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Thu. May 26, 2022
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Emotions and Unlearnt Lessons – Ukraine and Beyond

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The current situation in and around Ukraine is omnipresent in Western media and public debate, not in the least through modern network platforms where everyone can post, like, and comment.

However, two weeks into the operation that started on February 24, 2022, news coverage has also shown that our understanding of the conflict and our reactions to it are heavily embedded in our own past, present, and expectations and apprehensions about the future. One of the big questions in Western philosophical tradition is to which extent objective points of view – and even truth – exist. The Ukrainian-Russian crisis seems to make a strong case for a deal of subjectivity.

In often difficult and hazardous circumstances, many journalists and other media professionals have tried to cover the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in the most objective way possible, thereby attempting to highlight points of view of different impacted groups. Reports, images and footage in any case illustrate immense human distress caused by the situation. Within what is traditionally considered as the “Western world”, however, divergences in the ways developments on the ground are framed started to emerge after a few days.

In line with declarations by Joe Biden and other American politicians, US media recurrently used words as “free” and “democratic” when referring to Ukraine. That language was nearly instantly taken over by countless organizations and companies issuing statements in support of Ukraine and its people. Freedom and democracy are indeed key principles in American political thought and public consciousness. Brought up in the current context, however, they are not without recalling the Cold War era, during which the concepts represented huge ideological and operational stumbling blocks between Moscow and Washington. In this respect, it should also be pointed out that several recent freedom, democracy and transparency indexes situate Ukraine in the middle of their rankings, at a notable distance from other European countries and the United States.

While the values of freedom and democracy are obviously not absent in European coverage of the situation in Ukraine, it is important to note that the relationship between the country and the rest of Europe occupies a central place in its debate, next to the fate of the affected population and the ensuing refugee crisis. For decades, the European Union has explored and built up its identity, institutionally and geographically. This has not happened without sometimes difficult debates, in particular about its values and borders. Now, in the face of human suffering at its frontiers, many politicians, media professionals and opinion makers in Europe and the EU put forward moral and material support for Ukraine. Not infrequently, they thereby insist on what they see as the country's belonging to Europe. The idea of Ukrainian membership in the EU continues to be floated, also in response to Russian action, yet apart from the Council's decision to request the European Commission's opinion on Ukraine's membership application of February 28, 2022, nothing is set in stone yet.

Also in Israel, another country regularly considered part of the Western world, reactions appear deeply embedded in political reality. After the human tragedy, coverage primarily concerns the Israeli government's balancing act between West and East, whereby Israel's ties with Russia, notably concerning strategic interests related to Syria and Iran, are most often cited as a reason for the country's particular positioning. Interestingly, since the first day of the Russian military operation, Hebrew headlines of the Israeli public broadcaster have systematically referred to the “war in Europe”, as have updates sent out by Israeli think tanks. Part of the broadcast video material seemed to focus on the Ukrainian willingness to “fight for the country”. These features are evocative of similar narratives within the Middle East itself. Poignantly, the Arabic news service of the same public broadcaster spoke of the “war on Ukraine” in its headlines.

News reports as the recent ones from Ukraine have a profound impact on public awareness, out of concern for the affected people as well as worry about possible consequences for oneself. In such a setting, it seems difficult to detach coverage and debate from emotions, regarding both the events unfolding and one's own position, so that apprehensions and points of view often appear to be automatically linked in the ensuing discourse.

This transpiercing of an emotional background not only takes place in analysis about past and present, but also concerns expectations, and hence possible behavior, towards the future. Countries as Lithuania and Poland, for example, immediately doubled down on the suspicion they have expressed about Russian intentions for years. In his communication, Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed these concerns.

However, the point here is that, eventually, a solution out of the crisis is what is needed. Therefore, it is important to dissociate analysis and discourse from one's own background, try to understand as much as possible about the perspectives of the major players in the conflict, and attempt to tackle issues from there. In the present case, questions have been raised, not rarely in a rhetorical fashion, about the ways to read Vladimir Putin's mind. While gaining insight in the plans of the Russian leader may indeed not be straightforward, experts on Russia and the former Soviet Union have commented, in the past weeks, on perspectives that may well be very relevant in the Kremlin. They range from Russia's tradition – dating back to czarist times – to see itself girded with a “protective” belt of states, over NATO enlargement, to a comparison between US demands to withdraw weapons from Cuba in the 1960s and current Russian demands concerning Ukraine. In no way whatsoever, these perspectives can be seen as a justification for horrors on the ground, yet their understanding may contribute to progress in negotiations. That they are not new is illustrated, for instance, by past events in Ukraine and Georgia. Similarly, as regards consequences for neighboring countries, it is probably useful to conceptualize a distinction, on the side of the Kremlin, between Ukraine, Moldova (not a Slavic-majority country yet confronted with the Transnistrian question for three decades), and states as Poland and Lithuania, who are NATO members and for whom Articles 4 and 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty can be invoked (opening the door to intervention by other NATO members).

In short, whereas international relations are chaotic and disheveled in nature, a fortiori in times of military combats, it may be appropriate to take a step back from one's own outlook and invest in analyzing, without justifying or endorsing, other perspectives. It could be a way to help resolve and prevent conflict in the future.

Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a visiting fellow at the international and European law program at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Brussels, Belgium) and a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union. At Vrije Universiteit Brussel, he coordinated the first rounds of the EU’s Erasmus Mundus External Cooperation Window scheme for academic mobility with Israeli and Palestinian institutions. He has published analysis for think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Israel Policy Forum, in addition to opinion pieces on Middle East and Israeli politics written for the Brussels Times. His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.

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