Russia is counting on Europe’s inability to do anything heroic

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek analyzes the war in Ukraine and the challenges facing humanity.


Towards the end of April, barely two months after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world became aware of a profound change in the meaning of this war for the future. Nothing remains of the dream of a quick resolution. Strangely, the war has already ‘normalized’; it is accepted as a process that will continue indefinitely. The fear of a sudden and dramatic escalation will haunt our daily lives. In Sweden and elsewhere, the authorities seem to have started advising the population to stockpile supplies to deal with a war situation.

The change in perspective is seen on both sides of the conflict. In Russia there is more and more talk of a global conflict. RT’s editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, put it this way: “Either we lose in Ukraine, or a third world war begins. Personally, I think the World War III scenario is more realistic.”

This paranoia is sustained by crazy conspiracy theories that speak of a unified plot (liberal/totalitarian, Nazi/Jewish) to destroy Russia. Asked how Russia could claim to be ‘denazifying’ Ukraine when its president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov replied: “I may be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood. (The fact that Zelensky is Jewish) means absolutely nothing. Jews in the know say that the most ardent anti-Semites are often Jews.”

On the other side, especially in Germany, a new variant of pacifism is beginning to form. If we put aside the lofty rhetoric and focus on what Germany is actually doing, the message is clear: “In view of our economic interests and the danger of being drawn into a military conflict, we should not support Ukraine too much, even if that means allowing Russia to take it over.” Germany is afraid to cross a line and make Russia really angry. But the only one who decides where that line runs, on any given day, is Vladimir Putin. Playing on the fear of Western pacifists is an important part of his strategy.

It is clear that no one wants a new world war to start. But sometimes being overly cautious only serves to further embolden the attacker. Bullies always assume that their victims won’t stand up to them. To prevent a larger-scale war (to create some form of deterrence), we, too, have to draw clear lines. Until now, the West has done the opposite. As Putin was preparing his “special operation” in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said his administration had to wait to see if the Kremlin launched a “minor incursion” or a full-fledged occupation. It followed, of course, that a ‘minor’ act of aggression was tolerable.

The recent change in perspective reveals a deep and dark truth about the position of the West. Although we have expressed fear that Russia would crush Ukraine in a short time, the opposite was true: we feared that the invasion would lead to a war with no end in sight. It would have been much more convenient if the Ukraine fell immediately: then we could express outrage, mourn the loss and return to business as usual. What should have been good news – the unexpected heroic resistance of a smaller country in the face of brutal aggression by a great power – has become a source of shame, a problem with which we do not quite know what to do.

Until now, the West has done the opposite. As Putin was preparing his “special operation” in Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said his administration had to wait to see if the Kremlin launched a “minor incursion” or a full-fledged occupation. It followed, of course, that a ‘minor’ act of aggression was tolerable. The recent change in perspective reveals a deep and dark truth about the position of the West. Although we have expressed fear that Russia would crush Ukraine in a short time, the opposite was true: we feared that the invasion would lead to a war with no end in sight. It would have been much more convenient if the Ukraine fell immediately: then we could express outrage, mourn the loss and return to business as usual. What should have been good news – the unexpected heroic resistance of a smaller country in the face of brutal aggression by a great power – has become a source of shame, a problem with which we do not quite know what to do.


Melancholic Pacifism

The European peace left warns that we must not return to the heroic militaristic spirit that consumed past generations. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas even suggests that Ukraine is guilty of moral blackmailing Europe.

There is something profoundly melancholy about Habermas’s position. As you well know, postwar Europe was able to renounce militarism only because it was sheltered under the nuclear umbrella of the United States. But the return of the war to the continent suggests that this period is behind us, and that unconditional pacifism would require deeper and deeper ethical concessions. Unfortunately, ‘heroic’ acts will be needed again, and not only to resist and deter aggression, but also to deal with problems such as ecological catastrophes and famine.

In French, the difference between what we officially fear and what we fear in reality is very well expressed in the so-called expletive negation (ne explétif): a ‘not’ that does not carry its own meaning, since it is only used for syntax reasons. or pronunciation. It occurs above all in subjunctive clauses, after verbs with a negative connotation (fear, avoid, doubt), and its function is to emphasize the negative aspect of what was said before, as in: Elle doute qu’il ne vienne. (She doubts that he will /not/ come), or Je te fais confiance à moins que tu ne me mentes (I trust you unless you /don’t/ lie to me).

Jacques Lacan used the ne expletif to explain the difference between an expression of desire and actual desire. When I say: ‘I am afraid that /there/ is not a storm’, my conscious wish is that there is not, but my real wish is inscribed in the added ‘no’: I am afraid that there is no storm, because secretly its violence fascinates me.

The return of the war to the continent suggests that the renunciation of militarism has been left behind, and that unconditional pacifism would require ever deeper ethical concessions.

Something similar to the ne explétif can be applied to Europe’s fear of a stoppage of Russian gas deliveries. We say: ‘we are afraid that the interruption of the gas supply will cause an economic catastrophe’. What if our declared fear was false? If what we really fear is that a gas supply interruption will not cause any catastrophe?

As Eric Santner of the University of Chicago recently told me, what would it mean that we can easily adapt? Ending Russian gas imports will not usher in the end of capitalism, but “it would still impose a real change in the European way of life,” a change that would be very welcome regardless of Russia.

Reading the ne explétif literally, acting on the “no”, may be the most authentic political act of freedom that exists today. Consider the claim, propagated by the Kremlin, that stopping the use of Russian gas would amount to economic suicide. Knowing what we have to do to put our societies on a more sustainable path as soon as possible, wouldn’t this be a liberating act? To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, we would avoid going down in history as the first society that did not save itself because it was not profitable to do so.

The Western media talks all the time about the billions of dollars sent to Ukraine; but Russia still receives ten times more for the gas it supplies to Europe. The point is that Europe refuses to consider that it could exert an extraordinarily powerful form of non-military pressure on Russia and at the same time do much for the planet. Furthermore, giving up Russian gas would allow a different kind of globalization; a much-needed alternative to the liberal capitalist variety of the West and the authoritarian model of Russia and China.


The Other Globalization

Russia does not only aspire to disintegrate Europe. She also presents herself as an ally of developing countries against Western neo-colonialism. Russian propaganda makes good use of the bitter memories of Western abuses held by many developing and middle-income countries. Wasn’t the bombing of Iraq worse than the bombing of Kyiv? Wasn’t Mosul razed as ruthlessly as Mariupol? Of course, while the Kremlin presents Russia as an agent of decolonization, it lavishes military support for local dictators in Syria, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.

The activities of the Wagner Group (the Kremlin’s mercenary organization deployed in the service of authoritarian regimes around the world) give a glimpse of what a Russian-style globalization would look like. As Yevgeni Prigozhin, a Putin ally linked to the group, recently told a Western media outlet: “You are a dying Western civilization that treats Russians, Malians, Central Africans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and many other peoples and countries like Third World scum. They are a pathetic band of dying perverts, and we are many, we are billions. Victory will be ours!” Where Ukraine proudly declares that it defends Europe, Russia replies that it intends to defend all past and present victims of Europe.

We should not underestimate the effectiveness of this propaganda. In Serbia, the latest opinion polls show that for the first time a majority of voters oppose joining the European Union. If Europe wants to win the new ideological war, it will have to change its model of liberal capitalist globalization. And only a radical change will do; anything else will be a failure and will turn the EU into a fortress surrounded by enemies determined to penetrate and destroy it.

I am well aware of the implications of a Russian gas boycott. It would entail something that I have referred to on numerous occasions as ‘war communism’. It would force a total reorganization of our economies, as in the event of a declared war or a similar scale disaster. It’s not as remote a possibility as it seems. In the UK shops have already implemented informal rationing of cooking oil as a result of the war. If Europe gives up Russian gas, survival will force similar interventions. Russia is counting on Europe’s inability to do anything ‘heroic’.

It is true that such changes will increase the risk of corruption and provide opportunities for the military-industrial complex to seize extra profits. But these risks must be weighed against the stakes, something far greater than the war in Ukraine.

The world faces a multiplicity of simultaneous crises that evoke the four horsemen of the apocalypse: plague, war, famine and death. They should not be dismissed as mere metaphors for evil. As Trevor Hancock, the first leader of Canada’s Green Party, observed, they are “remarkably akin to what we might call the four horsemen of ecology, regulating the size of populations in the wild.”

In ecological terms, the four horsemen play a positive role, as they prevent overpopulation. But that regulatory function failed with humans: “The human population has more than tripled in the last seventy years, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7.8 billion today. What happened (…) why are we not controlled? Will there be a fifth horseman that causes us a population collapse, like the lemmings?

Hancock points out that until recently humanity was able to keep the 4 horsemen at bay with medicine, science, and technology. But now the “massive and accelerating global ecological changes we have initiated” are spiraling out of control. “So, putting aside the fact that we could be wiped out by an asteroid impact or a volcanic mega-eruption, the biggest threat to the human population, the ‘fifth horseman’, if you will, is us.”


They ride faster

Our destruction or our salvation depends on us. But while global awareness of these threats is on the rise, it has not translated into meaningful action, and the four horsemen are galloping ever faster. After the plague of Covid_19 and the return of war on a large scale, the risk of famine is already hanging over us. All these crises have caused or will cause numerous deaths, as well as the increasingly serious natural disasters created by climate change and biodiversity loss.

Of course, we must resist the temptation to glorify war and see in it an authentic experience capable of taking us out of our self-indulgent consumerist hedonism. But the alternative is not to try to muddle through without doing anything.

The alternative is to mobilize in ways that will still benefit us when the war is just a memory. In view of the dangers we face, warlike infatuation would be a cowardly flight from reality; but so is a comfortable complacency devoid of heroism.


Translated with Google Translate, Published on 29th May 2022 at https://eltiempo.com/mundo/la-guerra-en-ucrania-desde-la-perspectiva-de-slavoj-zizek-676056

SLAVOJ ŽIŽEK is Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, University of London, and author of ‘Heaven in Disorder’ (OR Books, 2021). © PROJECT SYNDICATE – LJUBLJANA

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