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Western Reaction to War in Ukraine Plays into Vladimir Putin’s Hands

Western Reaction to War in Ukraine Plays into Vladimir Putin’s Hands
Damage following a rocket attack in Ukrainian capital Kyiv. Emilio Morenatti / AP / TASS

The world must not repeat the mistake that the Allies made at the end of World War I.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine radically changed the global situation overnight. In the blink of an eye, Moscow turned the geopolitical clock back not to the time of “glasnost” and “perestroika,” but to the height of the Cold War. The events in Ukraine are painfully reminiscent of the suppression of the Czechoslovak and Hungarian uprisings, the war between the Soviet Union and Finland and, finally, the attack of Hitler’s Germany on Poland.

With half-crazed rhetoric, the Russian dictator and his coterie are declaring their right to employ massacre and destruction to establish whatever order they want in the territory of independent countries while threatening to unleash nuclear weapons against anyone who would dare interfere. And, like a terrorist who threatens to blow himself up if his demands are not met, he begins killing the hostages to drive his point home.

Never before in human history has a terrorist taken tens of millions of people hostage at once and threatened all of humanity with destruction. The world is facing a new level of threat, one that has clearly been gathering steam for years before suddenly and violently bursting into view. It is understandable, therefore, why the response of a stunned world community has so far fallen short. Even now it remains piecemeal and indecisive. Apparently, the politicians of the U.S., EU and NATO are still viewing the situation through the prism of their own ideas about state structure, domestic politics and geopolitical strategies.

In economically developed countries where the reins of power change hands through democratic elections, the elites are forced to strive for a healthy economy and a society in which citizens are free to work, earn a living and transfer capital. These countries’ budgets are highly dependent on their ability to borrow on foreign markets. The election of their leaders implies that the citizens of that country carry a collective responsibility for the country’s policies.

It is not surprising, therefore, that these same countries have refused to enter into direct military confrontation with the Kremlin for fear of escalating the situation into a nuclear war and have concluded that applying “economic pressure” is the only way to force the Russian authorities to stop. Words are spoken from presidential podiums about the desire to “make Russia pay a heavy price” for its act of international terrorism on a planetary scale.

However, the actions of the EU, UK and U.S. fall far short of the mark and largely just play into the Kremlin’s hands.

Russia is the exact opposite of a developed Western country. Power in Russia rests on the accumulated capital earned from the sale of natural resources and hordes of siloviki are prepared to brutally suppress all democratic initiatives and attempts at resistance. Kremlin leaders don’t care about the standard of living or opinions of Russia’s citizens. They care only that they have the loyalty of several thousand senior officials and that two million siloviki receive a regular paycheck and, in return, are ready to defend the government. With authority centralized in this way, independent business and sources of capital are unimportant by definition, as are the country’s millions of managers, businesspeople and professionals. All that matters is the extraction of natural resources and the ability to convert the income from their sale into villas, yachts and military might.

The Russian authorities have seen to it that disgruntled citizens can never voice their indignation over worsening living conditions or oppose the government and replace it. Just the opposite – that decline in prosperity and freedoms is met with greater represssion, ever more rabid propaganda of hatred for the whole world and militarization on a scale that suggests Russia is making a “last stand.” Now, even Russia’s notorious oligarchs are powerless to voice their opinion about what is happening in the country, much less influence events in some way. Russia is run by individuals who couldn’t care less about assets in Europe or the U.S., opportunities to travel abroad or the upholding of humanitarian values.

The only way to stop Russia is to deprive the Kremlin of its centrally-controlled means for building up its military potential. This can only be accomplished by depriving it as much as possible of three things: financial capital, technology and equipment, and human capital.

Therefore, EU sanctions aimed at denying visas to Russians and preventing them from depositing money in European banks are counterproductive. This is exactly what the Kremlin wants – that tens of millions of Russians who oppose the regime will be unable to leave the country and even temporarily find themselves in a world free of Russian propaganda or to withdraw capital from the country that the Kremlin could otherwise use at its discretion.

Effective measures would do just the opposite.

Foremost, they would block the ruling elite while granting ordinary Russians expedited visas and even refugee status with the right to live and work in economically developed countries. They would provide support for the relocation of entrepreneurs and specialists, enabling hundreds of thousands of highly skilled and educated Russians to leave and stop paying taxes to this government.

What if Einstein and other Germany physicists had been prevented from leaving Germany? Which country would have built the atomic bomb in 1945?

The same principle applies to capital. Only about 100,000 families in Russia have savings of more than $1 million. More people than that attended rallies in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. These wealthy individuals are mostly staunch supporters of peace and good-neighborly relations between states. After all, their holdings depend on unrestricted air travel and freedom to cooperate across borders. Now, the owners of these Russian bank accounts are transferring their wealth abroad en masse and withdrawing cash in foreign currency, thereby demonstrating their fears and their desire to withdraw their capital before the Russian authorities gain control over it. Under no circumstances should the West restrict this capital flow: otherwise, that $100 billion in assets would remain at the Kremlin’s disposal.

Western countries should facilitate this capital flight by temporarily suspending the practice of KYC (know your client). Of course, everyone transferring funds would do so knowing that they would have to go through this procedure later and prove that the money was acquired legally.

Meanwhile, so-called “personal sanctions” only give the semblance of taking positive action while actually doing the opposite. The Russian “hawks” who orchestrated this war do not hold assets in the West and do not travel there, but long ago purchased luxury properties in Russia and “neutral” countries. Russian oligarchs might have been happy to distance themselves from the Russian authorities as much as possible and to transfer the remainder of their funds abroad, but personal sanctions would force them to return that capital to Russia where the Kremlin could use it for its own purposes.

We need to stop pushing wealthy Russian businesspeople back into the arms of the Kremlin under the guise of battling it.

And for sanctions to be truly effective, they must uncompromisingly block the Kremlin’s access to its financial and technological resources. Despite the country’s apparent wealth, the Kremlin actually has only limited funds for militarization and propaganda. This is because domestic consumption and production are highly dependent on imports, so much so that the export of hydrocarbons, coal, grain and metals and the production of must domestic consumer goods would be impossible without a wide range of imported components.

The ban on the supply of aircraft, avionics and spare parts for aircraft must be made total and extended to vehicles and other machines and mechanisms. This should also include a ban on the supply of seed stock and other necessities of agricultural production; chemical products for industrial use; radio electronics, automation systems and semiconductors for all applications; as well as all technological equipment for industry and spare parts.

Although the Kremlin gets most of its income from the export of hydrocarbons and metals, an embargo on Russian hydrocarbon exports is not even under discussion at the moment because Europe is too dependent on Russian gas and the world market is too dependent on Russian oil. However, there is plenty of gray area between imposing an embargo and giving Russia complete freedom to supply hydrocarbons and reap the rewards. If the EU and NATO really want to stop the aggressor and protect themselves from continued aggression, they can and should risk imposing significant restrictions on delivering payment for Russian oil and gas. Specifically, the West could transfer payments to special accounts from which Russia could only draw to pay for a limited range of imported goods. It could also limit the purchase price for Russian oil and gas by introducing a high excise tax; this would significantly reduce the flow of petrodollars to Russia, even from countries that have yet to join the sanctions. Yes, there is a risk that Russia would respond by halting supplies and that this would drive up prices on world markets and create fuel and energy shortages in a number of European countries.

However, it is difficult to imagine that the fight against such a dire global threat could proceed without economic losses – the countries of Eastern Europe must choose between temporary energy problems and the threat of being forced into membership in a new Warsaw Pact of sorts. This is even a real threat for current NATO member countries.

But they should remember that Moscow is more dependent on its export of hydrocarbons than Europe is on importing them from Russia.

Of course, all these measures will prove inadequate if Russia retains access to its $600 billion in gold and foreign exchange reserves. That’s enough for the Russian authorities to keep their military strong for many years. The economically developed countries should temporarily freeze Russia’s access to at least that part of the reserves that is under their control.

Unfortunately, all of the above measures will bring economic disaster to the millions of Russians who remain in this country. Most of them do not support the crimes of this regime and bear no responsibility for them; their pain and suffering is no less important and no less acute than that of the Ukrainian people today.

Under no circumstances should the world associate ordinary Russian citizens with the Kremlin regime, label them as war criminals or treat them as accomplices in this ongoing crime.

Alas, this is the fault of both the Russians themselves and the “collective West” that overlooked this terrible threat when it could still have been prevented. There is simply no other way to stop the march of current events. And we must recognize that this is not a regional conflict: we are dealing with a group of terrorists who are exploiting their impunity to satisfy their insatiable appetites, making greater demands of the world every day. I hope and believe that the time will come when this terrible threat will be behind us and the perpetrators of this nightmare will have gotten what they deserve. At that time, it will be possible and extremely important to provide Russia with effective and truly large-scale assistance to speedily restore its economy, improve the standard of living and join the community of developed countries. God willing, the world will not repeat the mistake that the Allies made at the end of World War I.

By Andrey Movchan is a founder of an investment company Movchan’s Group and an expert of Carnegie Moscow Center.

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In Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Cold War Echoes Reverberate

In Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Cold War Echoes Reverberate
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Ronald Reagan at the Geneva conference in November 1985. The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. (AP Photo, File)

A rivalry with Russia. A proxy battleground. Nuclear brinksmanship. For many generations of Americans, it’s just like old times.

The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. Bars have poured out their Russian vodka. McDonald’s, a symbol of the end of the Soviet Union when it first opened in Moscow, has shuttered its Russian locations. Once again, a U.S. president sees a pitched ideological battle. “We will save democracy,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.

For an America where Russia never quite went out of style as an evergreen villain in film and television, revived tensions with the Kremlin have drawn from a well-worn geopolitical script. A familiar, chilly East-West wind is blowing again.

“It’s very much a Cold War echo,” says James Hershberg, professor of history and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Hershberg sees much that’s different about today’s inflamed tensions with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, he says, don’t seem driven by ideology the way communism was for the Soviet Union. A transformed media landscape, too, has helped turn Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global protagonist.

But in a crisis that pits two nuclear superpowers on opposing sides, history is repeating in other ways. A Russian strategic overreach, Hershberg says, is again sparking a potentially perilous moment in international order.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, walks with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria on June 3, 1961. The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. (AP Photo, File)

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, walks with U.S. President John F. Kennedy at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria on June 3, 1961. The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. (AP Photo, File)

“We are in a second Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways in terms of the danger of escalation,” says Hershberg, whose books include “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam.” “Putin is acting so irrationally he makes Nikita Khrushchev appear like a rational actor in comparison.”

The largest land conflict in Europe since World War II, Russia’s two-plus weeks of war in Ukraine has rallied Western alliances like few events before it. In repudiating Putin’s invasion, the U.S. and its European allies have enacted crippling economic sanctions on Russia — which Biden on Tuesday extended to Russian crude oil — while still drawing the line on military engagement with Russia.

“If we’re talking about a capitalized Cold War, I don’t think I could call this Cold War II,” says Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and Pulitzer-Prize winning author most recently of “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”

“But,” Logevall says, “if we’re talking more generally about a cold war, if we mean a titanic struggle that involves all aspects of national power waged between two incompatible systems but short of outright military conflict — then yeah, I guess this is a cold war.”

The Cold War is innately connected to the crisis in Ukraine partly because it so much informs Putin’s world view. A former KGB agent, he once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The invasion of Ukraine is intended to deter Western influence and NATO infringement from Russia’s sphere of influence, and potentially to restore a Texas-sized part of the former Soviet Union.

Barely two weeks in, the Cold War has often been invoked. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “the threat to global security now is more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War, partly because there aren’t the same back channels of communication. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Darchiyev, according to an Interfax report, recently suggested that “perhaps it would be worth recalling the well-forgotten principle that worked during the Cold War — peaceful coexistence.”

Even before war began in Ukraine, Americans had a historically dim view of Russia. According to Gallup poll conducted in February, 85% of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, easily the country’s worst rating in more than three decades — a slide accelerated by Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, its annexation of Crimea and the nerve agent attack on Putin’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who’s currently imprisoned.

And while former president Donald Trump has maintained his esteem for Putin, anti-Russian opinion has uncommon bipartisan support. Gallup found that 88% of both Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable view of Russia. Nothing unites like a common enemy.

President Joe Biden announces Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington on Feb. 25, 2022, left, and President Vladimir Putin speaks during a visit to the construction site of the National Space Agency at Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre, in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 27, 2022. The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. (AP Photo)

President Joe Biden announces Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court at the White House in Washington on Feb. 25, 2022, left, and President Vladimir Putin speaks during a visit to the construction site of the National Space Agency at Khrunichev State Research and Production Space Centre, in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 27, 2022. The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. (AP Photo)

Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, maintains that the Cold War never really went away — that the West’s view of Russia remained stuck in the broad portrayals of villains Boris and Natasha in “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. To her, Putin’s invasion was devastating because it confirmed the worst about her native country. Now, she begins her classes by apologizing.

“Putin is the global villain he deserves to be, and Russia is finished for decades to come,” says Khrushcheva, whose great-grandfather was premier of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. “My country just killed itself,” she says, and the U.S. “got their enemy back.”

“They got their enemy that has always been, always deserves to be and is always at the forefront of the American mind,” says Khrushcheva. “Russia has no excuse. But for America, it’s a field day. America is back and it’s on a white horse saving a white country in the middle of Europe against the horrible Russian Bear.”

Logevall, who co-authored the book “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” doesn’t expect a Cold War rerun. The world isn’t as bipolar as it was decades ago. China, which signed a pact with Russia shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, looms much larger. And the interconnectedness of the global economy — where waves of corporations have severed ties with Russia — makes isolated coexistence harder to tolerate.

The conflict in Ukraine seems sure to be at least a coda to the Cold War, if not a new beginning.

“Putin feels great resentment about how the Cold War ended. The West declaring victory. Russia losing power and influence. I think he resents a certain Western triumphalism,” Logevall says. “In a way, I think history is what drives him.”



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Russia Asks China for Military And Economic Aid to Help in Ukraine

Russia Asks China for Military And Economic Aid to Help in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a meeting in Beijing, China, last February. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by ALEXEI DRUZHININ/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

The Kremlin has asked China’s government for military ​equipment and other assistance to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine, per multiple reports citing U.S. officials on Sunday.

What to watch: American officials said there were indications that Russia’s military was running out of weaponry and one added that the U.S. was “preparing to warn its allies” due to signs that Beijing may be prepared to help Moscow, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the news.

  • It was not immediately clear what types of arms Russian officials had requested, or whether U.S. officials they knew of how China’s government has responded, per the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, National security adviser Jake Sullivan is due to travel to Rome on Monday for a meeting with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi to discuss Russia’s invasion.

What they’re saying: Sullivan told CNN earlier on Sunday that U.S. officials were “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.”

  • He added that the U.S. “will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world.”
  • Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in D.C., said he hadn’t heard of any request from Russia officials, per the New York Times.
  • “The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said, stressing Beijing wants to see a peaceful resolution. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”

The big picture: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir have forged closer ties, including military cooperation, Axios’ Zachary Basu notes.

Flashback: As Russia’s military was building the capacity to invade Ukraine last month, Putin and Xi issued a joint statement ahead of their meeting at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics that voiced opposition to the further enlargement of NATO.

  • The Kremlin had repeatedly made comments previously over negotiations on NATO’s expansion, using the threat of military action to demand a legal guarantee that Ukraine would never join the alliance, Basu notes.
  • Representatives for the Biden administration did not immediately return Axios’ request for comment.

Go deeper: Western sanctions tie Russia even tighter to China



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Don’t Forget the Refugee Crisis After the Fighting Stops

Don’t Forget the Refugee Crisis After the Fighting Stops
A woman holds her baby as she gets on a bus leaving Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 24, 2022. AP PHOTO/Emilio Morenatti

In the time following Russia’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine, over two million people have fled the country according to the United Nations. The lines of refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border stretch for miles. Children cry in the freezing cold as wait times reach 60 hours. Refugees discuss the relatives they had been forced to leave behind—sometimes without knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. And the United Nations predicts that these refugees could be followed by millions more—potentially resulting in “the biggest refugee crisis this century.”

As Ukrainians seek safe harbor, they fortunately have received an extraordinary outpouring of support from the international community. The UN Refugee Agency, the International Rescue Committee, and other organizations have sent emergency teams and resources. People around the world, including in Russia, are taking to the streets to condemn the invasion—and donating to organizations offering direct aid to the Ukrainian people.

Though these efforts are vital, they also draw attention to our country’s cruelly inadequate infrastructure for aiding refugees from Ukraine and beyond. Instead of welcoming refugees with open arms, current efforts hold them at arm’s length.

While the United States has offered aid to help other countries welcome Ukrainian refugees, our own annual refugee cap remains at just 125,000. Worse, the United States resettled only about 4,400 refugees in January — a pace well below even the Trump-era annual cap of 15,000.

And the U.S. approach to other recent refugee crises has been abysmal. In Haiti, over the course of just a few months, tens of thousands fled a calamitous earthquake, a deadly tropical storm and an explosive political climate following their president’s assassination. Instead of welcoming these migrants, the United States hounded them, literally chasing refugees at the border on horseback and deporting thousands back to unsafe conditions.

In Nigeria, the Boko Haram conflict has displaced nearly 3 million people over the past 12 years — leaving many malnourished, homeless and sick. The United States has had no trouble offering military and counterterrorism support in the fight against Boko Haram, yet never even offered temporary protected status to the people the terror group has imperiled.

In Syria, the ongoing civil war created the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century so far. After a brief spike in admissions late in the Obama administration, the United States has once again slashed the number of Syrian refugees accepted to the hundreds.

And in Afghanistan, the refugee crisis is in large part a consequence of the United States’ own actions. After waging war on their soil for 20 years, our leaders have allocated $13.3 billion to resettle Afghan refugees — a dismal 0.6 percent of the $2.3 trillion we spent on the war as a whole.

The fact is, too many U.S. institutions are structured to wage war, not foster peace. Our leaders waste trillions to impose America’s will on the world and, as an afterthought, quibble over what tiny fraction of that number should be spent to help those caught in the fallout.

All the while, the United Nations estimates there are 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 26.6 million refugees. And the escalating crisis of climate change is set to cause a wave of refugees unlike anything the world has ever seen. One report from the World Bank estimates as many as 200 million people could be displaced over the next three decades.

Yet as David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, reminds us, the refugee crisis is “manageable, not unsolvable.” We know what to do. Take people in. Help them get jobs. Help refugee children — more than half of whom do not go to school — get an education. Support families to get a new start in a new place.

Some claim that this basic decency poses security threats, or costs too much. But while the improper vetting of refugees could indeed pose dangers, refusing to provide aid — and thus leaving masses of desperate people with nothing to lose, some of whom will be enraged at those who contributed to their ruination — creates its own risks.

As for the price: With U.S. military spending at historic peacetime highs — more than 12 times what Russia spends on its military — why is it that the United States can always seem to find the money to intervene in world affairs, but never to help clean up the resulting messes? We would do well to start accounting for the human cost of our interventions before we make them. One way or another, the consequences of our actions will inevitably reach our shores.

If we are to effectively defend against the kind of violence and aggression on display in Ukraine right now, we must also demonstrate what we are for: the right of all people to live in peace. As Miliband says of the refugee crisis, “This is not just a crisis, it’s a test. … It’s a test of our humanity. It’s a test of us in the Western world — of who we are and what we stand for.”

By Katrina Vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.


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Turkish, Russian Defense Ministers Discuss Urgency of Ukraine Cease-fire

Turkish, Russian Defense Ministers Discuss Urgency of Ukraine Cease-fire
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar is speaking at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, Turkey, March 9, 2022 (AA Photo)

The need for an urgent cease-fire in Russia’s war against Ukraine was discussed, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Wednesday regarding his phone call with his Russian counterpart.

On Tuesday, Akar held a phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which he expressed Turkey’s expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation in Ukraine.

“We had positive and constructive talks with Mr. Shoigu,” Akar told reporters at the Turkish Parliament in the capital Ankara, saying that the cease-fire, the establishment of peace and the security of Turkish planes in Ukraine were discussed.

Akar expressed his expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation.

Maintaining its neutral and balanced stance, Turkey continues its diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict, urging all sides to exercise restraint. While Ankara has opposed international sanctions designed to isolate Moscow, it also closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles under a 1936 pact, preventing some Russian vessels from crossing the Turkish Straits.

NATO ally Turkey borders Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea and has good ties with both. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ankara has offered to mediate between the two sides and host peace talks, underlining its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Having recently called Russia’s invasion an unacceptable violation of international law, Turkey has carefully formulated its rhetoric not to offend Moscow, with which it has close energy, defense and tourism ties.



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Why Don’t We Treat All Refugees as Though They Were Ukrainian?

Why Don’t We Treat All Refugees as Though They Were Ukrainian?
Ukrainian women who were fleeing Russian invasion of Ukraine hold their children as they arrive at a temporary camp in Przemysl, Poland, March 1, 2022. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

It was inevitable that when brown-skinned Afghan refugees fleeing war were turned away from European borders over the past few years, the callous actions of these governments would come back to haunt them. A whopping 1 million people have fled Ukraine from Russia’s violent invasion in the span of only a week. They are being welcomed—as refugees should be—into neighboring nations, inviting accusations of racist double standards.

Poland offers the most egregious example of national racism. Its government, whose nation borders Ukraine, has warmly welcomed traumatized Ukrainians, just months after turning away Afghans. If these optics weren’t bad enough, Polish nationalists have sought out people of color who are among the refugees fleeing Ukraine and violently attacked them. According to the Guardian, “three Indians were beaten up by a group of five men, leaving one of them hospitalized.” African nationals studying in Ukraine joined the exodus after Russia’s invasion, and have been stopped at the Polish border. Poland might as well erect a giant sign on its border declaring, “whites only.”

In elevating such disparate skin-tone-dependent attitudes toward refugees, Europe is giving its colonialist heritage a new lease on life. We see echoes today of the dehumanization that enabled European colonization of the Global South and the enslavement of generations.

It’s not just Poland. The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has denounced the overtly racist language of many Western journalists, including American ones like Charlie D’Agata of CBS who said of Ukraine that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.” (In fact, Ukraine has seen plenty of conflict in the past years.)

D’Agata’s insertion of “with all due respect” was perhaps his belated realization that he was veering into dangerous territory by contrasting Ukrainian civilization against the presupposed barbarity of the darker nations. But then, he continued, saying, “this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Again, D’Agata likely realized as the words were escaping his mouth just how racist he was sounding. He needed to choose his words carefully in order to avoid the appearance of bias. He clearly failed. His later apology was not very convincing.

D’Agata exposed his personal allegiance with the Global North when he expressed “hope” against war breaking out in a nation whose people look like he does. The implied flip side is that he harbors no such hope when the conflict-ridden nations of the Global South are embroiled in violence.

Serena Parekh, professor of philosophy at Northeastern University in Boston, told me in a recent interview, “it is very human to feel connections to people that you perceive to be like you and to feel more remote from people you perceive as being not like you.” At the very least, this is a good reason why newsrooms across the United States need to diversify their staff.

Parekh, who has written two books, including No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis and Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, says that one “assumption” she has heard justifying favorable treatment of the latest wave of refugees in Europe is that “Ukrainians are not terrorists and they are not criminals, and so we can let them in safely, without having to worry about screening them.” She calls such views “racialized assumptions… largely unsustainable by any evidence.”

Such assumptions are infectious. Social media platforms abound with images sporting the now-ubiquitous blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a larger-than-life hero to the morally outraged. So invested are people in believing Zelenskyy’s heroism that many have shared a photo (including several of my own Facebook friends) of him in military fatigues as evidence of his courage in standing up to Russian militarism, when in fact the image was captured well before Russia’s invasion.

Similar expressions of solidarity with brown-skinned resisters of Western militarism or victims of Western wars have been far less common.

Pointing out the double standards of governments and the press at a time when Ukrainians are watching their nation getting utterly destroyed will inevitably spark accusations of insensitivity and of engaging irresponsibly in “whataboutism” to make a point.

But now is the time to clearly call out what human rights groups and independent journalists have for years been saying: that the U.S. and NATO-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere are racist, and that the callous dismissals of the resulting humanitarian catastrophes are equally barbaric.

There’s another reason why brown-skinned refugees are seen as undesirable. Welcoming those people fleeing wars that the West has fomented would be an admission of Western culpability. Not only do Ukrainian refugees offer palatable infusions of whiteness into European nations, but they also enable governments to express self-righteous outrage at Russia’s imperialist ambitions and violent militarism. If Ukrainian refugees are evidence of Russian brutality, then Afghan and Iraqi refugees are evidence of the same kind of brutality on the part of the U.S. and NATO.

While Europe’s double standard toward refugees is on full display in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the United States is certainly not innocent either. Former President Donald Trump effectively slammed shut the door on refugees during his tenure and bolstered his anti-refugee policies with racist language.

President Joe Biden, who campaigned on reversing Trump’s anti-refugee rules, initially faltered on keeping his promise when he took office. But, even after the limits on allowing refugees into the U.S. were eventually lifted, few have been admitted into the country. Last year, when U.S. troops left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, Afghans were, naturally, desperate to flee. While the Biden administration laudably fast-tracked U.S. resettlement for Afghans, problems remain, with one refugee advocate calling the process, “kind of abysmal.”

Parekh says that decisions by Poland and other nations to admit fleeing Ukrainians with open arms, “[show] that the European Union can take in large numbers of asylum seekers and can do so in a relatively efficient way.”

In light of the sudden wellspring of compassion toward Ukrainian refugees emerging from Western nations, media, and the public, a simple thought experiment could protect governments, journalists, and us from further accusations of racist double standards: we could treat all refugees as though they were white-skinned Ukrainians, as though they were human.

Sonali Kolhatkar

By Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.


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Ukraine War Challenges Israel’s Relationship With Jews Worldwide

Ukraine War Challenges Israel’s Relationship With Jews Worldwide
Volunteers prepare Molotov cocktails in one of the local parks in Uzhgorod, western Ukraine. February 28, 2022. - Copyright Viacheslav Ratynskyi/UNIAN

As Ukraine remains consumed by fierce fighting, fresh geopolitical calculations are taking shape worldwide. Jolted into action, European nations led by Germany have promised to increase their military budgets and impose harsh sanctions on Russia. Few countries have remained neutral about this conflict. 

Given its “special friendship” with the United States, Israel’s tepid response to the crisis has surprised some analysts. While the Israeli foreign minister has condemned Russian aggression towards Ukraine, the official line from Tel Aviv has been remarkably muted. This ambiguity is all the more shocking considering Ukraine’s sizable Jewish population because it pits Israel’s understanding of the national interests of the Jewish people against the narrow interests of the Israeli state. The Ukrainian crisis demonstrates the limited extent to which Israel will place the interests of Jewish people above that of statecraft. 

Since its founding, Israel has used the threat of global anti-Semitism as its raison d’etat. After the horrors of the genocide against Jews in Europe, the Jewish people cannot exist without a state and army of their own. This line of argument has proven to be remarkably useful for the Israeli government in defending its own aggression against Palestinians and other nations in the Middle East. Israel regularly invokes the interests of the Jewish people to explain its actions such as the occupation of East Jerusalem and the settlement of the biblical lands of the West Bank. 

For millions of Jews living outside of Israel, their support for the country stems from a deep-seated feeling that Israel is their only refuge. If an outbreak of anti-Semitism forced them to flee, Israel would be there to protect them. Powerful pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) play on these emotions in order to drum up support for Israel’s political objectives and silence critics of Tel Aviv’s aggressive treatment of the Palestinians. 

The Ukrainian crisis presents a fascinating challenge to this core tenet of Israeli propaganda because Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Eastern Europe. There are an estimated 50,000 practicing Jews in the country and Jewish life is visible from places of worship to cultural centers. The number of Ukrainians with Jewish ancestry (and eligibility to immigrate to Israel) is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and some of his key ministers are also Jewish. Outside of Israel, Zelensky is one of the world’s only Jewish heads of state. 

Given the sheer scale and visibility of Jewish life in Ukraine, one would think that Israel would be on the front lines of finding a solution to the conflict and aiding the Jewish community there. That hasn’t been the case. 

As the conflict drags on, Israel’s approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain. A Russian attack on Kyiv’s main TV tower on Tuesday damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site nearby and killed five people. The site marks one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during World War II. Zelensky said Russia’s attack showed history was repeating itself. Israel denounced the strike but did not single out Russia as the perpetrators.

It’s easy for Israel’s leaders to express concern about the well-being of Jews around the world but when push comes to shove, Israel is a country like any other with its own geopolitical concerns. In this case, Tel Aviv doesn’t want to disturb its relationship with Russia. Not only does Russia play an important role in regional politics (most notably in Syria) but it is a vital trading partner for Israel. “It is so important for us that Russia turns a blind eye to what we have been doing in Syria, acting against the transfer of weapons, the entrenchment of the Iranians,” Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national-security adviser for Israel, told the New Yorker. 

In the early days of the conflict in Ukraine, Israel rejected a request from the US to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s assault. Tel Aviv walked this position back, saying that it would join a resolution but wouldn’t support sanctions against Russia. It would seem that Realpolitik trumps Israel’s hollow rhetoric about protecting the Jewish people around the world. 

For its part, Israel has reiterated its support for any Ukrainian Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel but it has stopped short of offering support to Jewish Ukrainians who wish to remain at home and fend off Russian aggression. What’s remarkable about this position is that it doesn’t make any attempt to protect Jews where they are. As a Jew living in Ukraine, Israel seems to be saying, you are basically on your own.

Let’s be clear, Israel has no binding duty to protect Jewish people (or any people) outside of its borders. Many Jewish people actually have a moral problem with Israel claiming to represent them since they have made a conscious decision not to immigrate to the country. Israel will continue to speak in the name of the Jewish people when it finds it convenient. That’s what this crisis is revealing in obvious detail. Because it isn’t in Israel’s interest to challenge Russia, the Jews of Ukraine have been left to essentially fend for themselves. The next time Israel invokes worldwide Jewry in explaining its own actions, it will be instructive to remember the battle for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

By Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.


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