The Pitfalls of the Western Gaze on Ukraine
Since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, I have been wary of the Western gaze on Ukraine and the coverage of the war by the American media.
Ukraine’s fate has hung in the balance while eurocentric narratives of a proxy war between NATO and Russia undermined Ukraine’s agency and Russian propaganda wormed its way into Western newsrooms.
Dissonance has been palpable for me, a Ukrainian-born US citizen, as I’ve split my attention between Ukrainian and Western narratives about the war, soberly aware of the importance of Western support as a factor that shapes Ukraine’s present and future.
At first, the support for Ukraine seemed unanimous. Ukrainian flags decked the streets and every other landmark was illuminated in blue and yellow. While Russia floundered, the world bore witness to Ukraine’s overwhelming unity and resistance.
As the initial shock wore off, my mind worked in overdrive, bracing itself for a gamut of potential scenarios including a tactical nuclear strike, the death of a family member, and the destruction of my childhood home, along with every last non-digitized photograph, as if mentally preparing for such things can somehow make them hurt less (or not happen at all).
This is magical thinking: presuming a relationship between two things that have no causal link, usually between a thought, feeling, or behavior, and an outcome.
Nausea became a reliable way of tracking my internal experience: occasionally a signal that I should pump the brakes on my news consumption, often a confirmation that Russia’s crimes are abominable and genocidal, and increasingly, an unabridged dismay at some of the opinions expressed by my fellow Americans.
Pundits have flocked to the opinion sections of major newspapers with their takes on how to end this brutal war, their arguments often involving some territorial concessions by Ukraine.
Limits to Support
I saw this coming — that standing with Ukraine would only go so far. It does not hurt any less. The indifference to what such concessions would actually mean for the Ukrainian people and the future of Europe tastes like a bitter betrayal with ethical implications.
Millions of people would be stripped of their language, their cultural and national identity, and their freedom. Genocide and destruction would rage on in fuller force.
Ukraine would not satiate Vladimir Putin’s appetite, and he would move further West. Isn’t America supposed to be on the side of democracy? Yes, in theory. In practice, America is in the midst of a democratic crisis of its own.
The parallel came into focus for me as I viewed the footage from the January 6 insurrection, in which a mob stormed the US capitol in order to take it back, emboldened by their fearless leader’s dishonest rhetoric.
A few hours prior, I had watched Putin compare himself to Peter the Great and confirm his intentions to take back what he believes belongs to Russia.
While Putin and Donald Trump are quite different, one clearly gets his inspiration from the other. In 2016, Trump praised Putin for having a “very strong hold over a country,” and this past February, he called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “pretty smart.”
Insidious and toxic entitlement echoes through each of their narratives. And yet, analysts predict that Putin may not face justice for the war crimes in Ukraine and the Capitol riot hearings may be largely in vain.
There are murmurs of turning the page and letting sleeping dogs lie. Many support the notion of an off-ramp, both for the GOP and for Russia.
But what does an off-ramp, as opposed to full accountability, normalize when someone is irrefutably culpable? When a world leader crosses lines previously thought uncrossable, what are the consequences?
The idea that an off-ramp in either of these cases would lead to lasting stability is another, arguably very dangerous form of magical thinking.
In reality, a lack of full accountability only sets the precedent for future denials of wrongdoings without guardrails. The progression of Russia’s aggression in 2014 to Russia’s aggression in 2022 is a clear example of this.
By the same logic, a carte blanche for Trump and the GOP would effectively endorse the impunity of future US leaders across the political spectrum.
Concessions are interpreted as encouragement and even tacit complicity. However, narratives of the circumstances being somehow otherwise continue to be propagated by the Western media.
Breakdown of Society
I’ve come to think of this magical thinking as a response to a fear of breakdown — a breakdown of society as we know it.
Change and uncertainty — as well as admitting when we are wrong — are harbingers of anxiety that many wish to avoid. But there is also a fallacy here, as the moments of breakdown are already behind us. Breakdown occurs at the moment of transgression and not as a result of a demand for accountability.
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba’s assertion that “it is Russia that humiliates itself,” and Representative Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyo) warning to Republicans that their dishonor will remain long after Trump is gone, invoke integrity and remind us where the responsibility falls.
Perhaps it is time for the Western gaze to turn inward, and focus on some introspection.
Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it. Because it is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives.
— Dmytro Kuleba (@DmytroKuleba) June 4, 2022
Elevating Ukrainian Voices
January 6, 2021, and February 24, 2022, are two dates of infamy in our contemporary history.
The ways that the United States responds to these unambiguous challenges to democracy and world order will plant the seeds for the future of justice and truth-seeking.
I hope those in power will make decisions anchored in a pursuit of accountability and a respect for human life, both domestically and geopolitically.
I urge Western journalists and editors to be mindful of the narratives they amplify in their publications, and to consider the ethical implications of these choices.
When discussing Ukraine, the media need to elevate Ukrainian voices, as they are, by and large, best suited to speak to the issues at hand.
Mary Mykhaylova (@marymykhaylova) is a Ukrainian American psychotherapist and essayist living in San Francisco.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Defense Post.
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