1 This text attempts to tie together categories of the imaginary, the real, and the symbolic. This is not easy to do in so little time. The truth is that this is not easy in and of itself, as this would require imagining several points of view that will never be aligned.
2 Let us begin with the Ukraine war’s characteristics as an outbreak of extreme violence. We often hear that the current war has brought back something we believed to be banished, a brutality that had vanished from Europe’s horizon since the end of the Second World War. In certain respects this is true, the most significant being the phenomenon of mass population displacement, which is impossible to separate from the fact that, day after day, crimes against humanity are being committed on a massive scale. This is not necessarily the case from the point of view of the nature of violence committed. We have already seen the same, or worse, in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, which our collective consciousness had caged like an imaginary beast, then hurried to forget. On the other hand, it is a way to isolate Europe and Europeans from the world history that they never stopped interfering in, including by being a bringer of war or waging it by proxy. We do not even need to look back to the previous century to see that such violent attacks and massacres have never ceased to occur — occasionally at our doorstep.
3 The legitimate suspicion towards Eurocentrism cannot obscure the fact that this time, this is about us: Europeans in the historic sense of the word, which obviously includes not only Ukrainians, but also Russians. For the first time since the end of Nazism, we are in a state of general war within our “grand” continent. We are here due to an aggression which absolutely runs against international law, which opens the door to full-scale war and inherently carries the risk of nuclear escalation. It will permanently disrupt the lives and worldview of all Europeans. We therefore bear full responsibility, both for choosing the categories of analysis as well as for the subsequent conclusions.
4 The war that President Putin — acting as both autocrat and rogue— has unleashed against the Ukrainian nation by claiming an imminent threat and arguing that Ukraine is a part of a “Russian world” that his nation would be at once the leader and master of, is now a war of complete destruction. It is the destruction of cities and countryside, of resources, monuments, and of course men, women, and children who are abandoned to bombardment and the abuses of soldiers. The resistance that this war has aroused and the heroic commitment of the population and its leaders are containing the invader, even causing him to retreat. Above all, they are giving rise to a nation of true citizens that had still only existed as a potential in an ancient but contradictory historical tradition and in more recent experiences of a chaotic democratization.
5 If we consider the way the Russian president hammered home his hypothesis that the Ukrainian nation does not exist, and the inconsistency of the Ukrainian people themselves, we could say that for the Ukrainians, this war is their War of Independence. In winning — and they must win — they will emerge from it forever a state. A French person of my generation cannot but think of what happened to the Algerians, all differences duly taken into account. And because this war has as its moral foundation the transcendence of antagonisms the former master thought he could rely on, this independence carries within it the transformation of a simply ethnic or cultural nation into a civic nation. This is consistent with the principles upon which the European Union is built and justifies, on either side, the desire to proceed as quickly as possible with the accession that was previously deemed impossible.
6 But at this point we must shift our focus and consider the relationship of Ukraine and Europe as it is being reshaped by the war, from a more global, cosmopolitical point of view by progressively lifting our gaze from a local to a more global scale. It seems to me that a common thread that allows us to untangle the complexity of contradictions and power relations can be found in the overlapping of levels and types of borders that intersect in war, or in which war participates. Borders crystalize oppositions and antagonisms; they structure the world. Although we should not make too much of the linguistic fact that the name “Ukraine” originally means “outskirts” or “borderland”, the fact remains that over the centuries the region that bears this name has continuously been a field of confrontation, of divisions of varying violence and of encounters between cultures. Today it is once again the object of confrontation between much larger entities than itself. Yet what strikes me when I attempt to pinpoint their shape and the nature of their boundaries, is that all these spaces are not only in conflict but deeply asymmetrical.
7 This is true on a first level, that of “national” borders. They have been continuously challenged by conquest, annexation, partitioning and reunification, not to mention through extermination and deportation, going from the beginning of the modern era to the reconstruction of European nations in the aftermath of the world wars and the fall of communism. What has been playing out in the Donbas since 2014 — and even before then — is a result of social history, of state antagonisms, of cultural and generational affiliations that the war is dramatically altering, but whose future remains uncertain. Depending on which way the front will shift, and whether the country remains relatively habitable and able to be reconstructed, the border will have an entirely different shape and function, though it will nevertheless be completely different from that of France and Germany, for example, because on one side will be a fledgling nation and, on the other, a totalitarian empire in fairly deep crisis. This asymmetry extends to the geopolitical “groups” which the warring parties are part of — or which they form by themselves — and the antagonism which Ukraine also embodies, i.e., at the second level of border lines.
8 But here we see that things become deeply complicated, not only from the point of view of what we call war as the point of view of what we call border. We must not fool ourselves. The European Union is well and truly at war with Russia: moral and diplomatic war, economic and financial war, military war which is still limited to supplying arms and intelligence and which could spill beyond Ukraine’s borders if Russia seeks to counterattack in other territories. But the EU is not alone, and indeed is less and less independent since the community structure to which initiatives belong, and which the states that feel threatened by Russian imperialism want to join first, is the military alliance dominated by the United States. The longer the war goes on, the more means committed to it increase, the more the United States gives the impression of wanting to move forward the “rollback” program previously theorized by Zbigniew Brzezinski and others by redrawing the dividing line between the “Atlantic” world — whose hegemony the United States ensures — and the “Eurasian” world — made up of the remnants of the USSR. Paradoxically, this mirrors the Russian regime’s rhetoric — which is very Schmittian or Huntingtonian in inspiration — on the confrontation of two worlds, the East and West, whose values are incompatible. Yet here again a deep asymmetry can be observed. The United States is said to be “back” in Europe. The U.S. clearly is not a threat to Europe’s independence or political values, but they will push Europe’s militarization as well as its economic and technological dependence. By contrast, on the Eurasian side, the relationships between Russia and its far-east “back country” seems extraordinarily unstable, regardless of whatever interest the Chinese regime may have seen in supporting the enemy of its enemy. This is because historically, China has not aimed to establish itself in Europe (except for specifically installing its “Silk Road” terminals there), but above all to build in the “South” — in Africa and Latin America — to create a hegemony to rival that of the United States. In other words, while itself being a Grossraum (in the sense of Carl Schmitt), or perhaps for this very reason, China is not looking to share the world. This is why, if for the moment we have an increasingly united bloc consisting of Europe and the United States within the framework of NATO, we do not see on the other side a Chinese-Russian bloc that would engage as such in combat, including its “hybrid” forms of economic and ideological war.
9 Yet this level is not the final one, and indeed isn’t even the determining factor “en dernière instance”. By evoking the North-South division we move to a level which is truly planetary. The argument that I am making here is two-fold, perhaps even very simplistic. First of all, at the planetary level, political spaces are less and less separated or disconnected from each other. This is why, furthermore, the Russia-Ukraine war cannot be considered as a local war. In an age of advanced globalization, all territories, all populations, all technologies are interdependent, and these interdependencies translate into flows which cut cross borders, including borders between friends and enemies. Russian gas and oil continue to flow into Western Europe, and even to Ukraine, in exchange for dollars and euros, despite considerable talk of trying to halt them. We are not there yet. And if Russian and Ukrainian wheat no longer reaches Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco, it could lead not only to crises or famines in these countries, but also to uprisings and exodus. These countries are not “at war”, but they are “in the war”.
10 Conversely, the economic sanctions directed towards Russia are indirectly affecting many countries around the world. Besides the fact that these countries do not all have the same historical experience of facing America, European, Russian, or ex-Soviet imperialism, one does not have to search hard for the reason behind the reluctance of public opinion in a large number of countries in the “South” to embark upon a war that is perceived as Western. But I would especially like to stress the following point: once we think in planetary terms, we cannot isolate economic and geopolitical matters from the problem that another kind of border poses. Climate borders are currently being destabilized and displaced due to global temperature rise with great consequence. What good does it do to talk about gas supplies and the reversal of their flow into Europe, or shifting from Nordstream I and II to Mediterranean and Atlantic liquefaction and regasification terminals, if we establish no correlation with the environmental policies that are currently making us lose the battle for 2 degrees of warming by the end of the century? One of the largest climate borders in the world, which separates regions once occupied by tundra, taiga, and permafrost from the temperate steppes and desert regions, crosses Russia from east to west, and not just along its edges. This border is shifting dramatically. When, each summer, wildfires once again begin to burn in Siberia, the question inevitably arises as to what kind of international aid should be offered to Russia to confront them and, above all, what kind of negotiation is needed with Russia to restart the global energy transition. Which interests should have priority: that of the Ukrainians’ freedom — which is non-negotiable —, the ecological interests of Europeans, or that of Earthlings who are increasingly under imminent threat?
11 Today, once again, although in an unexpected form, the typology of borders, of nations, of war and politics, prove to be intertwined. The nation fighting for its independence and its democratic constitution is facing the strategic dilemma that Raymond Aron, in the conclusion of Paix et Guerre entre les Nations, described as the choice between incorporation into the federation or into the empire. But this choice is over-determined by the global clash of imperialisms and the asymmetry of their interests and means.
12 All these power relations are put into perspective and encompassed in another dynamic structure, a geo-ecological one, which together represent the inequalities of development, the territories of extraction or consumption of carbon energies, and the zones experiencing accelerated collapse of environmental equilibrium.
13 The longer the war goes on, the more difficult it will be to address it at only the first level, however dramatic it may be, and to ignore the pressure coming from the higher levels. In other words, this is a new kind of local-global war. I believe in the ability of Ukrainian citizens — supported by the commitment and supplies of their Western allies, and morale buoyed by the welcome we have given to their women and children — to contain this aggression and drive back the Russian tanks.
14 But, perhaps out of methodological pessimism, I also believe that the war, if it does not escalate to extremes and set off a process of mutual destruction, will be long lasting and will be as destructive as it will be barbaric. Yet with time and brutality also comes inexplicable hatred, not only towards governments and regimes, but between peoples, that last generations. Pacifism, as I said as early as March, “is not an option” (interview with Mediapart, 7 March 2022). I do not disavow this. But peace is a necessity for the planet, a “perpetual” peace, as Kant called it, meaning a peace whose very nature does not contain the premise of renewed war. Such was, theoretically, the goal of institutions of international law such as the United Nations and the disarmament conventions that have lost all legitimacy and credibility since the end of the Cold War under the pressure of various powers, Vladimir Putin’s Russia being the latest. When and how will we take up the matter, consolidating or crossing which borders, forging which alliances and with whom? I cannot say .
This text is the unedited transcript of Etienne Balibar’s keynote speech at the colloquium organized by le Grand Continent at the Sorbonne University on May 17, 2022, “After the invasion of Ukraine, Europe in the interregnum”.