The Russian invasion of Ukraine has invoked an overwhelmingly united response from both the media and international community who have vocally denounced Putin’s actions. President Biden named the Russian leader a “war criminal” and in a White House statement condemned the invasion as a “premeditated war” that is “unprovoked and unjustified”. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Putin’s actions were “hideous and barbaric” while France’s Emmanuel Macron described the crisis as “a turning point in the history of Europe”. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz similarly announced the attack as a “very dark day for Europe” and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Putin’s actions as an “unprovoked” … “violation” of Russia’s obligations under international law. This was echoed by UN Secretary General António Guterres who announced in a speech to the UN General Assembly that “our world is facing a moment of peril […]. If the conflict in Ukraine expands, the world could see a scale and severity of need unseen for many years.”
It is clear that while Putin’s war in Ukraine is unjustified, indefensible, and in clear violation of the UN Charter and numerous international laws, the response from the world has undoubtedly been one unlike any other in recent times. It is not only in rhetoric that world leaders are banding together but in action also. Over recent weeks, the world has seen leaders impose some of the harshest economic sanctions in recent history. Faisal Islam of BBC News called these sanctions “the deployment of heavy weaponry” in “a form of economic war” and noted the targeting of a central bank of a G20, or Group of Twenty, nation as a historical first. The European Commission made clear its intention to “paralyse” the Russian Central Bank in its ability to support the Russian economy under sanctions. The White House explicitly reinforced this position, stating: “We are planning to impose measures to ensure Russia cannot use its Central Bank to support its currency and undermine the impact of our sanctions”. UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss echoed the sentiment and said that allies are taking action to “degrade the Russian economy”.
Given that central banks typically have sovereign immunity, the implications of nations constituting half the world’s economy uniting to freeze Russia financially are unparalleled and colossal. While the effects of these sanctions are currently playing out, it is evident that Russia and the civilians living there are suffering economically. At the time of writing, the ruble has dropped by 29% and inflation within the country is skyrocketing. Russians cannot send or receive money outside of the country and are feeling the spike in price of everyday goods.
Although this is not the first time the US, UK, and allied countries have used financial penalties to strangle the regime of a country deemed hostile (see the 13-year long sanctions against Iraq after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait which resulted in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises), it is notable that no such actions were taken against the very same countries that then invaded Iraq in 2003. Almost two decades after the US-led coalition began its occupation of Iraq, it has become clear that while grounds for the invasion were rooted in UN Security Council Resolutions and other international conventions, the justification of the use of military force was regarded as shaky at best and illegal at worst. Despite this, country blocs such as the European Union, who do not need to be mandated by the UN to impose their own sanctions, took no action.
Similarly, no sanctioning measures were taken against Russia for their continued involvement and support of the Assad regime in Syria despite evidence of the use of chemical weapons. Although both Russia and China continuously vetoed Western-drafted Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions, other states and country blocks did not enforce measures outside of the UN system allowing Russia to continue to reinforce Assad’s oppression on his own people. Within the wider context of history, it is clear that the Global North will take swift and firm action when issues of conflict and war unfold on the doorstep of European territory – the same cannot be said for unrest in the Middle East and Africa.
The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has seen acts of ethnic cleansing amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity responsible for the deaths of thousands since 2020. Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya has also been categorized by various UN agencies as having escalated to the point of genocide whilst militias in the Central African Republic have conducted ethnic cleansing against Muslims in the country’s western regions. Documented human rights abuses have also been committed against the Muslim-majority Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang as well as the ongoing oppression and violence in states such as Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, and Palestine. Throughout awareness of these conflicts and the subsequent crimes committed, preventative action through Western involvement on the governmental level has been minimal if at all.
In many cases, Iraq and Afghanistan being two famous examples, Western intervention has resulted in the instigation, prolonging, or worsening of conflicts which is conducted solely for the benefit of powerful countries in the Global North. One recent example is Yemen’s bloody seven-year internal conflict. Described by the UN as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, this ongoing war has resulted in violence, famine, disease, unsafe drinking water, and lack of healthcare causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands civilians. Bombs have been relentlessly dropped on Yemenis in an aggressive attempt to reinstate a pro-Saudi government backed by the US with the previous three American administrations having provided critical support in maintaining the conflict.
One refrain that has been repeatedly stated to justify the West’s rapid and heavy reaction to Russia is Ukraine’s close geographical proximity to the EU, whose interests are politically and economically aligned with those of the US. The closer the suffering and danger, the more urgently a strong response is required. However, in comparison to previous conflict within Europe it once again becomes apparent that this has not always been the case. The Bosnian war, which took place between 1992 and 1995, was an international armed conflict that occurred within the Former Yugoslavia. Although there was limited involvement from NATO and the UN, it was not until the genocidal murder of 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys that the conflict garnered international outrage. These killings, commonly referred to as the Srebrenica Massacre, were carried out in and around the town of the same name which had previously been labeled as a UN ‘safe area’ or humanitarian corridor. Despite this, Bosnian Serbs who conducted the attack encountered no engagement or resistance from the UN on the ground or in the air. It was the worst case of mass murder in Europe since World War II and a source of great shame for the West.
It is clear that there is a pattern of Western action (or inaction) within conflicts across the world. The nature of that action very much depends on what or who is at stake. It is more feasible to sell to voters a country’s engagement into a foreign war if we can see ourselves and our lives reflected in that of the victims. This plays on the fear that our own governments must act or we could easily find ourselves in the same position. Similarly, it is easier to justify passivity when war crimes and abuses are occurring far away or in contexts that we cannot immediately understand or relate to.
In many cases the effects of these conflicts, no matter how far flung, are still often felt within the Global North due to the inevitable exodus of refugees and asylum seekers. The reception of people fleeing war is typically influenced heavily by the media which in itself is a reflection of Western attitudes. The second part of this examination of Western responses to the Ukraine crisis will delve deeper into the responses of governments and journalists in regards to Ukrainian refugees as well as racism directed towards non-white asylum seekers exiting the country.