Slavoj Žižek

Russia claimed it may be “forced to take retaliatory steps” if Finland joins Nato. No, it will not be “forced,” in the same way that Russia was not “forced” to attack Ukraine.

A question like ‘Did US intelligence-sharing with Ukraine cross a line?’ forgets the fact that it was Russia that crossed the line – by invading Ukraine

In recent weeks, the western public has been obsessed with the question “What goes on in Putin’s mind?” Western pundits wonder: do the people around him tell him the whole truth? Is he ill or going insane? Are we pushing him into a corner where he will see no other way out to save face than to accelerate the conflict into a total war?

We should stop this obsession with the red line, this endless search for the right balance between support for Ukraine and avoiding total war. The “red line” is not an objective fact: Putin himself is redrawing it all the time, and we contribute to his redrawing with our reactions to Russia’s activities. A question like “Did US intelligence-sharing with Ukraine cross a line?” makes us obliterate the basic fact: it was Russia itself which crossed the line, by attacking Ukraine. So instead of perceiving ourselves as a group which just reacts to Putin as an impenetrable evil genius, we should turn the gaze back at ourselves: what do we – the “free west” – want in this affair?

We must analyze the ambiguity of our support of Ukraine with the same cruelty we analyze Russia’s stance. We should reach beyond double standards applied today to the very foundations of European liberalism. Remember how, in the western liberal tradition, colonization was often justified in the terms of the rights of working people. John Locke, the great Enlightenment philosopher and advocate of human rights, justified white settlers grabbing land from Native Americans with a strange left-sounding argument against excessive private property. His premise was that an individual should be allowed to own only as much land as he is able to use productively, not large tracts of land that he is not able to use (and then eventually rents to others). In North America, as he saw it, Indigenous people were using vast tracts of land mostly just for hunting, and the white settlers who wanted to use it for intense agriculture had the right to seize it for the benefit of humanity.

In the ongoing Ukraine crisis, both sides present their acts as something they simply had to do: the west had to help Ukraine remain free and independent; Russia was compelled to intervene militarily to protect its safety. The latest example: the Russian foreign ministry claiming Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory steps” if Finland joins Nato. No, it will not be “forced”, in the same way that Russia was not “forced” to attack Ukraine. This decision appears “forced” only if one accepts the whole set of ideological and geopolitical assumptions that sustain Russian politics.

These assumptions have to be analyzed closely, without any taboos. One often hears that we should draw a strict line of separation between Putin’s politics and the great Russian culture, but this line of separation is much more porous than it may appear. We should resolutely reject the idea that, after years of patiently trying to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through negotiations, Russia was finally forced/compelled to attack Ukraine – one is never forced to attack and annihilate a whole country. The roots are much deeper; I am ready to call them properly metaphysical.

One is never forced to attack and annihilate a whole country

Anatoly Chubais, the father of Russian oligarchs (he orchestrated Russia’s rapid privatization in 1992), said in 2004: “I’ve reread all of Dostoevsky over the past three months. And I feel nothing but almost physical hatred for the man. He is certainly a genius, but his idea of Russians as special, holy people, his cult of suffering and the false choices he presents make me want to tear him to pieces.” As much as I dislike Chubais for his politics, I think he is right about Dostoevsky, who provided the “deepest” expression of the opposition between Europe and Russia: individualism versus collective spirit, materialist hedonism versus the spirit of sacrifice.

Russia now presents its invasion as a new step in the fight for decolonization, against western globalization. In a text published earlier this month, Dmitry Medvedev, the ex-president of Russia and now the deputy secretary of the security council of the Russian Federation, wrote that “the world is waiting for the collapse of the idea of an American-centric world and the emergence of new international alliances based on pragmatic criteria.” (“Pragmatic criteria” means disregard for universal human rights, of course.)

So we should also draw red lines, but in a way which makes clear our solidarity with developing countries. Medvedev predicts that, because of the war in Ukraine, “in some states, hunger may occur due to the food crisis” – a statement of breathtaking cynicism. As of May 2022, about 25m metric tons of grain are slowly rotting in Odesa, on ships or in silos, since the port is blocked by the Russian navy. “The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that millions of people are ‘marching towards starvation’ unless ports in southern Ukraine which have been closed because of the war, are reopened,” Newsweek reports. Europe now promises to help Ukraine transport the grain by railway and truck – but this is clearly not enough. A step more is needed: a clear demand to open the port for the export of grain, inclusive of sending protective military ships there. It’s not about Ukraine, it’s about the hunger of hundreds of millions in Africa and Asia. Here should the red line be drawn.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently said: “Imagine [the Ukraine war] is happening in Africa, or the Middle East. Imagine Ukraine is Palestine. Imagine Russia is the United States.” As expected, comparing the conflict in Ukraine with the plight of the Palestinians “offended many Israelis, who believe there are no similarities”, Newsweek noted. “For example, many point out that Ukraine is a sovereign, democratic country, but don’t consider Palestine as a state.” Of course Palestine is not a state because Israel denies its right to be a state – in the same way Russia denies the right of Ukraine to be a sovereign state. As much as I find Lavrov’s remarks repulsive, he sometimes deftly manipulates the truth.

Yes, the liberal west is hypocritical, applying its high standards very selectively. But hypocrisy means you violate the standards you proclaim, and in this way you open yourself up to inherent criticism – when we criticize the liberal west, we use its own standards. What Russia is offering is a world without hypocrisy – because it is without global ethical standards, practicing just pragmatic “respect” for differences. We have seen clearly what this means when, after the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, they instantly made a deal with China. China accepts the new Afghanistan while the Taliban will ignore what China is doing to Uyghurs – this is, in nuce, the new globalization advocated by Russia. And the only way to defend what is worth saving in our liberal tradition is to ruthlessly insist on its universality. The moment we apply double standards, we are no less “pragmatic” than Russia.

  • Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He’s 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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