Pacifism is the wrong response to the war in Ukraine

The least we owe Ukraine is full support, and to do this we need a stronger Nato

Tue 21 Jun 2022 05.09 EDT

Slavoj Žižek

For me, John Lennon’s mega-hit Imagine was always a song popular for the wrong reasons. Imagine that “the world will live as one” is the best way to end in hell.

Those who cling to pacifism in the face of the Russian attack on Ukraine remain caught in their own version of “imagine”. Imagine a world in which tensions are no longer resolved through armed conflicts … Europe persisted in this world of “imagine”, ignoring the brutal reality outside its borders. Now it’s the time to awaken.

The dream of a quick Ukrainian victory, the repetition of the initial dream of a quick Russian victory, is over. In what looks more and more as a protracted stalemate, Russia is slowly progressing, and its ultimate goal is clearly stated. There is no longer any need to read between the lines when Putin compares himself with Peter the Great: “On the face of it, he was at war with Sweden taking something away from it … He was not taking away anything, he was returning … He was returning and reinforcing, that is what he was doing … Clearly, it fell to our lot to return and reinforce as well.”

More than focus on particular issues (is Russia really just “returning”, and to what?) we should read carefully Putin’s general justification of his claim: “In order to claim some kind of leadership – I am not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any area – any country, any people, any ethnic group should ensure their sovereignty. Because there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called.”

The implication of these lines, as one commentator put it, is clear: there are two categories of state: “The sovereign and the conquered. In Putin’s imperial view, Ukraine should fall into the latter category.” And, as it is no less clear from Russian official statements in the last months, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Finland, the Baltic states … and ultimately Europe itself “fall into the latter category”.

We now know what the call to allow Putin to “save his face” means. It means accepting not a minor territorial compromise in Donbas but Putin’s imperial ambition. The reason this ambition should be unconditionally rejected is that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation.

But Russia doesn’t simply ignore global warming – why was it so mad at the Scandinavian countries when they expressed their intention to join Nato? With global warming, what is at stake is the control of the Arctic passage. (That’s why Trump wanted to buy Greenland from Denmark.) Due to the explosive development of China, Japan and South Korea, the main transport route will run north of Russia and Scandinavia. Russia’s strategic plan is to profit from global warming: control the world’s main transport route, plus develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream.

Those who advocate less support for Ukraine and more pressure on it to negotiate, inclusive of accepting painful territorial renunciations, like to repeat that Ukraine simply cannot win the war against Russia. True, but I see exactly in this the greatness of Ukrainian resistance: they risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support, and to do this, we need a stronger Nato – but not as a prolongation of the US politics.

The US strategy to counteract through Europe is far from self-evident: not just Ukraine, Europe itself is becoming the place of the proxy war between US and Russia, which may well end up by a compromise between the two at Europe’s expense. There are only two ways for Europe to step out of this place: to play the game of neutrality – a short-cut to catastrophe – or to become an autonomous agent. (Just think how the situation may change if Trump wins the next US elections.)

While some leftists claim that the ongoing war is in the interest of the Nato industrial-military complex, which uses the need for new arms to avoid crisis and gain new profits, their true message to Ukraine is: OK, you are victims of a brutal aggression, but do not rely on our arms because in this way you play in the hands of the industrial-military complex …

The disorientation caused by the Ukrainian war is producing strange bedfellows like Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky who “come from opposing ends of the political spectrum – Kissinger serving as secretary of state under Republican presidents and Chomsky one of the leading leftwing intellectuals in the United States – and have frequently clashed. But when it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both recently advocated for Ukraine to consider a settlement that could see it dropping claim to some land to achieve a quicker peace deal.”

In short, the two stand for the same version of “pacifism” which only works if we neglect the key fact that the war is not about Ukraine but a moment of the brutal attempt to change our entire geopolitical situation. The true target of the war is the dismantlement of the European unity advocated not only by the US conservatives and Russia but also by the European extreme right and left – at this point, in France, Melenchon meets Le Pen.

The craziest notion floating around these days is that, to counter the new polarity between the US and China (which stand for the excesses of western liberalism and oriental authoritarianism), Europe and Russia should rejoin forces and form a third “Eurasian” block based on the Christian legacy purified of its liberal excess. The very idea of an “Eurasian” third way is a form of today’s fascism.

So what will happen “when voters in Europe and America, faced with soaring energy costs and broader inflation driven by sanctions against Russia, might lose their appetite for a war that seems to have no end, with needs that are only expanding as both sides head for a protracted stalemate”? The answer is clear: at that point, the European legacy will be lost, and Europe will be de facto divided between an American and a Russian sphere of influence. In short, Europe itself will become the place of a war that seems to have no end …

What is absolutely unacceptable for a true leftist today is not only to support Russia but also to make a more “modest” neutral claim that the left is divided between pacifists and supporters of Ukraine, and that one should treat this division as a minor fact which shouldn’t affect the left’s global struggle against global capitalism.

When a country is occupied, it is the ruling class which is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the struggle against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same can go for the struggle against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to effectively struggle for the working class is to focus on fighting racism (this is why any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle).

Today, one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine. To be a leftist who “shows understanding” for Russia is like to be one of those leftists who, before Germany attacked the Soviet Union, took seriously German “anti-imperialist” rhetoric directed at the UK and advocated neutrality in the war of Germany against France and the UK.

If the left will fail here, the game is over for it. But does this mean that the Left should simply take the side of the west, inclusive of the rightist fundamentalists who also support Ukraine?

In a speech in Dallas on 18 May 2022, while criticizing Russia’s political system, the ex-president Bush said: “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” He quickly corrected himself: “I mean, of Ukraine,” then said “Iraq, anyway” to laughter from the crowd, and added “75”, referring to his age.

As many commentators noted, two things cannot but strike the eye in this rather obvious Freudian slip: the fact that the public received Bush’s implicit confession that the US attack on Iraq (ordered by him) was “a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion” with laughter, instead of treating it as an admission of a crime comparable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; plus Bush’s enigmatic continuation of his self-correction “Iraq, anyway” – what did he mean by it? That the difference between Ukraine and Iraq doesn’t really matter? The final reference to his advanced age doesn’t affect in any way this enigma.

But the enigma is dispelled the moment we take Bush’s statement seriously and literally: yes, with all differences taken into account (Zelenskiy is not a dictator like Saddam), Bush did the same thing as Putin is now doing to Ukraine, so they should be both judged by the same standard.

On the day I am writing this, we learned from the media that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the US has been approved by the UK home secretary, Priti Patel. His crime? Nothing other than to render public the crimes confessed by Bush’s slip of tongue: the documents revealed by WikiLeaks revealed how, under Bush’s presidency, “the US military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan, while leaked Iraq war files showed 66,000 civilians had been killed, and prisoners tortured.” Crimes fully comparable with what Putin is doing in Ukraine. From today’s hindsight, we can say that WikiLeaks disclosed dozens of American Buchas and Mariupols.

So while putting Bush on trial is no less illusory than bringing Putin to the Hague tribunal, the minimum to be done by those who oppose Russian invasion of Ukraine is to demand Assange’s immediate release. Ukraine claims it fights for Europe, and Russia claims it fights for the rest of the world against western unipolar hegemony. Both claims should be rejected, and here the difference between right and left enters the stage.

From the rightist standpoint, Ukraine fights for European values against the non-European authoritarians; from the leftist standpoint, Ukraine fights for global freedom, inclusive of the freedom of Russians themselves. That’s why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher. He is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, Global Distinguished Professor of German at New York University, and international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities of the University of London

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