Ukrainesplaining, or, Why the West Underestimated UkraineRoundup
tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine
Dr Olesya Khromeychuk is a historian and writer. She has taught the history of East-Central Europe at several British universities, and written for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Der Spiegel, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Prospect. Khromeychuk is the author of The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister (2022) and “Undetermined" Ukrainians: Post-War Narratives of the Waffen SS "Galicia" Division (2013). She is currently the Director of the Ukrainian Institute London.
"Why is such a pretty young thing researching such a tough topic?” an older male academic asked me at one of the first conferences I attended. My doctorate was in the history of the Second World War, and my speciality lay in military collaboration in the occupied territories. My expertise was probed because, in his eyes, I was defying the norm. A “pretty young thing” does not produce knowledge. She produces entertainment. Emotion, not expertise. That was the first time that I discovered that I lacked credibility in other people’s eyes not because of what I knew but because of who I was: female, young, east European.
The question of credibility goes far beyond the personal. Groups and nations are mistrusted if they do not fit into the accepted image of an authoritative source. “Vladimir Putin denies the existence of Ukraine as a nation. Why is he wrong?” I have heard this question from Western journalists repeatedly over the last year, forcing me to justify the existence of a sovereign state. When your credibility is questioned, it’s not enough to simply exist. You need to prove you have the right to exist. Witnessing my country of birth being distrusted even with its knowledge of itself over the past year has led me to reflect on the credibility not only of individuals but of whole nations.
Ukraine was predicted to fall within days when Russia began its vicious full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russia was perceived as superior militarily, economically and politically. Ukraine was presented as corrupt, divided and weak. This had serious consequences. The overestimation of the aggressor and the underestimation of Ukraine’s ability to stand up for itself had a direct impact on the sort of help that was made available to Kyiv and the speed at which it was delivered. It had a direct impact on the scale of casualties. Ten months and numerous Ukrainian battlefield victories later, I have not heard anything that would qualify as an apology or at least an admission of miscalculation by those who predicted the rapid fall of Kyiv.
“We wanted to see if they’d actually fight before giving them weapons,” said one of the professors at a talk I recently gave. The implication of that comment was that “they”, the Ukrainians, needed to prove themselves worthy of trust to “us”, the West. The first eight years of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which went largely unnoticed outside east-central Europe, the three decades of striving for democratic reforms as an independent state, and a few centuries of anti-imperialist struggle were not proof enough.
Ukrainians’ historical fight for their right to sovereignty might have been accepted as sufficient evidence that they would put up resistance in this new colonial war, had it been recognised. Yet traditionally Ukraine’s own narratives of its past have been dismissed in favour of the distorted version presented by a neighbouring dictator who denied the country’s existence. It was that version that was then mansplained – or Westsplained – back to us by talking heads in the Western media who, despite possessing little relevant expertise, were recognised as authoritative.
Being a feminist and working on questions of gender and war has equipped me with tools that came in handy when observing the international community’s perception of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the hierarchy of voices recognised as credible, women’s voices continue to be only barely audible. Their exact position depends on their social and ethnic backgrounds, but it’s always below that of influential, white male voices. Similarly, nations that don’t correspond to the patriarchal Western ideal are dismissed as minor and insignificant even if, by size, they might be the largest in their region. Size only matters if it’s matched by economic wealth and political power.
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