One Eastern European’s Perspective on the War in Ukraine

Central Sofia, Bulgaria: a statue of the Russian Tsar Alexander II directly facing the old Bulgarian National Assembly. I view this as a potent juxtaposition of East and West.

Who to blame?

I seek to add my Eastern European perspective to the blame game that has been making the rounds as to who is responsible for THE war (i.e. the one currently happening in Europe). I will give the answer which many wish to discredit simply because it is so simple and obvious. Namely, that the Russian Government is to have sole blame. However, I will give a less than simple explanation. This is because I have seen an alarming number of people trying to place the blame on NATO, or the foreboding entity which is ominously referred to as “The West”. I however view this argument as based on a perspective which completely obviates any notion of democratic autonomy in the former Eastern Bloc States, one of which I am a citizen.

But first I want to understand why the ‘NATO-expansion argument’ has such popularity. Why is there a normative acceptance of spheres of influence? They almost appear as states of nature which should not be encroached upon even if it means abandoning entire peoples to oppression.

The West and the non-West

I believe that it is important to first define the West. The West is many things in different contexts, and some of those things oppose each other. The West is firstly a cultural delineation closely aligned to a shared European heritage and norms. It is a seemingly ever-expanding club which is however not open to all given its cultural underpinnings. It is only open to those who share to a certain extent a litany of eurocentric liberal-democratic values. The concept of the West thus has a unifying role, bringing together states with shared values in cooperation to protect those values. However, it also has an exclusionary role, creating a ‘non-West’, especially as many of these eurocentric values may be viewed with skepticism by a wide array of excluded states.  

      That leads to a second concept of the West, the West as a synonym for European imperialism. This concept of the West, from the perspective of many excluded states, is underpinned by their historical legacy of European oppression. The West is seen as a patronising entity which looks down upon excluded states as being underdeveloped simply because they wish to express values which do not automatically align with the principles of the West. Subsequently, the imperial West is seen as hypocritical to claim that the oppressed “non-West” is violent and imperialist.  The non-West is simply liberating/defending itself from the perpetual imperialist Western expansion, or so the argument goes, with more states joining a club which is seemingly not open to all but which nevertheless seeks to dominate all. To its extreme, this second concept of the West can be weaponised by autocrats in excluded states.

That leads to the final concept of the West, as an autocratic weapon. I believe that this concept of the West is most pertinent in the Putin regime. The West becomes defined by autocrats as a mythical entity, a global homogenic and hegemonic body existing primarily to oppress those who are excluded from it and who do not align with its foreign culture and ideals. This fictional idea of a single-minded West which permeates everything subsequently makes even the largest and most powerful of states, like Russia, appear small, oppressed, and surrounded. A sense of paranoia is thus perpetuated, keeping the population in fear of the global force. Regardless of whether the autocrat believes in the danger of this fictional omnipotent power, he benefits from exploiting the fear that it causes. Central to many oppressive ideologies is this idea of an all-powerful global presence which people should constantly prepare to defend themselves against. This is so that these people remain subservient to the autocrat, and likewise distracted from the injustices that the autocrat perpetuates. This omnipotent presence not only becomes a scapegoat for all domestic problems, but furthermore, this fear that is fostered allows the autocrat, and his people, to justify extremely immoral actions which would otherwise be unjustifiable.

This is the contradictory issue for many liberal democracies which define themselves as ‘the West’. On the one hand, the intangible label is a useful tool which allows liberal states to unify. On the other hand, the acceptance of the title of ‘the West’ allows autocratic regimes to impose their rule domestically and justify the unjustifiable.

“This fictional idea of a single-minded West which permeates everything subsequently makes even the largest and most powerful of states, like Russia, appear small, oppressed, and surrounded.”

Why do some blame NATO?

Though generalised, I believe that those who blame NATO come from primarily two places, depending on whether the argument is raised by people residing in NATO member-states, or in non-NATO countries. In the NATO member states, I believe that this argument predominantly derives from a common distrust for the globalist/governing establishment which is seen to have failed ordinary people for far too long. Russia’s opposition to NATO has become a lighthouse for those disillusioned with what is perceived as a global cabal of single-minded governing elites and warmongers, and has subsequently fostered a strong recalcitrance within some people.

In the non-NATO world, on the other hand, this argument primarily arises from a distrust for the historical imperialists and warmongers, i.e., the second concept of the West as a synonym for European imperialism. This historic oppression is most easily embodied today in international organisations like NATO, which is a club which is seemingly only open to free-market, neoliberal, and eurocentric states. Hence, hatred is driven towards such organisations which hypocritically scold the non-West for defending its heritage from the West’s neverending expansion, both geopolitically and culturally. Historically ‘the West’ has been expansionist, or so the argument goes, and so it is now.  It would thus be the duty of the non-West to set the boundaries in this historic conflict between European imperialism and the oppressed world. 

I however argue that these mythical struggles between the West and non-West seek to simplify reality, creating two monoliths in which the views of the individuals making up those monoliths get lost. Subsequently, my interests and considerations as an Eastern European citizen of a NATO member state are completely thrown out the window. My choice as an Eastern European becomes lost in the battle of the mythical monoliths.

On a map, the West/non-West divide can be drawn in a number of ways, and is usually based on clear blue-red divides decided by memberships (or the lack thereof) in international trading, military, economic, and other alliances. However, if one places a microscope over a state, the East/West divide becomes messier. This is especially so in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, the East/West divide cannot be placed on a map, nor can it clearly be defined by the makeup of our parliaments. It is innate to the cultures which we have developed in our recent histories. The East-West struggle is almost intrinsic to the people which make up our states.

Photo from central Sofia; I have seen multiple ‘graffiti battles’ with Ukrainian flags painted over Zs or vice versa.

The nation from an Eastern European perspective

Since the end of Mongol dominance in Russia, around the late 15th century, Russian history has been defined by a seesaw rivalry between the ideologies of Westernism and Eurasianism. Westernism is a drive to introduce European institutions, ideas, and culture into Russian society. The prime example of this phenomenon are Peter the Great’s famous reforms. These included building a Baltic Fleet, creating the Table of Ranks to limit the authority of hereditary Boyars, introducing a senate, imposing cultural taxes to force people to act more ‘European’, and building St. Petersburg which became a cultural center of theatres, museums, galleries,  and palaces. These reforms turned Russia into a superpower equipped to win the Great Northern War, and invent the bistros of Paris. 

Contrastingly, Eurasianism prioritises the beauty of Russia when freed from the shackles of imitating the West. I use Eurasianism as a convenient tangible label for an intangible ideology that has existed throughout Russian history in many forms but with common, anti-West, characteristics. Eurasianism emphasises the purity of the traditional, and uniquely ‘Eurasian’, Russian culture and customs, and the value of adhering to the fundamental principles of Orthodox Christian religion. A further point some Eurasianists make concerns the beneficial order brought about by centralising authority in a single ordained defender of traditional Russian values. It is argued that this traditional stability should not be watered down by Western institutions, like parliaments and constitutions, which for all intents and purposes only seek to amplify a Western form of governance which does not work in an unwieldy land like Russia. 

Russian history has been defined by the fluctuations between these two perspectives, quite literally moving from one extreme to the next with each change in leadership. Catherine the Great was an admirer of the enlightenment, contrastingly her son and successor Paul I was an admirer of military discipline and banned women from gaining the Russian throne because he despised his mother so much. Paul’s successor, Alexander I, once more sought to further Western reforms like developing a constitutional monarchy. Then Alexander’s successor Nicholas I instituted an ideology of orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality, and became the gendarme of Europe, tasked with brutally putting down liberal uprisings. Then his successor Alexander II abolished serfdom and corporal punishment, and developed somewhat independent judiciaries and local zemstvos in the Western fashion. Then his successor Alexander III, ‘the counter-reformer’, tightened autocratic rule in response to his father’s assassination, and increased attempts at Russification to create a homogenous culturally Eurasian state. And so on and so forth up until the relatively pro-Western Gorbachev and Yeltsin were replaced with Putin who frequently quotes the Eurasian political philosopher Ivan Ilyn. Ilyn’s ideology is based on Orthodox fundamentalism, and a vision of the pure Russian who can do no wrong and must be protected from corrupting Western institutions. 

This seesaw effect which is almost blatantly clear when evaluating the Romanov line of succession and beyond, has subsequently transposed itself on Eastern European states given the 18th-19th-century expansion of the Russian Empire. I will only use my own country of origin, Bulgaria, to explain this phenomenon, though it is prevalent throughout Eastern Europe. 

Bulgaria was liberated in 1878 after over 500 years of Ottoman dominion. However, after 500 years of being ruled from Constantinople, as it then was, a sense of national identity needed to be established. Medieval Bulgarians of the 14th century surely had little sense of modern nationhood, a concept which was needed to ground the revolutionaries’ 19th-century state and institutions. This sense of nationality began being developed by intellectuals such as the monk Paisi Hilendarski who wrote our first history in 1762, and revolutionaries like Georgi Rakovski, Hristo Botev, Lyuben Karavelov and Vassil Levski, which through their writings, journalism, and revolutionary activity, developed the notion of a Slavic, Orthodox Christian, Bulgarian culture. This Bulgarian nationality subsequently legitimised a political struggle against an oppressive imperial force, namely the Ottoman Empire. These intellectuals’ April Uprising was crushed, but the notion of a modern Bulgarian state was firmly created as a result of the attempted revolution. Hence, after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877, in which the Russians were victorious with the help of Bulgarian revolutionaries, the Russians endeavored to ensure the creation of a relatively large Bulgarian nation-state. 

Subsequently, a sense of the idealised Russian-liberator, and brother, permeated Bulgarian society. Nevertheless, the intellectual class were sceptical of a Bulgaria which is smitten with admiration for the Russian Empire, which was viewed by them as another autocratic and unenlightened state like the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Empire was seen as attempting to develop a Russian colony in the Balkans. Bulgaria, along with other newly liberated Orthodox states like Serbia, Romania, and Greece, were all part of the strategic chess game for influence in the Balkans between Austria and Russia. Russia’s main weapon was developing a sense of Russian brotherhood through ideas of a pan-Slavic identity, common language family, and common religion. Thus, Russian culture has essentially been transplanted into our post-liberation Bulgarian national identity. Subsequently, this culture becomes an intangible force that has made many Bulgarians unconditionally sympathetic to Russia in the same way that one is sympathetic to their brother; i.e, even when that brother does the most heinous and unforgivable things we desperately seek to find justifications. Some Bulgarians act in the Russian interest because they view their brother’s interests as their own, regardless of what that means for the sovereignty of national democratic institutions. 

Hence, what we see is that by transplanting its culture onto our state, Russia inadvertently injected the Western-Euarasian political conflict. In our relatively small European states, however, this conflict has been embodied by the task of choosing alliances either with a Eurasianist Russia, which represents autocratic Eurasianism, or Western Europe, which represents liberal Westernism. But like I said, this struggle between modern democracy and our more traditional customs and Orthodox values is more intrinsic to who we are as Eastern European peoples. I personally have had a very Western upbringing, and have grown up to respect and cherish the liberal-democratic form of governance. Nevertheless, I would lie if I did not say that I relate to fellow Eastern Europeans in their struggle to maintain their diverse traditional identities in the face of the banality of simply transposing ‘Western’ culture. However, given the extremism that has defined the Western-Eurasian seesaw in Russia, i.e., the way in which with the change of each leader there has been an extreme shift in either direction, I believe that we have developed a very binary view of these two ideologies. Eurasianism is no longer an ideology of promoting a uniquely Eurasian culture, but an ideology which maintains that the Eastern way of life is incompatible with Western liberal institutions. I contend they are compatible. 

In an ideal, non-corrupt context, traditional Bulgarian outlooks, customs, and Orthodox principles, can be expressed in the makeup of our democratic institutions. People can regulate the extent to which Eastern principles should be reflected in said institutions through their vote. It may, however, be argued by Eurasianists that institutions like parliaments, civil law judiciaries, and constitutions are all incompatible with our traditional Eurasian outlooks. They are innately Western concepts. Even if this were so, arguing that the sole Eurasian alternative is a divine autocratic head of state is preposterous. It boils down to an argument that Eastern Europeans innately wish to be silenced in the name of a paternalistic ruler who understands them better than they understand themselves. The very existence of great patriotic wars and struggles of liberation from empires and oppressors throughout the tumultuous histories of Eastern European states, including Russia, are the clearest evidence to the contrary. Until a uniquely Eastern alternative of governance is found, with non-Western institutions in which peoples’ voices can be heard, liberal-democratic institutions are the best forums for expressing decisions about the innate Eastern European struggle between East and West.

“Painting the battle between democracy and autocracy as one between a foreign Western culture and a natural Eastern one benefits the Putin regime as it gives their oppressive dictatorship a veneer of legitimacy.”

My Eastern European choice

Now that this East-West struggle is clear, it must be made clear that our decisions on these struggles, as Eastern Europeans, merit respect. Central to ensuring the stability and existence of our small Eastern European states, is recognising the legitimacy of the decisions made by our democratic discourses. In a liberal democracy, we must all respect the legitimacy of democratic decisions, even if these decisions are not the ones we voted for, because the greater good is the stability of the decision-making institutions through which these, and future, decisions will be made.  Likewise, we must respect the ‘losers’ in the knowledge that one day they may win, and if that day comes we will need to respect their victory so that one day we could win. 

The results of the Bulgarian discourses have been successive pro-Western parliaments which brought us into NATO and the EU. There is not a homogenous monster called ‘the West’ which is gobbling us up against our will. NATO was not imposed on us, it was a choice that we made and continue to make with each election. That certainly does not mean that all in Bulgaria align with these views, but it is in everyone’s interest, and in the interest of the sovereignty of our state, that even those who do not align with these views respect the result of democratic decisions. Hence, these individuals could one day win and reverse these decisions. But they have not yet done so, and it does not seem they will ever be able to do so. 

Putin and his ideologues may question the legitimacy of these democratic decisions, seeing them as the result of ‘Western’ brainwashing and pressure. But this position is ironic coming from a group who cannot even respect the decision-making of their own people, turning their own elections and referendums into a farcical mimicking mockery of the Western model. This argument is likewise ironic coming from a group which denies the legitimacy of any decision other than the one which suits their concept of an autocratic-Eurasian model. Painting the battle between democracy and autocracy as one between a foreign Western culture and a natural Eastern one benefits the Putin regime as it gives their oppressive dictatorship a veneer of legitimacy. 

However, the issue is not when a group of autocratic-Eurasian fundamentalists question our democratic choices, but when our democratic allies do. It is when people, in the perfect example of victim blaming, question whether our democratic choices to join NATO, or the EU, are responsible for the war which started when Putin’s regime ordered tanks to cross the territory of a sovereign state. This argument reeks of a colonial and patronising attitude which completely dehumanizes Eastern Europeans and questions their right to make their own decisions. Rather, it maintains that NATO is imposed, and that Russia is threatened because of this imposition, and that the decisions should be, and are being, only made in Washington and Moscow, not Sofia, Kyiv, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, Riga, Prague, and so on and so forth.

The extent to which I, as a Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Eastern European, have a right to safeguard democracy in my own state, should not be determined by red lines drawn by a paranoid, unelected, and unaccountable oligarchy of a foreign state. It is almost on the nose how much any argument to the contrary parallels the appeasement thinking of France and the UK as they gave away Czechoslovakia’s territories to Nazi Germany in 1938 without even inviting the Czechoslovaks to the table. Talking about Nazis, arguing that NATO expansion is responsible for the war aligns with the thinking of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who argued that the world is separated into spheres of influence dominated by large powerful states, and that only the decisions made by those large powerful states matter given their superiority in exerting brute force. Subsequently, respect for democratic processes in the smaller neighbors of those spheres is irrelevant. 

When one blames NATO expansion for the war in Ukraine, who they are really blaming is me, as an Eastern European, being arrogant enough to wish to develop separately from what was dictated to me by the autocrats of the regional Russian power. What they are really blaming is the result of the democratic discourse of my parliament, and the balance that had been struck between East and West in that parliament. I chose NATO, and blaming that choice even a bit for the war undermines my autonomy as a Bulgarian to dictate my own development. Otherwise, my democratic choice does not matter, only the Russian oligarchs’ do. What they want is what I must bear. They have the power, they decide the region’s trajectory. They say democracy is colonising my culture, that democracy is a foreign concept to me, and I must just suck it up because it is my lot in life for being a citizen of the ‘Russian sphere’.

“The extent to which I, as a Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Eastern European, have a right to safeguard democracy in my own state, should not be determined by red lines drawn by a paranoid, unelected, and unaccountable oligarchy of a foreign state.”

Conclusion: blame the invaders for the Invasion

The battle between East and West is central to my identity as an Eastern European. It is central to the identities of many Eastern Europeans. It is central to the trajectories of our states’ developments. I know many Ukrainian citizens that speak Ukrainian, think Ukrainian and see themselves as primarily Ukrainian. I also know many Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian, think Russian, and see themselves as primarily Russian. There are also many Ukrainians that land somewhere in between. Within the integrity of the Ukrainian state, these two perspectives expressed themselves in parliament. However, in Ukraine, the battle has taken a literal turn because one entity, the Putin Empire, is ideologically incapable of respecting the results of a democratic discourse which was driving Ukraine away from autocratic-Eurasianism. This war was never about giving a voice to the self-described Russians living on the Eastern border of Ukraine. It was about imposing one small group of demagogues’ ideology of violence on the rest of us through military means. Out of fear of its own ideological loss in Ukraine, the Putin Government wished to impose Eurasianism violently and imperially. This was the inevitable result deriving from a state which equates Eurasianism with autocracy. I recommend that we do not even humour that ideology, let alone accept its legitimacy. Otherwise, we water down the blame which must squarely be put on the group which ordered tanks painted with the letter Z to cross the borders of a sovereign state, without invitation, and cause immeasurable suffering to tens of millions.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of The Radius.

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