I am not a terribly huge fan of Vladimir Putin, and I remain skeptical of his “Eurasianist” turn of the past two years. That said, I have never thought was Putin or the Kremlin was doing was “irrational” or “barbarism” nor do I think an increased sphere of influence for Russia, whatever gripe I have with its internal politics, is necessarily a bad thing. The expansion of NATO makes a lot of Putin’s dirty tricks seem to be a rational calculus of somewhat conservative real politics, and I will admit, sending in special forces without insignia is dirty as is inflating election results (although even the deflated results accidentally released by Putin’s own Center for Human Rights showed majority support) are dirty. Then again, I get my news neither solely from Fox or Russia Today, and I think principled third-campism bordering on isolationism is in many ways a preferable foreign policy. Furthermore, while I may not agree with Putin’s policies on homosexuality, the idea that leaders can take such umbrage while still giving money to Brunei and Saudi Arabia renders this concern “civil liberties” so suspect as to be selective: after all, Russia does not have the death penalty for sodomy, many US allies do.
So those are my caveats, they are based on a humble belief that in so much that nation states exist, and in so much that there are cultural spheres of influence, I have no business advocating for military intervention in regions where my personal material and cultural interests are minimal. The tendency of leftists, liberals, and neo-conservatives in the US to rush to any side of a foreign conflict and try to justify actions selectively confuses me: the way various factions rushed to pick sides in the Syrian civil war was one such time. I find this politics as tribal sport to render real geopolitics questions essentially into entertainment: mere spectacle.
This brings me to Zizek’s recent article for the London Review of Books: Barbarism with a Human Face:
Some political commentators claim that the EU hasn’t given Ukraine enough support in its conflict with Russia, that the EU response to the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea was half-hearted. But there is another kind of support which has been even more conspicuously absent: the proposal of any feasible strategy for breaking the deadlock. Europe will be in no position to offer such a strategy until it renews its pledge to the emancipatory core of its history. Only by leaving behind the decaying corpse of the old Europe can we keep the European legacy of égaliberté alive.
This could have been written by Irving Kristol 30 years ago or Christopher Hitchens 15 years ago, just shifting the concern from US versus old Europe instead of Europe as the emancipator of history. Zizek’s critique is more nuanced, but only slightly. His framing this as Lenin versus Stalin and his quoting selectively from State and Revolution make this completely hard too support.
While I share some Zizeks critique of Putin internal to Russia and the defense of the organic nature of Maiden (but that organic protest had IMF shills in it who essentially AstroTurfed it), but this talk about the European dream and basically acting as a NATO shill surprises even me. The Kremlin stooge that won the last election was a inefficient stooge who no doubt infuriating Putin as well. He was sloppy and in such encouraged Maiden. Think how the NYPD almost single-highhandedly gave Occupy legitimacy via truncheon. Putin is no fool regardless of whatever endorsement of the idea of Soviet of the Orthodox Faith that he is caricatured with. For a man leading a state that has had massive demographic decline and tons of internal corruption problems, Putin has sailed that ship fairly well even with declining oil rents. His strategic use of the BRIC and aligning with China’s geopolitical interests show a shrewd mind. I say this as I think that it clear he would have preferred to have a peaceful puppet.
What is interesting is that while claim that the “neo-fasicsts” support Putin, which is questionable but not entirely wrong because Eurasianism has replaced national socialism as the theoretical framework for a lot. Zizek, here, ignores the mutual violence here–Russian speakers, all of whom can’t be Russian national plants, have been attacked in several Eastern towns. 30 of them were burned to death by a faction of the Ukrainian nationalists with explicit pro-Nazi ties. So if it is a neo-fascists supporting Putin, there are a faction of Eastern European neo-fascists supporting liberals. I think the “f-word” is being abused in both cases, but ultra-nationalism does apply. Anyway, despite what the Hitler-Mussolini pact indicates, it is fundamental mistake to think that such ultra-nationalists and third-wayers are always allies. Prior to the pact between Italy and Germany, Mussolini saw himself as Hitler’s prime competitor. It is also key to mention, in World War 2, pacts between enemies were common: Stalin made a non-aggression pact with Hitler and seemed to actually believe it despite obvious indications to the contrary.
Zizek’s idealism feel thin and tied-in-knots in the end: “we should support Russian dissidents and aid them in solidarity to Ukraine” seems like something odd to ask Europe to do. If Zizek is honest about this, then pushing for a negotiated resettlement would actually severe everyone’s interests more. The Ukrainian Catholics and the Russian speaking Orthodox could have some respite from one polity dominating another, it would deny Putin the ability to use this as a sign of aggression from the West but give him a line to draw for NATO. Putin would probably welcome it–his nationalism aside, he is, at root, a brutal KGB pragmatist. This won’t happen though because so many believe in the power of dreams. Dark power that is, but it surprises me to see Zizek more or less endorse it.