“As a person who believes in democracy, it’s disappointing to read from your comments that you are ideologically opposed to western values“.
My heart sank a little as I read this somewhat definitive conclusion about my cultural values, posted by a friend on Facebook. She was responding to an observation I had made in reference to the triumphalist tone and seeming amnesia of certain American news anchors, in reporting on the war in Ukraine. Our exchange stimulated an unexpected enquiry.
Contemplating her words, initially I could feel the familiar tug of polarization within myself. The same divisive force that permeates contemporary western culture, pitting one position against another.
This war has now raged for 78 days, with no sign of abating. An indefensible act of aggression, triggered by a single powerful demagogue, it has unleashed a scale of destruction and suffering, that seems almost surreal in 21st century Europe. Yet it is very real.
This ugly phenomenon which engulfs so many invisible lives in far flung places, is now on our own doorstep. Our screens reflect to us on a daily basis, the glazed expressions of exhausted, shell-shocked refugees fleeing their broken lives. The raw reality of war conveyed through the anguish of families torn apart, of those burying loved ones senselessly snatched away, and the ghostly images of burnout homes — skeletons of once busy thriving communities.
The western world has been shaken by the brutal audacity of Putin. Simultaneously, we have been awed by the youthful Zelensky’s leadership – his courage and sheer love for his country and people. This feels strangely novel, a heroism of bygone days. Zelensky’s response to the offer of evacuation by his American counterparts, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” spoke to his priorities.
Whatever one’s political orientations, or views on Zelensky’s alleged inclination towards neoliberal westernisation prior to the invasion, his unwavering commitment to his people under wartime conditions, has ignited an almost superhuman spirit in ordinary citizens to defend their country. As Russian tanks rolled towards Kiev, in quiet defiance Zelensky stated, “Our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.”
Default Positions Unveiled
Extreme crises can awaken us to realities beyond ourselves. They tend to open our hearts, at least temporarily. But war in particular can also evoke our default positions, which tend to coalesce around one side of a binary. This is a phenomenon that pervades even so-called progressive minds, including my own. And it is for this reason we are exploring this topic at 3rd Space, in relationship to the war in Ukraine.
I watched this polarization play out within myself in the first days of the war as its shocking reality unfolded. Righteous rage at Putin’s indefensible aggression kept me silently rooting for NATO to respond more definitively, despite the risks. Grief and admiration had me cheering for Zelensky and his courageous army of willing citizens.
At the same time, I felt a creeping recoil at the familiar black and white narrative of ‘good versus evil’ coming out of the West, mirrored in my own reactions. Both Russia and the West are quick to circulate essentialist views of each other framed in this way. Some call it propaganda. In British media this war is often portrayed as a battle simply between democracy and autocracy.
However, I know too much about recent modern history to allow myself the luxury of identifying with my cultural defaults for very long. Neither the moral triumphalism of liberal media, nor the reductionism of those on the far left who verge on being Putin apologists, sat comfortably in my heart and mind. But the shocking rawness of war and its innate injustices are hard to avoid, evoking visceral, uncensored responses. These, I found, can serve to challenge us to reflect – to reconsider our humanity and engage with issues that lie beyond the personal sphere of our own lives—to look afresh at who we think we are.
One of the first things I noticed was how impacted I felt. Like thousands of others, I spent hours glued to my screen, following endless news cycles. I gave money and explored options of opening our flat to a refugee. I petitioned the government on its hypocritical and inhumane asylum policy that threw constant obstacles in the way of Ukrainians seeking refuge in the UK. I witnessed European neighbours opening their hearts, their homes, and their bank accounts to fleeing Ukrainians. There has been an outpouring of extraordinary empathy. I felt good about ‘us’.
However, one morning in that pre-dawn stillness where our subconscious can speak to us with unfiltered clarity, I saw the contrast between my concern for our Ukrainian neighbours, and that which I extend to other refugees. Human beings whose situation is no less desperate. The deep truth of tribalism and its ugly racist connotations was humbling to my liberal self.
“This is different” exclaimed a friend of mine, “You can’t compare. This is autocracy versus democracy!” I could hear the echo of my Facebook friend. Was I missing the point?
Could it be that simple – a question of Western democracy versus the brutal autocracy played out by Russia against its neighbour? A leader surrounded and enabled by rich oligarchs? It sounded convincing.
Western Values Under Scrutiny
It is generally agreed today that it’s wrong for any nation to invade another. Our hearts naturally go out to those thrust into a conflict not of their own choosing. Yet I understand why the drum beat of western moral authority evokes allegations of hypocrisy. The propensity of western superpowers to topple democratically elected governments in service of their own interests, has been demonstrated countless times. Even recent histories of both UK and US foreign policy are rife with examples. And most of the world has not forgotten.
This is precisely why the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq is often quoted: an indefensible invasion made worse by US impunity. The scale of destruction of that war, launched under false pretences, is seared in many minds, including my own. Similarly, the string of western coups and ‘regime change’ orchestrated by Britain in the Middle East, and the CIA in Africa, Central and South America throughout the twentieth century, is hard to forget given the consequences in plain sight. How does the policy of such ‘regime change’ fit with democratic principles? Especially on those occasions where this has been utilised to install corrupt or brutal dictators? Think Iran, Chile, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name but a few. Yet, these equivalencies do not negate or diminish the naked aggression demonstrated by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Question of NATO
There are layers to this situation – elements of truth within the many narratives and perspectives that have emerged since this war erupted. NATO’s role in ignoring Putin’s concerns about the expansion of its borders eastward is foremost. Ukraine remains one of a handful of countries bordering Russia that is not part of NATO. And it has made clear its desire to join the Alliance.
To many, however, the fact that NATO is a defensive coalition, makes it hardly credible that its intentions are to attack a nuclear-armed Russia. This raises a further question of whether Putin’s invasion is less out of fear of NATO, and more an issue of pathological wounded pride. Since the fall of the Soviet empire, a string of Eastern European countries sharing borders with Russia, have formally elected to express their own agency, and have chosen NATO to ensure military protection. A matter of deep concern to Putin.
It could be argued that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a long time coming, predicated by his invasion of Crimea in 2014. Some claim that recent attempts to westernise Ukraine have created a divide between what is seen as ‘backward’ (eastern Russian dominated) areas, and those identifying as ‘modern’. The Russian-speaking population of Ukraine constitutes the largest Russophone community outside of Russia. They have witnessed a steady liquidation in the status of Russian as a regional language. Given the increasing conflict, the question arises as to whether international support for agreements made, such as Minsk 2* was robust enough? Putin was initially open to signing this agreement, but it was never implemented.
Waning Moral Authority?
Those who attribute the invasion of Ukraine to Putin’s psychology see only a bruised xenophobic ego, a nostalgic narcissist nursing a deep delusional desire to restore his country’s former glory, including its status as a superpower. There may be truth to this, but evidence indicates that a mosaic of factors past and present have converged to create this volatile, dangerous, and tragic outcome. Where we go from here will depend a lot on what our global priorities are and indeed our values.
The West has lost a lot of its moral authority on the world stage, even regarding human rights. The stain of Abhu Ghraib, US black op sites, the continuing presence of Guantanamo Bay, the treatment of asylum seekers along the Mexican border and on British shores, speak to a few of the egregious examples of the unevenness in the application of human rights.
International finance doesn’t fare much better. Western institutions resistant to responsibility for escalating climate change, a result of neoliberal economic policies favouring the rich, is an example of deeply ingrained structural injustice. Furthermore, debt re-payments tied to free trade deals have historically ensured western corporate control of natural resources in the global south. Elon Musk’s tweet in July 2020 following a failed coup in lithium-rich Bolivia, allegedly orchestrated by the US, “We’ll coup whoever we want to…Deal with it!”, encapsulates the arrogance and violence of neo-colonial policies. We may bask in the glow of western values in the global north, but the above is common knowledge in most of the global south.
It’s important, however, not to conflate this with a denial of values highly esteemed in the West, and hard won. Human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, judicial law, and women’s rights are rightfully prized. But are we protecting these rights? Or are we letting them wither under assumptions of moral superiority?
The Steps To Collaboration
These are among the questions, the deeper interrogation of myself and the assumptions I share with my culture, that the war in Ukraine has evoked. Can we suspend our cultural certainty, in order to re-evaluate our relationship to our values and the role they play, or don’t play, in areas that affect us all?
Is it right to have Ukraine become the theatre of a dangerous proxy war between the West and Russia, where the suffering caused by a prolonged military response aiming to “weaken” Russia, once again falls on innocent civilians? I wonder what the priority is here – is it ‘winning’ or creating stability? What is the focus of our leaders – crushing Putin and therefore Russia, or ending the violence and creating a peace that can work? The business of arms is not the business of peace. War can mask a multitude of ‘sins’.
We often talk of collaboration, of building a ‘new world’. Right now, skilfully navigating the psychology of a narcissistic demagogue may be the necessary first step in the process of finding a solution in Ukraine, that is not predicated on ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Most people will agree that collaboration is crucial in the face of the scale of the global challenges we face today. But how do we get there?
Whatever the answers are to this question, a suspension of our impulse to be right, to be certain, is clearly needed. Lack of certainty, whether personal or cultural, does not mean disabling doubt; nor is it a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it allows us the freedom to question, to revisit our motivations and fixed positions, to be receptive to unseen possibilities that we don’t already know or see. In this exists a potential for deepening our humanity…perhaps our most creative resource.
* In the Minsk 2 Agreement of Feb 2015, Ukraine granted self-government to areas of Donbas, containing control of its national borders.
Photo thanks to Human Rights Watch, paintings thanks to Anselm Kiefer.