A Moral Position on Ukraine?
The Russian attacks on Ukraine are both immoral and illegal under international law. They should be unconditionally opposed, regardless of how they have been rationalised by the Kremlin. Ukraine is an independent state, its sovereignty has been violated, and there is no “self-defence” justification for the military strikes. Russia must accept full responsibility for this crime and the consequences that will follow.
The economic sanctions imposed on Russia’s ruling elite, supporting siloviki and oligarchs, as well as the economy more broadly, will pressure Putin to attenuate the attack and focus instead on his increasingly precarious domestic position. The growing Russian anti-war movement deserves strong support and encouragement, though crucially without compromising its endogenous nature.
Hopefully these terrible events will accelerate Putin’s departure from power, and the collapse of the political order he has constructed over 20 years. Unfortunately, apart from personnel changes, there isn’t much evidence of an alternative, progressive political model in Russia.
Putin’s chances of turning Ukraine into a buffer state with a compliant leadership is going to be challenging without an occupation of the country, which would be difficult to establish let alone sustain. There is no appetite in Russia for a lengthy military campaign against kith and kin across the border, and Putin knows this.
He also understands from the Soviet Union’s experience in Afghanistan that nationalist insurgencies which spring up organically to oppose foreign occupations, usually armed and financed vicariously by enemy states, are almost impossible to subdue, let alone defeat.
The only incentives for Putin to halt the attack are battlefield casualties and domestic blowback. He has no political incentive to stop yet because, with the exception of Ukraine’s President Zelensky whose leadership he is trying to decapitate, no other state is sufficiently engaged to negotiate a ceasefire. And yet all wars end at some point.
A European-brokered ceasefire is the most propitious course of action now, but any continental proposals will be vigorously opposed by Washington who have long feared an independent European voice in the region’s security. NATO is not just a US-led interventionary force which controls the world’s energy systems by policing its pipelines and sea lanes. Since the 1950s it has been the political and military structure through which Washington has imposed its will on junior partners, quashing independent European security initiatives such as the West European Union.
The primary cause of this conflict has been the failure of all parties to conclude an acceptable and stable post-Soviet security order in the region. For years, realists from George Kennan to John Mearsheimer have warned that the expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders is a red flag that no leader in the Kremlin could tolerate.
Nonetheless, since 1990 there has been a rapid and never-ending expansion of America’s sphere of influence in Europe and Putin’s Russia remains the largest obstacle to its further spread. In Diana Johnstone’s words, Washington’s Deep State has rarely missed an opportunity to “bait the bear”, believing Russia to be America’s permanent enemy, regardless of how economically weak it is or who leads it.
As tempting as it seems to reduce the conflict entirely to the disturbed psychological state of the Russian leader, the West must share responsibility for the current crisis. Knowing the historical strategic importance of Ukraine to Russia, NATO’s eastward expansion after 1990, despite explicit reassurances to the contrary given to Mikhail Gorbachev by George H.W. Bush, was deliberatively and unnecessarily provocative.
Washington’s role in the 2014 coup which toppled Viktor Yanukovych, the unilateral abrogation of arms control agreements with Russia, the sale of weapons system and armaments to Russia’s neighbours, the threat of NATO’s accession of Ukraine, and the sponsorship of anti-Russian politicians (including neo-Nazis) in Kyiv have fed Moscow’s fear of strategic encirclement by hostile countries. Putin is not alone in regarding Ukraine as a proxy state for the West.
It doesn’t matter if this view of the region seems paranoid. Critical thinking and basic ethics demands that those who want peace attempt to see these developments through Russian eyes: to concede that Western perspectives are not the only ones to consider. Russia has legitimate security interests, just like every other state. Pretending otherwise is foolhardy.
Economic sanctions are starting to hurt the Russian middle class and test popular support for Putin. The rouble has collapsed, ATMs are emptying, credit cards don’t work and the banks will eventually fall over. Putin’s timeframe for “victory” is narrowing. Cracks are also appearing in elite opinion, especially amongst senior military commanders who feel humiliated by slow progress in Ukraine, largely because they are hamstrung by orders to avoid civilians and civil infrastructure.
Putin will need to focus more on these domestic concerns, whereas like the Taliban, President Zelensky just needs to survive to win.
Leaders like Putin tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by people who only tell them what they want to hear. His position is reminiscent of the Indonesian Government when it held the East Timor plebiscite in 1999. President Habibie and his inner circle were genuinely shocked that the vote to leave was so high (over 78%). They thought the Timorese loved being in the republic as much as they did.
Putin is confused and surprised that the world cares so much about Ukraine, given the reaction in the West to his earlier attacks on Chechnya (2000) and Georgia (2008), which was indifference. He could win militarily with a brutal attack, but he is already losing the PR campaign. Now he also has the Zelensky cult to deal with, promoted in the West by journalists who don’t see any problems with neo-Nazis in Ukraine’s ruling elite. We should not, however, expect to see international brigades a la Spain 1936.
The Russian president is running out of time before the whole economy tanks. Nonetheless, if it wants the earliest possible end to the war, the West would be wise to give him a face-saving path of retreat before refugee outflows peak: it probably won’t. He must be disappointed with the lack of immediate Chinese support, but he would be extremely agitated by EU military funding and, given modern history, Germany’s about face on supplying lethal munitions to Ukraine. World War Two, or The Great Patriotic War as it is known there, is not ancient history in Russia.
Saturation media coverage of the conflict in the West has incited Russophobia with depictions of Putin as a brain damaged Hitler who cannot be reasoned with. However, portraying a foreign leader as irrational, crazy and solely responsible for a every foreign policy decision of a state is not just mistaken and infantile, it denies that his actions are explicable or that a rational response to them can help to terminate the conflict. Putin has committed a terrible crime which many will struggle to understand, but this does not make him mad.
Even more concerning, though perhaps more understandable, is the refusal of the West to apply the same moral standards it now seeks to impose on Russia, to itself and its friends. After all, at the very core of each self-righteous criticism of Putin is the assumption that, unlike Slavic barbarians, we in the West act on the basis of high moral principles.
Let’s take just the most obvious examples of double standards and hypocrisy which challenge this presupposition. They come from a very long list.
NATO’s attacks on Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011 were brazen and violent breaches of international law, hidden under the banner of humanitarian intervention. Both were nothing of the kind, however they were the actions of a Western military alliance so by definition they cannot be considered crimes or violations of state sovereignty, even when they clearly were.
Why does Turkey get to illegally occupy northern Cyprus (since 1974) without economic sanctions or diplomatic isolation? Because it is a member of NATO, even though no other state recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greek Cypriots who lost their homes and were forcibly displaced to the south of the island must wonder why this challenge to the post-war European order has been all but forgotten.
Why does Israel get to annexe the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in 1967, and who gave Washington the authority to decide this? It’s not just Trump’s fault. Biden has continued to defy international law by recognising Israel’s expanded boundaries. Where is the media outrage? The so-called rules-based international order does not apply to either Israel or its sponsor, the United States, neither of whom submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court — for obvious reasons.
The mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis by US, UK, Australian and other forces after an illegal invasion in 2003 was glorified in the Western media as “shock and awe”, not condemned as a criminal outrage. War crimes committed by allied troops during the second siege of Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury) in November 2004 were not even seriously investigated. Those responsible awarded each other medals instead of facing charges in The Hague. Why? Because the West self-immunises its leaders from the very same crimes for which it prosecutes Africans and Serbians.
Where is the coverage of Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen in the Western media? Compared with how Ukraine is dominating print and the airways, it is an invisible war, despite heavy casualties and a cholera outbreak. Why? Because Riyadh’s attacks against its neighbour are only possible because the US and UK are selling the Gulf tyranny the military hardware and munitions it needs to carry them out.
No financial sanctions are imposed on depraved murderers such as Mohammed bin Salman al Saud. Instead, he can expect lavish gifts and fawning visits from members of the British Royal Family.
If we stand for democracy, why did the West support al-Qaida groups in Syria as it had earlier funded Islamic extremists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union? What does this say about our moral principles and qualifications to lecture others about human decency? If states are entitled to have their sovereignty respected, as we rightly claim for Ukraine, why is Israel able to routinely bomb Syria without even a hint of criticism — or even coverage — in the Western media? Because Israel is pro-Western, so international law does not apply to it.
If military-lead violent territorial conquests are so offensive, why did successive Australian governments recognise Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, and its brutal 24 year occupation which produced what the Catholic Church described as the greatest slaughter relative to a population since the Holocaust? It was illegal. The same journalists and politicians who minimised and legitimated Jakarta’s atrocities in Australia’s near north, have suddenly discovered international law when Ukraine’s sovereignty is compromised.
Imagine what the children of Gaza must think when they see Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid go on television to denounce wars of aggression and illegal occupations in Ukraine? For those victims of IDF sniper attacks in 2018–19, including children, aid and medical workers, as well as disabled civilians, his speech must have seemed like a sick joke when it wasn’t triggering their trauma.
Those who paid attention will recall that when this particular slaughter unfolded (during protests in Gaza known as the Great March of Return), not a word of concern, let alone condemnation, was uttered by either the LNP government in Australia nor the ALP opposition.
There were no “unbearable” images broadcast of Palestinians fathers parting with daughters as they courageously risked their lives to resist a repressive occupation that is destroying their lives in the world’s largest open-air prison, including a sea and land blockade and the deprivation of safe drinking water. Instead, Palestinians are unworthy victims and terrorists who deserve nothing, and certainly not the sympathy rightly being afforded Ukrainians across the world today.
Instead of being sent weapons to defend themselves against a brutal and illegal occupation, it is their occupiers who are bestowed billions of dollars in military hardware and ammunition to keep them cantonised and periodically slaughtered.
France’s President Macron denies the growing evidence of Israel’s apartheid policies in Palestine, detailed by human rights organisations such as B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, former Israeli prime ministers, ambassadors and attorneys general. So don’t expect the Eiffel Tower to be illuminated with the red, white, green and black colours of the Palestinian flag any time soon.
None of this is an argument for downplaying the significance of Putin’s crimes. They are very serious and he should be held accountable for them, preferably by his own citizens in a court of law. We must hope that the citizens of Kyiv and other towns in Ukraine are spared the misery and destruction felt by people of Grozny (1999–2000), Raqqa (2017) and Gaza City (2008–2021).
But if we are responsible for the predictable consequences of our own actions and those of the leaders we elect, given we can’t do much about the actions of rival and enemy states, shouldn’t we focus first on the invasions, occupations and violence that we and our friends and allies impose on others? Then our sense of outrage at the events in Ukraine might begin to look more principled.