On Eastern Europe, ‘Whataboutism’ and ‘West(s)plaining’: Some Thoughts on International Lawyers’ Responses to Ukraine

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The invasion of Ukraine has spawned a flurry of commentary from international lawyers. Much of it has focused on traditional doctrinal disputes, such as the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction in Ukraine or interpretation of international humanitarian law. But there have also been voices that situate the Ukraine war and international legal responses thereto in a wider context, including by criticising the role of human rights in inciting the war, the West’s neglect of Global South crises, or international law’s Euro-centrism. While these critiques are well-intentioned, I want to offer some critical thoughts on these critical (and nominally progressive) responses – a critique of the critique, if you will. I argue that these calls for introspection on the part of some Western and Global South international lawyers inadvertently reproduce a Western-centric vision of the world, and international law’s role therein, while effacing the voices of Ukrainians who, in this case, are the paradigmatic case of a subaltern people responding to imperialist aggression, including through the emancipatory language of international law. By discounting this reality, some critiques may be doing actual harm to Ukraine, which is hard to reconcile with any progressive vision of international law.

On Situatedness

Before I address some of the critiques of the West’s response to Ukraine, let me clarify where I am coming from, lest anyone mistake what follows for a neutral perspective. It is not. I was born in communist Poland in the 1980s, and I grew up hearing a thing or two about the injustices of Soviet imperialism. Like most Eastern Europeans, my family has experienced murder, forced cultural assimilation, and other violations at the hand of Russian and German aggressors (this observation is self-explanatory for any Eastern European but my discussions with Westerners and Africans over the past few weeks strongly suggest it is necessary to make this point plain). As someone who majored in both law and history at a Polish university, I have also studied the centuries of Russian and German colonialism in Eastern Europe. Since then, I have spent my adult life working in and on international law in Africa, though most of my post-graduate academic affiliations have been in the West.

I think of myself as someone who engages critically with international law, for which I am indebted to Western and post-colonial scholars. However, like many Eastern Europeans (by this I mean people from the post-Soviet space, though this is another complex term), I have been alarmed by analyses from some scholars who, in their rush to opine on this war, make gross oversimplifications about Eastern Europe and this war’s superficial relationship to topics they are familiar with. Without exception, as far as I can tell, the people making such critiques have never studied Eastern Europe’s complex history of imperialism and racism, and yet they feel comfortable passing judgment on this war, in the middle of a people’s existential struggle, without waiting to see its outcome or considering how their analyses shape the discourse around this war. With those remarks out of the way, let me explain where I think some critiques have gone astray.

On ‘Whataboutism’ and Eastern Europe

One prominent critique that has emerged in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion is that the West is focusing too much on a European war while ignoring other conflicts. What about Palestine? What about Myanmar? Another iteration of this critique is that the West is responding only because Ukrainians are pale-skinned, while ignoring Global South conflicts involving darker skinned peoples. A different but equally prominent critique is that the West has no standing to criticise Russian aggression because it too violates the prohibition on the use of force, most notably in Iraq. Is Putin’s aggression any different from the West’s imperialist ventures?

These are difficult and important questions to think about. Excellent critiques have been made regarding, for instance, Gordon Brown’s lack of moral standing to champion a Special Tribunal on Aggression, which will replicate some fundamental inequalities of international law. Even if one supports the Aggression Tribunal, it should not be too difficult to understand why Brown is an inappropriate standard bearer for this proposal. But, of course, for some, the problem is not just Brown but the Tribunal itself, evincing as it surely does, double standards. In his thought-provoking post on, inter alia, whataboutism, Ralph Wilde argues that

Some are asking ‘what about’, not to justify Russia’s actions, but actually, the reverse – to say, in the context of an assumption that what Russia is doing is wrong, to ask why, when violations of international law of the same or a similar nature happen elsewhere, there is not the same response- a response they would welcome – by those who are now condemning Russia… the charge of hypocrisy is levelled not to suggest that therefore the condemnation is without merit as a general matter – that what Russia is doing is somehow not illegal — but, rather, to make a particular point about the standpoint of those doing the condemning: that the position presupposes that compliance with international law is only for people they oppose, not also for themselves.

I emphasise the last sentence for a reason, but first I want to offer some thoughts on Eastern Europe that might complexify some common critiques.

First, the critique that the West’s current ‘strong’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine epitomises the West’s hypocritical focus on European conflicts overlooks that the West has been doing its utmost to ignore Ukraine for the past eight years. Yes, there was some outrage at the illegal annexation of Crimea initially, but the most striking aspect of Russia’s eight years of illegal aggression against Ukraine is just how normalised this situation became. By 2022, Allain Pellet, a luminary of international law, could pen a sort of denunciation of Mr. Putin, while also explaining that the status of Crimea is complicated. His ‘Open Letter to my Russian Friends: Ukraine is not Crimea’ (for a critique, see here) implies that Russia’s 2014 illegal acquisition of Crimea might somehow be ‘ok’, a position he seems to share with Marine Le Pen, illustrating starkly how the stakes of these international law debates are not just academic – a point I return to below.

Further relativistic analyses of the supposed ‘complexity’ of Crimea have followed, and many international lawyers have shrugged. It seems that the less one knows about a geopolitical context, the easier it is to take relativistic positions on ‘sort of’(?) binding jus cogens prohibitions on acquiring territory by force. I am sure many states, not just our ‘Russian friends’, are watching with interest and maybe there will soon be additional ‘sort-of-aggressive’ clients to defend in The Hague.

Second, there is the critique that the Ukraine war epitomises Westerners privileging white over darker skinned people. To be clear, racism is a massive problem in international law, yet the way the Ukraine war has been framed through a one-dimensional lens of white-on-black racism inadvertently effaces an equally serious type of racism in this part of the world. For centuries, Western Europe has treated Slavs as an inferior race, justifying inter alia German imperialism, culminating in Hitler’s pursuit of a Lebensraum (see here). Some seem not to know that the English word ‘slave’ comes from ‘Slav’, among whom are Ukrainians and most Eastern Europeans (though not all, as the Finns and Hungarians will remind you… for further reading on Western attitudes and the ‘orientalisation’ of Eastern Europe, see here and here).

Although in Eastern Europe these arbitrary hierarchies of inclusion/exclusion are now framed in different language, e.g. ‘ethnicity’, Eastern Europeans are still perceived as second-class citizens within Europe, with overt discrimination against Poles and Romanians occasionally in the news. I have always been intrigued by how Western European institutions, which implement various decolonisation projects, find it easier to discuss more distant geographic regions while essentially ignoring their immediate neighbours to the east. And yet these fundamental inequalities, including Ukraine’s ‘inferior’ status within ‘white’ Europe – amply demonstrated by Ukraine’s desperate fight to have its sovereignty recognised and decide for itself whether to join Europe (the EU) and the West (NATO) – are legacies of a complex intra-European, racialised hierarchy of ‘civilised’ and ‘less-civilised’ peoples in this region. Few commentators engage this complexity (for a rare analysis going beyond black/white racial tropes, see here).

Even more pernicious about this unidimensional framing of ‘race’ is how it masks centuries of racist Russian imperialism against its Slavic brethren in Eastern Europe. Some scholars have been ringing the alarm bells over Putin’s overtly genocidal rhetoric against Ukraine, which is turning increasingly violent. While international lawyers analyse this language to debate whether the threshold of genocide has been met, the ‘in-your-face-racism’ against Ukrainians that underpins this discussion is ignored. Not surprisingly perhaps, the only racism that many Western – and in this case also Global South – scholars see in Ukraine is the racism they are familiar with from their work on different colonial contexts, which in turn exposes the limits of the analytical lenses we all deploy from our situated perspectives. I turn to this now.

On ‘West(s)plaining’ and Double Standards

For Eastern European scholars, a distressing aspect of the Ukraine war has been ‘West(s)plaining’, which – in Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz’s viral definition – is the ‘phenomenon of people from the Anglosphere loudly foisting their analytical schema and political prescriptions onto the [Eastern European] region.’ Dutkiewicz and Smoleński were reacting to the grotesque conversation among Western political scientists as to whether Putin’s invasion was caused by Russian imperialism or NATO ‘expansion’ (hint: it is the former). This is self-explanatory for Eastern Europeans, who know their region’s history of Russian imperialism and understand that NATO – despite its flaws – is their best hope of not repeating the past. But some analysts seem unable to pivot to an analytical frame rooted in the post-Soviet space where NATO stands not for imperialism but the exact opposite: anti-imperialism. Faced with a choice between forcible incorporation into Russia’s sphere of influence, the smaller nations of Eastern Europe made a conscious and voluntary choice to join the West… if only the West deems them ‘worthy’, as Ukraine is now so painfully learning.

In Eastern Europe, this is also called self-determination. Yet many non-Eastern European intellectuals – fixated on NATO’s transgressions elsewhere – continue to reproduce the analytical schemas they are familiar with, struggling to identify the cause of this war, adopting or condoning relativistic two-sides arguments in a clear-cut case of one-sided aggression. While most international lawyers have stuck to a more politically neutral, doctrinal analysis of emerging legal questions from the Ukraine war, some legal conversations necessarily implicate broader cultural and political issues that require a nuanced understanding not just of Western imperialism and international law’s Euro-centrism, but also of Eastern European and Russian approaches to international law. I would suggest that in the context of these wider debates on international law, in particular when international law-based policy prescriptions for the Ukraine war are formulated, there is a real risk of ‘westsplaining’ by international lawyers that should be considered more carefully going forward.

Despite the academy’s commitment to inclusivity, most international law debates on Ukraine have centred Western perspectives (sometimes with a token representative from Ukraine) or participants who have never studied Eastern European problems. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with academics debating the Ukraine war – as I argue below, we need more debate – but a lack of attention to local perspectives risks reproducing biases and ignoring blind spots, including by critical scholars accustomed to analysing international law’s Euro/West-centricity… in other parts of the world. One risk seems to be that, by framing the Ukraine war through the analytical lens of Western concerns, well-meaning analysts end up shooting down straw men, fueling Russia’s revisionist interpretations of international law, and – instead of mobilising attention – contributing to collective inertia.

To my mind, a questionable aspect of some critiques of the Ukraine war thus far is the belief that now – while Ukraine is being bombed and some parts of the West have finally awoken from their indifference to Russian aggression – is the appropriate time to interrogate Western blind spots and insufficient attention to conflicts elsewhere. A misleadingly simple answer is that bombs are also falling on Syria, yet the West is not paying as much attention. Yes, this is true. But did anyone criticise, say, the Gambia for paying insufficient attention to Yemen when it brought Myanmar before the International Court of Justice? In other words, is anyone outside the West held to a seemingly impossible standard of ‘equality of attention’? Are Iraqis now paying as much attention to Ukraine as they do to Syria? Do we fault them if they prioritise their security? By the same token, are Ukrainians complaining about Africa’s passivity, or are they asking their neighbours for help? My conversations with Europeans suggest that the reason for a united Western response to Ukraine is an intense feeling of personal insecurity (captured vividly here) that cannot be mandated by appeals to universality. Responses in self-defence are going to be different, whether they come from Europeans or Africans (along these lines on humanitarian aid and Western ‘bias’, see Hugo Slim).

A predictable response is that the West can do more, so it must do more. I understand this perspective but I fear it also reproduces the analytical schema it sets out to critique by making the resolution of all conflicts a matter of Western willingness to intervene and aid ‘others’. This is a perspective that centres the West, also in international law debates, and risks turning into Westsplaining (for a vivid denunciation in the context of the ‘Ukraine Peace Project’, see here). But paradoxically this perspective also lets the ‘others’ off the hook by fueling simplistic arguments about the West qua root cause of all injustices or legitimising a relativistic, fence-sitting attitude to suffering. As I alluded to in a Twitter exchange with Ronald Slye the other day, I fully agree, for instance, that everyone should pay attention to mass atrocities both in Ukraine and Ethiopia. At the same time, as someone who studies international criminal law in Africa, I remain unconvinced that the West should lead in Ethiopia. If the African Union, which has ample authority to address the Ethiopian conflict, fails to provide ‘African solutions to African problems’, how exactly does the West ‘do more’ and what does ‘paying more attention’ mean? (for an insightful Africa-centric analysis, see here).

I ask not because I know the answers, but because I do not. Generally speaking, there is a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ flavour to many critiques of the West right now, and while I appreciate the need for continuous introspection, I am not convinced the right balance is being struck in the context of the Ukraine war. Sure, ‘whataboutism’ can be an appeal for solidarity, mobilising a (Western, again?) response to conflicts around the world. But let’s acknowledge there is also a serious risk of collective de-sensitisation to Ukraine and, worse still, a perverse legitimation of Russian arguments to justify its ‘anti-imperial’ imperialism.

I am witnessing this play out in African countries. While commentary focused initially on Kenya’s principled stand in the Security Council, African positions are evolving (e.g. fewer states voted in favour of ejecting Russia from the UN Human Rights Council than the UN General Assembly’s initial condemnation of Russia’s invasion), and it would be naïve to think that our intellectual debates, which frame the narratives around Ukrainian resistance and Russia’s war aims, do not matter. Given Africa’s history of Western colonialism (and, in some cases, Soviet support for decolonisation – but, please, Soviet also includes Ukrainian!), Africa’s ambivalence about siding with the West is not as surprising as it initially seemed to people like myself who instinctively understand Western support for Eastern Europe in anti-imperial terms. Given Africa’s history of slavery, it is also understandable that race in this war has been viewed through a lens of white-on-black discrimination, yet it is regrettable that a more complex debate about Slavic peoples’ ‘inferior’ status within Europe – including Putin’s denial of Ukrainian agency to justify his crude territorial conquest/extermination in terms that will be eerily familiar to Africans – is largely absent from this discussion.

While these are all complex issues, it is our duty to capture this complexity and that means the Ukraine war should be addressed in a nuanced way, ideally filtered through a post-colonial Eastern European lens. Up until now, this perspective seems lost in many scholarly analyses which inadvertently adopt a unidimensional, often Western-centric, explanatory lens rather than analysing Russian aggression and Ukrainian resistance on their own multi-faceted terms. Lastly, I would note that greater humility from scholars who are ‘discovering’ Eastern Europe for the first time is probably advisable.

Final Remarks

One other thing before I sign off. Writing this post has been hard. I am no newcomer to conflict, having spent over a decade working in and on conflicts in Africa. Yet I spent the first three weeks of this war in a haze, reliving the trauma of my grandparents and experiencing vulnerability like never before. All of this is uncomfortably personal. I felt it necessary to share this perspective, as I think the conversation risks taking a dangerous turn toward the ‘indeterminacy of international law’ and ‘moral relativism’. From a historical, Eastern European perspective, the victims will yet again be the weaker and ‘expendable’ subaltern people of this region whose lives are sacrificed on the altar of Western stability (should the West defend fundamental international law principles if nuclear Russia insists on taking Crimea?), the West’s atonement for historical wrongs against darker skinned people (Putin may be killing Ukrainians, but what about Europe’s double standards toward refugees?), or other false binaries that can justify action and, more dangerously, inaction in the face of the worst violations of international law (for more on choices, see Comfort Ero here and here).

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Mihai Martoiu Ticu says

April 12, 2022

While I agree with most of the arguments in this piece, I disagree with the label 'whataboutism' for people who ask “What about Palestine?”. Whataboutism “is a variant of the tu quoque logical fallacy that attempts to discredit an opponent's position by charging hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving the argument." (Wikipedia). The essence of the tu quoque is that it tries to justify a bad deed by pointing to other bad deeds committed by others. Thus, tu quoque's form is:

If bad deed A happened, the bad deed B should also happen (or be allowed, or not be punished).

Or: If person X commits or committed crime A, person Y should also be allowed to commit crime B (or not be punished).

But in our case, by saying “What about Palestine?”, one does not try to leave Russia off the hook. It’s not a tu quoque, but a form of precedent:

If person X is not allowed to do A (and this is a good norm), we should also forbid Y to do it.

This is a correct argument because it improves the world, while the tu quoque makes it worse.

Whataboutism promotes norms violations, while our case about Palestine promotes norm reinforcement.

Asking to do more about Palestine it is not an “impossible standard of ‘equality of attention’” because the West aids and abets Israel in her actions, for instance with billions in military aid, Security Council vetoes, and persecuting those who defend the Palestinian rights. The West already spends its attention, but in a bad way.

(by the way, the Soviet propagandists were trained in whataboutism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_you_are_lynching_Negroes)

Julia Kapelańska-Pręgowska says

April 12, 2022

Dear Patryk,

Thank you for sharing this East European perspective. We are definitely witnessing a turning point in Europe (or even) world's history. With my colleagues from Poland, Ukraine and other countries we constantly keep discussing what consequences it will bring.

International lawyers, like all human beings :-), are shaped by their experience. When we don't share the same one, we tend to perceive the world differently.
Surely, experiences of countries on "this" side of the wall are different. For East Europe war did not end in 1945 and the Red Army was an aggressor and in fact not a liberator on a white horse. I remember my grandma's stories that if she was to choose at whose hands to die, she would choose a German soldier, because Russian ones raped before shooting. Many of our relatives (including my grand grandfather and a founder of the Department of Human Rights at the Nicolaus Copernicus University) were transported to labour camps in Siberia during the war, or even after the "liberation" in 1944. Some died there, some managed to came back. Here, a recommended read is "The Gulag Archipelago" by Solzhenitsyn.
After the war, Poland (and other countries in the East) could not benefit from the Marshall Plan and were forced into a communist reality. I remember queuing for hours to get sugar and other food from shops. I could not learn any foreign language at school apart from Russian, there were no nice cartoons on the TV :-). I was 10 when the USRR collapsed in 1991. From this moment East European countries could start catching up the West.

Having this experience, it is probably more natural to fear that RF aggression on Ukraine can either bring:
1) a catharsis to international community, Europe, the UN (reform and restore legitimacy) if Ukraine will win the war;
2) a winter (vide "Game of Thrones") not only to Poland and East European countries. This does not mean a possible threat of future aggressions, but further development of Kremiln's propaganda and influences also in Western countries. In this scenario, we may expect more "illiberal democracies" with authoritarian inclinations, massive refugee crisis, abandonment of climate change issues.

To end this too-long and personal reflection I would like to add, that it seems more and more important to see this war as a global threat to peace and security, not a regional one (vide e.g. food shortages in Asia because of the conflict as reported by FAO). To avoid Russian rhetorics that they are a victim of Western (NATO) imperialism it is important to expect more from the UN, even if this would be difficult.

Hoffmann Tamás says

April 12, 2022

Dear Patrik,

Thank you for this great post, raising the issue of the almost complete disregard for Eastern European voices in the international law community.

This, of course, also includes the almost institutionalized exclusion of Eastern European perspectives from discussions concerning conflicts in the region. Western scholars find abundant inspiration in the suffering taking place in Eastern Europe for centuries while never considering the need to involve international lawyers from the region.

The most conspicuous example is the Cold War International Law Project that did not have a single participant from academic institutions from Eastern Europe.
https://coldwarinternationallaw.org/ It seems that the Cold War did not affect Eastern Europe at all or maybe local perspectives are utterly irrelevant. That, of course, is reproduced in essentially every major international law project...

Michel Binon says

April 12, 2022

Excellent analysis. Clear. Balanced. Well done.

Nobuo Hayashi says

April 12, 2022

Patryk -

I wholeheartedly agree that post-colonial Eastern European perspectives should feature more prominently in our international law discourse surrounding Ukraine.

I was somewhat less convinced by some of the arguments you have put forward, though.

You are right to point out how the West has been hypocritical towards Ukraine and, more broadly, towards Eastern Europeans. This, however, is in no way incompatible with the charge that the West has also been hypocritical towards conflicts taking place outside of Europe and, more broadly, towards non-Europeans. Highlighting the latter hypocricy might amount to whataboutism if it were done in order to mask the former hypocricy, but I am not sure if that has always been the case.

You also ask whether anyone outside of the West - Gambians, Iraqis - is held to a seemingly impossible standard of ‘equality of attention’. What, however, lies underneath this apparently rherotical question, I wonder? I cannot but sense a hint of whataboutism here. Is the implication that, since nobody is, or should be, held to such an impossible standard, one should not ask what more the West can and must do? Is the implication that now is not the appropriate time to interrogate the West’s blindspots and insufficient attention to conflicts elsewhere?

I would have rather thought that the question Ukraine raises affects us all, and those in the West are only part of its addressees. Those in Asia, Africa, etc., have their own share of biases and hypocricies. Understandable though such things may be emotionally, they trouble us because we are concerned with rules and principles according to which one ought to treat like cases alike.

Ara Tazian says

April 13, 2022

Thank you for your comments. Very helpful. The analysis of the situation within the US has been frustrating. NATO expansion seemer to me to be a threat to Russian imperialism not its sovereignty. It seemed to be implied by many that Russia has some type of Imperial right to dominate its neighbors. That the US should favor that right over the rights of the Eastern European nations of self determination. Maybe NATO expansion contributed to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but it does not mean it was the wrong thing to do.