When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, many Westerners wondered why the Russian people didn’t rise up and overthrow a despot with no more regard for his own people than those he was attacking. The apparent willingness of ordinary Russians to go along with Putin’s egregious war immediately invited comparisons with Germans under Hitler. Among Russian dissidents abroad, it also saw the revival of a morbid joke from the 1970s, in which Leonid Brezhnev showed a visiting Richard Nixon how compliant Soviets were. Turning to the crowd, Brezhnev told them that they would all be hanged the next day. As the news sank in, just one brave soul dared to throw up his hand. “Comrade General-Secretary,” he asked meekly, “should we bring our own rope, or will it be supplied by the Party?”
Meanwhile, European citizens prided themselves on their civic solidarity in response to the attack. Around 1.6 million displaced Ukrainians found homes with Polish families alone, and even in post-Brexit UK, hundreds of thousands signed up to take in refugees. And although the government dragged its feet on allowing them to come, supporting Ukraine also met the demands of realpolitik for both Britain and the US. Here was a chance to put our ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan less than six months earlier behind us without needing to get our hands bloody or our boots dirty. And of course, it made financial sense: the more than $45 billion in military assistance – much of it involving outdated equipment previously gathering dust – will one day need to be paid for, either in currency or by contracts for western firms to rebuild shattered infrastructure.
Assuming Ukraine survives, it will be a “Lend-Lease” dependency for decades to come, just as we were after World War II.
More than a year and a half on, however, and with no end in sight, even this most popular of wars is no longer headline news. The spotlight has moved on, and as Perspective goes to print there are instead hour-by-hour media updates on the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in response to the murder spree by Hamas on 7 October. And where the spotlight moves, our gaze follows. Unlike the clear-cut support for Ukraine, this latest episode of violence has confused and divided our loyalties. For some, the extreme terrorist tactics of Hamas are the greater evil; for others it is the killing and oppression of Palestinians over the longer term by the Israeli Defence Forces, and its disproportionate response now.
According to the UN, a quarter of humanity live in places affected by war
But while all of us, momentarily at least, have become absorbed by this latest violence, few have given any thought to the more than 30 other wars that are, according to the UN, currently occurring around the globe. To take just one, the fighting between the rival factions in Sudan has seen as many as 10,000 people killed, up to 12,000 others injured, and a staggering five million or more displaced. Facts that have rarely, and only barely, troubled our news feeds. Meanwhile civil wars of varying intensities continue in Iraq, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, and Mali, to name but a few.
The irony of our ignorance of these is that collectively the West has had an historical hand in most of them, and even boots on the ground in some. Not to mention that the US is the world’s largest arms exporter, and France, Germany, Italy and the UK are all in the top seven. We can’t excuse our ignorance by a lack of available information. Social media and mobile technology mean that “the news” is never more than a click away, and our senses are saturated daily by war imagery and information on a scale greater than at any time in history.
According to a report by the UN Security Council, as we entered 2023 an estimated two billion – a quarter of humanity – lived in places affected by ongoing conflicts. The causes of these are various, but their common denominator is that ordinary people, particularly young men, women, children and minorities – those, like us, who’ve made no conscious decision to engage in violence – are the ones who suffer most. And that suffering is the same, whether you’re an innocent of Ukraine, Palestine, Sudan, the Congo, Israel or indeed Russia.
But the reality is that what most of us choose to “witness” is just the small selection of war content that has been curated, spun and sanitised for us, which we devour like the latest Netflix drama before moving on to the next designated trouble spot. We don’t even need to get up from our sofas to express our occasional outrage or change our social profiles to the latest colours. As the passive consumers of global violence, we’re not so very different to Putin’s Russians, or Brezhnev’s Soviets. Indeed, as the killing in Gaza and elsewhere continues, most of us haven’t even bothered to ask who is supplying the rope.