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Why the West underestimated Ukraine 

People deny me credibility because I am female, young, east European. They have treated my country the same way.

By Olesya Khromeychuk

“Why is such a pretty young thing researching such a tough topic?” an older male academic asked me at one of the first conferences I attended. My doctorate was in the history of the Second World War, and my speciality lay in military collaboration in the occupied territories. My expertise was probed because, in his eyes, I was defying the norm. A “pretty young thing” does not produce knowledge. She produces entertainment. Emotion, not expertise. That was the first time that I discovered that I lacked credibility in other people’s eyes not because of what I knew but because of who I was: female, young, east European.

The question of credibility goes far beyond the personal. Groups and nations are mistrusted if they do not fit into the accepted image of an authoritative source. “Vladimir Putin denies the existence of Ukraine as a nation. Why is he wrong?” I have heard this question from Western journalists repeatedly over the last year, forcing me to justify the existence of a sovereign state. When your credibility is questioned, it’s not enough to simply exist. You need to prove you have the right to exist. Witnessing my country of birth being distrusted even with its knowledge of itself over the past year has led me to reflect on the credibility not only of individuals but of whole nations.

Ukraine was predicted to fall within days when Russia began its vicious full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russia was perceived as superior militarily, economically and politically. Ukraine was presented as corrupt, divided and weak. This had serious consequences. The overestimation of the aggressor and the underestimation of Ukraine’s ability to stand up for itself had a direct impact on the sort of help that was made available to Kyiv and the speed at which it was delivered. It had a direct impact on the scale of casualties. Ten months and numerous Ukrainian battlefield victories later, I have not heard anything that would qualify as an apology or at least an admission of miscalculation by those who predicted the rapid fall of Kyiv.

“We wanted to see if they’d actually fight before giving them weapons,” said one of the professors at a talk I recently gave. The implication of that comment was that “they”, the Ukrainians, needed to prove themselves worthy of trust to “us”, the West. The first eight years of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which went largely unnoticed outside east-central Europe, the three decades of striving for democratic reforms as an independent state, and a few centuries of anti-imperialist struggle were not proof enough.

Ukrainians’ historical fight for their right to sovereignty might have been accepted as sufficient evidence that they would put up resistance in this new colonial war, had it been recognised. Yet traditionally Ukraine’s own narratives of its past have been dismissed in favour of the distorted version presented by a neighbouring dictator who denied the country’s existence. It was that version that was then mansplained – or Westsplained – back to us by talking heads in the Western media who, despite possessing little relevant expertise, were recognised as authoritative.

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Being a feminist and working on questions of gender and war has equipped me with tools that came in handy when observing the international community’s perception of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the hierarchy of voices recognised as credible, women’s voices continue to be only barely audible. Their exact position depends on their social and ethnic backgrounds, but it’s always below that of influential, white male voices. Similarly, nations that don’t correspond to the patriarchal Western ideal are dismissed as minor and insignificant even if, by size, they might be the largest in their region. Size only matters if it’s matched by economic wealth and political power.

The need for Ukrainians to prove themselves worthy of help in Russia’s genocidal war reminded me of an interview with a servicewoman I once conducted for my research. When I asked if she had experienced any gender discrimination in the army, she said: “At first, the other soldiers treat you as a woman, but then you prove to them that you’re a soldier, and they treat you equally after that.” A woman must prove that she’s a politician, a scientist, a writer, a historian, a soldier before she is seen as an equal to a man. In other words, to be taken seriously, her skills and knowledge must be shaped into the recognisable norm that was created by and for men. Those who defy the norm lack credibility.  

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Ukraine, a country with only three decades of independence, has been perceived as “a pretty young thing”. Ukrainian voices who were included in the reporting on Russia’s war in the media were expected to be emotional, tearful, distressed, but not authoritative. They were then often followed by the commentary of a non-Ukrainian expert whose job it was to give an “objective” assessment of the situation. Being emotional and credible at the same time didn’t seem feasible to editors, although Ukraine experts whose loved ones were in danger and whose homes were being bombed were still providing crucial expertise while doing so emotionally.

It is little wonder that the defiance, unity and clear sense of history and civic identity Ukrainians showed in the months following the full-scale invasion left the world surprised. These qualities didn’t fit into the pre-existing image of Ukraine.   

Like many nations, Ukraine has frequently been imagined in literature and art as a woman. The 19th-century Romantics depicted it either as a victim who had been taken advantage of by an imperialist lord, or as an exotic beauty to be conquered and tamed. In 20th-century wartime depictions, it was presented as a mother or a deity that gathers her children around her to keep them from harm. More recently Ukraine has been represented as a warrior princess: sometimes equipped with modern weapons and sometimes with supernatural powers. These collective images are fantasies, mostly conjured up by men. Whether she’s pitied, admired, venerated or feared, this woman-nation does not command authority.

A nation that doesn’t boast centuries of uninterrupted statehood lacks legitimacy until it is shaped into a form that fits the recognised norm. When Ukrainians started to demonstrate strength on the battlefield, firm leadership and unbreakable spirit – traits associated with traditional masculinity – the country began to gain the sort of credibility that is normally afforded to “older” nations. It “proved” itself worthy of trust. Its voice began to ring louder, especially when it belonged to a triumphant soldier or an unyielding president.

Ukrainians were not the only ones perceived as lacking credibility in all of this. Other east-central European countries who warned of Russia’s brutality and called for a tougher stance before the full-scale invasion had been dismissed as hawkish. The way they viewed their historical colonial relationship with the Kremlin was seen as “emotional” and thus less valid. The “objective” assessment offered by those states, for instance Germany, that had established more amiable trading relations with the leaders of the Russian Federation enjoyed more credibility. If the experiential knowledge of east-central European countries had been heeded, it could have better prepared us for the ruthlessness that is habitually used by Moscow as a means of waging wars.

For instance, those who know about the Holodomor, Stalin’s man-made famine of the 1930s, which killed millions of Ukrainian peasants, were not surprised to see the Kremlin manufacture a grain crisis that could lead to a major famine. Those who were familiar with the massacre of Polish officers in 1940 by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, were not shocked by the killing of Ukrainian prisoners of war in Olenivka by the Russians in July 2022. Those who have grieved their loved ones in the mass graves of Stalinist terror were not surprised by the sight of the mass graves of Irpin, Bucha, Mariupol, Izium and territories liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Unlike in London, Washington, Paris or Berlin, those in east-central Europe do not think Ukrainians are insensitive for expressing rage, anger or even hatred towards the nation that has claimed to be a brotherly people but has, in fact, chosen to become an enemy. They know that it’s insensitive not to feel outraged on behalf of those who are being targeted by this unprovoked aggression.  

[See also: The Zelensky myth]

Those with experiential knowledge of Russian imperialism know how important it is to be as precise as possible in our language: not a “crisis”, but a war; not “separatists”, but Russian proxies; not “the Ukraine war”, but Russia’s war against Ukraine. Language matters. Language is being used as a weapon of war by the Kremlin. They also know that using the shield of neutrality in the name of “responsible reporting” is in fact irresponsible. Because there’s nothing responsible in parroting the Russian state when it says that Ukrainians shell their own civilians when the only source for that claim is Kremlin propaganda. Such reporting is naive at best, and outright harmful at worst.

Those experienced in dealing with the Kremlin’s colonial ambitions know that appeasing Moscow comes at a cost. The cost is paid by those who are so frequently perceived as lacking credibility in the international arena.

“Ukraine should surrender the territories occupied by Russia,” a western European man told me recently. “It will be better off without them.” 

“Surrendering temporarily occupied territories means leaving our citizens under occupation, which comes with deprivation of all rights if you’re lucky, and summary execution if you’re not,” I answered, basing my response on the knowledge shared by survivors and human rights defenders working on the ground.

“I understand that you feel emotional about this. But I’m simply telling you what’s best for your country,” was his response.

“Credibility is a basic survival tool,” writes Rebecca Solnit. In her 2008 essay Men Explain Things to Me she describes how women, regardless of the knowledge they possess, lack credibility simply because they are not men. At the heart of Solnit’s reflections is an anecdote from her own life when a man attempted to explain a “very important” book to her before he realised that Solnit had written it.

Yet 12 years later, Solnit revised her definition of credibility. In Recollections of My Non-Existence, she wrote: “I was wrong that it’s a tool. You hold a tool in your own hands, and you use it yourself. What it does is up to you. Your credibility arises in part from how your society perceives people like you.” Assuming that some people “are not reliable witnesses to their own lives”, as Solnit puts it, because they don’t fit our idea of credibility, sooner or later will come to haunt us.  

If we distrust nations such as Ukraine and keep on Westsplaining their experience to them, we might continue to think that “might is always right”. We might appease aggressors until it’s our freedom that is threatened. To break the cycle of distrust we must stop equating lasting statehood – which frequently comes with the baggage of imperialism – with authority. We must realise that a claim to superiority does not automatically translate into expertise. We must perceive those for whom this war presents an existential threat as a credible source of knowledge not only for the sake of their survival but also for the survival of the democratic order as we know it.

Ukrainians are fighting for survival. They need all the tools they can get. Credibility is the very least they deserve. 

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