The dark side of neutrality
By Slavoj Zizek
Last May, before being newly re-elected as president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva claimed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, bear equal responsibility for the war in Ukraine. Yet whether the refusal to pick sides comes from Brazil, South Africa, or India, claiming to be “neutral” on Russia’s war of aggression is untenable.
The same is true of individuals. If a passerby saw a man relentlessly beating a child on a street corner, we would expect the witness to try to stop it. Neutrality is out of the question. On the contrary, we would deplore the moral turpitude of inaction. How, then, should we respond to Roger Waters’ recent remarks to the United Nations Security Council? In a video call, the activist and Pink Floyd co-founder claimed to be speaking for “four billion or so brothers and sisters” around the world.
He acknowledged that Russia’s war in Ukraine is illegal and should be condemned “in the strongest possible terms.” But then he hastened to add: “The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked, so I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms....[T]he only sensible course of action today is to call for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine. Not one more Ukrainian or Russian life is to be spent, not one, they are all precious in our eyes. So the time has come to speak truth to power.”
Is Waters’ “truth” really an expression of neutrality? In an interview earlier this month with Berliner Zeitung, he said: “Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am now more open to listen to what Putin actually says. According to independent voices I listen to, he governs carefully, making decisions on the grounds of a consensus in the Russian Federation government.” As an independent voice who follows Russian media very closely, I am well acquainted with what Putin and his propagandists “actually say.” The major TV channels are full of commentators recommending that countries like Poland, Germany, or the United Kingdom be nuked. The Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s closest allies, now openly calls for “the fight against Satanism [to] continue throughout Europe and, first of all, on the territory of Poland.”
Indeed, the official Kremlin line describes the war as a “special operation” for the de-Nazification and de-demonisation of Ukraine. Among Ukraine’s “provocations” is that it has permitted Pride parades and allowed LGBTQ+ rights to undermine traditional sexual norms and gender roles. Kremlin-aligned commentators speak of “liberal totalitarianism,” even going so far as to argue that George Orwell’s 1984 was a critique not of fascism or Stalinism but of liberalism.
One finds nothing like this in the Western media, where the main motif is that we should help Ukraine to survive. As far as I know, nobody has demanded that Russia’s borders be changed, or that some part of its territory be seized. At worst, one finds counterproductive demands to boycott Russian culture, as though Putin’s regime somehow represents the likes of Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, and Tolstoy.
Just as we are supporting Ukraine against an aggressor, so should we defend Russian culture against its abuser in the Kremlin. We also should avoid triumphalism and frame our objective in positive terms. The primary goal is not for Russia to lose and be humiliated, but for Ukraine to survive. “Neutral” countries outside the West contend that the war is a local conflict that pales in comparison to the horrors of colonialism or more recent events like the US occupation of Iraq. But this is an obvious dodge.
After all, Russia’s imperialist war is itself an act of colonialism. Those who would claim neutrality forfeit their standing to complain about the horrors of colonization anywhere. Waters is a vocal exponent of the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization. Why is Ukrainian resistance to Russian colonization any less worthy of support? Sometimes, things really are as simple as that, especially now that Russia is preparing to celebrate the anniversary of its war with a new offensive. It is obscene to blame Ukraine for Russian acts of destruction, or to mischaracterise the Ukrainians’ heroic resistance as a rejection of peace.
Those, like Waters, who call for “an immediate ceasefire” would have Ukrainians respond to redoubled Russian aggression by abandoning their own self-defense. That is a formula not for peace, but for pacification. It bears mentioning – once again – that Russia is counting on the “neutralist” argument eventually to prevail. As the military historian Michael Clarke explains, “the Kremlin’s plan will be to keep fighting until the West gets fed up and pressures Kyiv into appeasing them with whatever territory they have taken by then.” Russia is digging in for a protracted war that will include the quiet mobilization of some 600,000 soldiers every year for the “indefinite future.”
Waters is almost right: Ukraine is indeed “provoking” Russia by refusing to submit to its imperial ambitions, even in the face of desperate odds. At this point, the only way that it could stop provoking its aggressive revisionist neighbour would be to lay down and surrender. The same, Waters would agree, is true of Palestine. But surrendering to imperialism brings neither peace nor justice. To preserve the possibility of achieving either, we must drop the pretense of neutrality and act accordingly.
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 and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder
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