In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I found myself thinking frequently about Iraq. In the environment of the moment, such thoughts felt almost heretical, but the parallels were just too plain for me to suppress. Here was Vladimir Putin invading a sovereign country on massively trumped-up pretexts, without any of the necessary authorisations under international law. The result would inevitably be a heavy, unconscionable loss of civilian life.
As I absorbed the strident commentary on just how gross a violation this was – with which I agreed – I couldn’t outrun an obvious question: didn’t we do that, too?
I don’t mean to say these invasions are the same, as so many Putin apologists do. You could point to any number of differences, and I’d agree with most of them. Iraq was a brutal dictatorship; Ukraine is a democracy, albeit a flawed one. A reasonable number of Iraq’s majority Shiite population would have welcomed an invasion to remove Saddam Hussein, whereas even if you believe the claim Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens would rather be part of Russia, that doesn’t explain why Putin started pounding Kyiv.
And the history is also incomparable. Russia’s invasion follows an era of Soviet dominance, in which most of Ukraine was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet empire, which then sought to crush Ukrainian nationalism and inflicted atrocities upon the Ukrainian people.
The nadir was surely Stalin’s Holodomor of 1932-33, in which the Soviets drastically cut back food rations to the very Ukrainians who had been growing that food. The result was a man-made famine that killed at least 3.5 million Ukrainians, and which the European Parliament officially recognises (with pro-Soviet objections) as a genocide deliberately targeting the Ukrainian people. Against that background, Putin’s invasion is especially chilling.
But the commonalities bear contemplation, too. Both invasions relied on a similar melange of dubious justifications. For Iraq, the claim that Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction, as well as connections with terrorist organisations which made it a terrorist threat to the West – all of which was quite predictably untrue.
For Ukraine, that it was seeking NATO membership, thereby continuing NATO’s onward march to surround Russia, placing American forces on the Russian border and leaving Russia seriously under threat. Both, then, followed the logic of pre-emptive strike, in which a grave threat need only be asserted to justify invasion.
Then there were the human rights justifications. In Iraq, Saddam’s persecution of non-Sunnis, and especially the Shiites – which was true. In Ukraine, an alleged genocide of ethnic Russians – which was not. In both cases, though, these were never primary reasons for war. They were convenient narratives, invoked to add a veneer of legitimacy to illegitimate invasions.
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