President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow this week could prove to be an important one for the war in Ukraine. The Chinese president has described Putin as his “best friend”. However, importantly, he has stopped short of explicitly endorsing either Russia’s expansionist war aims or its criminal conduct of the war.
As the appalling brutality of the war in Ukraine continues, most recently in the struggle for the town of Bakhmut, we must never become so anaesthetised to the tragedy that we lose our human empathy or our moral compass. While China’s policy is about realpolitik rather than ethics, president Xi seems to have been somewhat inhibited by his best friend’s war crimes from wholeheartedly endorsing his behaviour. If, and it is a big if, Xi is actually serious about his stated support for the principle of territorial integrity, it could be significant.
Empathy for Ukraine in Ireland continues to be strong. With our history of cherishing freedom, it could not be otherwise. Ireland’s determination to support Ukraine is reflected in our positive approach to action at EU level, in our championing of early EU accession for Ukraine and in our welcome for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
However, there is no room for complacency. We have our own domestic political jackasses trotting out the Kremlin line. We also have some self-styled anti-war activists who paradoxically take the view that, in practice, Putin should be rewarded for his war of aggression with a swathe of territory that doesn’t belong to Russia. The wider EU also has its share of Kremlin apologists, including prime minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. Most disturbingly, two leading candidates for the Republican nomination to become US president in 2024 have been making unprincipled noises about Ukraine that will encourage Putin.
Faced with such contemptible voices, it is important to remind ourselves, as we observe the political wheeler-dealing in Moscow this week, that the war in Ukraine is about more than alliances and weaponry. Fundamental principles are at stake.
Ukraine has a right to independence. The Ukrainian people are entitled to decide they want to be part of a democratic Europe. Putin launched a war of gratuitous aggression. The Independent Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, established by the UN, has recently listed a litany of Russian war crimes including the targeting of civilians, attacks on energy-related infrastructure, killings, torture, rape, and the grotesque and unlawful deportation of children.
Like every country, Russia has security concerns. However, so equally does Ukraine. The possibility of Ukraine remaining outside a Nato-like umbrella is surely diminishing with every brutal week that passes. President Xi will have to take that into account in any serious peace proposals he may eventually table. No Ukrainian government could leave its people open to the threat that Putin could again “let slip the dogs of war”.
If people of goodwill around the world continue to speak out, sensitivity to ethical concerns may continue to constrain both Xi’s pronouncements and his policies
Another factor designed to distract us from the reality of the “blood and destruction” faced by the Ukrainian people is the widespread dissemination of the Kremlin’s entirely fictional version of events. The Russian leadership argues with a straight face that Putin’s war was launched against Russia. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim to that effect at a recent gathering in New Delhi was met with widespread laughter. In a disturbing detachment from reality, Putin remains convinced that Ukraine is a puppet of the West and that Russia’s assault on the brave Ukrainian people is directed against drug addicts and neo-Nazis.
The Russian ambassador in Dublin, in a recent intervention that must surely have been designed to increase Ireland’s support for Ukraine, accused our leading politicians, so evidently decent and democratic, of associating themselves with Nazi ideology.
Our compassion for those who are suffering in the war on the far side of our small continent runs deep. That empathy must never be dulled because we become accustomed to witnessing the suffering. Nor must it ever be blunted by Putin’s relentless propaganda. Even if people of goodwill necessarily support the Ukrainian cause, our compassion should extend also to the thousands of Russian soldiers obliged to lay down their lives on the altar of Putin’s ego, and to their families, as well as to the many brave Russian patriots in prison for opposing the war.
President Xi will not raise issues of morality during the discussions in Moscow this week. However, if people of goodwill around the world continue to speak out, sensitivity to ethical concerns may continue to constrain both Xi’s pronouncements and his policies.
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome