A 21-year-old in the US was recently unable to pay for his grocery purchase. His Russia-issued credit card had been abruptly blocked. I have known this bright Ivy league Russian student since he was in high school in London. Academically gifted, polite to a fault, with big dreams, he was no different from my son’s French, Chinese or British classmates who occasionally came home for dinner. Educated in Britain’s private school system, with hopes of a global professional career, I do not know if he even holds a Russian passport anymore though he was born in Russia.
In the current Russophobia hysteria, a Russian name or perhaps owning a Siberian cat is enough to get one sanctioned or cancelled. What else could justify Facebook changing its own rules to allow Russian hate mail, thereby showcasing Western liberal duplicity at its very best. The rules apply as long as it works for Western self-interest.
A dear friend of mine in London spent over 25 years building an extraordinarily successful Russia-focused finance business generating hope, employment and opportunity both in Russia and Europe. Unprecedented Western sanctions imposed on anything Russian have decimated Russian stock, with most no longer trading on a global exchange. The friend who I have known for two decades built the business brick by brick and has just lost a life’s work and toil.
My thoughts turn to October 2016, and the stranger in Moscow who graciously paid for a beautiful swan lake ballerina imprinted vase for me at the famed Bolshoi theatre gift shop following a soul-stirring evening of ballet. It was late, the gift shop was about to close, would only honour cash, and I was short of the required roubles to complete the purchase. A pretty young Russian mother with two smart little children, fellow opera-goers that evening, watched my exchange with the gift shop lady, silently bought the vase and handed it to me with a smile. She refused my offer to walk to a cash point or accompany me back to the Four Seasons hotel for payment, saying the vase was a “gift from the people of Russia.” After returning to London, I exchanged emails with the lady for a while, life took on its own rhythm and we lost touch. I wish I could hug her now and say I honour her gift. She, her beautiful family and their act of kindness is not forgotten, and never will be.
These are some of the innocents caught up in the senseless conflict in Ukraine with lives upended too for no fault of theirs. While there can be no justification for the assault by Russia on sovereign Ukraine by land, air and sea, my grief for the terrible loss and suffering is not selective. I grieve deeply for the Ukrainian people and the Russian people in whose name war is being waged. Death knows no nationality. In war, the innocent and the vulnerable suffer the most.
I am sitting beside a roaring log fire in Daylesford, sipping a cup of frothy latte as I write. Daylesford is a chic organic farm near Kingham village in the heart of the English countryside. I come here often from London, whenever I visit our ancient get-away cottage not far from Daylesford. This is quintessential England of dreamy villages, rose fronted honey-coloured stone cottages and rolling, picturesque countryside as if caught in a time warp, seemingly an ideal custodian of Western liberal democracy tenets – the rule of law, individual liberty, right to life and property, mutual respect and tolerance.
Those lofty tenets sound hollow today.
The West has shamed itself by its response to the Ukraine conflict with disgraceful duplicity and acute moral poverty, utter lack of principles wherever Western self-interest is at stake, wilful weakening of the rule of law with Western leaders competing to outdo one another. Furthermore, the openly biased coverage of this ‘European war’ of victims with ‘blue eyes and blond hair’ in comparison to the dismissive, limited reporting of wars in ‘far away’ conflicts in supposedly less civilised Middle East/ Afghanistan is a shocking indictment of Western prejudice and racism in the 21st century.
Journalists such as Chris D’Agata and channels like CBS News of USA know no better and deserve our pity and contempt. Yet, when prejudice is ratified by the state and European countries draft legislation to create a two-tier asylum system allowing white Europeans to be vastly favoured as refugees, one is filled with despair and white rage. While Syrians are corralled like cattle, white Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms. Despite self-proclaimed civilisation and progress, skin tone is still a factor in the Western world.
Western duplicity is singularly highlighted by fluid definition of the terms invasion and liberation. If Russia’s assault of sovereign Ukraine is deemed invasion, by the same yardstick , how can the infamous 2003 US-led invasion of sovereign Iraq to illegally affect regime change be termed liberation?
A few days ago I watched Gordon Brown, former UK Chancellor turned Prime Minister, ask for the setting up of a new international tribunal (beyond the existing International Criminal Court) to try Russia’s President Putin for war crimes. By the same measure, surely President Bush of the US and Prime Minister Blair of the UK should be prosecuted for war crimes in Iraq, effecting illegitimate regime change and plunging a stable sovereign country into a vortex of despair and violence as the US/UK searched for non-existing weapons of mass destruction.
When Iraq’s cities were mercilessly bombed by the US for 40 days in advance of the US ground assault, the Western press reverentially hailed the destructive firepower as the ‘shock and awe campaign'. Russia is mercilessly bombing Ukrainian cities in preparation for ground attacks and the Western press now term it 'genocide' and a crime against humanity. The biased narrative of a unipolar US-led world is not the failure of its politicians alone. Western media plays an outsized role.
In the final days of the shameful shambolic American withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, an American drone strike killed an innocent Afghan family of 10, including seven children, the youngest being just two. The Pentagon, which initially defended the strike, acknowledged it a tragic mistake only after it became indefensible. No US troops were found guilty. There was hardly a murmur by Western broadcasters. Not surprising since scores of innocent children have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by US drone strikes and others without any outcry whatsoever.
As the Western media counts every child lost in the Ukraine conflict (tragically 85 thus far), as a fellow parent, I mourn deeply. Yet I am filled with anger and sadness at the hypocrisy and double standards.
While free press, including freedom of thought and expression, are non-negotiable pillars of liberal democracy, I am shocked by the duplicity of Western response. Russia has banned social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), citing national interest, while the BBC is still able to broadcast from Moscow albeit with restrictions. In contrast, the US, UK and European Union have abruptly banned the Russian state-controlled international channel RT (Russia Today) and forced it off the air. How can the West take the higher moral ground if it cannot accommodate plurality of reporting, however unpalatable or pure fantasy some of it may have been.
Russia says it has uncovered several US-funded biological weapon production laboratories in Ukraine. Initially dismissed as ‘total nonsense’, the White House later said that the US department of defence had been working in partnership with Ukraine’s ministry of health since 2005 to reduce the threat of biological weapons proliferation.
Claims and counter claims are normal between adversaries but clamping down on the free flow of information leads to unnecessary conspiracy theories where none exist. After the second round of peace talks, Ukraine shot dead Denis Kireev, a member of their own negotiation team terming him a Russian agent. This shocking event was hardly reported in the Western press, not sure why. As I see coverage of the Ukraine conflict in London, both in state-funded and private channels, I am surprised at the total lack of Russian representation and viewpoint. Creating echo chambers with the same narrative being pushed relentlessly including partial representation of facts benefits nobody. It simply diminishes democracy.
When the Indian cricket team refuse to play Pakistan following terror attacks, India is lectured not to mix sports and politics. Yet, Liberal West has banned all Russian athletes from nearly every international sporting event and body without any due process simply because of their nationality.
The Russian Paralympic team - disabled athletes who made the long journey to Beijing 2022 – were initially told to compete under the paralympic banner as neutral athletes without being counted in the medals tally and later unceremoniously sent home as the opening ceremony got underway. Russian tennis star Daniil Medvedev has been offered the opportunity to participate in Wimbledon 2022 as a neutral athlete without his national flag and only if he publicly denounces President Putin first. Russian Formula 1 race driver 22-year-old Nikita Mazepin has been unceremoniously dumped by his team Haas 1 because of parentage. He is the son of a Russian businessman with supposed links to the Kremlin. How can Nikita Mazepin be held responsible for his father’s actions even if the parent were indeed a Kremlin operative involved in the Ukraine war?
In terror attacks over the years in the West, the family has never been held responsible for the actions of a terrorist even if she/he has committed mass murder. In fact, the family are given added protection and continue to get state benefits and support if eligible because it is considered ‘proper’ to do so. By the same yardstick, how can the actions taken against innocent Russian athletes ever be considered ‘proper’?
No room for individual liberty in Western democracies today
Assault on individual liberty, erosion of tolerance and mutual respect is not limited to the world of sport alone. Russian born Soprano Anna Yuryevna Netrebko with dual Russian and Austrian citizenship and celebrated as ‘one of the greatest singers in Met history’ with an asteroid named in her honour, unequivocally condemned the Ukraine conflict but that was not enough. She was forced out of the New York Metropolitan Opera for refusing to denounce her birth country Russia and President Putin and has now withdrawn from her international career and all performance for the foreseeable future.
41-year-old Evgeny Alexandrovich Lebedev with dual Russian and British nationality, appointed to British Parliament as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in 2020 by Prime Minister Johnson is now being called a Russian agent by the same British politicians who have enjoyed his lavish hospitality over the years. Lord Lebedev, who has lived in Britain since the age of eight, has now written a front-page letter in the British newspapers he owns (one publication even employed the ex-Chancellor George Osborne as editor till 2020), saying he is not an ‘agent of Russia’ but the clamour continues.
Ironically, over the years, the UK has been known to provide a safe haven to unsavoury individuals fleeing their respective countries with loot including Augusto Pinochet of Chile and all sorts of dictators from Africa, Middle East, Asia to name a few. Russian money significantly fuelled the UK economy in the new millennium, paid for lavish parties attended by the political establishment and helped keep up appearances. Consequently, it is a bit rich to see elected politicians in the UK (and the US) now verbally leading lynch mobs against Russian businessmen (termed oligarchs) for alleged complicity in the Ukraine war because of supposed links to President Putin.
The rule of law says, ‘innocent until proven guilty. As Western countries compete with one another to seize private property – mansions, yachts, aircraft – without due process and draft hasty legislation to deny the chance of appeal, civilised Western democracies risk resembling banana republics. In fact, a day after a British cabinet minister said on television that seized oligarch properties could be used to house Ukrainian refugees, a squatter group brazenly broke into a private residence in Belgravia London belonging to a sanctioned oligarch’s family citing the cabinet minister.
I could write ad infinitum about how the entire rule book of liberal western democracy has been torn up. It is particularly troubling to witness how Corporate America has become a party to the Ukraine conflict by leading a mass exodus from Russia closely followed by other Western brands without a duty of care towards employees suddenly rendered jobless, suppliers and partners abandoned without means of support and customers deserted sans thought. There was a time not long ago when sport, culture and business kept their distance from politics and the world was a better place for it.
In times of geopolitical turmoil, sport, music, iconic brands helped heal divides, for nobody can forget the image of McDonald’s opening its first store in Moscow’s red square and the impact it had. Using business as an instrument of war during conflict is simply wrong. When peace returns – and it will – abandoned customers will not forgive or forget. Countries will no longer trust global corporations, nationalism will rise, and the world will be less open.
I have spent most of my adult life in the West and always believed Western liberal democracy had core inalienable tenets, including the rule of law, right to life and property, freedom of speech and expression, mutual respect and tolerance. That belief has been significantly diminished.
Ratun Lahiri is Senior Advisor to a cross-border venture fund investing in early-stage businesses prior to which she has had an international career in Consulting and Technology, her last role being Head of Global Programs at the London Stock Exchange Group. Ratun holds Indian nationality and lives between London and Cotswolds in rural Gloucestershire. She travels widely and is a keen observer of politics and its impact on everyday living. Ratun is a Mechanical Engineer from IIT Kharagpur and a gold medallist from the Asian Institute of Management, Manila. She was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by IIT Kharagpur in 2019.
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