Ukraine needs more than just 'thoughts and prayers'

Despite speeches which conveyed a strong message of solidarity towards Ukraine, both Prime Minister Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech failed to adequately convey the sense of urgency, or any forceful condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s actions

In a veritable case of national embarrassment, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last Tuesday found himself correcting the Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia, for referring to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine as “a conflict” rather than a “war”. 

But while this wrong choice of words, by Malta’s third ranking constitutional figure head, could well have been a slip of the tongue: it also reflected the mood of Malta’s parliament in general.

Despite speeches which conveyed a strong message of solidarity towards Ukraine, both Prime Minister Abela and Opposition leader Bernard Grech failed to adequately convey the sense of urgency, or any forceful condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s actions. 

This suggests that while Malta is keen on providing humanitarian assistance, there is a sense of hesitancy in calling out the aggressor for what constitutes not just an affront to international law; but also, widespread war-crimes against Ukrainian civilians. 

While Grech was the most forceful in condemning the Russian invasion, his repeated reference to his party’s role in the EPP – and his reminder that Metsola is also a PN MEP – sounded parochial, and irrelevant to the bigger picture.  

On his part, Abela’s final assurance to Zelenskyy that “our thoughts and prayers are with you”, and that that the “Maltese government and the Maltese people are by your side”, sounded underwhelming, at best. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ hardly make a difference to people living under constant bombardment. This suggests that Malta is more of a concerned bystander, than a strong voice against aggression.

For while our constitutional neutrality does preclude Malta from providing military assistance, it does not in any way impinge on our duty to stand up for the values we cherish, by taking a strong moral stance. Indeed, it is our voice which counts most in international politics. 

Moreover, Malta itself is already branded an ‘unfriendly’ state by Russia; and we can’t simply walk away from the reality of being part of a Union which is currently funding weapons being used by Ukraine to defend itself. This means that we are not merely ‘bystanders waving the Ukraine flag’; but active participants in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

On another level, Malta also seems reluctant to pay the full price of our declared support for Ukraine: as clearly demonstrated by its opposition to the European Commission’s proposed ban on the EU shipping industry transporting Russian crude oil. This plan had to be shelved, after protests from shipping register member-states that included Malta.

Naturally, one must also acknowledge that there is always a substantial gap between high sounding pronouncements, and realpolitik which often sees individual EU member states defending their own turf. But an affront as egregious as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, cannot but force us to re-evaluate our own certainties. 

At the very least, the prospect of a prolonged war should also make us consider our own defence needs; as well as possible exposure to Russian retaliation, which can take various forms: ranging from cyber-attacks and political destabilisation, to outright military aggression. In this sense, the guarantees accorded by the Lisbon treaty to member states, in case of military aggression, need to be beefed up. 

And while NATO membership may well be a step too far, the idea of a European army – which is fully accountable to both council and parliament – should not be a taboo for a small, vulnerable country like Malta.  

Death of a journalist

On that note, however: one cannot overlook Western double standards, and our often selective approach in dealing with wars, human rights violations and conflicts in different parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East.

The West’s deafening silence on the occupation of Palestine is one outstanding example, made only more poignant in recent days, after the shocking murder of Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American journalist with Al Jazeera, who was shot dead by an Israeli sniper on Wednesday morning.

Here, too, Malta has apparently lost its voice: especially when compared with the much stronger stances taken by past Labour and Nationalist administrations. In fact, PEN Malta – the organisation representing writers and journalists – had to ask Malta’s foreign minister Ian Borg to “use all [his] influence, both directly with Israel, as well as on every other international platform, to condemn this killing…”

For while Borg himself was quick to express his ‘shock’ at the incident, he has so far resisted taking a more forceful stand against this brutal crime. Nor is Malta alone in displaying the same hesitancy, regarding Israel: unlike the case with Ukraine, Western countries have likewise stopped short of requesting an International Criminal Court prosecution, for what is tantamount to a war crime.

This is unacceptable, for all the reasons explained by PEN president Immanuel Mifsud: “As long as governments like ours keep their eyes closed to these serious violations of international law, journalists will keep getting killed for merely telling the inconvenient truth about Israel.”