Ukraine is a country, not a sphere of influence

Text: Tadeusz Koczanowicz

Among Western journalists and political analysts there is noticeable trend to analyze the war in Ukraine in terms of “spheres of influence”. This imperial thinking frames the land conquest ordered by Vladimir Putin as a reaction to “Western expansion”. In a desperate bid to say something original, talking heads and Twitter intellectuals from both the left and the right talk about “NATO’s overexpansion in the East” and thereby reinforce Putin’s claims that Russia is threatened.

The Russian military industrial complex has enough nuclear arms to make the earth uninhabitable. Yet it is Russian generals and politicians who talk about “NATO overexpansion” as a direct threat to Russian security, though they don’t specify in what way exactly. This unnamed threat is expressed by a group of aging men such as Sergei Shoigu and Sergei Lavrov. The people of Russia are focused on everyday worries and Ukraine’s international status is not one of them. On the contrary, the sanctions imposed on Russia because of the war will change their lives and upend the stability achieved after the country’s financial crisis of the nineties more than the deployment of the entire NATO army in Odessa would have.

Many of them heroically protest even though they face up to 15 years in prison, such as state TV employee Marina Ovsyannikova[1]. In her video address, Ovsyannikova stressed that her father was Ukrainian[2] – a reflection of the fact that around 11 million Russians have family in Ukraine and many others have friends there[3]. Those people and many others who haven’t been subjected to Putin’s fascist regime don’t want their country to turn into a prison or for soldiers to die while reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble and committing war crimes.  These Russians have the courage to say what everybody in the world should know: that Ukraine is an independent country and as such is free to join NATO, the EU or whatever organization it wishes.

From this perspective, “westplainers”[4] ranging from Marie Le Pen to Jeffrey Sachs look absurd when they refer to “spheres of influence” and sympathize with the Russian perspective. The only people whom the westsplainers seem to understand are those who are changing the biggest country in the world into a high-security prison and forcing hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers to become murderers and criminals or die. Those who try to justify these acts assume moral responsibility for Putin’s crimes.

What’s at stake is Ukraine’s right to join the EU and NATO, which has been central to the country’s politics after the Orange Revolution. Ukraine has the right to make this choice and it should not be viewed as expansion of the “West” as if Ukraine didn’t have its own agency.

Some Western commentators are also using the war as an opportunity to criticize NATO for attacking Iraq. The war in Iraq was a terrible mistake, yet these people can’t explain why condemning the American attack must also mean tolerating or embracing Putin’s land grab. Other Western journalists use the war as an opportunity to express their general critical thoughts about NATO and the EU, which is very easy while sitting in Paris, New York, Berlin or London without fear of Russian rockets.

According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, three million people, half of them children, have left Ukraine since the outbreak of the war. These numbers make it the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the end of World War II. It is three million people who have had to give up their lives and choose the unknown in other countries.

Their tragedy and that of the thousands killed in the war is the price for the fact that Ukraine didn’t want to belong to a “sphere of influence.” These numbers should therefore be presented to every international relations expert, journalist, or Twitter intellectual who starts talking about “Western expansionism” and “spheres of influence.” After this war it has become obvious that such paternalizing language is unacceptable, as it enables and justifies violence.

The “sphere of influence” language used in journalism and academia should be abandoned once and for all as too closely connected to modern forms of imperialism. In this context, it means the right of one stronger country to decide the faith of others against its will. Therefore anyone who is anti-imperialist or at least has empathy for the war’s victims should reject framing the war as a question of proper “spheres of influence” rather than as a brutal attack on an independent country that has left millions homeless and thousands dead.

The only truly anti-imperialist standpoint in this situation is standing by Ukraine’s right to choose its own path and Ukrainian equality with other nations[5]. As Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said in a February 28 video speech aimed at EU officials: “Our goal is to be with all Europeans and, most importantly, to be equal. I’m sure that’s fair. I am sure we deserve it”[6].


[6] New statement by the President of Ukraine, Zelensky 28.02.2022 [English Sub.] – YouTube