Disgust at Russia’s actions in Ukraine is understandable. Even, in the true meaning of the word , it is righteous, but if there is ever to be an end to this horror show we need to understand that this is just one view, there are others and they will need to be worked with as, unpalatable as that may seem.
Viewed from some parts of the Middle East and the Global South the disgust of the West is seen as hypocrisy and if you are any kind of student of history you can see why.
Trumped up reasons to justify a war based on totally false evidence, just an excuse to do what you politically wanted ? Look no further than Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator, but for a while, for the West, he was a useful ruthless dictator, OUR useful ruthless dictator. Until of course he wasn’t useful any more . But in denying the motivation for regime change and manufacturing a knowingly false premise of weapons of mass destruction, the West legitimised the business plan for regime change that others were already following.
There are other ruthless totalitarian states scattered around happy to chuck human rights out of the window that the West are pleased to support because we need whatever it is that they happen to have in their country. Our own serial leader-liar was one of the first to get on a plane to Middle Eastern Countries with appalling human rights issues in order to secure oil. Pragmatism or hypocrisy ? It is hard to see where one ends and the other begins . Or should that be the other way round? They are such close bedfellows.
The record of the CIA, an agency never originally conceived of as interventionist, is one of staggering; arrogance , hypocrisy and disregard for human rights. Especially in their own back yard from the Bay of Pigs to Chile, Bolivia and Venezuela , but they have a finger in many pies, and their history of extraordinary rendition etc is now very much known.
In Europe we can look to our own history. As we held on to the last vestiges of Empire , our human rights record was not exactly squeaky clean, anything but. Here, we nostalgically tend to ascribe to ourselves the notion that the fall of Empire was a kind of painless and beneficent dissolution .True, it could have been worse but to wallow in that self delusion is also to deny the rapacity that colonialism is and which has left former colonies with an economic and social legacy that they still struggle to manage. Room for them to see things differently? Inevitably.
Yet this is the legacy of a series of countries that call themselves democratic, as if that description, in of itself, infers benevolence that is ultimately better than autocracy.
To some it is results that count more than intentions. If the outcome of an autocratic regime is; stability, economic prosperity, food in the mouths of children, decent education, viable health systems , who are we to criticise that from our ivory tower crumbling with hypocrisy ? Or so our critics would suggest, and it is hard to argue with.
Democracy is not a morally better political system if it operates hypocritically, tolerating convenient autocracy and abuses by “useful others.” By operating that way it denies the belief system that established itself in the first place .
One of Russia’s justifications for invading Ukraine, with the openly self evident intention of regime change was “Denazification.” To infer Nazi status to the Jewish President of a democratic country is a bizarre departure from the truth. But if you listen carefully to Russian foreign policy advisors that is not what they were inferring, they were just using the evidence of pro nazi groups in Ukraine as justification for their actions. Upping the rhetoric for local consumption.
There are pro Nazi groups in Ukraine, I have been there, it is true. A tiny but vociferous and visible minority.
The allegation though is entirely an artifice, an excuse ramped up into a logic for invasion . In terms of scale, you could frankly make the same argument about the UK . We have far right groups, or France which came reasonably close to electing a far right President. Then there is Trump and storming the Capitol. The allegation made against us would take a grain of truth and grow it to a mountain of lies . The same is true for Ukraine.
But did we know about those far right, ultra nationalist elements in Ukraine before the war? Most of us could say no, but politically the only honest answer is, yes.
Did we know that the Ukrainian economy ( one of the poorest countries in Europe) was appallingly skewed to the benefit of Oligarchs, yes we did. I was there in 2019 and believe me it was blindingly obvious .
What were we in the West doing about those things ? Ukraine wanted to be a part of Nato, it wanted to be a part of the EU, were we using those potential levers to address those issues directly? Or did we put it in the “ too hard “ box? Or did we just not care ?
They say that the first casualty of war is the Truth, I’d qualify that. The first casualty of war is nuance . War offers us self evident truths that mar observation of greys and push us to black and whites. We lose sight of nuance .
“ This is self evidently Wrong “ ( the invasion of Ukraine ) does not lead to “ so this is self evidently right ( every aspect of Ukraine’s position) . It is a non sequential conclusion .
The Dombas, evidentially a part of Ukraine is not a black and white issue. The irony for Russia is that the invasion has probably made the Russian speaking majority there, who held legitimate concerns about their status under Ukraine, closer to Ukraine and further from Russia. But that does not mean that they never had legitimate concerns . It doesn’t mean that there is no older generation with sympathies to the east or memories of fighting together as brothers and sisters in the Second World War.
Russia, secure in the belief that Nato would not expand Eastward ( because we said so ) watched as it very obviously did the exact opposite. Does that justify the invasion of Ukraine? Obviously not. Ironically the invasion may lead to Finland and Sweden abandoning neutrality, but Nato’s expansion gave the semblance of a legitimate concern to the position of Hawks like Putin and Lavrov that they could exploit.
I wonder how often the words “ look, I told you so ” were used in political circles in the Kremlin as Nato pushed ever eastward? We, the West, had the opportunity of Russia’s weakness with the collapse of the Soviet Union, to reach out. We did economically , but foolishly we forgot that the Western political reality that has been around for decades “ it’s all about the Economy stupid, ” does not carry the same weight as the security argument in a paranoid autocracy .
The Acts of war change the Facts of war.
Whatever motivation Russia may have had at the beginning what we are left with is a proxy war where Ukraine is the canvas but two much larger painters are plying their trade. This has mutated into is a “who blinks first “ confrontation between Russia and Nato.
They say that Putin was misinformed about the weakness of Ukraine and given the assumption that it would roll over and he would be able to assume the annexing of a happy and compliant Ukraine as his legacy. I personally don’t think he is that gullible, though he could be that cynical . The facts of this war has changed from that notion towards this being a long drawn out affair with a sea of young Russian blood that will gradually seep into the awareness of the Russian people. Even if they believe the hype about Ukrainian Nazi’s you can hide just so many funerals from Russians.
When I first started to talk about this War I spoke, to the concern of some, about Russian genocide. My position on that has not changed one iota . The indiscriminate pounding to bits of civilian areas married to the complete denial of Russian troop’s war crimes, and Putin’s self proclaimed intention to wipe out the fact of Ukraine as a sovereign nation , just confirms my understanding that genocide is what this is . War crimes will need pursuing. Putin will have his legacy but it will be the senseless deaths of tens of thousands of his own troops and the obscene indiscriminate killing of civilians.
We need however to recognise that some outside of the West and the North will listen with willing ears to Russian propaganda because they see it in the same way as Iraq was justified to the West, also by lies and a carefully created propaganda machine of our own .
We do however have a democratic asset that is denied to autocratic countries, and that is a free press. Sadly, all too often the 4th estate forgets its place as an independent assessor of the status quo and steps in line.
This for me is where they can play a role.
We need to hold genocidal dictators to account . But we also need to hold our own politicians to account for the hypocrisy that they bring to the table in international affairs because that creates the excuses for others to behave badly.
We need also to look at the question “ and what now?”
I doubt Ukraine can “ win “ this war in any conventional sense of the word. I doubt that Russia can annex Ukraine with the kind of international dithering that took place with Crimea. But if we assume ( and it is not a cast iron assumption ) that neither party wants a NATO / Russia direct confrontation then there has to be a ‘ what now “ discussion which includes both parties and which results in compromise.
Short of some internal Russian volte face Putin will not be dragged to the confessional beating his chest repeating “ mea culpa. “
A commentator said very early on in this war that sides will need to hold their noses at some point and sit around a table. Short of an unconditional surrender on either side, that is inevitable. It will be about power speaking to power .
But before we try to adopt the moral high ground we might want to take a glance in the mirror first. Because the values we believe inform our position may not be as others see us.
That is the problem with the moral high ground, you cannot be selective about when you scale it, it has to be consistent, and the history the West is anything but .
A lot will be be decided on the posturing of Putin on May 9th.