The Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Let me begin by saying there is no excuse for what Russia is doing in Ukraine. There were no grounds for war. There is no justification for invasion. There is no excuse for the bombing of civilians or the destruction of housing stock, industry or cultural heritage. There very rarely is a justification for war in any case, and in this one there is none whatsoever other than whatever can be said about Putin’s state of mind. 

Putin is a brutal, murderous autocrat quite probably in the last phase of power when a dictator’s instincts are often to lash out at whatever passing innocent comes within his reach.

The Ukrainian resistance to this unprovoked and undeserved attack is remarkable, admirable and, given the relative sizes of the armed forces involved, incredibly courageous. Ukraine deserves our support including the welcoming of refugees. As an Irish person I applaud our government’s decision to waive all visa requirements and as a citizen of the EU I approve of that body’s move to do the same.

All of this, it seems to me, should not need to be said, but does because there are apologists for Putin’s brutality in the West – both on the Right where his autocratic rule is envied, and very occasionally on the Left where some comrades secretly believe he is trying to reinstate communism. Suffice to say that I am not of either camp. Putin is not a comrade or a fellow traveller of the Left. He is its antithesis.

However, what I wish to address here is the West’s hypocrisy. 

When the USA invaded Afghanistan without provocation and used  torture, depleted uranium weapons and thermobaric bombs because George W Bush thought it would be an easy victory (as Putin did for the Ukraine) there was no sequestering of American investments – not because we thought it was right but because we knew what side our bread was buttered on. When Israel invaded Lebanon and sponsored the massacres at Sabra and Shatila there was no international boycott, nor did it happen when they attacked and reduced Gaza, in the process killing international observers and journalists as well as thousands of ordinary Palestinians, destroying their homes and reducing what infrastructure existed to rubble. When the USA and its allies decided to attack Iraq and destabilise the Middle East, thereby creating ISIS and all that followed, no European country banned US citizens from travel or barred them from the SWIFT system. Nor did we open our doors (with the exception of Germany for a brief period under Merkel) to the hundreds of thousands of refugees created by our hubris, despite our present welcome for the Ukrainians. Does whiteness explain that? 

The narrative that Putin is ‘uniquely evil’ in the present world would be laughable if it were not also a means of deflecting rational thought. Firstly the word ‘evil’ is not useful in terms of politics. Secondly, there are many excellent candidates for the position of the Uniquely Evil One if we are to establish such a role – and the West has its share. Putin has prosecuted wars in Chechnya, a conflict that long predated his rise to power, the Crimea, the present invasion of Ukraine and the Syrian war in which he intervened to prop up Bashar Al Assad. During roughly the same period, the USA and Britain and their allies have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and intervened in several other conflicts, particularly the Syrian War, the Yemeni Civil War, the Somali Civil War and the Libyan Civil War and both countries are the prime suppliers of arms and financial support to Israel allowing it to continue its covert war in various neighbouring countries and Palestine, and to practise its apartheid making the lives of Palestinians a misery. This is not to say that any nation is The Great Satan, but that the geopolitics of superpowers almost always involves bringing death and destruction to smaller nations. The USA, Russia, China and lesser powers like Britain talk much of human rights and freedom but place self-interest above all. However, nobody has spoken of George W Bush as ‘uniquely evil’, at least nobody rational.

The idea that Putin is mad or suffering from dementia is a mistake. There is a rationale behind his actions. It is partly explained by NATO’s relentless advance against Russia’s borders, and partly by his own conception of a ‘Greater Russia’ in which the borders of the old Empire are reinstated and Russia is again a superpower the equal of China and the USA.

But an ideological analysis of the geopolitics of these wars is much more productive. Bush and Putin are nationalists. What after all was all the talk of The New American Century and the Pax Americana? And making Russia ‘great’ again is a well-documented feature of Putin’s thinking as it is of other nationalists like Trump and Boris Johnson – both of whom also exhibited or exhibit string authoritarian tendencies (think of England’s recently passed law allowing prison sentences for climate protestors who make too much noise or disrupt traffic).

And while Bush is unlikely to have read many books, Putin seems to have been influenced by the Russian fascist and antisemitic philosopher Ivan Ilyin who was an admirer of Mussolini, and who advocated political violence as a good in itself and justified political and racial murder. Putin would have found much solace in Ilyin when he gave thought to the murder of journalists and political opponents. 

Ilyin longed for the strongman, the Duce, who would come to lead Russia and who would overthrow what he saw as the evil of Bolshevism. Such a figure must embody power and appear heroic and enduring to the people. Democracy, he wrote, was irresponsible. A nation needed a dictator, a people needed a dictator to establish the rule of law but equally to be above the law. Fascism is the ultimate end of all extreme nationalism. And, as has often been observed, once you vaunt your own nation over that of your neighbours, it’s not a big step to denying them agency in their own lives not to mention colonising them.

Boris Johnson is another such would-be autocrat, though the nation he would like to rule is not in the first rank of world powers, nor is it likely to tolerate a dictatorship as long as general elections give the illusion of change. And there are, of course, fascist movements in every European country and possibly every country in the world. Giorgia Meloni in Italy, head of the fascist formation Frattelli d’Italia, is an admirer of Putin.

In conclusion, I suggest that while Western opposition to Russia’s invasion is laudable and necessary, it would be less hypocritical if the same stringent sanctions had been applied to the USA or Israel when they too stepped outside international law or committed atrocities. We have very short memories when it comes to atrocity. For anyone seeking a better understanding of the West’s nefarious dealings in the past thirty or so years, I highly recommend Lara Marlowe’s beautiful, moving, shocking and brave memoir Love In A Time of War (Head of Zeus, 2021).

For a learned discussion of the concepts involved, in particular that of the so-called ‘just war’ see this article by professor Costas Douzinas.

To understand what it is like for a Palestinian to experience this hypocrisy see this article by the poet Rafeef Ziadah.

For the difference in treatment of non-white people in need of international protection read this interview of Donnah Vuma by Sorcha Pollak