Academics from the Department of International Politics held a roundtable to debate their perspectives on recent events. Isha Borkar offers an overview of a thought-provoking evening
It has been over a month since Russia declared an illegal war on Ukraine, leading to appalling massacres in multiple parts of the country. A recent roundtable discussion at City, involving some of the University’s foremost experts, discussed various critical elements of the war.
The discussion was led by Dr Amnon Aran, Head of City's Department of International Politics. A panel of experts from the Department each gave opening statements summarising their various perspectives on the war.
The panel included:
Dr Sean Starrs: Lecturer in International Political Economy (Development); interrogated the white supremacist worldview of war in Europe.
Dr Kseniya Oksamytna: Lecturer in International Politics (Foreign Policy/Security); spoke about Ukraine’s perspective and decisions about the war and Vladimir Putin’s unjust acts.
Dr Koen Slootmaeckers: Senior Lecturer in International Politics; highlighted the gendered impacts of the war.
Dr Dina Fainberg: Lecturer in Modern History and the Director of BA History; discussed the abuse and weaponisation of history.
Dr David Blunt: Senior Lecturer in International Relations; questioned the true nature of the war and its justifications.
Professor Inderjeet Parmar: Professor of International Politics, and a past president, chair and vice chair of the British International Studies Association; analysed the structure and agency of US power, Russia and geopolitics.
Decolonising the white supremacist worldview of war in Europe
“Liberal outpouring, especially from the west has undertones of white supremacy and I think this must be interrogated.”
The news media has brought to light several opinions from notable individuals claiming that the Ukraine war was unprecedented. Prince William, at a recent event, said: “Everyone is horrified by what they are seeing. The news every day, it’s almost unfathomable. For our generation, it’s very alien to see this in Europe. We’re all right behind you.” The war was also called a “brother war” between two countries in the same continent.
Dr Sean Starrs broke down the myth that “countries aren’t invaded anymore”. He argued that the west alienates all other wars and tragedies when predominantly white countries are involved in war and/or are slaughtered.
To this day, one of the most extreme wars of the 21st century is America’s war on Afghanistan in 2003. The war, which lasted almost 11 years, was recently ended by the new president of the United States, Joe Biden. The Yemen war, which began in 2014 for similar reasons to Ukraine, is an ongoing war that has also caused immense destruction.
Dr Starrs questioned whether this alienation of non-western countries was because it did not involve white people. He believes that the west has this ideology of: “We are the developed countries, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up with us.”
There are many misconceptions and conspiracies that have gained traction as a consequence of the war. Dr Kseniya Oksamytna debunked a few of them, one of the main ones being that this war was the fault of the west, or of Nato, and not Russia. She reasoned that such a scenario would imply that Nato actually had a say in what would happen between the two countries.
Other debunking included Russia having legitimate security concerns to protect itself from Ukraine, and the western idea of allowing Ukraine to accept the subjugation of Russia in order to avoid war.
It is important to understand that, in all these scenarios, Ukraine did not really have the resources to fight Russia and neither did it want to. Dr Oksamytna emphasised that this war was not in self-defence but rather Vladimir Putin’s headstrong ideology that Ukraine belonged to Russia, and it should be taken, with force if necessary.
There were many reasons why Ukraine decided to fight Russia, including sovereignty and independence. Ukraine does not want to fall under the dictatorial nature of the Russian government. Lack of journalistic freedom, repression of civil societies and minorities, lack of democracy, just to name a few things that Ukraine has moved on from. It would be unfair for Ukraine to have to adhere to these conditions, leaving its democratic belief systems behind.
In the recent past, domestic violence was decriminalised by the Russian government. This, Dr Oksamytna said, now implies that “essentially you can beat up your wife and get a fine. But, if you speak the truth about the war, you can go to prison for 15 years.”
Gendered consequences of war
The first topic that Dr Koen Slootmaeckers raised was recent media reports that, if the invasion succeeded, a kill list obtained by American intelligence, with names of several activists, would be implemented.
Furthermore, he highlighted that women are leaving Ukraine whereas men are staying behind to fight. Yet, trans women cannot leave the country because their official documents list them as men.
Dr Slootmaeckers also emphasised the long-term consequences of war. He said that the impact of war would last for generations to come and would drastically change people's way of life. He spoke about the “irreparable damage to personhood” from the Second World War, something that would now impact people fighting for Ukraine too. Additionally, most of the fighters lack military combat training, which increases the amount of violence required to sustain the war that they are compelled to be a part of.
The abuse and weaponisation of history
Dr Dina Fainberg introduced the term ‘abuse of history’, which involves the misinterpretation of history whereby certain goals and decisions can be justified. She gave the example of Russian colonialism, being looked at as an exceptional project that united people of many ethnic groups and cultures under one benevolent umbrella. Under Putin, this idea of harmony was destroyed, and further cemented by the fall of USSR.
While victory in the Second World War was celebrated, heavy losses, destruction and the loss of life was absent. Official sources in Russia view the Ukraine war like the Second World War. They refer to it as ‘peace-keeping operations’, creating dichotomies that Dr Fainberg said are “crucial for Russia’s existence”. There is censorship in Russian history, which applies to its media, too.
Dr Fainberg also emphasised that “it is not the fault of Russian students, acquaintances or random people that speak Russian” and that we must separate the culture and the war.
Is this a ‘just’ war?
Dr David Blunt used the just war theory to help the audience understand Putin’s justification of the war. The just war theory has been referenced by many nations and conventions in the past. Dr Blunt said that Putin’s justification of the war was in self-defence, which is recognised by the theory. However, Putin’s claims did not add up.
The Ukraine war was unprovoked and did not have any probable cause. There was no valid cause for self-defence that Putin, the alleged 'war criminal', could claim. The justification of preventative actions in self-defence is not acceptable.
Dr Blunt said: “If states engaged in warfare for preventative reasons, we would be engaged in constant warfare, destructive warfare.”
Structure and agency: US power, Russia and geopolitics
Professor Inderjeet Parmar argued that it is important to understand the background of each of the entities involved in the war.
He said that if a global approach is applied, it opens channels to multiple perspectives and a wide range of voices.
Professor Parmar stressed that diverse ideological, theoretical and global approaches suggest a realignment of opinions, which are creating new developments and elements of strong global selves.
About the author: Isha Borkar is a student on City's MA International Journalism 2021/22.
Another event, this time hosted by City’s Department of Economics, is scheduled for 7 April 2022. Sign up to attend ‘War in Ukraine: Economic and Social Consequences in Europe and Beyond’.
Views expressed in this article are those of individual academics and not necessarily the views of City, University of London.