The West Can’t Afford Hubris About Russia’s War in Ukraine

By Max Hastings

A military friend of mine recently visited a relatively honestly governed African state. He asked its president why he does not support the West on Ukraine. His host answered: “I can’t see what’s different between what Russia is doing there and what the West did in Iraq.”

We could suggest responses to that, starting with an assertion of American good intentions in Iraq — the desire to make its people free, rather than to enslave them as Russia seeks to do with Ukraine. In the eyes of much of the world, however, such stuff lacks conviction. Yes, 141 states supported last month’s UN vote condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But 85% of the world’s population do not participate in the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, which still leak prodigiously. 

Indians, South Africans, Mexicans and many others — not to mention Putin’s Chinese, Iranian and North Korean allies — may not love the Russians, but they see them as morally indistinguishable from the Americans. Both are branded as aggressive, overbearing, cruel, and ruthless in pursuit of their own interests. The Vietnam war is never forgotten.

We have just returned from vacation in Malaysia. In our villa, we ran around turning off lights, as we do at home since British electricity bills doubled. As soon as we left a room, however, staff turned everything back on again. We asked the manager: Haven’t his energy costs soared?  He replied that in fact they have fallen. “Malaysia doesn’t do sanctions, so we are buying oil and gas cheaper than we did last year.”

Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, a former president of the UN Security Council, asserts that most people on the planet want to inhabit a multipolar world, not one dominated by the US or Russia or China. This, he claims, is why many nations are not enforcing sanctions over Ukraine. “A Russian defeat,” says Mahbubani, “would not be in the interests of the Global South. Many countries in the South who still retain memories of the once-dominant West know the West will once again become arrogant and insufferable if it defeats Russia completely.”

All this is frustrating for us Westerners. We know that we are the good guys. In Ukraine, we are supporting a heroic victim state that has suffered unprovoked aggression. Our leaders repeatedly declare that it is in the vital interests of democracy and freedom-loving peoples everywhere for the Russians to be driven back to where they came from. 

Yet moral conceit is a besetting vice of our culture. Western nations might fare better in the conduct of foreign policy if we tried harder to understand why many don’t support our campaign for Ukrainian freedom.   

Throughout history, Great Powers have been irked or embarrassed by the revelation that not everybody was on their side. In the Napoleonic wars that dominated the first 15 years of the 19th century, Prussia, Austria, Russia and the German states changed allegiances repeatedly.

In the 1860s, the Lincoln administration was infuriated by the enthusiasm for the Confederacy that persisted in Britain, much influenced by cotton interests, during the US Civil War. Most of Europe supported South Africa’s Boers during their 1899-1902 war with the British. During World War I, Holland and the Nordic nations remained neutral, with a bias in favor of Germany. 

In World War II, Vichy French troops collaborating with the Germans vigorously resisted Britain in Syria, Madagascar and North Africa. Winston Churchill was moved to observe ruefully that he wished the French Army had displayed as much enthusiasm fighting against Hitler in 1940 as it revealed when killing British troops a year later. 

In our own times, a YouGov poll shows that while 65% of respondents in the European democracies see Russia as an adversary, 51% of Indians, for instance, view Putin’s nation as an ally (29% see it as a “necessary partner” and only 5% as an adversary). India last year increased its imports from Russia by 400%. Memories still rankle among Indians of how US sanctions against Iraq and Iran drove up energy costs in the sub-continent. India’s former ambassador to Russia said in an influential recent interview: “We have not accepted the Western framing of the [Ukraine] conflict.” 

Last fall, Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy published a survey of global attitudes toward the big autocracies. Since the invasion of Ukraine, this concluded, opinion in the liberal democracies, inhabited by 1.2 billion people, has turned dramatically away from China and Russia, with 75% having a negative view of the latter country, 87% of the former. Western perceptions of Putin’s nation have plumbed depths unseen by pollsters since the mid-1950s, the worst years of the Cold War. 

Among the 6.3 billion citizens of the world’s autocracies, however, 70% now feel positively toward China and 66% likewise toward Russia. A decade ago, only 18% of Vietnamese had a favorable view of China. Today, more than twice that proportion think well of their historic enemy.  

Why should this be? First, autocracies naturally gravitate toward each other. Corrupt regimes find it most comfortable to do business with foreign mentors who are happy to bribe them. Meanwhile, an astonishing number of people prefer Russia’s narrative about Ukraine to ours. They believe that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a puppet of the West, and that what is taking place in his country is a mere civil war between pro- and anti-Russian factions, with no significant moral difference between them.

In Europe and the US, Putin’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is a byword for mendacity. Yet his diplomacy is remarkably effective in much of Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Earlier this month, it was widely reported in Western media that Lavrov provoked derisive laughter at a conference in Delhi, by claiming that Russia was a victim of Ukrainian aggression. It is less noticed that, at the same event, the Russian was applauded when he accused the West of hypocrisy and double standards.

Following Lavrov’s recent visit to South Africa, its foreign minister Naledi Pandor recanted an earlier denunciation of Russian aggression. She applauded her country’s “growing economic bilateral relationship” with Moscow.  Meanwhile, almost all the North African nations are enthusiastically buying Russian oil. 

The Russians and Chinese conduct global hybrid warfare, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Some people characterize Russia’s current activism as its Great Return to Africa, of which the most conspicuous manifestation is the deployment of Wagner mercenaries to stem Islamic insurgencies in Francophone West Africa and the Arabic-speaking north. China is responsible for one-third of all infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Our enemies, though in some ways so brutish, display a highly sophisticated grasp of the power they can wield through money and money-laundering — Swiss intermediaries are especially helpful here, and the City of London also plays a shameful role. Prominent Russians wield legal threats through unscrupulous Western lawyers, and peddle their wares via social and international media. 

Those of us fortunate to enough to live in societies with a free press are slow to acknowledge how receptive many people are to fake news. In Africa, the Moscow-controlled TV outlets Sputnik and Russia Today command big audiences. The US journalist Seymour Hersh’s claim that last September’s Nord Stream pipeline explosions in the Baltic were the work of American intelligence, while quickly dismissed in the West, was eagerly seized upon and disseminated by Russian and Chinese outlets.

Even more damaging to the Ukrainian cause was last week’s leak from US intelligence, claiming that Ukrainian sympathizers were responsible for the pipeline sabotage. Once again, the waters were muddied: Ukrainian standing as the “good guys” in this conflict was injured, especially in the eyes of those uncommitted to their cause. 

In Putin’s recent speech to the Russian Assembly, he denounced past Western foreign interventions in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Syria, saying: “they will never be able to wash off this blood.” A large foreign audience agrees with him. Lavrov is obviously right when he says: “the unipolar world is irretrievably receding into the past. A multi-polar world is being born.”

It is not that many people wish to live in Russia or China. But neither do they wish their countries to fall under American hegemony, which many have found as oppressive as the Russian or Chinese brands.   

Successive US ambassadors in Cuba, before Fidel Castro’s 1959 ascent to power, acted with shameless arrogance. They never sought to disguise from the Cuban people the fact that their leader Fulgencio Batista ruled at America’s pleasure, not their own. 

I remember, when working for BBC in Laos in 1971, there was a local fixation with then-US ambassador George Godley, nicknamed “Almighty Godley.” Far from a term of admiration, it reflected the ruthless authority that the ambassador exercised as Laos’s paymaster and bombing overlord, rather than as a mere diplomat. 

Not to be forgotten, the US and Britain were for decades prominent supporters of South Africa’s white apartheid government, because of its perceived value as an anti-communist bastion in the Cold War. And efforts to export democracy by force — notably in Iraq — have backfired by resurrecting memories of colonialism.

Such memories linger, and even today Western diplomacy is clumsy. The Bennett survey argues that America’s tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies — the “forces of democracy against autocracy” — has become self-fulfilling. Regimes that see themselves as victims of American hostility, especially because of local human-rights shortcomings, collaborate defensively in mutual support, fueling opposition to Washington. 

Moreover, almost paradoxically, displays of American weakness, notably the precipitate 2021 flight from Afghanistan, have damaged US standing. It is arguably more important to be respected for strength — to be feared — than to be loved for virtue. This was the test America failed in the evacuation of Kabul.

Maybe the US is now getting some of this back through its support for Ukraine. But it was a great misfortune that the relatively tiny cost of the Afghan commitment proved greater than the Biden administration was willing to keep bearing, thus letting in the Taliban.       

We should derive comfort from the fact that in many regions of the world, while large minorities proclaim hostility to the West, majorities remain supportive. America, more than any other country, is where a large part of the earth’s people say they would like to live, if not in their own birthplaces.

It is also cause for celebration that the alliance of western democracies in support of Ukraine has held together so well through the past year and shows no sign of fragmenting now. Our citizens see Russia for what it is — an embittered ex-Great Power, that offers to the world only oil, gas and extreme violence.

It might help our politics, however, to acknowledge how many others resist entanglement in our crusade. In the new world order that Lavrov believes to be evolving, the autocracies and democracies pit themselves against each other as adversaries. But many nations in between are determined to remain neutral, both from self-interest and skepticism about absolute virtue.    

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