At a recent security conference in Bratislava, the gala dinner was devoted to Ukraine. The tables were named after Ukrainian cities, including Irpin and Bucha. International dignitaries could barely contain their tears when delivering speeches on the war.
A prize was awarded to the Ukrainian people. A Ukrainian singer delighted us with her voice. But the following morning, the Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who had been seated at the main table, took to the stage and admitted that he did not have a view on the conflict. Europe, he said, had to stop thinking its problems were those of the world.
Vladimir Putin has on several occasions justified the war in Ukraine as a colonial war. In a recent meeting with Russian entrepreneurs – every young business upstart needs to learn how to acquire a colony or two – he explained that he sees himself as the political reincarnation of Peter the Great, and that the world is divided between colonial countries and the colonised. One might have expected India to be leading the reaction against such an unabashedly neocolonial project.
But India, which often speaks of the destructive rule of the British and Mughal empires, has refrained from condemning Russia. On 2 March, it even joined a small number of countries that abstained from a UN resolution calling on Russia to stop its war and withdraw from Ukraine.
Jaishankar condemned the Bucha massacre and called for an investigation, but so too has the Kremlin, which insists the killing of more than 1,000 people, many of them children, was conducted by Ukrainian troops, or even that it was staged by the UK.
India is not alone. South Africa, which also has a long and prominent anti-colonial history, remains just as indifferent towards Ukraine. If the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the moment the West failed to live up to its own norms, such as the principles of territorial integrity and humanitarian international law, Ukraine is the moment the Global South failed to live up to its anti-colonial and anti-imperial ideals. For Ukrainians, theirs is a war of national liberation, but the evangelists of national liberation – China, South Africa and India – have been missing in action.
A common notion is that the war in Ukraine is about the fate of the Western liberal order. In this story the conflict is another episode in a kind of permanent cold war against totalitarian power. But there is a second story that cuts across the main events of the past century – the anti-colonial struggle. It is less a story about the best way to organise society than about the international order. Do we recognise every country as an actor – an autonomous subject in international affairs – or do some parts of the world serve only as objects of power? It is the question of freedom projected on a global scale.
When Putin talks about Ukraine as an object of conquest, it is evident that this is a war between colonial and anti-colonial forces. The Kremlin is less interested in overturning the Western order than in returning it to a time when great powers were able to expand according to their will to power – what the late Russian thinker Lev Gumilev, a Putin favourite, called “passionarity”.
Reactions in Europe have followed a predictable pattern. The nationalists from the Law and Justice party in Poland have sided with Ukraine. Their national idea was always about resisting conquest from the imperial powers surrounding Poland, so they had no trouble recognising an old enemy. But nationalists in France, Italy and Hungary are sympathetic towards the Kremlin because their national idea is closely connected to imperialism – many long for a return to a world of empires.
The most painful lesson is that the history of colonialism is far from over. It seemed confined to the past because of the way European colonialism ended: taken to unimaginable extremes, it crashed down in the devastating wars of the 20th century, from which Europe emerged both exhausted and discredited. The Third Reich aimed to bring European colonialism to bear on Europe itself – “What is fascism but colonialism amid the traditionally colonial countries?” Frantz Fanon asked. Nazi Germany’s collapse seemed to have brought the colonial era to a decisive close, but its rebirth is upon us.
Beyond Ukraine, we can discern the colonial temptation in the competition for natural resources, now dramatically intensified by geopolitical instability and the green-energy transition. Public debate focuses on the promise of renewables, but these technologies have complicated industrial chains. The need for battery materials such as cobalt or lithium, for example, is likely to trigger a renewed scramble for control over specific geographical regions. The global food crisis engineered by Russia for political leverage is yet another echo of our shared colonial history.
Many are puzzled by the way India and China have refused to condemn the Russian invasion. Notions of democracy and autocracy seem far from their thinking; for these countries, it’s about something else. China and India feel their strength is growing. Their own will to expand – their “passionarity” – is back. With centuries of national humiliation overcome, the future belongs to them. VS Naipaul called India a wounded civilisation, but the wounded civilisation is reasserting itself. For these giants, a new era of colonialism is nothing to fear and may even, for at least some in Delhi and Beijing, be welcome.
[See also: If Ukraine has a future, it’s with the EU]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down