the red line

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK

We must stop allowing Russia to define the terms of the Ukraine crisis

For the past few weeks, the Western public has been obsessed with the question, "What's on Vladimir Putin's mind?" Western experts wonder: are the people around him telling the whole truth? Is he sick or going crazy? Are we pushing him into a corner where he will see no way out but to accelerate the conflict towards all-out war?

We must stop this obsession with the red line, this relentless search for the right balance between supporting Ukraine and avoiding all-out war. The “red line” is not an objective fact: Vladimir Putin himself retraces it all the time, and with our reactions to Russia's actions, we contribute to it. A question like “has the US sharing information with Ukraine crossed a line?” makes us hide the main fact: it was Russia who crossed the line by attacking Ukraine. So, instead of seeing ourselves as the group that only reacts to Vladimir Putin, seen as an impenetrable evil genius, we should look at ourselves: what part do we – the “free West” – want to play in this issue?

We must analyze the ambiguity of our support for Ukraine as cruelly as we analyze Russia's posture. We must go beyond the double standards that we apply today to the very foundations of European liberalism. Remember how, in the Western liberal tradition, colonization was justified in terms of the rights of working people. John Locke, the great Enlightenment philosopher and human rights advocate, justified the takeover of Native American territories by white settlers with an oddly left-sounding argument against excessive private property.

His premise was that an individual should only have the right to own such a portion of land that he is able to use productively, not large tracts of land that he will not be able to use (and will then later lease to others). others). In North America, in Locke's view, the natives were using vast portions of land mostly just for hunting, and white settlers who wanted to use it for intensive agriculture had the right to take it for the benefit of humanity.

In the current Ukraine 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 compelled to intervene militarily to ensure its security. The most recent example was the Russian foreign minister's assertion that Russia will be “forced to take retaliatory measures” if Finland joins NATO. No, it will not be “forced”, just as Russia was not “forced” to attack Ukraine. This decision appears to be “forced” only if we accept the whole set of ideological and political assumptions that underpin Russian policy.

These assumptions must be analyzed closely, without any taboos. We often hear that we must draw a clear line separating Vladimir Putin's politics and the great Russian culture, but this dividing line is much more porous than it may seem. We must resolutely reject the idea that, after years of patiently trying to resolve the Ukrainian crisis through negotiations, Russia was finally forced to attack Ukraine – You are never if it is forced to attack and annihilate an entire country. The roots are deeper; I am willing to assert that they are properly metaphysical.

Anatoli Chubais, the father of Russian oligarchs (he orchestrated Russia's rapid privatization in 1992) said in 2004: “I have reread all of Dostoyevsky's books in the last three months. And I just feel an almost physical hatred for the man. He is certainly 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 rip him to shreds.” As much as I dislike Chubais for his politics, I believe he is right about Dostoyevsky, who provided the "deeper" 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 step in the struggle for decolonization, against western globalization. In a text published later this month, Dimitri Medvedev, the former president of Russia and now deputy secretary of the security council of the Russian Federation, wrote that “the planet is waiting for the collapse of the idea of ​​an America-centered world and the emergence of new international alliances based on pragmatic criteria” (“Pragmatic criteria” means disregarding human rights, of course).

Therefore, we must also draw red lines, but in a way that makes our solidarity with the third world clear. Medvedev predicts that, due to the war, “in some states there could be problems of hunger due to the food crisis” – a statement of surprising cynicism. In May 2022, around 25 million tons of grain are slowly rotting in Odessa, on ships or in silos, because the port is blocked by the Russian navy. “The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) has warned that millions of people will be 'walking towards famine' unless ports in southern Ukraine, which have been closed due to war, are reopened,” reported the Newsweek.

Europe is now promising to help Ukraine transport the grain by rail and road – but that is clearly not enough. One more step is necessary: ​​a clear demand to open the port for the export of grains, including the sending of military ships there. Not for Ukraine, but because of the hunger of hundreds of millions in Africa and Asia. AND here that the red line should be drawn.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said: “Imagine if [the war in Ukraine] was happening in Africa, or in the Middle East. Imagine if Ukraine were Palestine. Imagine if Russia were the United States.” Unsurprisingly, the comparison of the conflict in Ukraine with the plight of the Palestinians "offended many Israelis who believe there are no similarities", noted the Newsweek. "For example, many point to the fact that Ukraine is a democratic and sovereign country, but they do not consider Palestine a state." Of course, Palestine is not a state, but precisely because Israel denies its right to be a state – in the same way that Russia denies Ukraine's right 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, selectively applying its high standards. But hypocrisy means you violate the standards you proclaim, and in this way you open yourself up to immanent criticism – when we criticize the liberal West, we use its own criteria. What Russia is offering is a world without hypocrisy – because it has no global ethical standards, practicing only a pragmatic “respect” for differences.

We saw clearly what this means when, after dominating Afghanistan, the Taliban immediately sealed a deal with China. China accepts the new Afghanistan while the Taliban ignores what it does to the Uighurs – lo and behold, in nuce, the new globalization advocated by Russia. And the only way to defend what is worth saving from our liberal tradition is to insist relentlessly on its universality. The moment we apply double standards, we are no less “pragmatic” than Russia.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.

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