Russia-Ukraine: Ugly truths in the time of war

The coverage of Putin’s war in Ukraine by Western media has revealed a sickening score of hypocrisies and marquee-sized blind spots.

civilian volunteers from the new group of Territorial Defense Units set up by veterans of the Azov Regiment train in a secret location in Dnipro
Civilian volunteers from the group of Territorial Defense Forces set up by veterans of the far-right Azov Battalion train in a secret location in Dnipro, Ukraine on March 6, 2022 [Andrea Carrubba - Anadolu Agency]

As another war engulfs Europe, it was left to a squash player to remind the world of a few awkward truths.

After winning a tournament in England late last week, Egyptian squash champion, Ali Farag, noted that since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, all sorts of usually demure types – including athletes trained by their agents to shut up for fear of censure or losing money – have, remarkably, emerged from comfortable silence to condemn the “oppression” of Ukrainians by a larger and ruthless occupying power.

Indeed, these suddenly uninhibited voices have been amplified by a lot of Western media that, as a general editorial rule, believe that athletes should keep quiet and play their silly games and let better-equipped journalists continue to lecture the rest of us on serious matters like war and peace.

Given this newfound licence to speak out without inviting the blanket wrath of an agitated swarm of condescending Western scribes, Farag said that just as the killing of innocents in Ukraine was unacceptable, the 74-year-long “oppression” of Palestinian innocents was unforgivable too.

Telling that truth, he added, did not fit the West’s “narrative” of what kind of “oppressed” people are worthy of praise, sympathy and attention and what other kinds of people – who have also suffered the inhumane whims of a large, ruthless occupying power – are not.

“Please keep that in mind,” Farag urged.

Well said, sir.

Beyond this blatant hypocrisy, the coverage of Putin’s war in Ukraine by Western media has not only revealed a sickening score of hypocrisies but marquee-sized blind spots about prickly subjects that, like clockwork, provoke hysterical outbursts of outrage by a swaggering tribe of easily triggered journalists and politicians.

Exhibit A:

Western columnists and editorial writers have been busy lately trying to outduel each other in resurrecting the sullied ghost of Winston Churchill to demand that Putin, his insanely rich pals and not-so-well-off Russians, pay a debilitating price for invading Ukraine.

These days, the economic weapons of choice championed by the revenge-hungry keyboard cavalry involve boycotting, divesting from and imposing sanctions on anything or anyone emblazoned with a made-in-Russia label.

Perhaps, like me, you remember when the keyboard cavalry smeared anyone, anywhere who, at any time, has suggested using the same economic weapons to resist made-in-Israel apartheid as “anti-Semites” intent on the destruction of the little-country-that-could.

Irish author Sally Rooney tasted the clichéd rod of these rank hypocrites late last year after she committed the “anti-Semitic” sin of opting not to have an Israeli publisher translate her new novel into Hebrew as a small gesture of concord with occupied Palestinians.

Back then, BDS was a useless, anti-Semitic affront. Today, it is all the rage among journalists and politicians who once denounced it like crazed hyenas.

Exhibit B:

It is laudable and somewhat dizzying to see Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swing open Canada’s door to welcome – without hesitation or bureaucratic obstacles – the legion of Ukrainians harmed by Putin’s bullets and bombs.

In Trudeau’s cynical calculus, this necessary humanitarian gesture may inspire a political dividend as well.

Canada is home to a sizeable Ukrainian diaspora. The last census revealed that more than 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent call Canada chez nous.

In crass political terms, that big number translates into big influence.

Alas, the same census shows that a little more than 44,000 Canadians claim Palestinian ancestry.

In crass political terms, that small number translates into small influence.

The latter figure goes, I think, some way towards explaining Trudeau’s shameful reneging of his support – while opposition leader – to help get only 100 of the thousands of Palestinian children injured by Israeli bullets and bombs to Canada for medical help.

As prime minister, Trudeau has not responded to repeated entreaties made publicly and privately by Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Palestinian-Canadian doctor, Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish, to keep his pledge – finally.

Decency and humanity demand providing safe haven to Palestinian children and their families in desperate need.

Clearly, for Trudeau, damaged Palestinian children are not worth sheltering, but damaged Ukrainian children are.

Exhibit C:

I suspect that the ugly undercurrent driving Trudeau’s refusal to help 100 Palestinian kids is that he does not want to be accused by the establishment press of offering succour to Palestinian “terrorists” who use those disfigured kids as “human shields”.

Most Western media and pedestrian politicians like Trudeau abide by this stubborn, simplistic equation: Palestinians + Hamas = terrorists.

De facto: All Palestinians are anti-Semites bent on the violent erasure of Israel.

This is, of course, a gross, but self-serving distortion.

It is akin, I am afraid, to describing all Ukrainians as democracy-loving pluralists, as amnesiac journalists and politicians have been prone to do recently.

Anyone making this uncharitable point is bound, on cue, to be tarred as a Putin apologist or stooge.

Still, it should be possible, even during these horrible times filled, as they are, with misery and death, to challenge the prevailing view that Ukraine is a lovely democratic oasis that requires the country’s more sinister history to be airbrushed out of view or consideration by journalists and politicians turned revisionists.

In the rush to show unwavering solidarity with besieged Ukrainians, columns like these published in 2018 by Reuters and in 2019 by The Nation detailing the country’s cobweb network of avowedly fascist groups and personalities that “penetrated” Ukraine’s military, police, government and bureaucracy and “campaigned to transform Ukraine into a hub for transnational supremacy” have, for the most part, disappeared.

So have stories about Ukraine’s hideous pogroms of Jews throughout World War II and the much more recent and disturbing expressions of anti-Semitism featuring tiki-torch marches and chants of “Jews out,” Nazi-salutes and illiterate Holocaust denials.

In 2014, when Putin’s seizure of Crimea exposed the decrepit state of Ukraine’s military, virulent far-right militias like the Azov regiment “stepped into the breach, fending off the Russian-backed separatists while Ukraine’s regular military regrouped”. Once these groups succeeded in pushing back Russian-backed separatists from strategic cities like Mariupol, they not only achieved widespread legitimacy, but also won effusive praise from Ukraine’s government.

“These are our best warriors,” then-President Petro Poroshenko reportedly said at an awards ceremony, “Our best volunteers.”

A number of these militias were eventually absorbed into Ukraine’s army. Meanwhile, other ultranationalist groups preferred to operate independently, attracting like-minded fascists through youth summer camps who went on to attack city council meetings, Roma, LGBT events, anti-racist and environmental activists and feminists with impunity.

Several commentators have claimed that, over time, Ukraine’s neo-Nazi militias have been reduced to a “fringe”.

Others disagree, arguing that too many Ukrainians “continue to regard the militias with gratitude and admiration” and share their “intolerant and illiberal ideology”.

In 2012, the far-right Svoboda party translated its previous electoral breakthrough in regional elections into 38 seats in Ukraine’s federal parliament after securing two million votes, or slightly more than 10 percent of the popular vote.

It is true, that, in the years since, the party’s appeal has waned. But one observer wrote: “this argument is a bit of red herring. It’s not extremists’ electoral prospects that should concern Ukraine’s friends, but rather the state’s unwillingness or inability to confront violent groups and end their impunity.”

In 2014, in the urgent face of Russian aggression, the Ukrainian state embraced openly everyone willing to fight, including neo-Nazis. Today, it is once again all hands on deck in Ukraine – as it were – to stave off Putin’s imperial designs. And some of those Ukrainian hands are as repulsive as it gets.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.