarters for the Allied Air Forces Central Europe.
Driving around the expansive airbase back then, with its hospitals and bowling alleys and shopping centers for GIs and their dependents, felt like mid-century America catapulted into central Europe. In the 1970s, West Germans quite liked Americans and appreciated the U.S. Air Force presence as a shield against an earlier version of a nationalistic Russia in the Soviet era, with Brezhnev in charge. The Cold War raged, so to speak, and there were strong memories then of the Soviet crackdowns on Czechoslovakia in 1968 when their tanks rolled back into Prague, Hungary in 1956, and their ill-fated attack on Afghanistan.
These 1970s could also be termed the First Cold War between the U.S.A. and Russia. As NATO’s leading ally, we’re now mired in a Second Cold War, with our western Ukrainian proxies directly battling the vicious Russian aggressors.
When new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz quickly stated that these Polish MiGs certainly would not be landing at Ramstein AB, he merely asserted German sovereignty over German land, but he also shrewdly chose not to confront Putin any more directly. Just a few days earlier, Germany had made their historic decision to spend much more on military development, including more offensive weapons systems like Lockheed’s expensive F-35C jet. Though a NATO member since 1955, Germany’s defense budget has always been incredibly low at less than 1.5 percent of GDP. As the humiliated loser in World War II, all the Western “Allies” wanted Germany basically demilitarized. Recently, many NATO members mocked Germany for its weak offer of “5,000 helmets” to suffering Ukraine, but the truth is that Germany has been militarily quite weak since 1945 because the western Allies wanted its armies defanged. The U.S.A. spends about 3.3 percent of a vastly larger GDP on military stuff — $680 billion per year.
I believe Scholz’s decision is a mistake and the eventual reemergence of Germany as a central European military power will result in more friction and eventual combat, just as we’ve seen a newly obdurate Ukraine battling with the invading Russians.
Part of Putin’s lying screed usually includes the well-worn “fascism” charge combined with special emphasis on the “neo-Nazis” ruling in Kyiv. He routinely employs this Soviet-era canard against the democratically elected government of Ukraine and often throws in another convenient charge that Kyiv is “anti-Semitic.” The heroic Zelenskyy is Jewish himself, as are other members of the government, and we clearly see how Putin is gaslighting the West with these tired tropes. Like our former president, Putin’s behavior is fascistic, tyrannical, and cleverly opportunistic. A more honest term for Putin’s grotesque regime is “totalitarianism,” coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt in her important 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
When Chancellor Scholz went ahead and flipped Angela Merkel’s anti-militarism strategy by making a 100-billion-euro defense increase, he pushed Germany’s military spending above the hitherto-sacrosanct “2 percent” of GDP barrier. Scholz played into Putin’s hands by mentioning the likely purchase of the F-35Cs to replace Deutschland’s 90 aging and toothless British Tornadoes — aircraft retired long ago in Britain. As much as Putin fears the U.S.A., like most Russians, he especially loathes the Germans but fears them as well, as he should.
While Russia certainly lies about fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the old Soviet refrain reveals Putin himself as an aggressive neo-fascist and would-be Hitler. Like Trump claiming the November 2020 election was “stolen,” in truth, both men are gaslighting. The former president tried to overturn the presidential election in his violent attempted coup on January 6, 2021; Putin is another nationalistic warmonger and radical gangster gaslighting his own people with fake charges about Ukraine.
Putin carefully ignores Stalin’s earlier 1939 pact with Hitler to gobble up an independent Poland, and the U.S.A. has indeed downplayed the Russian people’s contribution to defeating Hitler. However, this supplies the slender reed of truth in Putin’s Big Lie that no one respects Russia’s contributions in WWII. Two years after their infamous pact, Hitler stabbed Stalin in the back and brutally invaded the USSR, which eventually led to Nazi Germany’s defeat, as well as the deaths of 24,000,000 Russians.
Why did we imagine in the U.S.A. that by electing a Black president we had made great progress in race relations?
Why did we imagine heavy conventional war had ended as a real possibility once Hitler and Japan had been defeated and we’d lost the Vietnam War by 1973? We most conveniently forget about the two American wars on Iraq. The 2003-2007 invasion broke international law, too.
When the canny Merkel was asked in 2015 about her opposition to arming the Ukrainians with extremely lethal weapons like the Javelin, she replied that these upgrades would simply promote more open war like the horrible 20th-century style conventional tank and air combat, and the end result would simply be more dead boys on a field somewhere.
Putin would have invaded the rest of Ukraine earlier if NATO had begun to send lethal Javelin weapons there in 2015; Ukraine is not part of NATO; instituting a no-fly zone would constitute an act of war the minute one of “our” jets downs a Russian military aircraft; there is no such thing as a “partial no-fly zone.” Zelenskyy made powerful and dramatic speeches to the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress, but we should not create the no-fly zone he understandably wishes. Secretary of State Blinken and President Biden are correct in rejecting the spurious offer of Fulcrums, too. Russia could also feel empowered, for example, to bomb Ramstein AB, where the Fulcrums would have to be refurbished before being sent into a war zone from a NATO country. Many Americans quite underestimate Putin’s hatred of the West — especially U.S.A. and Germany — and they also underestimate Angela Merkel’s peace-loving strategies.