Rhetoric about “European civilization” clashes with anti-colonial ideals.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian pleas for military aid, financial support, and eventual membership in the European Union and NATO have often used the language of Europe and of European civilization. In a June 2022 interview with the New York Times, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba emphasized the importance of joining the EU and said he saw the EU as building a “liberal empire” in comparison to Putin’s Russia. In his address to the European Parliament in February of this year, President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that Ukraine is fighting for the “European way of life,” founded upon “rules, values, equality, and fairness.” This is a powerful idea for Ukrainians, but one that can be off-putting to those with a memory of being Europe’s victims.
According to an August 2022 poll conducted by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology, 96 percent of Ukrainians support their country joining the European Union. In another survey conducted by the sociological group Rating, 50 percent identified specifically as Europeans, while 30 percent did not. This sense of “Europeanness” has seen exponential growth since the Revolution of Dignity, also known as the Euromaidan, in the winter of 2013 to 2014. According to the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, support for EU integration rose after the Revolution of Dignity from 47 percent in December 2013 to 57 percent in December 2014 alone.
Alice Zhuravel, a Ukrainian researcher and artist of Nigerian descent, echoed this belief in Europeanness and its importance to Ukrainian identity. She stated that “Ukrainian identity was initially plundered and almost destroyed several times. Therefore, modern Ukrainian identity is being restored and supplemented through the processes it goes through. It is evident that ‘Ukrainian-ness’ itself is ‘Europeanness’ because Ukraine emerged based on European values.”
Ukraine stunned the world with its defense in the first year of the full-scale invasion. Many have attributed its military successes to the high morale of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Belief in their country’s essential Europeanness—in opposition to Russian “barbarity”—is a vital source of this morale. Beyond its galvanizing effect on Ukrainian society, such rhetoric is also politically advantageous because it encourages EU member states to continue providing much-needed military and economic aid.
This uncritical embrace of Europe chafes uncomfortably against the anti-colonial nature of Ukraine’s resistance, which its politicians and activists rigorously emphasize. Months into the war, Zelensky called Russia’s invasion colonial and called Russia a colonizer while talking to members of African media. Ukrainians have taken decolonization to heart as they have joined social media groups such as Decolonize Ukraine, that galvanized individuals to remove Russian street names and produced anti-colonial media targeting Russia’s history of imperialism in the country and throughout the region. Russian imperialism has often skirted attention from anti-colonial activism groups and even in academia in Western Europe and in North America. Russia’s imperial expansion into Eastern Ukraine, including Crimea, and Poland has garnered attention since the invasion. However, Russia’s brutal campaign of suppression and colonization in the Northern Caucasus, including Chechnya, and throughout Central Asia is less well known. However, Russia’s approaches to its former colonies, such as maintaining economic dependence and cultural influence are recognizable to those who know of European colonialism.
Leading post-colonial theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire have offered powerful critiques of “Europeanness,” with the latter challenging Europe’s belief in its own civilizing mission and “European” ideals in his 1950 essay “Discourse on Colonialism.” Césaire pointed to the depravity and atrocities imperial countries committed in the name of empire. Unsurprisingly, pro-European rhetoric has not helped Ukraine’s cause in the Global South, where the violence and exploitation of European colonialism is most felt.
An early example of the blowback was the response to Western journalists and state leaders who claimed that the plight of Ukrainian war refugees was different from those from the Middle East or Africa because Ukrainians “look like us” or are “civilized.” While Ukrainians are not to blame for these callous statements, they underscore the inherent tension between positioning Ukraine as both a “civilized” European state and an anti-colonial one.
Many African states have continued to maintain a non-aligned stance on the conflict. The reasons for this are as diverse as the continent itself. Many African countries remain dependent on Russian and Ukrainian foodstuffs such as grain and sunflower oil, which place them in a difficult position. Turning on Russia could continue to jeopardize grain shipments and extensive Russian exports, and cause violence due to military presence via Wagner and other paramilitary groups on the continent. Time and again Africa has seen that it will not get the same Western aid and publicity that Ukraine has received.
South Sudanese human rights activist Peter Biar Ajak underlined how this contradiction pushes many African countries away from Ukraine’s cause: “In Francophone Africa, France continues to lord over these countries in violation of their sovereignty. [The] United States and the rest of the West simply turn a blind eye to the French activities in Africa. [The] U.S. only speak[s] up when the Russians or Chinese are misbehaving, but when these countries are being ravaged by France, it is as if nothing happens. This is truly hurting the Ukrainian narrative.”
Ajak also highlights the hypocrisy of European countries’ refugee policies. “African people see racism in the West’s actions,” he said. “The way Ukrainian refugees were welcomed was truly great. But it is just not how African refugees are welcomed in Europe.” Ajak’s comments align with wider and older critiques of European colonialism and selective compassion.
While some may argue African responses are forms of whataboutism, the rhetorical device where you draw attention from your cause’s own faults by focusing on those others, Ukraine and its Western allies should heed them. Perceived hypocrisy does real damage to Ukraine’s attempts to reach out beyond the West. As the world witnessed harrowing scenes of Ukrainians trying to escape the Russian onslaught in late February 2022, we also saw scenes of African students being forcibly removed from trains attempting to leave the Ukrainian border.