Not everyone you dislike is a war criminal. This should go without saying, but apparently Roger Waters — co-founder of the legendary rock band Pink Floyd but most known to younger audiences as the man who wanted Madonna to boycott Eurovision when it was held in Israel and who thinks he is more important than Drake and the Weeknd — needs to have it repeated.
Waters recently included a picture of Joe Biden in a list of war criminals featured in his “This Is Not A Drill” live show. In an interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish, the presenter pushed back on the inclusion while the rock star stuck to his guns, accusing Biden of “fueling the fire in the Ukraine” and insisting that it was a “huge crime.” The US, Waters insisted, should encourage Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “to negotiate, obviating the need for this horrific, horrendous war.”
I agree that the war in Ukraine is horrific and horrendous. Yet Waters seems to think that it is Joe Biden’s or Volodymyr Zelensky’s fault. His use of the article “the” in front of Ukraine also suggests that he doesn’t believe it is a legitimate country (the Soviets used to call it “the Ukraine” rather than “Ukraine” to diminish any claims to sovereignty the Ukrainian people may have made). Rather than laying the blame squarely at the feed of Vladimir Putin — the man who actually ordered the Russian invasion of a sovereign state — Waters wants to posture against perceived western imperialism. He’s criticized Donald Trump before, in similarly strong terms. It’s clear he wants to make a point about how the US treats other countries.
I don’t disagree with Waters that America has a lot to answer for in the world. We’ve meddled in Ukrainian internal affairs too, most notably in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, aiding a coup as we’ve done all too many times. And then, of course, there was Vietnam. And Iraq. And Afghanistan. I’m not here to argue America and the west are innocents. We have plenty of blood on our hands.
And yet, for all our faults, we did not invade Ukraine. Putin did. We are not the bad guys here. Neither is Zelensky. The Ukrainian people, fighting for the sovereignty of their country which has been invaded by a hostile and brutal foreign oppressor, are the heroes of our story. Asking them to negotiate an end to the hostilities is like celebrating Chamberlain declaring “peace in our time.” It might make you feel good, but it’s all a lie. There can be no peace when your neighbor is determined to destroy you.
I protested against the Iraq War because no matter how evil I personally found Saddam Hussein I did not see a justification for invading a sovereign state which had not attacked us. The most conservative estimate of Iraqi civilian casualties of our war is over 180,000. The true total is much higher. None of them should have died. I thought it in 2002 and I still believe that in 2022.
I wonder if Waters would have encouraged the Iraqi people in 2003 to negotiate with us, the invading and occupying force? Would he have said, “Sure, give up your oil or part of your territory if it means ending the war”? Because that’s what Putin wants: Ukrainian territory. We know this because he’s told us; he’s already taken Crimea, and now he wants the Donbas.
As reprehensible as America’s imperial wars of the 20th and 21st century were, they were not wars of conquest. There was never any serious talk nor motivation of incorporating Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan into the American empire. Nation-building and forcing our way of life on sovereign states might be a form of imperialism, but the idea was that eventually the United States military would leave those countries.
Putin, on the other hand, doesn’t intend to go anywhere. He is determined to reclaim the old Soviet empire, spreading autocracy and oligarchic economics while he’s at it. In doing so, he not only threatens the peace which has mostly held in Europe since the end of the Second World War, but he threatens the existing global order of sovereign nation-states.
That in itself is very dangerous. The postwar order has, despite its flaws, proven remarkably stable and extremely conducive to peace. That is because, largely, we accept that wars of conquest are no longer acceptable. Instead, we try to resolve our differences diplomatically. The danger in Ukraine, I fear, is that if Putin succeeds in retaking any more territory lost to Ukrainian independence — he already illegally annexed Crimea — that he could be emboldened elsewhere.
I’m not alone in this fear; there’s a reason Finland and Sweden want to join NATO. Imagine, too, if other nations then began emulating Putin. China is already saber-rattling over Taiwan (this doesn’t bother Waters, apparently, because he said at the same time as making his Ukraine comments that “Taiwan is part of China”.) Argentina wants the Falklands. Pakistan and India have a longstanding border dispute over Kashmir. Suddenly, the international order looks much more imperiled than it was six months ago.
None of this means I want the United States to be further involved than it already is in the conflict in Ukraine. Russia is a nuclear power and I do not believe Putin is afraid of using nukes the way past leaders have been. There is no coming back from a nuclear holocaust, and we can’t pretend otherwise.
Joe Biden is thus in the unenviable position of squaring that circle. He must figure out how to support the democratically elected government of Ukraine while opposing autocratic Russia’s war of conquest. The consequences of a victory for Putin — even at the negotiating table — could very well include the curtailment of democracy, the promotion of autocracy, and the end of a global order which has promoted a historic and unprecedented era of world peace for the better part of the past century.
Ending a war in which tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocent people are suffering and dying is a noble goal. I respect Waters’ desire for a cessation of hostilities. I even share it. At the end of the day, this war — like all bourgeois wars — is a war against the working class. It is not one that Ukraine started, though, and because of that Ukraine must be allowed to fight and win or lose on their own terms.
If it’s all the same to Roger Waters, then, I’ll continue to take my lead from the Ukrainian people and not a rockstar-turned-pundit. I hope Joe Biden and the rest of the world will, too. Slava Ukraini!