Belligerents of the Ukrainian safari

Western leftists argue that Russia needs an “off-ramp” that will allow it to “save face” in Ukraine. But that logic cuts both ways: After Russian leaders’ latest nuclear threats, it is Ukraine and the West that can no longer compromise and still save face
Representative image
Representative image

By SLAVOJ ZIZEK

I don’t usually write about cultural products from my own country, but I must make an exception for Slovenian filmmaker Miran Zupanic’s new documentary Sarajevo Safari, which details one of the most bizarre and pathological episodes of the 1992-96 siege of the Bosnian capital. It is well known that Serb snipers in the hills surrounding the city would arbitrarily shoot residents on the streets below, and that select Serb allies (mostly Russians) were invited to fire some shots of their own. Yet now we learn that this opportunity was provided not only as a gesture of appreciation but also as a kind of tourist activity for paying customers.

Through “safaris” organised by the Bosnian Serb Army, dozens of rich foreigners – mostly from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy, but also from Russia – paid top dollar for the chance to shoot at helpless civilians. Consider the special form of subjectivity that such a safari would confer on the “hunter.” Though the victims were anonymous, this was no video game; the perverse thrill lay in the fact that it was real. And yet, by playing the “hunter,” these rich tourists, occupying a safe perch above the city, effectively excluded themselves from ordinary reality. For their targets, the stakes were life or death.

There is something perversely honest in this melding of reality and spectacle. After all, aren’t top politicians and corporate managers also engaged in a kind of safari? From their safe perch in the C-suite, executives often ruin many lives. Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russian president who now serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, recently imputed a similar logic to Western political leaders. Dismissing warnings by the US and NATO about the consequences of a Russian tactical nuclear strike, Medvedev argued that:

“The security of Washington, London, Brussels is much more important for the North Atlantic Alliance than the fate of a dying Ukraine that no one needs. The supply of modern weapons is just a business for Western countries. Overseas and European demagogues are not going to perish in a nuclear apocalypse. Therefore, they will swallow the use of any weapon in the current conflict.”

Medvedev has also said that the Kremlin will “do everything” to prevent “hostile neighbors” like “Nazi Ukraine” from acquiring or hosting nuclear weapons, as this supposedly would pose an existential threat to the Russian state. But since it is Russia that is threatening Ukraine’s existence as a state, Medvedev’s logic dictates that Ukraine, too, should have arms – and even nuclear weapons – to achieve military parity.

Recall Putin’s own words this past June: “… there is no in-between, no intermediate state: either a country is sovereign, or it is a colony, no matter what the colonies are called.” Since he obviously views Ukraine as a Russian colony, the West should not treat Ukraine as though it agreed with him. That means rejecting the idea that Western powers should bypass Ukraine and broker a settlement with Russia.

Unfortunately, many Western leftists have been playing directly into Putin’s hands on this issue. Consider Harlan Ullman of the Atlantic Council, who writes: “Clemenceau observed that ‘war is too important to be left to the generals.’ In this case, is Ukraine too important to be left to Zelenskyy? The US needs a strategy with an off-ramp to seek an end to the violence and the war.”

Leftists from Noam Chomsky to Jeffrey Sachs (not to mention the many Russia apologists on the right) have adopted similar positions. After first insisting that Ukraine cannot win a war against Russia, they now imply that it should not win, because that would leave Putin cornered and therefore dangerous.

But if we had followed the peaceniks’ advice and not sent arms to Ukraine, that country would now be fully occupied, its subjugation accompanied by far greater atrocities than those found in Bucha, Izium, and many other places. A far better stance has been adopted by the German Greens, who advocate not only full support for Ukraine but also structural reforms to accelerate the transition away from oil and gas, which in turn will steer humanity away from catastrophic climate change. The rest of the Western left has been on safari, refusing an intervention that will challenge its established way of life.

Peaceniks argue that Russia needs a victory or concession that will allow it to “save face.” But that logic cuts both ways. Following Medvedev and Putin’s nuclear threats, it is Ukraine and the West that can no longer compromise and still save face. Recall that Medvedev predicted that the West would refuse to respond militarily to a Russian nuclear strike because it is too cowardly and greedy to do so.

Here, we enter the domain of philosophy, because Putin and Medvedev’s words clearly echo Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. If two self-consciousnesses are engaged in a life-or-death struggle, there can be no winner, because one will die and the victor will no longer have another self-consciousness around who can recognise its own self-consciousness. The entire history of human culture rests on the original compromise by which someone becomes the servant that “averts its eyes” to prevent mutual assured destruction.

Medvedev and Putin presume that the decadent, hedonist West will avert its eyes. And that brings us back to the dynamic captured in Sarajevo Safari. Privileged elites feel as though they can intervene in the real world in strategic ways that entail no personal danger. But reality catches up with everyone eventually. When it does, we must not heed the advice of those concerned only with not provoking the beast in the valley.

Slavoj Zizek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London

Project Syndicate

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