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Game of empires

Alternative framings of the Ukraine war

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

The hysteria has moved on from Covid to Ukraine. Given official and media propaganda on lockdowns and vaccines on their own people, scepticism on their trustworthiness about a foreign war waged by Russia is understandable. The mainstream media and all Western leaders have echoed President Joe Biden’s Manichean framing of the war as a ‘great battle’ between democracy and autocracy, liberty and repression and a rules-based order and ‘one governed by brute force’. President Volodymyr Zelensky has been unexpectedly heroic, courageous and inspirational. But the ‘democracy-autocracy’ narrative is seriously defective. Ukrainians are fighting for their nation, not for universal freedoms. Fragmenting Western societies seem to have forgotten patriotic determination to defend one’s country as a universal civic virtue. The same fierce resistance to invaders was demonstrated in Vietnam and Afghanistan, highlighting both the power of the weak when fighting for the homeland and the fragility of the strong when engaged in imperialism.

The 2014 Maidan revolution was a de facto coup to oust the democratically elected pro-Russian president with ‘a deep degree of US involvement’ (Washington Post) in Ukraine’s internal affairs. In the annual report from Freedom House, Ukraine’s score of 61/100 put it in the same ‘partly free’ category as Colombia, Serbia, Liberia, El Salvador and the Philippines. After the 2014 coup, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion – that’s a Daily Beast label from 2019 – was incorporated into President Petro Poroshenko’s military and security apparatus and has remained there. Zelensky has seized the opportunity of the war to ‘suspend’ eleven opposition parties, including the biggest with 44 MPs in the 450-seat parliament, and nationalise several media outlets to implement a ‘unified information policy’. In Transparency International’s 2021 corruption index published in January, Ukraine’s score was 32/100, making it Europe’s most corrupt country (cue Hunter Biden’s laptop). Russia is even worse. So pardon me for not joining in the rapturous standing ovations to Zelensky that has become part of the ritualised theatre of his Zoom addresses to Western parliaments.

Western countries have themselves witnessed grievous assaults on freedoms and curtailment of civil liberties and democratic practices in the last two years, with Canada and the state of Victoria being among the worst offenders. The media propagation of the Trump–Russia collusion hoax for three years and the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story, not to mention the pattern-defying anomalies, compromised the legitimacy of the 2020 US presidential election. This is not to imply a moral equivalence between imperfect Western democracies and Russia, but to explain non-Western dissent from how Biden framed the Ukraine war.


A second framing alleges Russian violations of foundational global norms on state sovereignty, territorial integrity and the use of force. The lopsided General Assembly vote, followed by this month’s suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, shows that most countries do care about core global norms and share in the repugnance at atrocities against civilians. Unfortunately, every charge levelled against Russia applies also to the US. It’s used force overseas more often than any other country since 1945, including Iraq in 2003. It rejected the World Court’s judgment on aggression against Nicaragua and threatened the International Criminal Court with sanctions for daring to investigate possible war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan, but backs the two courts vis-à-vis Russia in Ukraine. The downing of a Malaysian Airline flight over Ukraine in 2014 is comparable to the downing of an Iran Air flight by a US warship in 1988. Both Moscow and Washington rejected the World Court’s 1996 opinion on the legal obligation on nuclear disarmament.

The first two frames together, in combination with the global dominance of Western media, explain why Westerners conflate their local consensus into a global consensus that simply doesn’t exist. Much of the non-Western world views the Ukraine conflict within a third frame of an ongoing recalibration of the European balance of power since the Cold War ended. A continual readjustment of geopolitical frontiers along historical faultlines and buffer states is part of human history. Afflicted by hubris, the US and Nato effectively treated Russia as a permanently defeated enemy instead of one in temporary retreat. As Nato kept incorporating former Warsaw Pact members in a steady eastward expansion to Russia’s borders, the repeated proclamation of red lines over Georgia and Ukraine were contemptuously brushed aside. In a cable sent home on 1 February 2008, William Burns, then ambassador to Russia and current CIA director, concluded: ‘While Russian opposition to the first round of Nato enlargement in the mid-1990s was strong, Russia now feels itself able to respond more forcefully to what it perceives as actions contrary to its national interests’. Nato policy on Ukraine provoked but did not deter Russia. Last month, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said: ‘The war could have been avoided if Nato had heeded the warnings from amongst its own leaders and officials over the years that its eastward expansion would lead to greater, not less, instability in the region’. This helps to explain why half of African countries refused to endorse the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Arabs too have misgivings about the consistency of US policy between Ukraine and the Middle East.

Let’s also examine the war as contestations over Russia’s place in the European security, economic and political orders. Boris Yeltsin was told in October 1993 by Secretary of State Christopher that the US was pursuing, not Nato membership for selected but a Partnership for Peace for all European countries. When Yeltsin interrupted to make sure he had understood correctly that all Central and Eastern European countries and Russia would be treated equally in an all-inclusive partnership, Christopher replied, ‘Yes, that is the case’. Yeltsin responded, ‘This is a brilliant idea, a stroke of genius’. Within a year the US changed policy. Russia was frozen out. The rest is history.

But that history has regional resonance for Europe, not global resonance. Asian countries that did not join last month’s UN condemnation of Russia include Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Singapore was the only one of the Asean ten to condemn Russia. Shivshankar Menon, India’s former National Security Adviser, writes in Foreign Affairs that the Ukraine war will transform Europe’s geopolitical landscape but is not a transcendental conflict between autocracies and democracies, will not reshape the global order and has only limited relevance for the Indo-Pacific. China’s rise is far more consequential for reconfiguring the emerging global order on both the geopolitical and normative axes than the protracted death rattles of the Soviet empire that expired in 1990/91.

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