American Pundits Can't Resist "Westsplaining" UkraineBreaking News
tags: Russia, Ukraine, international relations, Eastern Europe
Jan Smoleński is a lecturer at the University of Warsaw and a Ph.D. candidate at the New School for Social Research. He has published essays in Gazeta Wyborcza, Rzeczpospolita, Tygodnik Powszechny, and Krytyka Polityczna.
Jan Dutkiewicz is a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University in Montreal and a visiting fellow in the Animal Law and Policy Program at Harvard University.
War is hell for anyone in it. And it’s a predictable but regrettable call to arms for people with opinions who aren’t. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, as the fighting on the ground has escalated, so has the volley of opinions about the war. And for Eastern European scholars like us, it’s galling to watch the unending stream of Western scholars and pundits condescend to explain the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe, often in ways that either ignore voices from the region, treating it as an object rather than a subject of history, or claiming to perfectly understand Russian logic and motives. Eastern European online circles have started using a new term to describe this phenomenon of people from the Anglosphere loudly foisting their analytical schema and political prescriptions onto the region: westsplaining. And the problem with westsplaining is illustrated particularly well when pundits westsplain the role of the eastward expansion of NATO in triggering Russia’s attack.
Eastern Europe is maddeningly complex. It doesn’t even have a clear definition: Spanning from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania down (depending on whom you ask) through Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, Czechia, and Hungary, then east to encompass Moldova, and south to Romania and Bulgaria, and perhaps taking in other countries, the region has little to give it cohesion. It’s not unified culturally, religiously, linguistically, racially, politically, or even geographically (Greece and Finland are further east but never get included in the category, Georgia is discontiguous from the others and yet is often counted, and Ukraine’s conceptual membership and very existence are at stake in the current conflict).
If anything unites the region, it is its historically unfortunate location as the plaything of empires, its borders and definitions made and remade over the centuries, most recently through its emergence from the collapse of the USSR. The defining geopolitical feature of the region is that it is defined from the outside. As the Polish linguist Piotr Twardzisz puts it, “There is relatively little of Eastern Europe in Eastern Europe itself. There is more of it in Western Europe, or in the West, generally.”
In the past week, westsplainers on American televisions and in American opinion pages have suggested that NATO, by allowing in Eastern European countries as members, has driven Putin to lash out like a cornered animal. The story goes more or less like this: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO promised Russia it would not expand. But in 1997 it nonetheless expanded. In 2007, ignoring Russian complaints, it opened the way for expansion into Georgia and Ukraine. Russia was forced to react, hence its invasion and occupation of Georgia that year. Later, when the U.S.-sponsored protests deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych for abandoning the country’s pro-Western course, Putin again reacted, this time invading and occupying Donbass and Crimea in 2014. And now he is trying to take over Ukraine to head off American influence in the region.
This story isn’t surprising, coming from so-called realist international relations scholars intellectually forged during the Cold War. The University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, for instance, recently claimed in The New Yorker that NATO’s expansion was perceived as a security threat, eliciting a lethal response. To Mearsheimer’s credit, he admits that great powers are predators ensuring that their smaller neighbors are not free to pursue policies of their own choice. But on this reading, it is NATO’s fault, driven primarily by America’s interest in expanding its sphere of influence, that Russia has lashed out, seeking to protect its own sphere of influence. This isn’t a novel view: It’s the position Putin himself laid out in a speech to the Munich Security Conference in 2007.
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