The Discourse of Privilege: Western Europe and the Russian War against Ukraine

by Elżbieta Kwiecińska and Pavel Skigin

As Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz recently wrote in The New Republic, some Western experts and politicians are ‘Westplaining’ the war to Ukrainians: instead of showing solidarity with Ukraine and letting Ukrainians speak, they use their voices to try and impose their political agenda on Ukrainians when they ask for military support. Unfortunately, being a radical pacifist is a great privilege that only Westerners can afford nowadays.

As we know from Ukrainian history and recent war crimes in Mariupol, Bucha, Izyum, and Kharkiv, instead of achieving peace, surrendering to Russia only leads to brutal military oppression. There is thus an immense sense of privilege and arrogance in telling Ukraine to give up the fight.

In the Austrian newspaper Der Standard, Franzobel nonetheless wrote that “at the beginning of the war, I was convinced that it would be wiser for Ukraine to capitulate, form a government in exile, call on the population to peacefully resist, and use international sanctions to try to stop Russia. I still do.” [„Zu Kriegsbeginn war ich überzeugt, es wäre klüger, die Ukraine würde kapitulieren, eine Exilregierung bilden, die Bevölkerung zu friedlichem Widerstand aufrufen und mittels internationaler Sanktionen versuchen, Russland zu stoppen. Ich bin es immer noch”, our translation.] Similar statements have been repeatedly made within our own Western academic circles during private conversations.

What such radical pacifists do is akin to victim-blaming – they present Ukrainian resistance, not Russian aggression, as the source of protracted violence.

Most of us do not like war and neither do we. In recent decades, people have been raised in Europe to hate imperialism, nationalism, and militarism. We have built museums that display the suffering of common people affected by wars. We acknowledge cultural diversity, transnationalism, and cultural transfers. However, ‘Never again’ has apparently become more of a ritualistic slogan than a statement of intent because 20th-century history now appears too distant, its horrific crimes almost unimaginable.

But history has returned with a vengeance. Our liberal-leftist cosmopolitan outlook on the world does not comply with the one that has been promoted for many years by Russian propaganda and which explicitly praises war, imperialism, and militarism. Russia has clearly ignored the lessons from World War II that laid the ground for post-war European pacifism.

It is nice to be a pacifist over a bottle of IPA beer in Berlin or over pasta in Florence; our friends in Ukraine are now living in underground bomb shelters, became refugees, or joined the army. And Western Europe has failed to develop an adequate answer to this political and moral challenge until now.

Two weeks ago, a Ukrainian friend of ours was killed in action by Russian soldiers. We first met at a philosophical club in Lviv and spent time reading and discussing philosophy over a bottle of wine from Odesa. Taras Khayduk was a historian very fond of the multicultural heritage of his native region, Zakarpattia. When the war started in 2014, he volunteered to fight, and he did so again this year when Russia’s war against Ukraine escalated.

Moreover, European countries continue to buy Russian oil and gas. The French Conseil d’Analyse Economique estimated that “a full energy ban on Russian energy imports could on average cause a loss of gross national income of 0.2-0.3%, amounting to about 100 euros per adult.”[1] German Finance Minister Christian Lindner nonetheless rejected a European Union embargo on Russian gas imports just this Monday.[2] Lindner is known for refusing help to Ukraine following the invasion – he even refused to merely engage with Andrii Melnyk, the Ambassador of Ukraine in Germany, as he expected Ukraine to fall within hours of the start of the assault and he was ready to begin talks with a Russian-installed puppet regime.[3] Recently, Germany refused to supply Ukraine with the 100 tanks Ukraine has requested to fight for its survival.[4]

Europe says ‘never again’ to war and expresses its ‘concern’ over Ukraine. We plan on charging the responsible individuals with war crimes. Then, the best European international lawyers could show themselves in full glory and represent Ukraine in front of international courts in prime time.

But what to do now, while the war is raging, to save Ukrainian people from their Russian aggressors that do not respect international treaties and have no mercy for civilians?

Apart from humanitarian aid, Europe should strengthen the sanctions regime and increase its efforts to supply Ukraine with weapons so they can defend themselves.

Another trope in the European continental discourse is branding the Western economic sanctions aimed at stopping Russian aggression against Ukraine ‘Russophobia’, thereby shifting the discussion to the alleged suffering of Russians. On March 27, after more than a month since the start of Russian crime of war and war crimes in Ukraine, this discourse reached its climax at Che Tempo Che Fa, one of the most popular Italian TV shows. The focus was not Ukraine, but Russia, represented by a long-serving TV propaganda editor Marina Ovsyannikova, who was suddenly presented as an anti-war protester who – rather miraculously – suffered hardly any repercussions, being fined €200 but still able to talk to Western media. Academic experts on Russian propaganda in the West doubt that there was any genuine protest in the first place, but what matters more is the message that this unexpected ‘hero of Russian resistance’ sent to the Italian audience. Once again, the main point concerned how Russophobia “has reached peak levels” and is supposedly embodied in sanctions – which Ovsyannikova was pleading to lift – and in the alleged “canceling” of Dostoyevsky in the West. Peace in Ukraine, Ovsyannikova continues the narrative broadcast freely all over Europe, will be attained not by stopping the Russian war machine but by more culture and more Dostoyevsky.[5]


phobia is defined as in irrational fear of something that’s unlikely to cause harm.

This clarification reveals Russophobia to be a contradiction in terms: because of its violence, fear of Russia is not irrational, since the country obviously causes harm. Then, -phobia normally refers to oppressed minorities (homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia in the West), not to an imperialist, militarist aggressive country. Were critics of US interventions ever branded ‘Americaphobes’?

Moreover, in a situation where a direct military intervention in the spirit of Chapter VII of the UN Charter is not on the table for sheer prudential reasons (Russian nuclear weapons), an in-depth public discussion about the morality of economic sanctions presents itself as superfluous. Peace enforcement and international sanctions are both concepts well-developed both in international law and in political theory.

The false sense of controversy is strengthened by the talk of alleged right-wing tendencies in the Ukrainian military, promoted by Russian propaganda since 2014 and, regrettably, still all too prominent in Europe.

Still, many prefer to sympathize with refugees as “perfect victims” while avoiding the issue of military help that can prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place.

To focus on refugees is laudable but not when it comes at the expense of helping the fight of the Ukrainians.

Not all Ukrainian refugees conform to the romanticized Western stereotype of the “perfect victim” – they may not look like “proper refugees” in rags. Many of the five million people who had to flee from the Russian invasion led successful lives there, had beautiful homes and jobs they liked. To thrive in their own country and not be dependent on someone else’s noble sympathy, they need to be safe. Supporting the Ukrainian army, together with the sanctions against Russia, is the only way to bring lasting peace to Ukraine.

Ukrainian military resistance is about dignity. Supporting a military is sometimes the best way of support. Unequivocal support for the Ukrainian cause, which includes support for the victory of its military, doesn’t imply a specific political affiliation.

It is possible to be a believer and an atheist, on the left or the right, an anarchist or a nationalist and support Ukraine in this fight – and not some pacifist abstractions such as “peace and cessation of hostilities.”

Ukrainian anarchists, in fact, have volunteered to fight since the initial Russian invasion in 2014, because the fight is not for the Ukrainian nation, its symbols or narratives. It is a fight for the life and freedom of every person and of Ukraine as a country.

We dedicate this article to all our Ukrainian friends who now fight for their country.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Kasia Krzyżanowska

Dr Elżbieta Kwiecińska is a historian from the University of Warsaw. She defended her PhD thesis at the European University Institute in Florence on the transfer of colonial discourse in East-Central Europe in 19th-century.

Pavel Skigin is a PhD candidate in political theory at the European University Institute in Florence, writing his thesis on the ethics of international sanctions.






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