For me John Lennon’s mega hit Imagine has always been a popular song for the wrong reasons. Imagine that “the world will be one” is the best way to end up in hell.
Those who cling to pacifism in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine remain caught up in their own version of “imagine”. Imagine a world in which tensions are no longer resolved by armed conflict… Europe persisted in this world of “the imaginary”, ignoring the brutal reality outside its borders. Now is the time to wake up.
The dream of a quick Ukrainian victory, the repetition of the original dream of a quick Russian victory, is over. In what looks more and more like a protracted stalemate, Russia is making slow progress and its ultimate goal is clearly displayed. No need to read between the lines when Putin compares himself to Peter the Great: “A priori, he was at war against Sweden by taking something away from it… He was not taking anything away, he was coming back… He was coming back and getting stronger, that’s what he was doing… Obviously it was up to us to come back and get stronger as well.
More than focusing on particular issues (is Russia really just “returning,” and to what?), we should carefully read Putin’s general rationale for his assertion: “In order to claim some kind of leadership – I’m not even talking about global leadership, I mean leadership in any field – any country, any people, any ethnic group should assert their sovereignty. Because there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign or it is a colony, whatever 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. From Putin’s imperial perspective, Ukraine should fall into the latter category.
And, as is no less clear from the official Russian statements of recent months, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Finland, the Baltic states… and finally Europe itself “fall into this last category”.
We now know what the call to allow Putin to “save face” means. This means accepting not a minor territorial compromise in the Donbass but Putin’s imperial ambition. The reason why this ambition must be rejected unconditionally is that in today’s global world where we are all haunted by the same catastrophes, we are all in between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered country: insisting on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer folly since our very survival depends on close global cooperation.
But Russia isn’t just ignoring global warming – why was it so angry with 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 transportation route will be through northern Russia and Scandinavia. Russia’s strategic plan is to take advantage of global warming: control the world’s main transport route, develop Siberia and control Ukraine. In this way, Russia will dominate food production so much that it can blackmail the whole world. This is the ultimate economic reality under Putin’s imperial dream.
Those who advocate less support for Ukraine and more pressure for it to negotiate, including agreeing to painful territorial surrenders, like to repeat that Ukraine simply cannot win the war against Russia. That’s true, but I see the greatness of the Ukrainian resistance there: they risked the impossible, defying pragmatic calculations, and the least we owe them is full support, and for that we have need a stronger NATO – but not as an extension of US policy.
The US counterattack strategy across Europe is far from obvious: not just Ukraine, Europe itself is becoming the site of the proxy war between the US and Russia, which could come to a compromise between the two at the expense of Europe. There are only two ways for Europe to get out of this: play the game of neutrality – a shortcut to disaster – or become an autonomous agent. (Just think how the situation might change if Trump wins the next US election.)
While some leftists argue that the ongoing war is in the interests of the NATO industrial-military complex, which uses the need for new weapons to avert crisis and gain new profits, their real message to Ukraine is : OK, you are victims of an aggression, but do not count on our weapons because you play the game of the industrial-military complex…
The disorientation caused by the Ukrainian war produces strange bedfellows like Henry Kissinger and Noam Chomsky who “come from opposite ends of the political spectrum – Kissinger being Secretary of State under Republican presidents and Chomsky one of the leading intellectuals of left in the United States – and have often clashed. But when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the two have recently pleaded for Ukraine to consider a settlement that could see it give up claiming certain lands to reach a faster peace deal.
In short, both represent the same version of “pacifism” that only works if we overlook the essential fact that the war is not about Ukraine but a moment of brutal attempt to change our whole geopolitical situation. The real objective of the war is the dismantling of the European unity advocated not only by American conservatives and Russia, but also by the European far right and left – at this point, in France, Melenchon meets Le Pen.
The craziest idea circulating these days is that, to counter the new polarity between the United States and China (which represents the excesses of Western liberalism and Eastern authoritarianism), Europe and Russia should rally their forces and form a third “Eurasian” bloc based on the Christian heritage purified of its liberal excesses. The very idea of a “Eurasian” third way is a form of fascism today.
So what will happen “when voters in Europe and the United States, faced with soaring energy costs and broader inflation driven by sanctions against Russia, may lose their appetite for a seemingly hopeless war? end, with needs only growing as both sides head for a protracted stalemate”? The answer is clear: at that point, European heritage will be lost and Europe will be de facto divided between a American sphere of influence and a Russian sphere of influence. In short, Europe itself will become the site of a war that seems endless…
What is absolutely unacceptable for a true leftist today is not only to support Russia, but also to assert more “modestly” that the left is divided between pacifists and supporters of Ukraine, and that it must treat this division as a minor fact that should not affect the global struggle of the left against global capitalism.
When a country is occupied, it is the ruling class that is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the fight against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same goes for the fight against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to fight effectively for the working class is to focus on the fight against racism (which is why any appeal to the white working class, as in right-wing populism today’s alternative, betrays the class struggle).
Today, you can’t be on the left if you don’t unequivocally support Ukraine. Being a leftist who “shows understanding” for Russia is like being one of those leftists who, before Germany attacked the Soviet Union, took “anti-imperialist” rhetoric seriously. German campaign directed against the United Kingdom and advocated neutrality in Germany’s war against France and the United Kingdom.
If the left fails here, it’s game over. But does that mean the left should simply side with the West, including right-wing fundamentalists who also support Ukraine?
In a speech delivered in Dallas on May 18, 2022, while criticizing the Russian political system, former President Bush said: “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and one man’s decision to launch a totally unwarranted and brutal invasion of Iraq. He quickly corrected himself: “I mean, from Ukraine”, then said “Iraq, anyway” to the laughter of the crowd, and added “75 years old”, in reference to his age.
As many commentators have noted, two things cannot but strike the eye in this rather obvious Freudian slip: the fact that the public laughingly received Bush’s implicit admission that the US attack on Iraq (ordered by him) was “a totally unwarranted and brutal invasion”. , instead of treating it as an admission of a crime comparable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine; plus Bush’s enigmatic sequel to his self-correcting “Iraq, anyway” – what did he mean by that? That the difference between Ukraine and Iraq doesn’t really matter? The final reference to his advanced age in no way affects this enigma.
But the enigma is dispelled the moment we take Bush’s statement seriously and literally: yes, all differences taken into account (Zelenskiy is not a dictator like Saddam), Bush did the same thing Putin is now doing to Ukraine, then they should both be judged by the same standard.
On the day I write this, we learned from the media that the extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States had been approved by British Home Secretary Priti Patel. His offence? Nothing more than to publicize the crimes admitted by Bush’s slip: the documents revealed by WikiLeaks revealed how, under the presidency of Bush, “the American military had killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents during the war in Afghanistan, while leaking Iraq war files showed that 66,000 civilians were killed and prisoners tortured. Crimes quite comparable to what Putin is doing in Ukraine. Looking back today, we can say that WikiLeaks leaked dozens of American Buchas and Mariupols.
So, if judging Bush is no less illusory than bringing Putin before the tribunal in The Hague, the minimum that those who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine can do is to demand the immediate release of Assange. Ukraine claims it is fighting for Europe, and Russia claims it is fighting for the rest of the world against Western unipolar hegemony. Both claims must be rejected, and here the difference between right and left comes into play.
From the perspective of the right, Ukraine is fighting for European values against non-European authoritarians; from a leftist perspective, Ukraine fights for global freedom, including the freedom of Russians themselves. That is why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.
Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher. He is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, World Emeritus Professor of German at New York University and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.