After Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine on Thursday morning, 24 February 2022, European publics and leaders have responded urgently with nearly unanimous condemnation and rallied to support the Ukrainian state and people. Like many others, we are deeply troubled by the unfolding of war. However, as scholars studying war, we also raise concerns about the current and hasty militarisation of Europe. Moreover, while public empathy and support for the people of Ukraine are both understandable and warranted, we also point to the humanitarian racism it exposes and the global rise of Russophobia.
War in Europe
As we write this piece, thousands of soldiers and civilians have already died unnecessary deaths in the midst of war. Furthermore, more than a million Ukrainians have currently been displaced from their homes. And the war has just began. Millions more are likely to be hurt, die or be displaced in the weeks and months to come. How can we prevent this from happening? How can we avoid that the war and suffering in Ukraine escalates or becomes normalised (some still remember how the siege of Sarajevo was first met with similar outcry, which didn’t last long)? Moreover, how can we avoid both a new great war in Europe and the further militarisation of European societies with the unpredictable consequences this entails?
To begin, we want to highlight that the Russian invasion is not an isolated event but has a history of relations between Russia and Ukraine as well as between Russia, the US and NATO. For instance, although most media ignored it, approximately 14,000 people have been killed in the war in the Donbas since 2014, in a country that has been on the brink of large scale war since the Euromaidan. Moreover, the US and Europe have specific interests in the conflict, which currently risk turning the war in Ukraine into a proxy war. Also, frequent assertions that “war has no place in Europe” or that “this is the first European war since the cold war” are not only historically incorrect (think only of the war in the Balkans in the 1990s), but morally problematic as they neglect European countries’ violent interventions in foreign wars in Africa and the Middle East.
Less than two weeks after Putin started the invasion of Ukraine, there seems to be widespread popular understanding that diplomacy has been tried and failed, and that external military assistance is the only viable solution, a belief that is built on a fault premise. It is never too late to pursue diplomatic channels. Diplomacy can and does take place alongside violence, as has happened and continues to happen in conflicts around the world – indeed we should not forget that there are ongoing conflicts today that are concerning both for possible escalations as well as for the huge humanitarian consequences they bring, for example in Myanmar, Yemen, and Ethiopia.
To understand, and work towards ending, the war in Ukraine requires informed knowledge about its root causes and the evolution of the conflict. It might also require greater self-reflection on the part of Europe and its subaltern relationship with the US, as well as questioning of the Eurocentric narratives and beliefs that prevent us from understanding the complexity of the conflict and the fears and desires of all parties involved. In this piece, however, we do not dwell on the causes of the war, but recommend some easily available and accessible readings to better understand the context and the actors involved in a scenario that ranges from energy competition and interests to the expansion of NATO, as well as to the often cited support of Ukrainian neo-Nazis groups. Instead, we want to specifically focus on three broader and arguably under-addressed aspects of the war that have profound, long-term and possibly devastating implications: the militarisation of Europe, the problem of humanitarian racism, and the worrying phenomenon of Russophobia.
The special session of the German parliament on Sunday 27 February amounted to a political earthquake. The German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would help Ukraine with the supply of 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 surface-to-air missiles. More than that, the military budget would be scaled up by an additional 100 billion euros. With this, the German government broke with an anti-militarist tradition that developed following the defeat of the Nazi regime and with the principle of not sending weapons of war to conflict zones. Before, the US, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands had already provided or promised military assistance to Ukraine by sending weapons and mobilising troops in the NATO area. Apparently, the German move opened a space for other states to make “historical decisions”: among others, Sweden and Finland that have so far been considered “neutral” will send anti-tank weapons, rocket launchers, assault rifles and ammunition to Ukraine (see here). Forcing again in undesirable directions the predicament of its own Constitution, Italy is also sending weapons to Ukraine. The same has also been done by the “diplomatic champion” Norway, thus most likely undermining the possibility of serving as a credible broker in peace negotiations. Small NATO member states in the relative vicinity of the conflict, such as Croatia and Slovenia, do not have an armed industry they could call on and send to Ukraine. Balancing between obligations to NATO, the angry leader in the east, and the moral and political pressure to provide a tangible proof of being on the “right side”, they are bargaining with the lives of soldiers sent to the NATO’s borders. In the meantime, citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are buying non-perishable food: they remember war.
To start with, we note how public affect has been mobilised and regulated to support these interventions in an information war controlled overwhelmingly by the US. Now, what is the argument for sending weapons to Ukraine? In the words of the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, the imperative for sending weapons is that “we must not leave Ukraine defenceless against the aggressor”. The aim is to prevent the weaker party being quickly overwhelmed by the superior force. But this is not the same as what we believe – maybe idealistically – would be the overarching goal: stopping war. Let us reflect on what could result from the externally assisted military build-up of Ukraine. Do we hope that it turns Ukraine into David defeating the Russian Goliath? Or, perhaps, this helps the US in its strategy from one of deterrence to cost imposition, which indicates that they predict, and might even seek, to prolong the conflict, in order to impose high costs on Russia?
The most optimistic scenario is that external military assistance could work to strengthen Ukraine’s bargaining position, and thus help to end the war. However, lessons from past interventions demonstrate the possibility of more harmful consequences. For example, let us remember the case of Afghanistan, which has been a theatre of external interventions since the late 1970s (if we only consider contemporary history and don’t go back to the British attempt to colonise Afghanistan). In response to the Soviet Union’s intervention in favour of the incumbent communist government in Kabul, the US CIA increased its support to the oppositional Mujahedin that were labelled as “freedom fighters” (this framing reappears in the statement by UK’s foreign secretary Liz Truss in which she also backs external volunteers that want to fight alongside Ukrainians). While the Soviet Union had anticipated a short operation, the external assistance enhanced the military capabilities of the opposition forces.
The war in Afghanistan continued until the Soviet Union ultimately withdrew its troops in February 1989 after ten years of fighting. War did not stop after the Soviet withdrawal. In 1992, the Mujahedin seized Kabul and killed then president Mohammad Najibullah. However, the Mujahedin government of Burhanuddin Rabbani never managed to pacify the country and the following period was characterised by battles between different Mujahedin militias, massacres, rape, kidnappings and looting. This period came to an end in the 1990s when the Taliban brought most of the country under control and established their “Islamic Emirate”. In 2001, Afghanistan became the main theatre of the global “war on terror” when the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom attacked it. Twenty years of war and “democratisation” later, the Taliban returned to power with more legitimacy than before. Now, we don’t want to delve deep into Afghan history, but we do want to get across what this and other cases suggest: this kind of external military assistance is more likely to prolong than end wars.
In the case of the current war in Ukraine, external military assistance also risks a horizontal escalation which, in the best case, can turn the war in Ukraine into a proxy war between Russia and NATO and, in the worst case, can lead to a new world war or nuclear war. As Judith Butler notes, “war begets war. It produces outraged and humiliated people”. It also justifies exceptional and otherwise unthinkable measures.
While some of these risks have been considered and debated, absent from most discussions are the more long-lasting and structural consequences of a military response to the Russian invasion. Among other things, the “historic decisions” in European countries risk orienting future policies and conflict resolutions away from diplomacy towards military action. At the same time, we are currently observing the militarisation of European societies by boosting their operational and combat readiness, in terms of logistics, manpower and minds. The consequences of this militarisation of European societies are unpredictable, but worrisome.
As mentioned above, the Russian attacks on Ukraine have provoked massive moral outcry and mobilised European citizens across the continent to support the Ukrainian people. While we stress that these expressions of empathy and support are warranted, they also reveal some uncomfortable facts. Firstly, Europeans do not suffer from compassion fatigue, as many analysts suggested in the wake of the so-called “refugee crisis” in 2015. Conversely, seeing a European country with a largely white population being attacked awakens sentiments of solidarity and empathy in the European population that other wars and populations simply don’t. Scholars have long discussed the different degrees of humanity that are associated with world populations along binary views such as “civilized vs uncivilized”. Indeed, a massacre in Iraq or Afghanistan is described in global media (and perceived by the large majority) as less traumatic than a massacre in Europe or the US. It is not surprising, then, that many journalists, analysts, and politicians have described the war in Ukraine as more shocking and problematic than concurrent wars in “far-away”, “developing” or “non-democratic” places.
Moreover, countries including Poland and Hungary have also opened their borders to Ukrainians fleeing their homes, while Northern European countries have promised to accept thousands of Ukrainian refugees. While laudable, these actions expose a fundamental humanitarian racism.
On the one hand, Ukrainians, who are largely white and Christians, are deemed worthy of care, attention and protection, and allowed to cross even the most heavily policed European borders. On the other hand, the mostly black or brown refugees escaping violence and conflict in the Middle East or Africa remain excluded and unwanted, dehumanised as threats or burdens for European welfare states and societies.
The idea that Ukrainian refugees should be prioritised because they are Europeans or “like us” is not only morally repulsive, but also goes against the UN Refugee Convention which says that refugees should not face discrimination based on racial connotations, religion or country of origin.
In addition to this humanitarian racism, we are also worried about the current global rise of Russophobia. To be sure, Russophobia is not a new thing. In the wake of the Cold War and its aftermath, US pop culture has played a big role in configuring the Russian as the Other. We believe that the new, growing phase of Russophobia exacerbates divisions and jeopardises the possibility of dialogue.
In line with US interests, European leaders have quickly imposed severe restrictions on Russia and Russians with the intention to isolate Putin and create internal pressure on him. In fact, historically speaking, people/states under sanctions usually close ranks and persevere while the underprivileged/poor in their countries bear the consequences. In the process, global Russophobia enhanced by trends of cancel culture has been targeting Russians at all levels, as well as all expressions of their identity, culture and history. We also note with sad irony that political leaders and public figures in Europe and the US are demanding Russian personalities in foreign countries to publicly take a position against Putin or, if not, pay with a ban or public lynching, an attitude that resembles the idea of “regime” it claims to question.
Russophobia not only serves no purpose in ending the war, it is a form of injustice and creates the conditions for long term animosity and hate that will complicate future social and political relationships. Moreover, there are three major aspects this global Russophobia obscures. The first is the internal resistance in Russia against Putin and against the war. Being against the government in Russia is a difficult business that several have paid a high price for. Neglecting the efforts of oppositions and making “all Russians” a universal target of global blame is, simply put, short-sighted and immoral. The second aspect is the double standard used to look at war. Whereas in the case of Ukraine, Russophobia seemed a logical reaction for most, similar sentiments (with some exceptions) were not expressed when the US invented a Hollywood-style story to invade Iraq in 2003 or when NATO heavily bombed Libya in the name of human rights in 2011, to name only a couple of examples. We don’t think Europeans should be tolerant of military aggression; we just wish they would be as outraged as they are now with other military aggressions. The third aspect is the suffering the Russian population endures, especially under current Western sanctions. As Salla Turunen writes, “the sanctions on Russia will continue to take an ever-increasing toll on the Russian population, affecting the society as a whole. Lifetime savings plummet with the free fall of the Russian ruble, and access to basic commodities, such as medicine and food, decreases rapidly with an increasing isolation from the international system”.
Following Butler, we might note that war divides populations, not only between friends and foes, but between grievable and ungrievable populations. In the light of this actual Russophobia, the current and future suffering of the Russian population risks not only being obscured but justified. Eventually, these sentiments will keep nourishing the idea of a radical division between Russia and “the West”, thus reinforcing the mantra that war is inevitable, even just.
This article was originally published with the Norwegian Centre for Humanitarian Studies.