Perhaps one of the greatest problems for the West that has emerged from the war between Ukraine and Russia is just how far opinions in Western Europe have diverged from those of allies in the East.
The gulf between what is being said about the conflict in Eastern Europe, as opposed to the sentiments expressed in Western Europe, has widened drastically since the beginning of the conflict. Whilst those sitting comfortably in the West, far away from the fighting and the consequences of the war, continue to take a more reconciliatory tone, the atmosphere amongst those in the thick of the crisis is much less forgiving.
Several key instances of these differences of opinion have arisen during the course of the last few weeks. Small events that otherwise wouldn’t attract much attention in the West have become pivotal in understanding a cultural divide in attitudes towards Russia.
Chief amongst them is the approach taken to the wider Russian people. Whilst liberal-minded Western Europeans have scrambled over one another to try and make the point that this conflict is the responsibility of the Kremlin alone, and not of “ordinary Russians”, those who understand the language of the Russian people have found another message. Evidence from both polling companies and Russian social media has demonstrated that the attitudes of superiority and toxicity towards Ukrainians are prevalent amongst not just those Russians living in the Federation, but amongst the diaspora as well.
All too often holier than thou Westerners have scolded Ukrainians for making this point clear – for the most part because they aren’t exposed to the visceral hatred of the Russian people first hand. Yet were one to take the time to trawl through posts by Russians, or even look at the language expressed at so called “Russian Peace Protests” in Berlin, Cyprus, and other cities – they’d see just how deep the hatred of Ukraine runs. And how justified it is for Ukrainians to point not just to the Russian leadership, but also to the people it represents.
Distance – both physically and metaphorically behind a language barrier – has meant that Westerners have only experienced a small fraction of what is taking place inside Ukraine. It has allowed them the luxury of being able to sit far from the conflict and make claims that Ukraine should compromise, or that the country should accept neutrality and partition. Ideas that are easy to extol when the consequences don’t have an immediate impact on one’s own life.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
This was perhaps best expressed in the difference of reaction to the footage of Russian producer Marina Ovsyannikova holding a sign behind a live news broadcast. Whilst many in the West rushed to fawn over her apparent “bravery”, many in Ukraine could see through this self-publicising stunt.
For decades Ovsyannikova was a key producer on Russia’s most watched propaganda outlet. Some 75% of the Russian population have watched the shows that she oversaw, every night pumping out vicious lies straight from the Kremlin – demonising the West and advocating for the annexation of the country’s neighbours. Yet by holding up a sign, in English, she was deemed worthy of absolution by the West.
Ukrainians, however, were naturally unsurprised when a week later she appeared comfortably on Italian TV and called sanctions against Russia “Russophobia”. Indeed, people in the West should not have been surprised either when she conducted an interview on the BBC and said that she only did it because she “didn’t want to be arrested like everyone else” in the street.
Yet none of this has prevented the Western media from continuing their infatuation with her. Nor has it stopped mainstream politicians, especially those in Brussels, from continuing to hold her as an example that “it’s not all Russians”.
Of course, this difference in attitudes extends well beyond just a perception of the Russian people, but also to the diplomatic situation. Whilst Ukrainians are fighting for the defence of their country, their homes, and their freedom, many in the West are entertaining the idea of appeasement through an imagined “diplomatic solution”. This view has damaged the reputation of the West in the eyes of many Ukrainians.
When a figure such as Wolfgang Ischinger, chair of the Munich Security Conference, finds the time to criticise the UK for wanting Ukraine to hold on to 100% of its territory without being forced into a one-sided settlement, he does so knowing that he can remain comfortably in his home in Germany – far from the consequences of a “negotiated settlement”. Ischinger to Ukrainians represents the over-privileged, compromise-minded German. A character that presumes to speak for the Ukrainian people without asking them first their opinions.
His is a mindset tragically common in the West. One in which rather than asking Ukrainians what it is that they want, elects to tell them based on his armchair opinion. A degree of “Westwashing” has taken place – with many trying to make the crisis about themselves. The most egregious examples can be found in Germany, where the world congratulated the German government for its “bold” commitment to spend 2% on defence, despite the country having been bound by treaty to do so since 2006. In fact, the €100bn commitment to modernise the German military does little in the short term to remedy decades of neglect, overseen by defence ministers such as Ursula von der Leyen and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
At the same time, Germany and other Western European states have remained reluctant to send arms to Ukraine to support the effort against Russia. Or worse yet, continue to purchase Russian oil and gas to fuel their own energy addictions. All the while flying the Ukrainian flag as an in-vogue fashion accessory.
Other notable examples include French President Emanuel Macron’s frequent phone calls with the Russian President, which have so far achieved nothing; the German President’s attempts to invite the Russian ambassador to a concert in aid of Ukraine; the Belgian government refusing to put sanctions on the lucrative diamond trade; the Austrian government’s joint refusal with other member states to sanction Russian gas; or the United States’ unwillingness to facilitate the MiG deal that would have given Ukrainian forces greater air cover.
This disconnect in attitudes, often on the verge of patronising paternalism, endangers Ukraine, and by extension the rest of the free world. It exposes divisions in our Western alliance that could easily be exploited and demonstrates a weakness in our resolve to work towards a common purpose. But above all, it sows the seeds of doubt about just how far the West is willing to go in the defence of Ukraine’s people.
Robert Tyler is senior policy adviser at New Direction, a Brussels-based think tank.