ABOUT THE CAUSES and conduct of the Russo-Ukrainian War much is disputed, but on these brute facts all are agreed. On the 24 February 2022, in violation of the United Nation’s Charter, and in spite of its 1991 pledge to recognise and gurantee its neighbour’s borders, military forces of the Russian Federation invaded the sovereign territory of the Republic of Ukraine.
It is entirely appropriate that a clear majority of the General Assembly of the United Nations has condemned this invasion, and entirely understandable that many countries, including our own, have joined the member states of Nato in imposing sanctions on Russia’s leaders and businesses. Indisputably, Russia is the aggressor in this conflict, and Ukraine the victim. Against all odds, however, the Ukrainian people, under their indomitable president, Volodymyr Zelensky, have resisted the Russian invader. Not only that, they have driven him back.
In a world bereft of heroes, Ukraine has millions of them.
So far, so simple. The Ukrainian narrative, at least as far as the West is concerned, is not, and should not be, complicated. Like World War II, the Russo-Ukrainian War is a conflict of clear moral opposites. A case of Good versus Evil – with Ukraine backed by all those nations who can still distinguish one from the other.
For some people, however (including the now infamous sub-editor at RNZ Digital) the Russo-Ukrainian War is extremely complicated, and its morality far from clear. To what end is the Russian Federation risking so much, and suffering so grievously? What reward does it anticipate for bringing what it sees as its geopolitically treacherous neighbour to heel? For Russia and its supporters, this narrative is far from simple, and its many complexities worthy of a fair hearing. It is not enough for the Western news media to tell us what is happening, they have the much more important obligation to tell us why it is happening.
Their answer to that all-important question may be summarised thusly:
In spite of American and German promises to advance “not one inch” towards Moscow, the Nato powers have been pursuing a policy of Eastward expansion ever since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. All efforts by the Russian Federation to halt Nato’s Eastward push by diplomatic means having been rebuffed, and witnessing the American-co-ordinated overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Moskow president in the so-called “Maidan Revolution” of 2014, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, moved decisively to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority from Kyiv’s new, extreme-nationalist, regime. After eight years of fruitless negotiation, and fearing a Nato-backed Ukrainian attack, Putin launched his pre-emptive “Special Military Operation” – and here we are.
This is the story which RNZ’s Chief Executive, Paul Thompson, dismisses as “Kremlin garbage”. The story which his (now suspended) employee admits to spending the last five years inserting into Reuters reports – allegedly without his employer’s reproof. The story which, Mr Thompson’s epithet notwithstanding, actually contains some small nuggets of truth.
But, those small nuggets do not diminish the single, overwhelming truth of Russia’s culpability for the horrors it has inflicted upon Ukraine. They don’t get Putin and Russia off the hook for their invasion, any more than citing the undoubted unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles gets Hitler and Germany off the hook for their genocidal aggression.
It wasn’t Ukrainian soldiers in mufti who infiltrated neighbouring Russian provinces, inciting Russian citizens to declare themselves independent “peoples republics”, and ratifying their subsequent annexation in bogus referenda. Ukraine’s ageing Soviet-era planes and tanks weren’t conducting military manoeuvres on Russia’s borders for weeks prior to suddenly dealing out fire and death, torture and rapine, as they raced for the capital.
No. The inescapable fact remains that it was the Russian Federation that did all of those things, and, by doing them, not only bestowed ex post facto justification for every criticism and accusation levelled against Russia and its ruthless ruler for the past 23 years, but also brought Putin’s worst geostrategic nightmares to life. What else but the Russian invasion of Ukraine could have persuaded Finland and Sweden to give up their neutral status and apply for Nato membership?
In the end, this dreadful story, playing out on our screens day and night, is as simple as it gets. What’s more, it’s our story, daring us to pick our side, and make our choice between Right and Wrong.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 16 June 2023.