And now some who call themselves leftists (I wouldn’t) are blaming the West for the fact that US President Joe Biden was right about Putin’s intentions. The argument is well-known: NATO was slowly encircling Russia, fomenting colour revolutions in its near-abroad, and ignoring the reasonable fears of a country that had been attacked from the West in the last century.
There is, of course, an element of truth here. But saying only this is equivalent to justifying Hitler by blaming the unjust Treaty of Versailles. Worse, it concedes that big powers have the right to spheres of influence, to which all others must submit for the sake of global stability.
Putin’s assumption that international relations is a contest of great powers is reflected in his repeated claim that he had no choice but to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
Is that true? Is the problem really Ukrainian fascism? The question is better directed at Putin’s Russia. Putin’s intellectual lodestar is Ivan Ilyin, whose works are back in print and given to state apparatchiks and military conscripts.
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After being expelled from the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, Ilyin advocated a Russian version of fascism: the state as an organic community led by a paternal monarch, in which freedom is knowing one’s place. The purpose of voting for Ilyin (and for Putin) is to express collective support for the leader, not to legitimate or choose him.
Aleksandr Dugin, Putin’s court-philosopher, closely follows in Ilyin’s steps, adding a postmodern garnish of historicist relativism:
“[E]very so-called truth is a matter of believing. So we believe in what we do, we believe in what we say. And that is the only way to define the truth. So we have our special Russian truth that you need to accept. If the United States does not want to start a war, you should recognize that [the] United States is not any more a unique master. And [with] the situation in Syria and Ukraine, Russia says, ‘No you are not any more the boss.’ That is the question of who rules the world. Only war could decide really.”
But what about the people of Syria and Ukraine? Can they also choose their truth or are they just a battlefield for would-be world rulers?
The idea that each ‘way of life’ has its own truth is what endears Putin to right-wing populists like former US President Donald Trump, who praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the act of a “genius“. And the feeling is mutual: When Putin talks about “denazification” in Ukraine, we should bear in mind his support for Marine le Pen’s National Rally in France, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, and other actual neo-fascist movements.
The ‘Russian truth’ is only a convenient myth to justify Putin’s imperial vision, and the best way for Europe to counter it is to build bridges to developing and emerging countries, many of which have a long list of justified grievances against Western colonisation and exploitation.
It is not enough to ‘defend Europe’. The true task is to persuade other countries that the West can offer them better choices than Russia or China can. And the only way to achieve that is to change ourselves by ruthlessly uprooting neo-colonialism, even when it comes packaged as humanitarian help.
Are we ready to prove that in defending Europe, we are fighting for freedom everywhere? Our disgraceful refusal to treat refugees equally sends the world a very different message.
© Project Syndicate
Slavoj Žižek is professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School and International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London.