The images emerging from Bucha are haunting. Dead civilians line the streets, many with their hands bound behind their backs. They are the victims of systematic executions, left to rot before the Russians decided to retreat.
Reports of such atrocities always strike a chord across Western Europe and North America. They played a key part in mobilising popular sentiment against Germany in 1914. They were crucial in persuading the United States to intervene in the Balkans in the Nineties. Every time, they have encouraged us to conceptualise war as a moral struggle between good and evil.
The invasion of Ukraine has been no different. It has become common for commentators in the West to compare Putin’s Russia to the ultimate evil actor of modern history, Nazi Germany. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is portrayed as Captain America.
Even Joe Biden appeared to endorse this Manichean contrast during his recent trip to Warsaw, describing the conflict as a struggle between the light and the dark: “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia, for free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness.” The Pope also used similar language on his trip to Malta last weekend, declaring that “from the east of Europe, from the land of the sunrise, the dark shadows of war have now spread”.
I don’t disagree. When an invading army uses rape as a weapon of war and mercilessly bombs civilians in a theatre, what better word than evil can we use? Likewise, even if he is only human, Zelenskyy’s leadership has undoubtedly been heroic. Yet there is a problem with framing the war in Ukraine — and every struggle that came before it — as a battle between light and darkness. It may be a powerful rhetorical device, but it clouds our understanding of who is fighting and, ultimately, can prolong and intensify a conflict.
Consider the fact that, even as the West frames the war in Ukraine as a struggle of good against evil, the Kremlin is doing exactly the same. Putin has repeatedly portrayed the invasion as a “special operation” to “denazify” the region. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, even blessed the invasion as “God’s truth”, a necessary measure to bring together the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
While this rationale for invading Ukraine is patently false, it would be foolish to whitewash the far-Right elements in Ukraine’s politics and military. Yes, President Zelenskyy himself is Jewish, and a clear majority of Ukrainians favour a Western, democratic orientation for their country. But there is no use denying the existence of far-Right groups in the Ukrainian opposition, such as the Svoboda party, which has unabashedly anti-Semitic leaders. Likewise, the Azov Battalion, which has been heavily involved in the fighting to defend Mariupol, was founded by a far-Right nationalist. Though now a unit of the National Guard of Ukraine, it has not managed to evict its neo-Nazi and white supremacist members — as American soldiers involved in training Ukrainians before the war discovered to their consternation.
I unequivocally support Ukraine in its struggle for freedom from the Russian knout. But these are hard truths that the West needs to face, not least because ignoring them plays into Putin’s hands — a dishonest discussion is exactly what he wants.
For proof, we need only look at his careful attempts in recent years to portray himself as a defender of the Christian faith. Often wearing a cross around his neck, he frequently visits monasteries and swims in the freezing Lake Seliger to mark Epiphany. He also relishes taking swipes at the excesses of Western “woke” progressivism. His campaign has been so effective that, unbelievably, some on the American Christian Right support his invasion of Ukraine, proclaiming him the last bastion of the true faith and upholder of traditional values.
But Putin’s Russia is not the Christian idyll they fondly imagine. While the West often views Russia as a European nation-state that just happens to be very big, it is actually a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire. There are, for instance, approximately 25 million Muslims in Russia, making up 18 per cent of the country’s population. The complexities continue, as Russian Muslims are themselves not homogeneous, ranging from Sufis in Chechnya to Tatars in Crimea.
Why does this matter? Because it illustrates that, when it comes to war, sweeping generalisation is the tool of the despot. Despite his posturing as an Orthodox emperor in the Tsarist tradition, Putin is directing a colonial army with many Muslim soldiers against Christians in Ukraine. Lists of captives and casualties from Russia reveal that Muslims are significant participants in the fight. As The Washington Post reported, “about one third of [Russian] casualties are soldiers with non-Slavic, mostly Muslim names”. There is, after all, a reason why Chechen strongman and Putin loyalist Ramzan Kadyrov labelled the fight against Ukraine a jihad.
Yet Putin’s fabrications suddenly become irrelevant, no longer worthy of discussion, when the invasion of Ukraine is reduced to a Manichean conflict between good and evil — even when these fabrications are used to justify something as enormous as the war itself. As satisfying as it may feel to frame the conflict in this way, the West will never defeat Putin’s alternative reality by creating its own. He is not the devil: he is a despotic leader who draws his authority from an imperial fantasy. Exposing this fantasy — no hard task — is far more likely to topple him in the long term than painting him as Hitler.
Of course, there is good and evil in this war. But this is also a war between a fledgling nation-state and a receding empire. It’s messy, complex and scarred by history. Vladimir Putin wants you to think otherwise — but let’s not play his game.