( Foreign Policy in Focus ) – The war in Ukraine has dominated the headlines in U.S. and European newspapers, not to mention outlets in other parts of the world. The explosion this weekend that destroyed part of the bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, along with Russia’s retaliatory missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, are only the latest and most dramatic developments that CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and others have covered so extensively on a daily basis.
I must confess that I, too, am part of this trend. Over the last year, I’ve written more on the Ukraine conflict than any other issue. Every Monday morning for the last six months, I’ve appeared on KPFA radio out of the Bay Area to provide a weekly update of the situation in Ukraine. In part, I’ve followed the war there because I have a background in Russian and Soviet studies. I feel a certain obligation to write about a region of the world that has occupied so much of my attention over the years.
But as many voices especially in the Global South have pointed out, other wars are going on around the world. Why aren’t they getting as much media attention? Why hasn’t the West rallied so readily behind the victims of those wars? Where is the determination to punish the aggressors in those other conflicts?
These are good questions, which deserve answers regardless of what one feels about the conflict raging in Ukraine.
The Centrality of Geopolitics
The importance of Ukraine, some argued in the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, boiled down to race. White folks in majority White countries—in Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand—sympathized with the plight of White Ukrainians in ways that they didn’t with the non-White victims of wars in other places like Yemen or Ethiopia. Ukrainian refugees in Europe have been welcomed with an enthusiasm that was largely lacking during earlier waves of Syrian, Afghan, and Libyan refugees. In the most extreme case of this racial sympathizing, White supremacists have largely backed Russia, seeing Putin as their staunchest global ally, though some White nationalists have instead backed openly far-right formations in Ukraine.
It’s true that White folks in the Global North have routinely thrown up their hands in the face of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. Skipping over those articles in the newspaper, they refuse to figure out the reasons for the fighting or accept the role of European or U.S. governments in the perpetuation of the wars. In the American case, at least, this tendency to ignore large swathes of the world is part of a general refusal to learn other languages or pay attention to other countries except as part of tourist itineraries. Race and racism may indeed play a role, but never discount the importance of sheer laziness and ignorance.
But let’s look at some other reasons for the current focus on Ukraine. For instance, the country is of supreme interest to Europeans because of sheer proximity. Ukraine is on the edge of Europe, has expressed strong interest in joining the European Union, and has extensive economic connections through energy and food to European consumers. Then there are the ties of genealogy, with many people of Ukrainian heritage now living in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia.
Ultimately, though, the war in Ukraine garners the lion’s share of the headlines—and thus the intellectual bandwidth of journalists, pundits, and policymakers—because it historically lies at the very center of geopolitics.
The originators of geopolitics—Mackinder, Mahan, Spykman—focused on the control of the Eurasian “heartland” and the waters surrounding it. Preoccupied with global hegemony, they were naturally drawn to the huge expanse of territory, resources, and industrial capacity of the Eurasian continent. Africa, Latin America, Australasia: these were peripheral concerns.
By this distorted view of the globe—a perspective that still informs the policies of the United States, Europe, and (arguably) Russia—Ukraine is at the very heart of the struggle for control of the globe. It is at the center of the Eurasian territory, and its coastline provides critical access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean beyond.
A war in Ukraine matters in a way that, say, the current conflict in Ethiopia does not, because it is vitally important in the internecine battles within the countries of the Global North over control of the entire game board.
But let’s take a look at some other reasons why Ukraine dominates the headlines.
Scale of Conflict
There actually aren’t that many interstate wars going on in the world today. The internal conflict in Yemen has become international with the intervention of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. The civil war in Ethiopia has an interstate dimension because Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed has allied with Eritrea to defeat a Tigray insurgency. Armenia and Azerbaijan have sparred over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, but that fight has abated, at least for the time being.
Other international wars have now become almost entirely national. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan allows the Taliban to refocus on fighting against its internal enemies. The war in Iraq has settled mostly into a simmering civil conflict, though a full-blown civil war could indeed return. The war in Syria, which still engages the United States, Turkey, and Russia, failed to dislodge Bashar al-Assad and has burned down to the embers, though another flare-up is possible. Similar conflicts in Kashmir, Libya, and Palestine have become intermittent, with relatively few casualties, though these conflicts could escalate quickly and become regional conflagrations.
Civil wars remain active in Myanmar and Somalia, while various extremist factions such as the Islamic State continue to launch sporadic attacks throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Finally, there are the frozen wars—between the two Koreas, between China and Taiwan, inside Georgia—that could heat up if the various adversaries decide to supply the necessary spark.
But in terms of actual casualties, the conflict in Ukraine is clearly the most troubling war going on today, with tens of thousands of military and civilian deaths. The closest conflict in terms of scale would be the civil war in Myanmar with about 13,000 casualties so far in 2022. Other conflicts have generated fewer death tolls with about 5,000 deaths each in Ethiopia and Yemen this year.
Ukraine has also been in the news because of the number of refugees who fled the country—more than 7.6 million Ukrainians went to Europe in the aftermath of the February invasion— along with the hundreds of thousands who have left Russia to avoid the draft, prison, or economic uncertainty. Of course, Ukraine is not unique with regard to refugees. Nearly 7 million Syrians escaped persecution and civil war, over 6 million Venezuelans have left for other countries, and approximately 6 million Afghans have fled their homes.
Then there are the reports of war crimes taking place in Ukraine, involving summary executions, torture, rape, and indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Here, too, the Ukraine war faces stiff competition from the genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar, the ongoing repressions in Syria, and the deliberate starvation of Yemenis by Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Yet, today’s horrors tend to crowd yesterday’s horrors out of the spotlight. As conflicts drag on, those with attention-deficit disorder—in some sense, all of us in this brave new world of information overload—begin to focus on something else. The sheer length of a conflict inevitably increases both attention fatigue and compassion fatigue. If the Ukrainian conflict goes into a second or a third year, a lot of people will begin to turn the dial and change the channel.
Beyond Good and Evil
Another reason why Ukraine is so much in the news is that the victims are “relatable.” That’s a term used to explain the popularity of characters in fiction and film. In the case of Ukraine, the average reader is drawn in by what they believe—and what so much media coverage implies in so many ways—is a basic conflict between “good guys” ad “bad guys.”
Most people love an underdog, and the Ukrainians have battled hard against a band of merciless invaders. So strong is this basic moral narrative that various complications fall to the wayside. Many Russians oppose the war. Some Ukrainian fighters come from the extreme right. Russia has some legitimate grievances about NATO expansion. The Ukrainian government has made some stupid moves like a state language law that “requires that Ukrainian be used in most aspects of public life.” Nothing is ever black and white.
Still, the Ukraine conflict can be explained in relatively simple language to people who know nothing of the complexities of the region. Russia has invaded a country to seize as much of its territory as possible; Ukraine is fighting back to avoid disappearing as a country. It’s hard not to stand on the sidelines and cheer the victories of the victims.
Other ongoing wars do not lend themselves so readily to such packaging. Take, for instance, the war in Ethiopia.
Prime Minister Ahmed, of Oromo background, has waged a political struggle against what had once been the ruling party from 1991 to 2018: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. That political struggle turned violent when the TPLF, sidelined from Ahmed’s government, relocated to northern Ethiopia and, in November 2020, attacked an Ethiopian army garrison in Mekelle, the regional capital of the Tigray region. To defeat this Tigray insurgency, Ahmed teamed up with Eritrea, which battled Ethiopia until a 2018 peace agreement, brokered largely by Ahmed, finally ended the dispute. In addition to Eritrea, Ahmed enlisted the help of another ethnic group, the Amhara. The Oromo Liberation Army has also been involved in the fighting, though its role in committing atrocities is controversial. The Ethiopian government also stands accused of trying to starve the Tigrayans into submission through siege tactics.
As Jon Lee Anderson writes in The New Yorker:
Most of the international observers I spoke with believe that Abiy’s soldiers and the Eritreans have committed violence on a greater scale than the Tigrayans, but none of the partisans in the conflict seem to have avoided brutality. A recent U.N. report described war crimes and human-rights violations on both sides. In addition to the widespread starvation caused by the siege, Abiy’s forces and allies had killed and raped civilians, and carried out scores of air strikes on civilian targets, including one on a displaced-persons camp in which some sixty civilians died. The Tigrayan forces, the report said, had committed “large-scale killings of Amhara civilians, rape and sexual violence, and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property.” The senior Western official told me, in disgust, “They’re all as bad as each other.”
Similarly, although the Saudi coalition has committed an enormous number of human rights abuses in Yemen, their adversaries, the Houthis, are
Meanwhile, despite the various defects of its government, Ukraine remains a democracy. Defending Ukraine is essential in this age of creeping authoritarianism. It is today’s version of Republican Spain trying to fend off fascism. In other words, there are sound political reasons for standing up for the underdog. Ukraine is not just a country, it’s a symbol.
Still, none of these reasons justifies the scant coverage that other conflicts have been accorded in the media compared to Ukraine. Just because a war drags on, takes place far from the Eurasian heartland, or doesn’t easily resolve into a battle of good versus evil, it still deserves the attention of journalists (who need to cover the casualties and explain the complexities) and policymakers (who need to try to end the bloodshed). The deaths of a few score people in a war is a lesser tragedy than a full-scale genocide, but it is a tragedy nonetheless.
But Ukraine also commands the world’s attention for understandable reasons. The war there is the result of an unprovoked attack, and it represents a gross violation of international law. When it comes to fighting injustice and promoting peace, we must embrace the dictum of improvisational comedy: “yes and…” Yes, the wars elsewhere in the world deserve our attention and we must decry Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.