Geopolitics

Of Course Ukraine Isn't Worth A War, And Yet...

Nobody wants to die for Donetsk, but much more is at stake for the West than just Ukraine's borders. In the face of Vladimir Putin's ambitions, it's time to ask the hard questions.

Pro-Kiev protests in Munich
Pro-Kiev protests in Munich
Alexenia Dimitrova

-OpEd-

PARIS — A fragile ceasefire does nothing to change the challenge we must face in Ukraine: How to contain the revisionist instincts of an ex-empire that mixes humiliation with a clever mix of cunning and brutality?

When it comes to the Ukranian crisis, it's easy to enumerate the failings of the European Union and the United States. In many respects, economic sanctions are a "Potemkin village," stricly aesthetic and ineffective. They themselves cannot dissuade Moscow. We appeal to an economic nationality when Putin himself is draped behind a nationalism equally anachronistic and skittish. What good is reason when faced with passion, especially when it is backed by all kinds of propaganda?

There is an utter imbalance between the arms that we brandish, sanctions, and the nature of the crisis. But this divorce is a reflection of our embarrassment, the reality of our powerlessness and — even more importantly, for the majority of the countries in the European Union and for the U.S. — our lack of interest.

Nobody wants to die for Donetsk, or Odessa, or even for Kiev. As part of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the invasion of Prague by Soviet forces, our policy was "to do nothing, of course," even though the Soviet threat was seen as the primary danger. Today, the adversaries largely have their eyes turned elsewhere.

Doesn't the threat of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa affect us more directly? Russia, like the USSR of yesteryear, recruits agents of influence in our own camps, but not terrorist apprentices who are like a sinister version of the "International Brigades" that is no longer that of anarchy, but that of barbarism.

In this context, our divisions are too deep, our interest too distant, and our fears too great. Just watch the European news. In France, we talk first and foremost about the crisis here at home, and in Britain about Scotland and the independence referendum. Only Germany and Poland dedicate headlines to the crisis in the east — history and geography oblige!

"What do you want? We're not going to go to war with Russia for Ukraine!"

I recently found myself at a university roundtable debate with certain stakeholders who were focused primarily on the fact that "Ukraine is not our problem," and secondly on "the close ties between Russia and Europe." Such is the fundamental difference that exists between Europe and the United States on this question.

No consensus

Certainly nothing would be worse than promising Ukraine something that we cannot deliver. There is no consensus in Europe today on the entrance of Ukraine into the European Union, and even less so on NATO, even if Moscow does everything it can to convince us to change our position. There's also no consensus on providing Ukraine with arms, even if the threat of arms would be necessary in tough political negotiations with Putin.

We are not condemned to impotence and resignation in the face of Moscow's divide-and-conquer strategy of Soviet times, if not the one used by Nazi Germany before 1939. After Georgia and Ukraine, who next? Certain commentators go as far as to say that Russia dreams of returning to the borders of Europe before 1989.

The situation won't be so hopeless if we demonstrate clear thinking, imagination and a minimum of courage to fight against the propaganda and systematic falsehood coming out of Moscow. Russia is waging a "hybrid" war in Ukraine, with "volunteers" that have all of the qualities of army regiments — arms included — with the exception of uniforms.

Reinforcing the protection of the Baltic States and the other NATO members in central and eastern Europe is the least we can expect of NATO countries. NATO decisions must be implemented in the field.

Putin condemns us with his Cold War attitude, so it's necessary for us to engage in time to face a regime that offers us no choice. But even more so than the USSR of years past, this is a regime much weaker than it wants to project. Moscow could, for a time, satisfy nationalism first by nibbling on bits of Georgia and then Ukraine. But if it wants to keep "unraveling" the system of security that has been in place in Europe since 1991, Putin must realize that he risks finding himself alone, with a faltering economy.

Has the European Union finally realized what's at stake? It is not just a question of the fact that survival of the fittest doesn't apply on the continent of Europe.

Contrary to what some might say, Ukraine is our problem, and it may even be the central problem of Europe today, given the rise of populism. In both cases, what's at stake is the future of democracy, inside and outside of the EU.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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