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Of race and war: What the crisis in Ukraine tells us about ourselves

Yusaf H. Akbar is an associate professor in international strategy and Maciej Kisilowski is an associate professor of law and strategy, both at Central European University.

VIENNA — Earlier this week, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution demanding Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. Apart from Russia and its closest allies, virtually all of the 52 countries that did not support the resolution are from the Global South.

A lot has already been said about the commercial and military considerations surrounding the lukewarm support for Ukraine from India and Africa through to South America. But our very understanding of the war in Ukraine — “the largest war in Europe since World War II” — and the urgent nature of the policy response to it, also have deeply racialized underpinnings.

Take, for example, CBS News’ Charlie d’Agata, who last week contrasted “civilized” Ukrainian refugees with those coming from “places, with all due respect, like Iraq and Afghanistan.” Following an outcry, after similar statements made by other white correspondents also surfaced, d’Agata apologized. “I spoke in a way I regret,” he wrote. Alas, it is not really about the way d’Agata spoke.

The response shown by European countries seems to relay a similar understanding: In 2015, a million refugees from the war-torn Middle East were harassed in countries like Hungary, Denmark and Britain, their numbers deemed “unsustainable.” Today, Europe has opened the door to a similar number of Ukrainian refugees in just one week. Denmark was even eager to announce it would not apply its controversial “jewelry law” — which allows the government to seize valuables from migrants in order to pay for their stay — to Ukrainian refugees.

Every war is an affront to humanity, no matter where it unfolds. But it is nonsensical to argue, as the historian Yuval Noah Harari has, that Russian aggression constitutes some tectonic shift from a supposedly peaceful world in which “being invaded and conquered by the neighbors has become almost inconceivable.”

To begin with, the scale of the Ukrainian tragedy does not, unfortunately, make it unique among recent conflicts. We are obviously still very early on in what can become an astonishingly bloody war and occupation, and civilian casualties have likely reached thousands already — a shocking number. But equally shocking is the more than 377,000 Yemenis who, according to the U.N. Development Programme, perished as a result of a war that has notable similarities to that in Ukraine — a proxy war concerning the regional balance of power.

The United States’ war in Iraq also comes to mind. It resulted in 400,000 to 700,000 “excess deaths,” according to studies. Of course, taking out Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime is in no way morally comparable to attacking the government of Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who secured a landslide victory in a free and fair election. But both tragedies were badly miscalculated wars of choice conducted in violation of the U.N. Charter, and were undertaken by a nuclear power in order to install a friendly government.

Arguments depicting the Russian invasion as unprecedented due to the uniquely developed “pro-Western” nature that distinguishes Ukraine from some “third-world countries” is also flawed. To be sure, since the ousting of their last authoritarian strongman in 2014, Ukrainians made enormous strides to build a less corrupt and more democratic nation. But even before the war, Ukraine was a middle-income developing economy. Its 2020 per capita GDP, adjusted for purchasing power, was lower than that of Botswana or South Africa.

Ukraine’s democracy was, likewise, more fragile than that of many African or South American nations. Since the 2014 revolution, the country has experienced only one peaceful transfer of power. And troublingly, its former president, Petro Poroshenko, who lost his reelection bid to Zelenskyy is facing criminal charges, even if he has been allowed to remain free while the case is investigated.

Finally, seeing this war as unique because of Ukraine’s geographic location does not fully stand up to scrutiny either. Even in Europe, we have recently witnessed large, bloody wars that killed thousands: In 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency was paved by a brutal invasion of Chechnya, involving about 80,000 Russian troops and costing more than 50,000 lives. And let us also remember the three-year Serbian siege of Srebrenica in which more than 9,000 Bosniaks perished. Neither led to talk of a fundamental reorientation of European security.

All in all, it is hard not to see the impassioned tone of the current narrative and the boldness of the West’s response as signs of special — if belated — empathy, afforded by Europeans and North Americans to people who look like (most of) us and live close to us.

But aggressive behavior weakens global rules regardless of the skin color, creed or geographic location of its victims. Russia tested the liberal international order with the Chechen war, followed by the 2008 invasion of Georgia and the bloody Syria intervention – all of which were launched in theaters “peripheral” to a white European perspective. Just as the Iraq war and the parallel torture campaign instituted by the U.S. also deteriorated the global rulebook.

All of this together is what paved the way for the current tragedy.

Our solution is not to care less about Ukraine — rather we should be more attentive to security threats and war in other parts of the world. Indeed, one of the most powerful rebukes of Russian imperialism during last week’s U.N. Security Council session came from Dr. Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the U.N., who compared the plight of Ukrainians with the struggles of other post-colonial nations.

And only if we similarly broaden our consideration to include the peace and security of all nations can we count on broad support and cooperation in times of crisis. 

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