The dark side of neutrality

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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK*

Surrendering to imperialism will not bring peace or justice

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksky and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, were equally responsible for the war in Ukraine. Regardless of whether such a refusal to take sides comes from Brazil, South Africa or India, claiming neutrality in the face of the aggressive Russian war is unacceptable.

The same goes for individuals. If one sees a man relentlessly beating a child at an intersection, one would expect the witness to try to stop him. Neutrality is out of the question. On the contrary, the moral turpitude of inaction would be deplorable.

How, then, should we respond to Roger Waters' recent comments at the United Nations Security Council? In a videoconference, the activist and co-founder of the band Pink Floyd claimed to speak on behalf of “more or less four billion brothers and sisters” around the world. He acknowledged that Russia's war against Ukraine is illegal and must be condemned "in the strictest possible terms".

But he soon came forward and said: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine did not take place in the absence of provocations, and I also condemn the provocateurs in the strictest possible terms. (…) Currently, the only sensible course of action is to demand an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine. Not one more Ukrainian or Russian life should be lost, none, all of them are precious to us. The time has come to speak truth to power.”

Is Roger Waters' "truth" really an expression of neutrality? This month, in an interview with Berliner Zeitung, he said: “maybe I shouldn't, but today I'm much more willing to listen to what Vladimir Putin actually says. According to independent voices I have heard, he governs carefully, making decisions based on consensus in the government of the Russian Federation.”

As an independent voice that follows the Russian media closely, I am quite familiar with what Vladimir Putin and his propagandists “really say”. The main television channels are full of commentators recommending that countries like Poland, Germany or the United Kingdom be the target of nuclear offensives. Chechen military chief Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin's closest allies, now openly calls for "the war against Satanism to continue throughout Europe and, first of all, on the territory of Poland."

Indeed, the official Kremlin discourse describes the war as a “special operation” of denazification and demonization of Ukraine. Among Ukraine's "provocations" are allowing gay pride parades and LGBTQ+ rights to subvert sexual norms and traditional gender roles. Kremlin-aligned commentators speak of a “liberal totalitarianism”, going so far as to argue that the book 1984, by George Orwell, was not a critique of fascism or Stalinism, but of liberalism.

We don't find anything like it in Western media, where the main theme is that we must help Ukraine to survive. As far as I know, no one has advocated changing Russia's borders or taking part of its territory. At worst, we find counterproductive demands to boycott Russian culture, as if Vladimir Putin's government represented figures like Pushkin, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. Just as we defend Ukraine against an aggressor, we must also defend Russian culture from its abuser in the Kremlin. We must also avoid triumphalism and frame our goals in positive terms. The main objective is not for Russia to be defeated and humiliated, but for Ukraine to survive.

“Neutral” countries outside the West argue that the war is a local conflict dwarfed by the horrors of colonialism or other more recent events such as the US occupation of Iraq. But this is an obvious ruse. After all, the Russian imperialist war is itself an act of colonialism. Those who claim neutrality surrender their right to complain about the horrors of colonization anywhere. Roger Waters is an expressive exponent of Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization. Why would Ukrainian resistance to Russian colonization be less worthy of support?

Sometimes things really are that simple, especially now that Russia is preparing to commemorate the anniversary of its war with a new offensive. It is obscene to blame Ukraine for Russian acts of destruction, or to incorrectly characterize the heroic Ukrainian resistance as a rejection of peace. Those, like Roger Waters, who demand an "immediate ceasefire" hope that the Ukrainians' response to Russian aggression will be to abandon their own self-defence. This is not a formula for peace, but for pacification.

We should mention – once again – that Russia is counting on the final victory of the “neutralist” argument. As military historian Michael Clarke explains, "The Kremlin's plan is to keep fighting until the West gets tired and puts pressure on Kiev to appease it by handing over whatever territory it has taken so far." Russia is preparing for a protracted war that will include the quiet mobilization of around 600 troops a year into the "indefinite future".

Roger Waters is almost right: Ukraine is really “provoking” Russia by refusing to submit to its imperialist ambitions, even in the face of desperate odds. At this point, the only way to stop provoking its aggressive and revisionist neighbor would be to lay down arms and surrender. Roger Waters would agree that the same is true for Palestine.

But surrendering to imperialism will not bring peace or justice. In order for us to achieve any of them, we must abandon the pretense of neutrality and act accordingly.

*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 on the portal Project syndicate

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