The Russia-Ukraine crisis has been precipitated in the short-term by Vladimir Putin and Russia but in the long-term partly brewed by the West. When the Soviet Union lay sundered in 1990 with Russia as its successor state, Russia was told there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. “Not an inch eastward,” James Baker, US Secretary of State, had assured Gorbachev. And yet NATO granted membership to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020, with Bosnia Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine as aspirants for the next wave of expansion, whenever it came.

One could argue that after loss of its empire why Russia would care how close NATO came to its borders. Why would a dead bird be afraid of boiling water? The United States therefore did not take its promises to Russia seriously. It had near limitless power. Not only had it vanquished a formidable foe, but it was also the judge, jury and executioner of the world. It was the creator of the rules governing international politics and economics. It was the interpreter of those rules and it was the vindicator when someone misbehaved and needed to be brought into line. Finally, it was not bound by its own rules in the best illustration of “American Exceptionalism” basking in its “Unipolar moment.”

Among other things, this meant that promises made, particularly to losers, were optional in nature. The losers could like it or lump it. For a long time the losers, the Russians, lumped it. The early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union were marked by American condescension and dismissiveness towards Russia. Dmitri Simes in a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs says, “Clinton administration officials expected the Kremlin to accept the United States’ definition of Russia’s national interests…Moscow’s preferences could be safely ignored if they did not align with Washington’s goals.” He quotes Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, called “Mr. Yes for accommodating the West,” telling Strobe Talbott, US ambassador-at-large to the newly independent states in 1993/1994, “It’s bad enough having you people tell us what you’re going to do whether we like it or not. Don’t add insult to injury by also telling us that it’s in our interests to obey.”

In its unipolar moment America forgot that great powers that have been humbled needed to be treated with kid gloves and at least outward respect. The victors treated France after its defeat at Waterloo with respect and partly on account of that Europe had a century of peace. One of the main reasons for the rise of Hitler was the humiliation Germans felt at how their country was treated following defeat in WWI. There are parallels between that period in history and the coming of Vladimir Putin in Russia after the Soviet defeat in the Cold War.

Unfortunately, in its unipolar moment, America also set a series of precedents showing its lack of respect for its own rules. Guantanamo, the attack against Iraq founded on plain lies, Abu Gharaib, going after despots selectively – remove Gaddafi, allow Kim to remain in place, and support Mubarak, intervene forcefully to break-up countries it didn’t like, like Sudan, support Israel as it violated Palestinian rights and India as it did the same to the Kashmiris, and since it was the writer and interpreter of rules, label the victims, Palestinians and Kashmiris, as terrorists and threaten those who would come to their assistance with the same appellation, while giving free rein to their oppressors.Putin was watching and taking notes.

And then, one day, American hubris, with the West in tow, and Russian angst finally came to a head, in Ukraine, after previews in Georgia and the Crimea. It could have been avoided. The US and others members of NATO had no serious intention of making Ukraine a member of NATO for the simple reason that no one in NATO was willing to fight for Ukraine under Article 5 of the NATO treaty, should Russia ever come to blows with it. Russia, for its part, after suffering repeated violations of the “not an inch” promise had decided that it would not yield an inch on Ukraine. Yet Ukraine was led to believe that as a sovereign independent state it had the right to make its own decisions. This included seeking NATO membership. Thus the US and the West chose to sacrifice Ukraine to prove a principle they had little intention of putting into practice. According to Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography, at the time of Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014, “Many politicians in the West breathed a sigh of relief and muttered quietly, ‘Thank goodness Ukraine isn’t in NATO or we would have to act.”

Now that the storm has broken, it has exposed deep defects in the façade of principle and propriety that all concerned are trying hard to project. Russia is an aggressor plain and simple, led by a leader who having practiced limitless and unaccountable power at home is now trying to do the same in his neighbourhood, the “near abroad,” deriving justification from the United States’ behaviour in its own neighbourhood and beyond.

The script required a villain and Putin and Russia walked into the role. However, there are no heroes in this story other than the Ukrainians fighting for their country. Having egged Ukraine to thumb its nose at Russia, Biden in his first address after the crisis broke, said there would be no American feet on the ground to defend it, though a whole slew of sanctions political, economic and symbolic were indeed imposed on Russia.

At the same time the western media has gone into overdrive to demonise Putin and Russia. Much of it is deserved but much of it is hypocrisy laced with racism. There is teary-eyed and shaky-voiced reportage of blonde and blue-eyedUkrainians having to suffer aggression and foreign occupation and having to become refugees. They are somehow different (and superior) and more deserving of sympathy and support than victims of aggression and foreign occupation in the usual cesspools of misery (misery largely created by the West and its allies and friends) like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Syria. Some places do not merit a mention even in this list since recognizing their pain and misery is too much of an effort and carries too high a cost. Kashmir is a good example.

While the bravery of Ukrainian military and civilians against the aggressor and occupier is extolled, the same bravery of Palestinians and Kashmiris against even greater odds and worst brutalities and atrocities is considered illegitimate and terrorism. The message to us who live in the less privileged non-blonde, non-blue eyed and Muslim part of the world is that if you are fighting against someone invading your country, particularly if he is also a rival or enemy of the West, you are kosher. If you are Muslim and brown and your occupier and aggressor is non-Muslim and also a ‘friend’ of the West, then you have no right to fight for your freedom. Certainly the blonde blue-eyed West will not speak up for you. In fact, it will tell you that you are a terrorist.

An athlete carrying a message of support for Palestine on his shirt can be banned. It is however okay, indeed desirable, that entire sports teams carry messages of solidarity for Ukraine on their outfit sand in their stadiums. An Iranian or Algerian athlete can be banned for refusing to compete against an Israeli opponent while it is okay for FIFA and IOC to ban Russian teams from competing internationally.

The cherry on top of this rather unpalatable cake of double standards is the open letter by the EU Ambassadors based in Islamabad calling on Pakistan to support the resolution against Russia in the United Nations General Assembly a day before the vote (Pakistan abstained). It was an eminently appropriate request made most inappropriately by those who had no moral right to make it. One cannot find a word of condemnation of Indian illegal occupation and atrocities in Kashmir from any of the countries which these eminent ambassadors represent in Islamabad, let alone a collective of them. Just as the Ukrainians are fighting a foreign aggressor and occupier, the Kashmiris are too, for far longer and at much greater cost. Indeed, the strictures on Russia in Ukraine are much more numerous and stringent, incessant and deeply critical media coverage not the least of them, compared to India in Kashmir or even Israel in Palestine.

This is a moment of introspection for all of us. The safe, secure and rules based world we all say we aspire to, requires us to leave the security of our cocoon of double standards and put our money where our mouth, spouting principles and moral outrage, is.

– The writer is an independent researchers based in Islamabad. He can be reached at Sabirjunaid93@gmail.com