April 13, 2022

Excuses for Doing Nothing: “Whataboutism” and Russia’s War Against Ukraine

Jörg Heiser

These days, it is striking that many people in the West are only looking at the Russian invasion of Ukraine from their usual positions in the identity-politics trenches. As if nothing has changed in principle as a result of this Russian war of aggression, if not extermination, against Ukraine. I don’t use the term “identity politics” with a negative connotation here: for it seems identity-forming and at the same time politically legitimate to stand up against Nazis and for the rights of minorities, or against the fossil fuel industry and for climate protection. But the war metaphor of the “trench” is nevertheless appropriate, because it indicates that one is entrenched, that one’s field of vision is massively restricted, but that one is nevertheless lashing out against opponents.

Many who hold anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist views say and write on social media, “… but what about Yemen?!” (referring to the ongoing brutal proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran); environmentalists are outraged when the green German economy minister, Robert Habeck, buys liquefied natural gas from authoritarian regimes in the Gulf; and anti-fascists point to the Azov battalion of the Ukrainian army, which was founded by right-wing radicals in 2014.

These are only three examples, but they are particularly pivotal ones: for here we are dealing with imperialism and colonialism and their consequences, including the proxy wars caused by them and the flight of millions of people; with the threat to humanity of climate catastrophe; and with a worldwide strengthening of far-right political players in recent years. It is all the more important to broaden these perspectives if we are not to miss the new quality of the war against Ukraine: not least in view of the war crimes and atrocities that have already become known, such as the Bucha massacre.1 In other words, the political framework of those who consider themselves progressive might need some recalibration if it is to avoid getting caught up in its own contradictions, or even worse: fail historically and shamefully in the face of the demands of the present situation. Because as writer and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel once said (in words that are being quoted often on social media these days): “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”2 And this is the dismaying suspicion when the above viewpoints are bluntly reproduced again today: that some are refraining from taking sides.

This does not mean that the arguments put forward are simply invalidated by the accusation of “whataboutism.” It’s a well-known phenomenon in political debates these days, whether in physical space or social-media space: someone promotes or protests against something, and someone else comes along and wants to invalidate this as one-sided, unfair, or even discriminatory by asking the reproachful counter-question: “But what about …?” What follows is a reference to another, historical or current, allegedly or actually similar thing. The implication is clear: that there is a double standard, that the criticized person has previously behaved tacitly or euphemistically and is therefore now delegitimized. These objections often have a kernel of truth. But at the same time, the reproachful counter-question is also in danger of serving to legitimize doing nothing and remaining passive. This is fatal in view of a war that has already turned from being a war of aggression to one of annihilation; a war waged by a dictatorially ruled nuclear power against a sovereign, democratic neighboring state. This makes it all the more important not to simply dismiss “whataboutism” as such and leave it unaddressed in terms of argumentation. Rather, one must seriously examine the accusation of double standards that it almost always implies. And the best way to do this is usually by listening to those—not least on Twitter and elsewhere on the social media—who know the ropes.

Take, for example, US historian of Russia and the Soviet Union Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, who recently summarized some key points about the imperialism and colonialism of czarist Russia and the Soviet Union in a widely followed Twitter thread.3 It was immediately clear why: because she had now and again encountered the viewpoint—whether implicitly or explicitly—that the concept of imperialism could only be used and invoked with reference to Western powers. For Siberia, she notes, Russian settler colonialism began as early as the sixteenth century, with the aim of displacing the indigenous population; in the nineteenth century, Russia overran the Caucasus with a series of bloody wars, including genocidal ethnic cleansing of, for example, the Circassians; and already in czarist times, the Ukrainian language was massively suppressed, and schools and newspapers were closed. St. Julian-Varnon states that the czarist empire’s expansion strategy had all the characteristics of imperial colonialism: a policy of violent settlement, the suppression of minority languages and beliefs, deportations, the massive exploitation and extraction of raw materials in the conquered territories. The only reason Russia did not participate in the colonial division of Africa was because it already had a huge colonial empire. According to St. Julian-Varnon, those who ignore or conceal the proven and obvious negate the history of the oppression of millions and millions of people.

Here it becomes clear that the double standard is not that Ukraine is unjustly “favored” in the attention of world public opinion, but rather that many remain blind to the aggressive colonial character of this war.

A woman from Ukraine hugs a child after arriving at Nyugati station in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi.

Theorist and curator Vasyl Cherepanyn, who runs the renowned Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv, said in a Zoom interview that the discriminatory prioritization of certain refugees is the problem and the privilege of the West. He insists that in the West’s current readiness to accept refugees also lies the “chance to change the entire refugee situation,” in the sense that Western countries can finally begin, in the words of Hannah Arendt, to speak of “newcomers”—those newly arrived—and no longer of refugees. In other words, people who are making a new start, who are allowed self-determination and agency, and who are not seen merely as passive people in need of help.

Cherepanyn also points out that all the invocations of solidarity and aid will be in vain if there is no recognition that Ukraine also needs significant military support in order to stand up to the Russian assault. In May 2021, when Robert Habeck was still coleader of the German Green Party (today he is the vice chancellor of Germany), he demanded that defensive weapons be delivered to the Ukrainian army after a visit with President Zelensky in Kyiv. This was met with harsh criticism, especially from his own party, and he felt compelled to specify that he had only meant night-vision goggles and mine-clearing equipment.

At present, too, the Green vice chancellor and economy minister finds himself in the position of having to do things that are far from acceptable to the Green Party’s core constituency. For example, he made agreements with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to supply Germany with liquefied natural gas in order to gradually replace Russian gas. This of course attracted the scorn of commentators: the fact that Habeck shook hands with the Qatari industry minister and bowed politely in greeting was, naturally, interpreted as servile groveling; and what about the human rights violations committed by Gulf states? The implicit accusation of double standards becomes absurd: you can’t demand an embargo against Russia and at the same time be surprised that an industrialized country can’t switch completely to renewable energy overnight.

The pattern that emerges with whataboutism amounts to pulling a trump card and imputing moral failure to the other side. It provides instant satisfaction to the accuser, who can then cheaply stay out of realpolitik dilemmas. Anyone who, in the face of today’s Russian war of aggression and annihilation, can only point out that the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also an illegal war of aggression runs the risk of excusing one injustice with another (while reproducing an argumentative strategy of the Putin government). Yet the current countermeasures should be treated as all the more urgent precisely because of the historical precedents. And anyone who hasn’t had to think about how to change in a matter of weeks an energy policy that was misguided for decades should refrain from mocking a green economy minister who is forced to buy gas from the Gulf.

A third, notorious example of the “but what about …?” approach to the reality of this brutal war is to bring up the Ukrainian army’s Azov regiment, whose origins lie in a volunteer battalion formed by right-wing radicals in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and war in the Donbass began. Russian propaganda frequently invokes the Azov regiment when it claims that today’s war is about the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.

German journalist Alice Bota, who writes for the weekly Die Zeit and who reported on events in the Donbass back in 2014, felt compelled to set the record straight on Twitter.4 She points out that volunteer militias are a problem for any democratic state, especially if that state wants to maintain its monopoly on the use of force; and she confirms that there are indeed Nazis in Azov—“There is no point in playing it down,” she writes. In recent years, right-wing Ukrainian radicals have committed numerous hate crimes against Roma and queer people.

But Bota also says that it is strange to talk so much about Azov now, when countless Russian war crimes are taking place at the same time under the banner of what historian Timothy Snyder has aptly called “schizo-fascism”—that is, a Russian-ethnic fascism that constantly hurls the accusation of fascism against anyone who dares to openly dissent from its ethnic vision, and that imprisons or kills opponents its own territory and wages a full-on war against a neighboring country such as Ukraine.

Bota adds that talking about Azov is a “distraction … perhaps also a form of conscience relief … And so it settles: oh, the war is complicated. Oh, somehow both sides are to blame.” This pattern of bothsidesism crops up again and again, as it is suitable for trivialization and self-relief. As especially common variant since the invasion of Ukraine is: “Nazis on both sides.”

What remains? The need to state a few relatively simple truths in the context of this war. First, the evidence is overwhelming that Putin’s war is a criminal war of aggression, if not annihilation, long planned and with an imperialist agenda. Active solidarity—including tough economic sanctions and the delivery of weapons to Ukraine—must therefore be shown to those resisting this annihilation, namely Ukrainians. Second, historical and present-day comparisons are illegitimate if they seek to undermine this solidarity; they are legitimate if they help to understand the urgency of the current situation. Third, it is necessary to help refugees. Vasyl Cherepanyn is right when he denounces Europe’s selective and discriminatory treatment of refugee fleeing the fighting in Ukraine. In Germany, some journalists murmur about a greater closeness to Ukrainians in the “Christian-influenced cultural sphere,” or they write in all seriousness: “This time they are real refugees.” Poland, which has refused to accept refugees from Arabic-speaking countries in the past, now rushes to the aid of Ukrainians. The categorization of refugees according to racist patterns has to be stopped (such as when refugees of color from Ukraine have been rejected or treated as second-class refugees).5 Nor must the plight of Ukrainians be allowed to be exploited—such as when German meat company Tönnies tried to funnel refugees directly from the border into its scandal-ridden sweatshop slaughterhouses, or when sex offenders known to the police offered Ukrainian women and children places to sleep.6

It is a disgrace for Europe that refugees are still being crammed into catastrophically inhumane camps in Greece while illegal pushbacks in the Mediterranean, which have already led to thousands of refugee deaths, continue.7 However, the advantages that Ukrainians now enjoy in European countries compared to Afghan refugees, for example, must not be used as an argument to deprive them of help. On the contrary, these must become reasons for European countries to implement a more humane refugee policy overall. Injustice must not be played off against injustice—certainly not to legitimize one’s own inaction.

An earlier German version of this piece appeared in Republik, Switzerland.

Notes
1

Isaac Stanley-Becker and Vanessa Guinan-Bank, “Germany Intercepts Russian Talk of Indiscriminate Killings in Ukraine,” Washington Post, April 7, 2022 .

2

Elie Wiesel, “Nobel Acceptance Speech,” Oslo, Norway, December 10, 1986 .

3

See .

4

See .

5

“Black Ukraine Refugees Allege Discrimination While Trying to Escape Russian Invasion,” CBS News, March 12, 2022 .

6

See and .

7

Lorenzo Tondo, “Revealed: 2,000 Refugee Deaths Linked to Illegal EU Pushbacks,” The Guardian, May 5, 2021 .

Category
War & Conflict
Subject
Ukraine, Russia

Jörg Heiser is Director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University for the Arts in Berlin, Germany.

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