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What the West gets wrong about the war in Ukraine

If Kyiv’s allies had identified Putin’s invasion as an act of colonisation, they might have won more support from the Global South.

By Bruno Maçães

In June 2022, speaking to a group of aspiring tech entrepreneurs in Moscow, Vladimir Putin compared himself to Peter the Great, the 18th-century tsar who reclaimed Russian lands in his Great Northern War against Sweden. “It seems it has fallen to us, too, to reclaim and strengthen,” he concluded.

This wasn’t the first or the last time that the Russian president had laid out the colonial nature of the war in Ukraine. Yet that hasn’t stopped many Putin supporters in the West from blaming Nato for his decision to invade. Even the liberal establishment has resisted acknowledging its colonial aspects. Policy officials in Washington and Europe prefer a different narrative: this is a war between the democratic West and the autocratic East, not a war of national liberation.

For Western democracies, the dominant framework used to interpret world politics continues to be that of a struggle between the West and the dark forces of despotism threatening it from the outside. The Second World War, followed by the Cold War, are past iterations in this struggle. With the invasion of Ukraine we entered a new chapter. You often hear from those who hold this perspective that Putin’s problem was Ukraine’s democracy, which he feared could spread to Russia – a notion almost touching in its naivety. What Putin wants is to conquer Ukraine.

Elsewhere, the narrative concerning world politics is different. In Africa or Asia, the central story explaining the past couple of centuries is the struggle of national liberation against colonial power and exploitation. In his 1950 essay “Discourse on Colonialism”, Aimé Césaire, the Martinican poet and politician, interpreted even Nazism through the prism of colonialism. For him, Hitler’s innovation was that he applied to Europe the colonialist procedures that until then had been applied exclusively to populations in the Global South.

The war in Ukraine can be interpreted just as easily from both points of view. In 2022, when I travelled through Asia and Africa, it quickly became obvious to me that Ukraine’s plight would receive a lot more sympathy in the Global South if it were presented as a war of national liberation. It particularly helped if you described Russia as the last European empire.

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Western democracies, nevertheless, were extremely reluctant to embrace that narrative. To turn anti-colonialism into a rallying cry might force them to change their official position on a host of other issues, from Palestinian statehood to China’s “century of national humiliation” prior to the Second World War, which Western leaders tend to dismiss as mere propaganda. I was often told by my interlocutors in the Global South that Western democracies would fail to apply the same standards on international law if innocent civilians were under attack outside the West. Many see a blatant contradiction in the West’s response to Israel’s war in Gaza compared with Ukraine.

During the first year of the war it was the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who took up the mantle of revolutionary anti-colonialism, arguing there was something wrong with a world order in which the brutal 2022 invasion could take place. Since then, he has toned down his language, but his efforts to gather as many countries as possible for a 15-16 June peace conference show the same desire to universalise the conflict. The war in Gaza is exacting a price: I am told many non-European leaders will not travel to Switzerland for the conference in protest at the West’s contradictions.

On 1 June, I spoke at the Kyiv book fair about the war and colonialism. Though new deliveries of weaponry have started to arrive in Ukraine, mobilising troops has become increasingly difficult. Daily power blackouts lasting many hours plague the capital. After the discussion at the fair, students in the audience shared some of their frustrations. One complained that the West is willing to do for Israel what it has never done for Ukraine. Another argued that the West is more concerned with defending Russian military assets from Ukraine’s attacks than protecting Ukrainian civilians in Kharkiv and other cities in the east.

For Ukraine, there are obvious dangers in the narrative of “the West and the rest”. First, a war between these abstract principles threatens to reduce the country to a mere battlefield rather than a state capable of acting in its own interests. (During the Cold War, Vietnam and Afghanistan paid a steep price for playing that role.) Indeed, since Russia’s invasion in 2022, Ukraine has often been portrayed as a vital battlefield but never quite as an actor working towards its own liberation. The West has forbidden Ukrainian forces from using the weapons it supplies to attack targets deep inside Russia, and from using their own weapons to attack Russian oil refineries. Even the recent decision by Joe Biden to make an exception in the case of the Russian forces stationed just across the border from Kharkiv is just that – an exception.

The “West” is also a highly contested concept. Is Ukraine part of the West? To some extent, but not like Israel, which forms the symbolic core of the West’s narrative of redemption after the Holocaust. And not to the same extent as Nato members, let alone the US. At the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive a year ago, a staff member at Washington’s National Security Council told me that the Biden administration thought of its responsibilities as divided between three levels: it was willing to do everything for Ukraine, the third level, provided that support did not increase the risk for the top two levels, occupied by Nato and the US.

This view explains why support for Ukraine has been kept at levels consistent with the country’s resistance – but not with its victory. Every time Ukraine has moved closer to making decisive progress, Putin has played the nuclear card and Western support has retreated.

Another problem with the West’s narrative is that it excludes a large part of the world. It is doubtful that Russia can be conclusively defeated unless it can be economically isolated, but by turning the war into a conflict between the West and the rest, the US has ensured this will not happen. In fact, Russia’s economy now benefits from a reorientation towards large, growing markets in Asia.

In recent weeks the Biden administration has tried a new strategy, casting the war in Ukraine as an episode of a new cold war between the US and China. On a visit to Brussels on 29 May, the US’s deputy secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, accused China of backing Russia “to the hilt” and warned Europe to get serious about China – presumably by following Washington in its efforts to decouple from the Chinese economy. He made no effort to distinguish between what is at stake in Ukraine and the broader goal of containing China.

Viewed from Kyiv, this strategy seems unwise. On 1 June, Zelensky travelled to Singapore to address an audience of predominantly Asian officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue. According to my sources in Kyiv, he also intended to meet with the Chinese delegation, but the meeting did not happen. Afterwards, Zelensky could not hide his irritation with China’s understanding of Ukraine as merely a tool of Washington.

The immediate goal for Zelensky is to leave Switzerland in June with a diplomatic triumph. Beyond that, he knows Ukraine can only win by building a global coalition, not by becoming the scorched battlefield between West and East.  

[See also: Only violence rules Russia]

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This article appears in the 05 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Left Power List 2024