On Ukraine, There Is Just One Way To Handle Putin

Europe and the U.S. must respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin with neither war nor capitulation. There is a third option: total isolation.

Russian President Vldimir Putin in February 2014
Russian President Vldimir Putin in February 2014
Daniel Brössler


BRUSSELS — Europe is accustomed to being pursued by ghosts from the past, but they are now finally catching up with her. When a world power sends troops into a neighboring country in response to a carefully orchestrated invitation, claiming to act in defense of the people, and seizes control of a region, alarm bells start to ring.

No, 2014 is not 1938, nor 1968. Crimea is not the Sudetenland, and Kiev is not Prague. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not only acted in breach of international law — he has also made it clear that his desire for power in the region of the former Soviet Union knows no limits.

After more than two decades, it looks as if the relative peace that has reigned in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall may be in danger. As we often hear Russian voices lament, the country is humiliated, its interests neglected; the West has played the victor and a latent Cold War mentality is to blame.

And yet, indeed, this argument only makes sense within the logic of the Cold War.

According to such logic, certain nations are not free to determine their own fate because they lie within Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest geostrategic catastrophe of the 20th century. Anyone who claims that the deeper motivation behind Russian aggression in Ukraine lies in the West’s supposed arrogance would do well to remember that.

The end of an illusion

The time has come for the West to stop laboring under the illusion that Russia — a country whose internal politics are marked by authoritarian rule, despotism, abuses of power, nationalism and mourning for an empire lost — can outwardly be a reliable partner for the European Union and the United States.

This illusion has persisted even after the war in Georgia in 2008, when former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili bore the brunt of the blame, and even while the West has looked on in disbelief as Russia has supplied Bashar al-Assad with arms throughout the conflict in Syria.

Now, however, the crisis in Crimea shows that internal and external politics in Russia cannot be separated. In both spheres, Putin respects only power, not justice.

The United States and Europe are faced with a difficult decision. The situation in Ukraine is threatening to develop into a war where the West will not intervene militarily. Although Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty is guaranteed on paper, for example in the Budapest Memorandum signed when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, NATO cannot offer the country any assistance against nuclear Russia.

But for this reason, the West cannot afford to be passive right now. Moscow’s aggression must be stopped without resorting to military threats.

That will require a level of determination that Putin obviously believes is lacking in the West. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be completely severed. The only permissible negotiations should be those focused on finding a solution for the Crimean crisis. Summits like the planned G8 meeting in Sochi in June cannot take place. The aim is not to impress Putin — but to avoid all semblance of normality.

The Russian president’s assumption that the West will be outraged for a while but then settle down must be proven wrong. Otherwise there can be no guarantee that Putin’s eye will not turn to other countries in Eastern Europe and central Asia.

The difficult question of sanctions

This poses one of the most difficult questions to arise from the crisis: the question of sanctions. They have been the West’s weapon of choice when dealing with tyrannical rulers and have sometimes met with success. But Russia is a special case: a nuclear power, a member of the United Nations Security Council and a vital energy provider. Sanctions against Russia could prove very costly for the West.

If Russia were to cut off the gas supply to Europe, that could have devastating consequences for many countries — but first and foremost for Russia itself. The country’s economy is already struggling, its development stunted by corruption. If Putin does not come to his senses, the European Union must find the courage to put him and the oligarchs who support him under economic pressure.

In 2014, a century after the start of World War I, which would tear the continent apart, the European dream is once again in danger. Europe must face up to the ghosts from its past. It has no other choice.

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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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