Opinion: Ukraine and Gaza stretch West’s ‘values’ to breaking point

Opinion: Ukraine and Gaza stretch West’s ‘values’ to breaking point
Tuesday 20 February 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

The war in Ukraine will be two years old later this week. Though it might as well be turning ten, so clearly has it slipped down the news bulletins.

Last week, the US Senate finally approved a long-stalled AUD$60 billion wartime financial aid package for Ukraine – where vital arms and ammunition are dwindling – and a further AUD$14 billion for Israel. Let’s start with Europe.

When Vladimir Putin’s lawless invasion began on the 24th of February 2022, the sense of injustice and outrage was all consuming. Ukraine’s subjugation under Russia’s might was a foregone conclusion given the asymmetry of their respective militaries.

But that led to the next remarkable news “angle” – plucky Ukraine’s defiance and Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s effectiveness in stiffening Western resolve. It would see Germany end the post-Cold War fiction of a forever peaceful Europe and more than double its defence spending. Other states responded too. Finland and Sweden, both countries committed to non-participation in NATO, would seek membership. Economic sanctions were enacted. The foreign bank accounts of Russian oligarchs were frozen. The international community spoke of the inviolability of the rules-based-order, and of “never” appeasing territorial expansion and brute force.

Slowly the tables turned and by the first anniversary, it was Ukraine seizing the initiative. A supposedly decisive, counter-offensive began in June last year, amid high hopes of driving back the Russian bear. The same month, the ultra-violent Wagner boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, embarked on an pantomime coup, leading his mercenary forces out of Ukraine towards Moscow. For a few moments at least, Putin’s authority wobbled. Prigozhin died not long after in an unexplained plane crash.

Putin’s critics invariably end up dead.

But then? Cue the grim disaster of stalemate with the Ukrainians bogged down in heavily mined fields and woodlands. Parallels with the futile nightmare of WWI abounded.

For all its past mistakes, Russian technical proficiency had been underestimated. If this was the Western Front it came with precision ordnance guided by sophisticated aerial detection. Ukraine’s advancing (donated) tanks faced bombardment by an enemy aware of their new locations before their own side could adjust its artillery cover.

If shock and awe hadn’t succeeded in 2022 Putin still had the old Russian staple to fall back on, blood and gore. How had Stalin explained the allies’ defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII – Britain provided the time, America provided the money, and Russia provided the blood?

And so, this war too, would become protracted, migrating in the process, to the “international” pages.

Its slide from the global gaze was already underway when the world’s attention was seized by the gut-wrenching savagery of the Israel-Gaza conflict with Hamas’s unconscionable war crimes and Israel’s cold-blooded inhumanity in response.

Ukraine hardly gets a look in now that concern has swung to the Middle East. Even here though, there’s a sense that it is only the fear of regional expansion – think Iran & its surrogates like Hezbollah – and the escalating severity of deadly attacks on Gazan civilians that is keeping the news lens focused.

Sadly, these escalations keep coming. The latest being the attack mounted inside the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, reportedly the largest functioning hospital left in the Gaza Strip. This, ahead of a foreshadowed massive Israeli assault on Rafah, the southern-most city in the strip which has swelled to a population of up to 1.4 million internally displaced Palestinians who had complied with Israel’s instructions to flee south.

Imagine, if you can, the helpless terror of huddling with your children under a tarpaulin during such an onslaught.

If the Russians did this, Western leaders would not hesitate to call it a war crime. Ditto the catch-all “justification” that Hamas combatants are sheltering among civilians or in tunnels underneath.

And this is the point. Ukraine displays the West’s principled stand against aggressive occupation, the use of force against a neighbour, and the slaughter of innocents. Whereas Gaza and the illegal expansion of armed Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank showcase the West’s utterly subjective application of these “principles”, when it suits.

Such flagrant hypocrisies embolden the West’s enemies.

Self-evidently Russian aggression has re-unified Europe and rejuvenated the idea of collective deterrence and mutual defence. It has also rallied a demoralised West listing towards illiberalism under the weight of Christian nationalists on the right and fanatical identity police on the pseudo-left.

More particularly, Western clarity on Putin has facilitated a renewed awareness of the lethal down-stream costs of appeasing aggressors and of relying on others to enforce fundamental values of democracy and security.

Decades of Israeli exceptionalism and the unchecked nature of its license to use violence in the Middle East undoes all of this. Why, one might ask, have the Palestinians been denied the international recognition of statehood? Whose interests has this denial served? Demonstrably not the cause of peace. Nor justice.

The Biden Administration is frustrated at Bibi Netanyahu’s colossal violence in Gaza but US impotence is a self-created malady. Like those countries in the late 1930s who accommodated Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitic rhetoric and expansionist intent, America has modelled only servitude and weakness. It has failed to make Tel Aviv pay any price for the ongoing oppression of displaced Palestinians, and for the deliberate, iterative vandalism of any future Palestinian state. Repeated approvals for illegal settlements in the West Bank have brought stern words but no interruption of arms or other aid nor any US sanctioning of Israel in the UN.

Is it any wonder that Biden reportedly referred to Bibi as “an asshole” recently, now that he finds American aid and two-state jawboning amounts to zero in terms of American leverage? That’s the thing about zealots, they’re crafty but in the end, their intent is impervious to evidence or attenuation.

It was said of Hitler that during that quisling diplomatic frenzy in the lead-up to war that he alone had understood the crucial difference between talk and action, between treaties and tanks.

It is a distinction the murderous Putin has never lost sight of. Nor Netanyahu.

Mark Kenny is a professor at the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.


Updated:  20 February 2024/Responsible Officer:  RSHA Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications