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14 August 2023

Ukraine must go to war with itself

Now is the time to confront oligarchs and cultural conservatives, and ask what sort of country Ukraine will become.

By Slavoj Žižek

Those of us who stand firmly behind Ukraine worry about the fatigue of the West: as the war drags on, will the countries which support Ukraine gradually tire of the permanent emergency state and the material sacrifices demanded of them?

This fatigue is not simply caused by having to endure sacrifices in money and materiel: it is also the result of the propaganda spread by the unholy alliance of the extreme right and the extreme left, propaganda that operates at three levels: abstract pacifism (we need peace, the suffering has to stop at any cost); a “balanced” view of the war (Nato’s eastward expansion provoked Russia and forced it to counterattack); and the need to protect our own national welfare (why should we give billions to Ukraine, a country run by corrupt oligarchs, when we have deep economic and problems of our own). The paradox of this combination is that what presents itself as a principled stance – peace at any price – is a mask for the worst ethnic egotism and ignorance of the other’s suffering: are we aware that, although Ukraine has defended its independence, it has already lost up to a third of its population through emigration, kidnapping and death?

But a more serious case concerns Ukraine itself, where signs of fatigue are increasing. It is already close to a miracle that most of the population retains its will to keep fighting after a year and a half of fierce battles and aerial bombardments, with no end in sight. But it is not just the burdens of war that are wearing – fatigue is also fed by the serious ideological and political mistakes made by Ukrainians themselves. What Ukrainians can and should do is clear: the remedy for war fatigue is justice in Ukraine: no privileges for the oligarchs and other members of the elite strata. Is there anything more demoralising than to see ordinary Ukrainians fight while many of the rich fled the country and organised for their children to be exempted from military service? A good sign pointing in this direction was the speech Volodymyr Zelensky made on 25 July this year, in which, according to the Financial Times, the president “warned government officials and lawmakers that ‘personal enrichment’ and ‘betrayal’ will not be tolerated, after the arrest of a military recruitment chief on embezzlement charges and an MP accused of collaborating with Russia”. Yevhen Borysov, head of the military recruitment office in Odesa, was arrested by the State Bureau of Investigation and Prosecutor General’s Office, the newspaper reported. “The National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption said he had illegally acquired more than $5m through elaborate business schemes.”

[See also: Russia’s war on the future]

However, while the need for the fight against corruption is obvious, another point is no less important. To avoid collapse in the war, a truly united front against the common enemy is needed. There are now worrying signs of an emerging phenomenon. Many leftists and non-nationalist liberals in Ukraine are ready to fight against Russia – they volunteered and are now on the front line. (One of them who likes my work sent me the photo of his machine gun lying on the two Ukrainian translations of my work that he reads in the pause between battles.) Since these leftists resist aggressive conservative nationalism with its futile, counter-productive measures, such as the prohibition on public performances of the works of all Russian composers, they are often suspected of harbouring pro-Russian sympathies, as if Vladimir Putin, the hero of the European and American right, somehow still stands for socialism.

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In March 2022 the Ukrainian documentary film-maker Sergei Loznitsa, director of internationally celebrated films such as Maidan and Donbass, was expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for opposing the boycott of Russian films. He now lives in Lithuania and cannot return to Ukraine: he learned that, since he is not yet 60 years old (the age limit for conscription), his passport will be confiscated if he returns home. Other internationally known artists can travel abroad freely, so Loznitsa’s case is a clear example of revenge by conservative cultural bureaucrats. (I know this disgusting strategy from my own past: in Slovenia also, the nationalist rightists always castigated secular leftist opponents of the communist regime as masked agents of the old communists. In the 1970s I was never allowed to teach and for years was unemployed, while I am now regularly attacked as a “man of the old regime”.)

[See also: There is only one way to win a war of attrition]

It is not just with respect to the oligarchs and the cultural conservatives that Ukraine must go to war with itself. In Ukraine many women also joined the armed forces and fight on the front – some of them are known as excellent snipers. Unfortunately, the Guardian reports, many of them now “express anger at stigma and treatment by male colleagues and say complaints are being ignored”: they have to fight on two fronts, against the Russian enemy and against harassment from their own masculine colleagues. One should generalise this situation: Ukraine itself is fighting at two fronts: against Russian aggression and for what sort of country Ukraine will be after the war. If Ukraine survives, will it be a nationalist fundamentalist country such as Poland or Hungary? Will it be a de facto colony of global capitalism, or something else?

It is wrong to claim that all these questions should only be resolved after the war, and that now is the time for unconditional unity, not for democratic debates. As with all wars of resistance, from the French Revolution to the European partisans in the Second World War, it is in the circumstances of combat where the political substance of a post-war Ukrainian nation will be determined. So now is precisely the time for a non-exclusive unity: only a wide popular front in which there is a place for everyone – from LGBT+ individuals to the leftists who oppose the Russian aggression – can save Ukraine.

[See also: Putin’s secret navy]

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