Could Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Reinvigorate Awareness of Colonialism in Europe?7 min read
Two weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Britain’s House of Commons in order to plead a case for financial and military assistance for his country. During his speech, Zelenskyy referenced one of Churchill’s speeches from the Second World War.
“We will not surrender, we will not lose, we will go to the end.
“We will fight at sea, we will fight in the air, we will protect our land.
“We will fight everywhere… and we will not surrender.”
It would be an understatement to say that this was a strange sight for me, a non-European, watching the Ukrainian head of state, who spoke of a war so deeply rooted in Russia’s imperial exercise, practically quote Winston Churchhill- one of the most staunch imperialists of his time.
It was concerning to see how the irony in this situation was ignored and the speech was even lauded, and it raised several questions in my mind about Ukraine’s future in relation to colonialism. If Ukraine has decided its future is with the EU, is the treatment of people of colour escaping Ukraine a sign that whilst inheriting the EU’s values of democracy it might also assume the issues of systematic racism that plagues most of the EU’s institutions? Or could Ukraine’s experience grappling with colonialism in the 21st century imply the dawn of a new kind of European state, one which is more sympathetic towards the struggles of regions further abroad, like the Middle East and Africa? So far, events suggest otherwise…
The tradition of discrimination rife within the EU is most prominent in the glaringly racist refugee policy followed by states like Poland and Hungary which have received the bulk of refugees from Ukraine, amidst widespread reports of pushbacks of South Asian and African students at the borders. These policies have become more visible in the context of the region’s response to America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the migrant surge into Poland manufactured by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko last year. The difference in treatment is just too hard to ignore. Even Germany, once considered the safest of havens for refugees in Europe, has allegedly been displacing Afghan refugees to create housing for Ukrainians.
Old wounds still scar
Colonialism to me always seemed to be unifying- a single thread of commonality, joining together all repressed cultures despite their differences. It only seemed natural that when Ukraine and other states of the former Soviet Union undertook their respective “colour revolutions” with a strong underlying theme of anticolonialism that the umbrella for freshly liberated states was going to expand. But with the onset of this year’s war, Russia’s imperialism in Ukraine began to feel more foreign and distant to me. Its victims were treated differently from how I’d seen war victims having been treated previously in a way I had never expected them to be.
As someone who isn’t white, my views on the war oscillate somewhere between feeling guilty and gutted – gutted to see the horrors of Bucha, guilty for feeling jealous that the world is actually seeing these horrors, that their suffering is being made more visible than that of so many people of colour would ever be. To have the whole world stand up for you, whether it be within the walls of the UN or at song competitions, was the kind of recognition that feels truly unimaginable for so many people of colour.
The price of morality
A few days before Zelenskyy’s speech to the British Parliament, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution asking Russia to stop its war of aggression and generally condemning the Kremlin’s actions. Other than the usual suspects of Belarus and North Korea voting against the resolution on Moscow’s behalf, around 35 abstained, mostly South Asian and African states. Quickly, the US President released a statement saying that abstention simply was not an option on the world stage right now. It almost implied that the first war on European soil since the Second World War meant this was also the world’s first war since then. It was made to appear as a supposed moral failure, but in reality was damningly ignorant of the way Western partners fail to understand the compulsions of developing countries, many of which rely heavily on Russia for trade, military support and diplomatic backing, even if that means having to ignore Moscow’s acts of aggression.
I felt weighed down by this duality in perceptions until Tariq Ali, a Pakistani-born leftist historian and a strong advocate for the liberation of the oppressed peoples – from Palestine to Kashmir – wrote a piece before the actual invasion, calling Russia’s expansion just “a high, orchestrated media-campaign.” Mortified at first, I soon realised that we were facing two different realities. While this isn’t a justification for many on the Left, especially those based in the West, who defend the war, Ali, like many who’d seen South Asia’s liberation from Britain, simply can’t seem to fathom the West fighting off colonialism instead of propagating it. Like many in Pakistan, Ali was no supporter of colonialism, but rather simply seemed to be caught in a deeply cynical space of disillusionment with the “superpowers” of the world, for a lack of a better term.
To have the US actively stand up for Ukrainian sovereignty, whilst not fully acknowledging its morally dubious past (and present), especially in the Middle East, is an example of how little politics and diplomacy has to do with morality. Putting aside economic gains, it’s become immensely clear that each region in the world may have experienced a completely different reality when it comes to the subject of imperialism, in turn dictating two opposing forms of reaction and further drawing a wedge between our perceptions of this war.
What about whataboutism?
Before the phrase, “what about…..” even comes up, I’d like to address it as it has always been dismissed as an attempt to excuse mutual injustices. This of course is justified when it’s a part of the lexicon frequently used by Kremlin sympathisers and Russian Twitter bots, whataboutism is worthy of criticism when employed as such a cynical propaganda tool. It seems, however, as though much of the academic community involved in the region, which is overwhelmingly white, hides behind the critique of whataboutism as a free pass to barely acknowledge and then quickly ignore the bias with which the world sees conflicts. Pointing out injustices may simply be a call to attention to crimes committed by the West which have been left unnoticed.
This hypocrisy isn’t just limited to the subject of Western colonialism but can be seen in coverage of Russia’s own wars as well. During Russia’s invasion of Chechnya, equally horrifying in its scale and death toll, Western leaders mostly remained silent. While their passivity can be explained by the context of the recent end of the cold war and a will to maintain good relations with Russia, it’s also hard to ignore the fact that the West’s response, whether through sanctions or condemnations, has usually been limited to the definition of what constitutes a war victim worth saving – “blue eyes and blond hair”, as Ukraine’s former deputy prosecutor put it.
While Ukraine’s ongoing battle with colonisation is painful, there could possibly be a silver lining to this very dark cloud, as the recognition of Russian imperialism has certainly increased. EU’s proximity to Ukraine and seemingly greater understanding of its postcolonial identity could perhaps enable further reflection and recognition of its own past as a colonial power and how that’s influenced its modern-day identity, pushing states to rework its institutions, rhetoric and immigration policies and reevaluate its democratic values in the context of Eurocentrism and exceptionalism. But until this change begins to surface, many people of colour will have to just accept the unfortunate bittersweetness that comes with supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom.