Double standards in international responses to the war in Ukraine

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Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, international attention has been focused on the war. This full-scale invasion is a drastic escalation in a long-running conflict. In 2014, the Maidan protests against the Ukrainian government’s decision to back out of an association agreement with the EU prompted pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee. Taking advantage of the situation, Putin’s Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in Southern Ukraine and supported pro-Russian separatists in the southeastern Ukrainian region known as Donbas. 

The West responded to Putin’s clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty with sanctions, which did have an effect on the Russian economy but were clearly not enough to prevent Putin from further hostile action. The annexation of Crimea quickly lost salience in the international community, which continued to cooperate with Russia. One such example is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia, which Germany did not back out of until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month.

Now, the West has come together with a powerful economic response including sanctions targeting freezing the assets of the central bank. Many American and European-based companies, such as Nike and Apple, are also stopping sales in Russia. Though the ruble to USD exchange rate has experienced a steep drop as a result of these measures, many believe that Putin will not be deterred. 

Associate Professor Oxana Shevel of the political science department explained that “any sort of expectation that Putin can somehow be reasoned with, that there could be some sort of diplomatic off-ramp … I think that’s quite naive.” Instead, Shevel believes that this war will end only by military defeat of either Ukraine or Russia.

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There has also been a historic provision of military support to Ukraine, though it is tempered by fear of Russia escalating hostilities, particularly considering that nuclear escalation is a concern. With Putin’s full-scale invasion, Germany reversed its policy not to send weapons into a conflict zone, agreeing to send anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft defense systems to Ukraine and allowing other countries to send their weapons as well. The U.S. and other NATO countries have also sent hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Ukraine. However, Ukraine’s president, Volodomyr Zelensky, has called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a plea that has been rejected by NATO for fear of causing a nuclear escalation with Russia. Shevel points out that providing air defense systems and military aircraft to Ukraine is another way for NATO countries to help protect Ukraine from the bombardment it is facing.

As the first full-scale war on European soil since WWII, the war in Ukraine has also brought up important considerations regarding the racism in the West’s treatment of refugees and conception of war. Over 2 million refugees from Ukraine have been accepted by nearby nations, while the 1.1 million Syrians who sought asylum in Europe over the past few years have met blocks at every turn. The racism and Islamophobia is most clear in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which broke EU law by refusing to host refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Last November, Poland refused asylum-seekers entrance, leaving them freezing in the forest on the Poland-Belarus border. Contrarily, Poland has accepted 1.2 million Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

This double standard has been reinforced by Western media coverage, which also highlights a clear difference based on racism in how refugees from Ukraine and those from Africa and the Middle East are seen. The numerous examples of blatant racism from respected media organizations underscore the widespread bias in Western society. 

In The Telegraph, a journalist wrote, “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”  

On the BBC, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor stated that, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” 

Here in the United States, a CBS News senior correspondent referred to Kyiv as a “relatively civilised, relatively European … city where you wouldn’t expect that” in contrast to Iraq or Afghanistan.

This last example is particularly hypocritical considering the United States’ own role in the crises in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though most Tufts students are too young to remember the U.S. invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s important that we confront the similarities to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine. Ultimately, despite the lack of sanctions against the U.S., government actions killed countless civilians and destroyed families and communities, mirroring Putin’s current actions. Even without the repressive government and propaganda machine Russian civilians live under, U.S. public opinion largely supported both invasions at first. Though opinion on the wars turned negative over time, they were mostly out of sight and out of mind for the American public. We must understand that war and human suffering are unacceptable, regardless of which country is the perpetrator and what religion and ethnicity the primary victims are.

While it is important to remain aware of the double standards in the response to this war, it is also clear that Ukrainians need our help to remain safe and defeat Putin. As Tufts students and, for many of us, American citizens, we have the power to make our voices heard. Here at Tufts, Shevel pointed to the lack of initial response from the Tufts administration for days following the invasion and the problematic “institutional cooperation between the Fletcher School and the Moscow Institute of International Affairs, which is a branch … of the Russian Foreign Ministry.” However, Shevel stressed that individual students and faculty should not be ostracized for Russia’s invasion.  

Tufts did eventually issue a statement following a student-led protest, and students can similarly call for the university to cut ties with the Moscow Institute. 

Additionally, Shevel explained that another action students can take at an individual level is contacting their representatives to ask their government to allocate funds for humanitarian or military initiatives to help Ukraine. 

There are also many organizations you can donate to in order to provide military and/or humanitarian support for Ukraine. Razom for Ukraine is one organization which Shevel recommends, though you can find many other reputable international and domestic organizations that support different groups online. 

Ultimately, it is vital that we take individual action while also urging our government to do what they can to help Ukrainians at this time of acute need while also recognizing the past situations in which our country and allies have failed to help people who are suffering due to racism and bigotry.

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