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Our 'Emotional' Divide: How The Ukraine War Reveals A World Broken In Two

Russia's invasion has created a stark global divide: them and us. On one side are the countries refusing to condemn Moscow, with the West on the other. It's a dangerous split that could have repercussions far into the future.

A woman holding a peace fo Ukraine trial for russia sign during a protest in London

Protesters against the war in Ukraine demonstrate in front of the Russian embassy in London

Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — "The West and the Rest of Us." That's the title of a 1975 essay written by Nigerian essayist and critic Chinweizu Ibekwe. I've been thinking about his words as the war in Ukraine both reveals and accelerates divisions of the world that I believe are ultimately "emotional" in nature.

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With war returning to Europe and the risk of escalation, there is a gap between the Western view and that of the "others," a distinct "us and them." This gap cannot be explained in strictly geographical, political, and economic terms.

Of course, the Finns and Swedes feel as though they are in the Russian bear's sights, and see no other choice than to join NATO. Putin will thus have transformed the Baltic Sea into an Atlantic security lake. But beyond the objective realities, there is an emotional impact.

"Never again" — the key to European identity

If the British are the ones in Europe who feel the closest to Ukraine, it is perhaps because the images of the Kyiv subway remind them of the images of people sheltering in the London subway during World War II. In the British collective memory, the resistance of the Ukrainians against an enemy more powerful than them, brings them back more than 80 years to the glory of their "finest hour."

This revival of the past, while glorious for the British, is also unsettling for the European subconscious. Did we not see "never again" as the key to European identity, the most spectacular example being the Franco-German reconciliation? The war was for the "others." This was only fair after the fall of Europe between 1914 and 1945. History chose other targets who were elsewhere, far from us.

Of course, beyond illiberal Hungary, the European far-right and far-left have some sympathy for Putin's Russia through a mixture of anti-liberalism, anti-Americanism, and anti-capitalism. But essentially, Russia stands very much isolated in the Western world.

To the extent that, according to a confession made by someone close to the master of the Kremlin to a BBC journalist in Moscow, "Putin himself regrets the escalation since Feb. 24.”

Close to home

Yet, Russia is not completely isolated. The 40 or so countries that refused to condemn Moscow's actions during the vote at the United Nations General Assembly represent around 53% of the world's population.

When in Brazil, former president Lula, candidate for the next presidential election, made sweeping statements denouncing the primary responsibility of the United States in the Ukrainian crisis. "The U.S. and the E.U. could have avoided the invasion by stating that Ukraine would not join NATO," he said, expressing a view widely shared in a continent that still has resentment towards "gringos".

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, Pope Francis, also Argentine, expressed a very similar view.

On the African continent, some people “understand” Russia. A position that is mainly due to the perception and denunciation of the selective nature of the emotions of the "white man."

Distinction between attacker and attacked in Ukraine is very nice, but who ever cared about Africa?

The war that has been tearing Ethiopia apart for a year and a half has caused many more victims, led to the forced displacements of populations, and created famines that cannot be compared to what is happening in Ukraine. But the fate of the Ethiopians has left a majority of Europeans and even more Americans indifferent.

The African continent wants us to understand that it is also ready to bring out the scars and resentments of the colonial era.

Of course, most African countries do not necessarily support the Russian invasion. But they are not ready to go against their economic or military interests to defend international law in Europe. Everything happens as if Africa wanted to convey that this distinction between attacker and attacked in Ukraine is all very nice; but who cares, because who has ever cared about the African people for themselves and not for economic or strategic reasons?

People holding a Russian flag during a celebration of Russian victory on May 9 in Munich

Pro-Russians celebrating May 9th in Munich

Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Press Wire

Ambiguous positions

In the Middle East, the situation is different because it is a region where Russia — protector of Orthodox holy places — has been involved for centuries. Caution towards Moscow has a less emotional side, even if the tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen, widely ignored by the Western world, again evokes double standards.

Beyond Bashar al-Assad's Syria, many countries in the region are "playing" with Russia or simply counting on its weaponry or diplomatic support to balance or compensate for America's gradual withdrawal. Israel's position seems intentionally ambiguous.

In Asia, apart from the two giants China and India, both supporting Moscow in their own way, not clearly condemning Russia means reaffirming its distance from America and the Western world as a whole. Japan, the Asian West, is almost a special case (besides Australia and New Zealand) in its unwavering support for Ukraine.

West v. the Rest

Russia, unlike the USSR, cannot claim it has a project to improve the world. In any case, authoritarian regimes, whether in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East or Asia, know that Moscow will not blame them for their human rights practices. And hasn't America, from Iraq to Afghanistan, proved that it is possible to commit countless crimes in the name of democracy?

The paradox of this world' s emotional divorce is that the countries that are going to suffer the most, especially in terms of food, are the ones being most understanding towards Moscow. A major challenge, like global warming, should bring us all together. But on the emotional level, it is more than ever "us and them" and "them and us."

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

What's Next For Gaza? Israel? The World? – Mideast War, Day 32

Netanyahu gives scant signs of hope for any easing of the massive assault on the Palestinian enclave, as the number of dead tops 10,000.

Photo of people standing amid rubble in Gaza

People conduct rescue work among the rubble of residential buildings destroyed in an Israeli strike in Gaza

One month after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the world aimed to take stock Tuesday of a war that has already killed thousands and threatens to destabilize the region, and beyond.

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Here’s an excerpt from a piece by French geopolitical commentator Pierre Haski:

“The shockwaves continue to resonate around the world: from Colombia recalling its ambassador from Israel, to this past weekend's gathering of two million people in Jakarta to the hardening of Arab countries that had made peace in the past with the Jewish state, to the unleashing of acts of anti-Semitism in Europe.

We can also mark a broader geopolitical impact. The United States has invested more than it has in a long time in the Middle East, from which it had been trying to distance itself for years. U.S. military deployment and diplomatic involvement have been considerable.

The Americans have so far succeeded in deterring Iran and its allies from getting involved in an escalation that would have changed the nature of the crisis. Vice President Kamala Harris gave a one-word response to a journalist who asked her what the U.S. message was to Iran: “Don’t!" Message received — so far anyway.

Read the full piece translated from French by Worldcrunch here

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