In May last year, before being re-elected as Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian President Vladimir Putin bear equal responsibility for the war in Ukraine.
However, whether the refusal to pick sides comes from Brazil, India or South Africa, 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, the witness would be expected to try to stop it. Neutrality is out of the question. On the contrary, the moral turpitude of inaction is deplorable.
How, then, should British musician Roger Waters’ remarks to the UN Security Council be regarded? In a video call, the activist and Pink Floyd cofounder claimed to be speaking for “four billion or so brothers and sisters” around the world.
He said that Russia’s war in Ukraine is illegal and should be condemned “in the strongest possible terms,” but then added:
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not unprovoked, so I also condemn the provocateurs in the strongest possible terms... The 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” 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 television channels are full of commentators recommending that countries such as Germany, Poland or the UK be nuked.
Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, one of Putin’s closes allies, openly calls for “the fight against Satanism [to] continue throughout Europe and, first of all, on the territory of Poland.”
The official Kremlin line describes the war as a “special operation” for the de-Nazification and de-demonization 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,” 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 Ukraine should be helped to survive.
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 Alexander Pushkin, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Leo Tolstoy.
Just as Ukraine is supported against an aggressor, so should Russian culture be defended against its abuser in the Kremlin.
Triumphalism should also be avoided, and objectives should be framed 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 such as the US occupation of Iraq.
However, this is an obvious dodge. Russia’s imperialist war is 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 as 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 mischaracterize 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 that Russia is counting on the “neutralist” argument eventually to prevail.
As 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 would include the quiet mobilization of about 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. The only way that it could stop provoking its aggressive revisionist neighbor would be to surrender. The same, Waters would agree, is true of Palestine.
However, surrendering to imperialism brings neither peace nor justice. To preserve the possibility of achieving either, the pretense of neutrality must be dropped.
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.
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