The Hill


Ukrainians are asking an indelicate question: Why has the West reacted with near-unanimous indignation to Iran’s missile attack against Israel, immediately expressing a willingness to protect its population against further attacks, while failing to help Ukraine protect itself against daily Russian bombardments of its people, cities and infrastructure?

Or as the Wall Street Journal put it: “Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed frustration after the U.S. and its allies swooped in to defend Israel against a massive Iranian attack over the weekend, highlighting the limits of Western support for Kyiv. Ukrainian cities have been under fire for more than two years from Russian missiles and explosive-laden drones of the same type used in Tehran’s attack on Israel.”

Isn’t this a question of double standards, perhaps even of hypocrisy? Yevgeni Kiselev, a leading Russian journalist, asked me that question in an interview on April 15.

The Ukrainians have a point, as a comparison of Ukraine’s and Israel’s relative objective importance, on their own terms and to the West, makes clear.

Start with the obvious. Both nations consist of human beings, and it would be obscene to suggest that either nation matters more, and therefore deserves to live, while the other does not. That Ukrainians outnumber Israelis doesn’t change that fact. Neither country “wins” the human rights comparison.

Let’s move on to national traumas. Some still-living Israelis survived the Holocaust, while the rest know of it from texts and survivor accounts. All Israelis were the targets of Hamas’s genocidal attack. Some still-living Ukrainians survived the Holodomor, but all Ukrainians are now the targets of Putin’s genocidal campaign to eliminate them as a nation and as a people. Both countries have been traumatized by their genocides. No one “wins,” so call it even.

Ukraine’s prewar GDP was smaller than Israel’s, as was its trade with the United States and the European Union. That said, neither country has the clout to affect the global economy, the EU economy or the U.S. economy to any significant degree. Give Israel a slight advantage.

Both countries make roughly equal contributions to Western security. Ukraine has debilitated Russia’s armed forces and blunted Putin’s imperialist drive, thereby serving as a buffer between the West and Russia. Israel stands as a bulwark against terrorism and Iran. Call it a wash.

On the other hand, Ukraine’s existence is more important than Israel to Europe’s and America’s existence. If Ukraine disappears, Europe would face an emboldened Russia, and the U.S. would

very likely get involved in World War III. If Israel disappears, instability would result, but it would be confined to the Middle East. A slight advantage to Ukraine.

The comparison suggests that Ukraine should objectively matter as much as Israel to the West — but it obviously doesn’t. Which brings us back to the original question: why?

The reason has little to do with Ukraine and Israel and their objective positions within the world of human rights, national interests or global geopolitics. Instead, it’s all about subjective perceptions.

The Holocaust has become the paramount symbol of inhumanity in Western memory and discourse; the Holodomor has not, even though its victims number at least 4 million and its annual “kill rate” — 8 million — far exceeded that of the Holocaust. As a result, the U.S. and Germany have made Israel their foreign policy priority: both want to prevent another Holocaust, even if that means occasionally disagreeing with the policies of the Israeli government.

Subjective perceptions of Ukraine’s existential enemy, Russia, and Israel’s, Islamist extremism, also matter. Few in the West regard Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations with admiration or toleration. There is broad agreement that they are a menace that needs to be dealt with severely.

Contrast that attitude with many Western views of Russia and Putin. They were, and often still remain, the darlings of such influential individuals as Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, Austria’s Karin Kneissl, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Slovakia’s Robert Fico. While radical Islamist values appeal to few in the West, Putin’s “family values” and his strong-arm rule evidently appeal to many.

In short, Ukraine’s traumas matter less than Israel’s to the West, and Putin is admired more than Hamas by the West. Objectively, as Ukrainians insist, that stance bespeaks a moral and geopolitical double standard. All genocides are horrific, regardless of who is their victim, and Putin is no less of a terrorist than Hamas.

That may be true, but it’s also irrelevant. The moral is simple: Perceptions and values can trump objective realities, even in the impeccably rational, post-religious and highly enlightened West, which pretends otherwise.

Western policymakers would do well to remember this when they encourage Ukrainians to negotiate with the man who has made no secret of his desire to annihilate them.


Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”