The Hypocrisy of the West Part One: Money Talks

In which we address that we’re doing business with the “enemy”

Photo by Aleksey Malinovski on Unsplash

Putin is a dictator.

There’s no doubt about it. The world knows that there is no chance in a functioning democracy for any politician to be in a position of power for the amount of time that Putin has been in Russia. In some countries, it’s actually illegal. There are term limits in Russia too, but Putin used Medvedev to sidestep them. However, if one looks at the news and opinion pieces floating on the Internet right now, it’s like everyone suddenly discovered this fact on February 24th. The invasion of Ukraine is an illegal act, based on claims of genocide committed by the government of Ukraine against the separatists in the east of the country. While it’s quite possible that the Ukrainian army has been attacking these regions for the past eight years, it’s more or less what any sovereign state would be doing against separatist factions attempting to splinter a country.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s put things into perspective.

Putin is a dictator with whom the West is doing business. Yes, even after Crimea in 2014 and even today, despite the sanctions. European countries, including my own, have been buying natural gas and crude oil, among other things, to satisfy their energy needs. Russia’s top customers for crude oil in November 2021 were: China, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Finland and Italy.

On that note, it is often said that Ukraine is Europe’s breadbasket but Russia was the top wheat exporter in the world in 2019. The lion’s share of these exports in 2021 went to Egypt and Turkey (small wonder, then, that Erdogan is reluctant to take a firm stance against Putin in this war).

Without Russian trade, Europe will freeze and several countries (many of whom belong to the so-called “Third World”) will starve. The top receivers of Russian exports overall in 2019 were: China, The Netherlands, Belarus, Germany and Italy. Conversely, the top exporters to the country were: China, Germany, Belarus, the US and Italy.

In other words, there is a lot of money going from Europe to Russia and back. No one seemed to bother much that it had annexed Crimea or that it supported the separatists in eastern Ukraine. But that’s nothing unique. People today are unhappy with the way China is treating its Uyghur minority, some going as far to calling it genocide, and, subsequently, the recent Winter Olympics in Beijing were boycotted diplomatically, which doesn’t mean much other than that the West demonstrated its displeasure with the human rights violations of its good partner in the East. Said displeasure has little effect economically and, therefore, little real impact.

To put things in perspective again, the Uyghur minority is one in terms of China’s huge population. In actual numbers, this population is larger than that of Greece. Not that numbers should matter.

But ultimately they do.

And the numbers are damning for the West. We might say that we care, we might promote (often at gunpoint) the ideals of democracy and peace, but the fact is that we don’t, as they say, put our money where our mouth is. And talk doesn’t buy tanks and missiles.

Money does.

Therefore we must decide if we are going to form our collective international policy (assuming that there even is such a thing) based on our supposed moral high ground, as democratic states or on more realistic terms.

We often hear claims that capitalism goes hand in hand with democracy, but the reality is different (at least for non-Scandinavians). Capitalism erodes social contracts in democratic countries, fostering social upheaval and empowering far-right movements, while at the same time bringing non-democratic regimes closer as partners. The USSR tried to play the game but failed. China, on the other hand, has succeeded spectacularly. So much so, that it’s beginning to question whether it has let itself slip. And this success is largely due to the patronage of the West. Now that our leaders are slowly waking up to the reality of the rise of China as a world power, it’s too late to do anything about it.

It’s highly likely that unless the results in Ukraine are truly catastrophic for Russia, China will make a move in the coming years on Taiwan. Then, the West will again be stunned, this time by the criminal actions of Xi Jinping. He will become the Adolf Hitler of the hour and the cycle will repeat itself.

We’re hypocrites.

We know that China and Russia are undemocratic. We can’t keep ignoring the fact when it’s good business and then be surprised when their actions do not conform with our standards. Or, to be precise, with the standards we’re pretending to uphold.

For example, we can’t keep pretending that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand. They used to, but now capitalism is dragging democracy along despite her protests, like an abusive partner. Modern predatory capitalism is eroding our democracies from within while feeding our decidedly non-democratic trade partners. We might pretend that our societies are democratic, as much as China pretends that it’s still a communist country, but the dissonance between our perception (or the propaganda which maintains it) and reality is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. The proverbial elephant in the room is now squeezing us against the wall.

Leaders such as Putin perceive this as weakness, and they’re right.

Putin respects strength. By this I don’t mean military strength, necessarily, although that is obviously part of the equation. What I mean is strength of character and purpose — clarity and consistency. Some modicum of respect for one’s partner or opponent. At the very least, a firm stance on who is who and which is which. Is Russia a partner, an opponent or an enemy? Obviously, things are not black or white in international relations. However, they also can’t swing from one end of the spectrum to the other according to the angle of approach or the time of day.

In other words, Russia can’t be an irreplaceable trade partner and a geopolitical enemy at the same time. That’s a recipe for disaster.

To understand this, we must compare the way the West deals with North Korea to the way it treats Russia. North Korea is a true pariah state. There’s no trade going on and the sanctions against it are iron-clad. Obviously, cultural ties between Russia and Europe are much stronger than between North Korea and the West. Russia is a European country. The DPRK is half the world away. Still, if we were serious about our condemnation of Putin, then that is how we should be treating his regime, more or less.

Someone could counter that cutting off Russia completely like that is not realistic for Europe. A different approach is needed. Unfortunately, although I keep talking about the “West” as if it is a unified entity, this applied until the dissolution of the USSR. What followed was an existential crisis for NATO and a split between the interests of Europe and the US, which was never really addressed. This denial is what led to the schizoid behaviour of the West and, finally, to a new era of Cold War.

But it didn’t have to be this way. In fact, this is arguably the worst possible outcome, except for the start of an actual “hot” war between Russia and NATO, and we are now closer to that unthinkable possibility than we’ve ever been since 1991.

And, as I will attempt to explain in Part Two, it would be a blatant lie to claim that the responsibility for this lies squarely on Russia’s shoulders.



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