For the past few weeks, Western audiences have been obsessed with the question, “What’s going through Putin’s head?” Western experts wonder: are the people around him telling him the whole truth? Is he sick or is he going crazy? Are we pushing him into a corner where he will see no other way to save face than to escalate the conflict into all-out war?
We must stop this obsession with the red line, this endless search for the right balance between supporting Ukraine and avoiding an all-out war. The “red line” is not an objective fact: Putin himself is always redrawing it, and we contribute to it through our reactions to Russia’s activities. A question like “Is the sharing of information between the United States and Ukraine crossing the line?” makes us forget the fundamental fact: it was Russia itself that crossed the line by attacking Ukraine. So, instead of seeing ourselves as a group that reacts to Putin only as an inscrutable evil genius, we should look at ourselves: what do we want, the “free West”, in this case?
We must analyze the ambiguity of our support for Ukraine as cruelly as we analyze Russia’s position. We must go beyond the double standards applied today to the very foundations of European liberalism. Recall how, in the Western liberal tradition, colonization was often justified in terms of workers’ rights. John Locke, the great Enlightenment philosopher and human rights advocate, justified the white settlers who took over Native American lands with a bizarre left-wing argument against excessive private property. Its principle was that an individual should only be allowed to own the amount of land that he can use productively, and not large tracts of land that he is unable to use (and possibly rent to others). In North America, he said, indigenous peoples use large tracts of land primarily for hunting, and white settlers who want to use it for intensive agriculture have the right to confiscate it for the benefit of humanity.
In the current Ukrainian crisis, both sides present their actions as something they simply had to do: the West had to help Ukraine remain free and independent; Russia was forced to intervene militarily to protect its security. Latest example: the Russian Foreign Ministry says that Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory measures” if Finland joins NATO. No, it will not be “forced” any more than Russia was “forced” to attack Ukraine. This decision only seems “forced” if one accepts all the ideological and geopolitical postulates that underlie Russian policy.
These hypotheses must be analyzed closely, without any taboos. We often hear that we have to draw a strict dividing line between Putin’s politics and the great Russian culture, but this line is much more porous than it seems. We must resolutely reject the idea that after years of patiently trying to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through negotiations, Russia was finally forced/coerced into attacking Ukraine – one is never obliged to attack and annihilate an entire country. The roots are much deeper; I am prepared to call them properly metaphysical.
Anatoli Chubais, the father of the Russian oligarchs (who orchestrated the rapid privatization of Russia in 1992), said in 2004: “I reread all the [livros de] Dostoyevsky over the past three months. And I feel nothing but an almost physical hatred for the man. He sure is a genius, but his idea of Russians as a special, holy people, his cult of suffering, and the false choices he presents make me want to tear him up. Even though I don’t like Chubais for his politics, I think he is right about Dostoyevsky, who provided the “deepest” expression of the opposition between Europe and Russia: individualism . versus collective spirit, materialistic hedonism versus spirit of sacrifice.
Russia now presents its invasion as a new stage in the struggle for decolonization, against Western globalization. In a text published earlier this month, Dmitry Medvedev, former president of Russia and now deputy chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, wrote that “the world is waiting for the collapse of the idea of a world centered on America”. and the emergence of new international alliances based on pragmatic criteria”. (“Pragmatic criteria” means disregard for universal human rights, of course).
We must therefore also draw red lines, but in a way that makes clear our solidarity with developing countries. Medvedev predicts that due to the war in Ukraine, “in some states famine may occur due to the food crisis” – a statement of jaw-dropping cynicism. In May 2022, around 25 million tons of grain are slowly rotting in Odessa, in ships or silos, as the port is blocked by the Russian Navy. “The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has warned that millions are ‘walking towards starvation’ unless ports in southern Ukraine that have been closed due to war are reopened,” reports the report. newsweek. Europe is now promising to help Ukraine transport grain by rail and by truck, but that is clearly not enough. One more step is needed: a clear request to open the port to grain exports, including the dispatch of military protection vessels. It’s not about Ukraine, it’s about the starvation of hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia. Here the red line should be drawn.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said: “Imagine that [a guerra da Ucrânia] takes place in Africa or the Middle East. Imagine that Ukraine is Palestine. Imagine that Russia is the United States. As expected, comparing the conflict in Ukraine to the plight of the Palestinians “has offended many Israelis, who believe there are no similarities,” the statement noted. newsweek. “For example, many point out that Ukraine is a sovereign and democratic country, but they don’t consider Palestine a state.” Of course, Palestine is not a state because Israel denies its right to be a state – the same way Russia denies Ukraine’s right to be a sovereign state. As repugnant as I find Lavrov’s remarks, he sometimes deftly manipulates the truth.
Yes, the liberal West is hypocritical, applying its high standards very selectively. But hypocrisy means violating the standards that are proclaimed, and therefore subject to inherent criticism – when we criticize the liberal West, we are using its own standards. What Russia offers is a world without hypocrisy – because it governs itself without global ethical standards, practicing only pragmatic “respect” for differences. We clearly saw what this means when, after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they immediately made a deal with China. China accepts the new Afghanistan while the Taliban will ignore what China is doing to the Uyghurs, that is to say, in a word, 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. As long as we apply double standards, we are no less “pragmatic” than Russia.
Slavoj Žižek is a cultural philosopher. He is a researcher at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. The article was originally published by the British daily The Guardian and provided to PÚBLICO by the author.
Translation: Filipa Almeida Mendes