Equalization and Dehumanization in Eastern Ukraine

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Dehumanization is a central component of war propaganda. By removing the humanity of individuals and reclassifying them as anonymous “others,” it becomes easier for combatants in a war to kill them. Such is the case with eastern Ukraine, a conflict rife with dehumanization.

In the Ukraine conflict, the greatest victims of such dehumanization are the 5.2 million Russian-speaking civilians of the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Lifelong residents, they are caught in the crossfire between the pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Kiev militias. Regardless of their political sentiments, the locals have been cast by officials in the Kiev government variously as “terrorists,” “Colorado beetles,” “Moskali,” and “subhumans.” Very little distinction is made among the civilians, the actual rebels, and the rebels’ supporters in Moscow. Civilians who remain in rebel-held territory are often considered “traitors” by the mere fact that they chose to remain in their homes.

This lack of clarity, combined with attacks against east Ukrainian civilians by far-right battalions (accused of war crimes by Amnesty International), has driven the majority of the population to support the rebels. If they were ambivalent toward the rebel cause before, the rhetoric and actions of the Kiev government and its supporters changed their stance. Further, since the start of the conflict, the dehumanization has extended to anyone in Ukraine deserting the army, dodging the draft, or explicitly voicing opposition to the war, like the journalist Ruslan Kotsaba.  He was arrested by Ukrainian authorities for openly expressing his views in a YouTube video and now potentially faces 15 years in jail for treason. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

The dehumanization of eastern Ukrainians has also spilled into the discourse of Western politicians, pundits, and analysts. One of the most vocal of these, the Ukrainian-American academic, Alexander Motyl, has called the people of the Donbas “the most retrograde part of [Ukraine’s] population” and has attempted on more than one occasion to draw parallels between them and white US southerners who supported Jim Crow. His discourse has only fueled the flames of the conflict, pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It also drew strong criticism from Lev Golinkin, a writer originally from Kharkiv, in The Huffington Post.

Motyl was not alone. Other Western commentators have also dehumanized the people of eastern Ukraine. Further, this dehumanization has seeped into a general dehumanization of all things Russian. From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was presented to Western readers as a “civilization choice” for Ukrainians between a “civilized Europe” and a “barbaric, Asiatic Russia.” During the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the co-architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, tweeted that the growing conflict between the protestors and police symbolized “Eurasia versus Europe in [the] streets of Kiev.” Even more extreme, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Moscow to be the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.”

Such characterizations and stereotypes imply a superiority of one people, culture or civilization over another. They allude to destructive racial ideologies from the darker chapters of the 20th century. The implicit message is exclusion and separation, not cooperation and engagement. These discursive Social Darwinist formations have absolutely no place in the discourse of the 21st century. Yet, somehow they persist.

There is also dehumanization in the Russian media. However, it is important to highlight the distinct nuances here. Dehumanizing rhetoric in the Russian media has largely concentrated around liberal oppositionists who are derided as “fifth columnists” and potential “traitors.” The discourse is purely internal, though it is undoubtedly exacerbated by external affairs. Western policies toward Russia and the former Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR have fueled greater distrust and suspicion on the part of the Russian government toward the opposition, making freedom of speech more difficult. In this respect, one can make a very strong case that Western policies like NATO expansion, missile defense, the unilateral cancellation of the IBM treaty, or the sponsorship of pro-Western revolutions in ex-Soviet states have harmed the development of democracy in Russia, not helped it.

This stands in contrast to the dehumanization of east Ukrainian civilians and Russia by the present Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. In fact, official Russian-backed media has refrained from engaging in any dehumanizing rhetoric toward the people of Ukraine proper. True, they have liberally used terms like “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.” However, they have not used these terms to describe the Ukrainian people as a whole. Rather, they have used them to describe the government in Kiev, a very important distinction. In Moscow’s view, there is a clear delineation between what is regarded as “the government” and “the people.”

Indeed, in the Russian worldview and discourse, the Ukrainian people are seen as either a deeply kindred people or an extension of a greater East Slavic whole, along with Russia and Belarus. Further, a larger partition of Ukraine, which would certainly involve more conflict, is decidedly not in Russia’s interests. Therefore, Moscow has little to gain from dehumanizing a large number of Ukrainian civilians through the mass media. This explains why they have been careful to distinguish between the government of Ukraine and the people. In fact, in the Russian narrative, the people of Ukraine are often presented as being “naive” or “duped” by Western policies, though their struggle against corruption is viewed understandably.

By contrast, the distinction between the breakaway governments of Donetsk and Luhansk and the locals living there is barely made by the Ukrainian government. This is why the dehumanization of civilians in the Ukrainian media and in the Russian media simply cannot be compared or “equalized.” Equalization often has the intended goal to bring people together. By creating a false symmetry, the thought is that people will recognize the flaws of “both sides” and work toward peace. The goal is indeed noble, but the aims of achieving it, which obscure the facts of a given situation, are questionable.

Analytical equalization has likewise been applied to another part of the Soviet Union: the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a hybrid regime among the ex-Soviet states, embracing elements of liberalism and authoritarianism. Yet, it largely has a free press and free media (including a Daily Show-style satirical news program). Armenia simply cannot be described as an “authoritarian state.”

This is in contrast to Azerbaijan, which is indeed an authoritarian state. The country boasts a pervasive personality cult of the ruling Aliyev family, especially the current president Ilham and his father, Heydar. Dissent is systematically muzzled and there is little room for free expression or free speech.

An objective assessment would illustrate the differences that exist between the two states. Yet, Western commentators, eager for an immediate peace over Karabakh, gloss over these differences and instead generalize that “both are exactly the same.” Such a formation excludes critical thinking and prevents one from observing nuances between the conflicting parties. Consequently, the search for that all-elusive resolution becomes even more challenging.

Overall, the key to ending any war or conflict is to first and foremost stop the senseless dehumanizing and malicious rhetoric. Dialogue becomes possible when people begin to realize their common humanity – that which they share. Consequently, instead of talking in exclusionary terms of “Europe” vs. “Eurasia,” “West” vs. “East,” we should be reflecting collectively in terms of cooperation among all peoples on the vast Eurasian landmass, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Only then can there be true peace.

Correction (8 March 2015): It has been called to my attention that I made a typo on this piece.  I accidentally referred to Amnesty International declaring Ruslan Kotsaba as a “prisoner of consciousness” as opposed to a “prisoner of conscience.”  This has now been fixed, but the mistake was somewhat ironic, given concerns of Europe “sleepwalking into war.”  Kotsaba was indeed “conscious” enough to see that danger.

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5 thoughts on “Equalization and Dehumanization in Eastern Ukraine

  1. I’ve looked forward to your posts since reading about your blog in one of Nick Kristof’s columns in the NY Times. Most of what you’ve written I’ve found insightful and necessary knowledge for anyone hoping to sort out the mess in Ukraine and other nations formerly part of the USSR.

    I do have a question about your differentiating Moscow’s “naive dupe” description of supporters of the Kiev government from that government’s more crude comments about residents of the eastern part of the country under rebel control. In the Stalinist era “naive dupes” had a very short life span. During the Cold War, “naive dupes” found education, good jobs and a peaceful life difficult to obtain, not to mention the many who ended up in the gulag.

    So when I hear such language from the current occupants of the Kremlin, especially when one of its most prominent critics was murdered within sight of the seat of government, I wonder how the treatment of a “naive dupe” common citizen who supports closer ties with the west, differs in practice from what a Donbass resident could expect from Kiev officials spewing the dehumanizing vileness to which you so rightly object.

    I realize the cold war is long over, and that language from the Kremlin today may have no relation to what the same descriptions meant 25 years ago. But the echo from that period is very loud and whatever is said today, whatever we may wish, is going to be colored by that historical experience.

    Thanks for all your hard work,

    Jim Forrester
    Ann Arbor

    • Yes I think you said it right by saying that the behaviour you’re basing your perceptions on occurred 25 years ago. I suggest not living in the past if we are to move on. Indeed, the same people under different conditions incur different behaviour. There is behavioural and existential drift in each country including the USA.

      All of that remaining true, I recognize that the only real issue facing Russia is the uncomfortable relationship countries must have with a 30-year Presidential rule. That should be solved while protecting Putin authority, but accomplished in a way to perpetually ensure the nest Russian President won’t mess things up, and shorter time is a way to accomplish that. So would background elder committees such as in China and Iran.

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