Staunton, May 22 – For months, Moscow officials and commentators have complained about what they say is a double standard on the part of the West, arguing that Western governments and writers are condemning Russia for doing in Ukraine exactly what the US and the West more generally have done elsewhere.
Such complaints are in every case false or at least overstated, but they are plausible enough to ring true with many Russians and even with some in the West who then invoke them to argue that their governments must refrain from criticizing the Russian government’s actions because their governments have done the same or, in the eyes of some, even worse.
But however that may be, the double standards about which the Russians complain and some in the West talk about are not the most important double standards now on display in the West: those are the very different and all too real double standards Western governments and analysts apply to Moscow, on the one hand, and Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, on the other.
In this case of double standards, Moscow is routinely held to lower standards than the others, is subjected to far less criticism than is directed at the others, and is not given the constant improving lectures on how it must behave domestically and internationally if it is to be a partner of the West.
Fresh examples of this appear on a daily basis. Here are just three. First, the Russian Federation has by Vladimir Putin’s own acknowledgement used military force to annex Ukraine’s Crimea and although Moscow denies it has used cover military and security operatives to destabilize the southeastern portions of Ukraine.
If any other country had done that, the West would have classified that as an invasion, a clear violation of international law, and asked itself first and foremost what it could do to repel the invaders. But in this case, many Western politicians and commentators have gone out of their way to understand the aggressor and condemn the victim.
These politicians and commentators gone so far in many cases that they have accepted Russian propaganda and blamed the victim rather than the victimizer, accepting without checking false Russian claims about “oppression” of Russian speakers by Ukraine and about the ludicrous notion that Crimea was somehow “Russian anyhow” from time immemorial.
To see how much this reflects a double standard, imagine how these same Western writers would have reacted if instead of Russians, Ukrainians had advanced the same arguments about Russian treatment of ethnic Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers in the Russian Federation or sent forces into that country to destabilize it.
Second, the Russian government has made a mockery of elections and other elements of the democratic process, it has restricted the constitutional rights of its citizens, and it is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Ukraine is not perfect on any of these measures, but it is far better on all these measures than is the Russian Federation.
But anyone reading Western coverage or commentaries would be unlikely to reach that conclusion. Instead, to the pleasure of Moscow, such an individual would assume that the problems of Ukraine are uniquely bad and sui generis rather than part and parcel of the badly mishandled transition there and elsewhere from communism to democracy and free markets.
In reality, Ukraine has had real elections in which the opposition has sometimes won, something that hasn’t happen in Moscow. It has not restricted the rights of its population the way the Kremlin has been doing, and the level of corruption in Ukraine pales into insignificance when compared that plague in the Russian Federation.
To see how much a double standard this reflects, ask oneself when was the last time that anyone in talking about Ukraine pointed out Vladimir Putin’s lack of legitimation by free and fair elections, when Kyiv shut down opposition media outlets and stifled the Internet, and what Russians would find if they broke into one of Putin’s palaces.
Such comparisons, however, are not made on a regular basis. Instead, Western governments and media outlets routinely instruct Kyiv on how important it is to ensure that the upcoming presidential elections are handled well, how important it is to support Russian-language media in Ukraine, and how important it is to fight corruption in Ukraine.
And third – and this is perhaps the most offensive aspect of this double standard – Western governments and writers routinely tell Ukrainians they must constantly take Russian feelings into account and accept the neutralization and partial dismemberment of their country rather than pursue their own dream of integrating their country whole and free in the West.
Two corollaries of this are even more telling. On the one hand, most of the West accepts de facto the Russian Anschluss of Crimea even if some still say they will never recognize it. Indeed, in the coverage of the events of Donetsk and Luhansk, Crimea has virtually disappeared as an issue in the West.
And on the other, many Western governments and commentators seemingly can’t restrain themselves from suggesting that Vladimir Putin is “defusing the crisis” by pulling his troops back from the Ukrainian border. He created a crisis for which he has largely escaped personal blame and then he is given credit for supposedly ending it.
(Those who say such things should remember the classic “Krokodil” cartoon from 1956 after Khrushchev’s secret speech about the crimes of Stalin. In the drawing, a young boy is complaining to his teacher that she’s given him a zero on a test. “Why did you do that, he asks plaintively, after all, I’ve admitted all my mistakes.”)
Note that no one is telling Moscow and the Russians that they must take Ukrainian feelings into account, must respect the wishes of the Ukrainian people as well as respect international law, and must not use subversive measures to try to prevent the Ukrainians from achieving their goals.
Those defending this very different treatment of Russia and Ukraine will point out that Russia has nuclear weapons while Ukraine does not, that Russia is or at least was a great power and that Ukraine is not, and that the West has a great deal of business to do with Russia and that it does not with Ukraine.
But there are some deeper and even uglier reasons lying behind this approach: a desire for a foreign policy on the cheap that requires Western deference to regional powers or bullies, and an often unspoken contempt for the countries in between Russia and the West based on their pasts or on the assumption that they are somehow not as “real” as Russia is.
Russian commentators are right that there are double standards about in the world today. But they are wrong about the nature of these double standards. And neither they nor often those in the West who apply them are willing to acknowledge that the real double standards now operating work to the benefit of Moscow rather than Ukraine or the West itself.