The invasion of Ukraine by Russia last week, 8 years after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, is horrendous. No people should ever have to endure this. My heart hurts for the Ukrainians and those in Ukraine whose lives will never be the same again.
What I’ve witnessed over the last few days shouldn’t have surprised me, but I’ll be honest and say that it did. I was surprised at how many people who are often silent on the daily inhumanities people face woke up and were vocal about the invasion in ways I hadn’t seen before for any other country or people under attack or occupation.
As I watch this unfold, I’m open to two things that are probably true:
- that each person can’t make space to hold all the pain around the world at once. And;
- the unique global significance of the geopolitical ramifications of Russia, with the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world, using Ukraine as the battlefield in its war with NATO and ‘the West’.
While the second point has been widely commented on over the last week, I want to offer up observations of dynamics I’m seeing that do need to be surfaced, because I think they are also true and haven’t perhaps got the attention they might need.
Ukraine has been presented as meaning something different to many people who have to date remained silent on other ‘political’ matters. This isn’t just another war. This war is different to them. People who have never mentioned this issue before are now in favour of opening up borders for refugees. They’re making political demands for sanctions and boycotts. Companies are actively choosing to reduce their profit, by giving, for example, free calls to Ukraine or waiving bank transfer fees to Ukraine.
I want to offer up why the invasion of Ukraine might mean something more than other invasions and wars elsewhere in the world to certain communities in North America and Western Europe. And it has a lot to do with colonialism and racism.
Before I go any further, I want to affirm that critiquing how this invasion is framed and expressed by certain politicians, governments and media institutions does not reduce the horror of this invasion for Ukraine and it is certainly not pro-Russia. This is not an exercise in diminishing the tent of people’s humanity, but actually one of widening it, making room for the many to have their humanity acknowledged. Grappling with contradictions in how we respond and understand social phenomena is critical to developing principles and practices that we can then apply and deploy consistently in line with our values and goals.
The media — as an institution — plays a powerful role in reproducing and reinforcing the social order and existing power relations, and it has been no different in reporting on the imperialist Russian invasion of Ukraine. The media’s role in reinforcing and reproducing colonialism and racism has been clear and explicit.
Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph writes “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone”.
A CBS reporter said “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan who has seen conflict rage for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it was going to happen”.
An Al Jazeera anchor said: “What’s compelling is just looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle class people, these are not obviously refugees, trying to get away from areas of the Middle East are still in big stages of war, they are not people trying to get away from areas of North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to”.
ITV News reporter said: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, Third World nation; this is Europe.”
When Ukraine’s former Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze speaking on the BBC said “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”. The reporter did not react.
These expressions reproduce the category of human that we call European as being deserving of dignity and safety. And these expressions reinforce that we should feel and believe that Europeans, in particular, deserve dignity and safety. The Europeanness of White Ukrainians (for the time being at least) affords them their humanity in this situation. I say for the time being because while some Ukrainians are now worthy victims, that is likely an unstable position. Eastern Europeans experience significant xenophobia in the UK. Remember during the Brexit referendum? The morning after, the Polish Centre in Hammersmith had been vandalised with racist graffiti. A report from two years ago stated that Eastern European kids were experiencing racist bullying because of their identity in UK schools. The category of Eastern Europeans is also not monolithic. Roma, Jewish and Tartar Ukrainians/Eastern Europeans, for example, will have particular histories and experiences of racism too. This is again not saying that Ukranians should not be granted their humanity, at all. It’s naming the ways that racism is socially and politically contingent such that certain groups can at times be brought into the tent of ‘Whiteness’ and have their humanity granted, only for them to be expelled from it at other times, as needed by those with power. This is not new or unique: the assimilation of different groups into Whiteness at different times is a central mechanism of maintaining and furthering White supremacy.
Within a “European” or “Western” framework, racism and colonialism determine that suffering should not be normal for Europeans (and who is European at any particular time is a flexible category, as noted above). But suffering, death and war is determined to be normal and of no consequence to non-Europeans, non-White people, to those collectively positioned by systems of racism and colonialism, as ‘the uncivilised’.
We can see this clearly with respect to European border regimes. Poland is leaving stranded refugees from Afghanistan and Syria at the border, while Polish officials claimed that anyone from Ukraine is allowed entry, even those who do not hold valid passports. Over 120,000 people were accepted into Poland from Ukraine just a few days after the invasion. By comparison, some 30 Afghan migrants, who left their country before the Taliban takeover in August 2021, were stuck between the borders of Belarus and Poland for a few months without easy access to food, water or toilets. Poland wouldn’t let them in and Belarus, which initially granted them visas, wouldn’t let them return from the border. Black Ukrainians and residents have been confronted with racism in action — extra checks at borders as well as being denied access to buses and trains. The innocence granted to Ukranians is not related to the physical and geographic border of those wishing to flee the invasion. There is also a sociological border of what a racist world order conceives of as Ukrainian — and Black people have not been permitted to cross it.
We see this with the EU more broadly. It has declared that it will take Ukrainian refugees for 3 years without asking them to apply for asylum. I think this is a powerful and important policy. A policy that should be extended to other communities around the world. Instead the EU is actually engaged in further violence on its borders and a policy of what it terms ‘border externalisation’ which extends Europe’s militarised borders ever deeper into Africa, for example. While the EU states that the goal of this policy is to make it safer for refugees, we know it simply leads refugees to take ever more dangerous routes to flee violence in their home countries. Violence, it’s worth saying, that doesn’t just emerge out of nowhere. It’s violence that is produced out of capitalist accumulation and the legacies of European colonialism and imperialism in the Global South that ultimately forces some people to migrate.
Another manifestation of the racism and colonialism surrounding the commentary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is positioning Russia as uniquely evil, violent and dangerous as a nation state. To raise this is not to be pro-Putin, pro-Russia, or pro-invasion. I condemn Russian violence in Syria for example, where Russian attacks have occurred since 2015. And I unequivocally condemn Russian imperial aggression and violence in Ukraine.
This commentary of Russia as uniquely evil though has abounded and also emerged from none other than Condoleezza Rice, one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which might strike many of us as odd. It’s commentary that gets other nations off the hook from their exploits.
Fox news anchor Harris Faulkner: “When you invade a sovereign nation, that is a war crime. I think we are at just a real basic point there”.
Condoleezza Rice: “I’d agree. It is certainly against every principle of international law and international order. And that’s why we are throwing the book at them now in terms of economic sanctions and punishments, is also a part of it. The world is there. NATO is there. He has managed to unite NATO in ways I didn’t think I’d see since after the end of the cold war”.
Perhaps this narrative can be propagated because the sovereignty of Arab countries, or majority-Muslim countries, or non-White countries, such as Iraq, are not interpreted as legitimate. Perhaps if you’re the “uncivilized” of the world, then you simply don’t have access to the status of ‘sovereign nation’ where an invasion by another country is deemed a war crime.
At the root of colonial and imperial endeavours is the idea that people subjected to colonial or imperial violence aren’t actually legitimately people with valid interests, identities and needs — which is why coercing them into a new social order is acceptable or beneficial. It’s why when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire there was a decree in 1863 limiting use of the Ukrainian language. Additionally, we see the idea — propagated by any imperial regime — that those subject to colonial/imperial violence are actually in need of the colonial regime’s assistance, support and presence. We also see this expressed in Putin’s framing of his invasion of Ukraine on 21st February 2022 and his earlier July 2021 essay ‘On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians”. Invasion is deemed beneficial, even when it is violent domination. While the particulars of imperial endeavours aren’t ever exact, similar logics do unfold.
And they unfold to this day. While Rice with a straight face comments on Russia’s abhorrent aggression despite her own history, the UK is similarly engaging with messaging that erases its own participation in violence. While condemning Russian aggression on one hand, and yes, Russia is using barbaric tactics in Ukraine, the UK government on the other is denying Ukrainian refugees safe haven justified by ever creative ideas such as Ukrainian refugees will actually be Russian extremists in disguise. The UK government also ignores its own role in war, such as the UK selling and profiting from arms to Saudi Arabia for it to kill people in Yemen. All war is barbaric. No one should ever have to suffer war. We can hold this position. It expands our capacity to acknowledge a multitude of people who are vulnerable and in need of resources to survive devastating conditions that no one deserves.
There are no inherent ‘good guys’ within the nation state model. All states will produce justifications for the violence they enact on ‘the other’ — however that is defined at the time. I can hold that interpretation of the status quo and also recognise the truly terrible realities for Ukraine and its people right now. I can honour the principle that there doesn’t need to be a perfect victim for people to have their humanity recognised.
I do not raise the violence borders impose on people from South West Asia or Africa as traditional whataboutery, believe it or not. I don’t want to deflect away from talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as whataboutery so often intends. The selection of laws, policies and institutions I’ve highlighted that are central to racism and colonialism create the conditions where people can have elevated empathy for one group of people over another and engage in actions to that end. Maybe without intention. But certainly with consequences. I’ve highlighted the structures that produce these conditions because I want — for myself especially — to recognise when I am producing hierarchies of humans — those who deserve my empathy and those who do not. I want — for myself especially — to expand and extend my perimeter of the lives I see as valuable. I want — for myself first and foremost — to be able to recognise the patterns of violence found absolutely in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the border regimes of neighbouring countries and to see the commonalities with other acts of violence and aggression around the world so that I can be even more determined to name and orient myself to a politics that interrupts them.
I don’t have the answers on how to bring a cessation of violence in Ukraine. But I know that militarisation, weaponry and violence rarely produce safety and peace. I say this while acknowledging the bravery and necessity in Ukrainians taking up arms to resist Russia — for whom such an act was previously unimaginable for so many, and who feel no choice than to do what so many other communities have had to do and still are doing to resist imperial aggression. I do know that we need new international regimes rooted in consent, mutuality, distributed power and fairness. Which I say while acknowledging that it may feel impossible when the stakes are so high and so many lives are already lost or forever changed and when power appears so asymmetric. We know we have the capacity and will for this as protesters the world over, some of whom are facing severe police repression, are proving.
What can any of us outside of Ukraine do? The Kyiv Declaration from Ukrainian civil society leaders and human rights groups makes its 6 demands here. Sifted.eu have compiled a list of ways folks can support Ukrainians whether from an HR perspective for colleagues you may have, to offering a room in your home to hiring Ukrainian remote staff right now. This site — Support Ukraine Now — compiled by Global Shapers is a volunteer-led resource with a wealth of options for anyone who wants to be in solidarity right now. This page created by Tomasz Onyszko also has important resources too you may find useful.