The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Notes & Comments

Russia’s War, and Ours

The temptation to make a culture war out of the Ukraine war.

John M. Owen

Soldier‘s boot in Bucha, Ukraine, 2022; Shutterstock.

If Russia did not exist, we would have to invent it. Not Russia the would-be great power, now self-exposed as a pitiful hulk, bristling with 4,500 nuclear warheads, humiliated by a smaller neighbor it thought to conquer quickly, competent chiefly at destroying cities, terrorizing civilians, and pulling the world toward genuine catastrophe. No: rather, Russia the self-designated champion of international social conservatism, the paladin of Orthodox Christianity, doing battle against hegemonic Western liberal secularism and decadence. Or, if you like, Russia the scourge of America’s neoliberal empire, pushed to the wall by a remorseless capitalist West, now finally pushing back on behalf of the oppressed of the world.

It is these latter Russias that have for many years proved most congenial to culture warriors in America. The populist right has been more obvious in its use of Russia. It has seen in Vladimir Putin something like what Donald Trump saw: a patriot, a man’s man who stands against the Davos–Hollywood–Silicon Valley axis, who is showing the world what national sovereignty looks like, who uses the state to safeguard traditional morality, not dismantle it. If Putin supports like-minded parties and politicians in other countries, even our own, so what? He has made Russia into the world’s bulwark against what Francis Fukuyama called, a generation ago, the universal and homogeneous state. He fights.

Less recognized, but as important, has been the attraction of Russia to some on the progressive left, in this case because of Moscow’s gleeful defiance of the American Empire. The United States has hundreds of overseas military bases. It controls the international institutions that propel the merciless global economy, enrich American capitalists, and keep everyone else down. It bullies any that cross it. Just ask Cuba, Venezuela, or Iran. Russia is one of the leading forces standing against the United States, supporting its victims and working for a multipolar world. That is why Washington has sought to undermine Russia at every turn, particularly by pushing NATO right up to Russia’s western border.

We have here a case study of the so-called horseshoe theory of ideology, in which left and right bend away from the center so far and so symmetrically that they nearly meet, each borrowing ideas from the other even as one eyes the other warily across the narrow gap. That American political center that both hate, meanwhile, takes the opposite view of Russia. For Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s leadership, Putin’s regime is the font of the racial, ethnic, and gender phobias of our day, the international nerve center of reaction. The center-left tends to exaggerate Russia’s reach and competence, seeing Putin as an omnicompetent wirepuller who secured Donald Trump’s 2016 victory and probably controlled him while he was in office. Liberals who previously seldom had a kind word to say about the CIA or FBI abruptly discovered the virtues of vast secretive federal agencies that investigated Kremlin influence. Anything that could possibly damage Biden’s campaign in 2020, such as his son Hunter’s errant laptop computer, must be written off as mischief-making by the Russian intelligence service.

For its part, the center-right—more powerful than popular these days—sees Putin as a tyrant, his Russia as the natural outcome of the dangerous nationalism touted by the populist right. He has concentrated power in the Kremlin at the expense of the country’s national legislature—the Duma—and the oblasts (provinces). The Russian state offends the center-right’s attachment to free markets by owning vast portions of the country’s economy, including elements of the vital oil and gas sector. Russia is cozy with China, the chief strategic threat to the United States; Putin and Xi Jinping have met more than three dozen times in the past decade. Russia is a dire problem, but a useful one.

The horseshoe has been a superb predictor of how American factions would interpret the war. In late 2021 and early 2022, US and British intelligence sources reported repeatedly that Russia was preparing a massive invasion of Ukraine. The political and cultural center believed the reports; the extreme right and left ridiculed them and labeled them as more evidence that the center was trying to discredit all dissent. When Russia did attack on February 24, some populists and progressives were chastened. Large majorities of Republicans, notwithstanding their attachment to Trump and half-formed admiration of Putin, have reported sympathy with Ukraine and indeed say that President Biden has not been sufficiently tough on Russia. Many Democratic Socialists have condemned Russia roundly for its aggression. It is hard, it turns out, to excuse the gutted buildings of Mariupol, the corpses that lined the streets of Bucha, or the millions of displaced persons and separated families.

Still, a small but hardy band of stalwarts is finding it within themselves to do just that and to stick with Putin. On the right, populists are confident that he is in fact de-Nazifying Ukraine, or securing the country’s alleged network of Anthony Fauci’s bioweapons labs, or somehow fighting to prevent transgender athletes from competing in women’s sports. Putin is fighting for the cause; if he loses, Trump may never reclaim the presidency that was stolen from him. On the left, progressives borrow arguments from academic realists such as John Mearsheimer and insist that the war is the fault of the imperial West. They demand an end to military aid to Ukraine, the permanent neutralization of the country, and, for good measure, the dissolution of NATO. For populists and progressives alike, Russia is more sinned against than sinning.

The cognitive dissonance required here is bound to be exhausting. Russia, with the world’s fifth-largest army, must be portrayed as the victim, the country whose legitimate security interests have been ignored relentlessly for decades. Ukraine’s security interests—much more clearly at stake—are set aside. Russia, an autocracy, is said to be standing against hegemony and oppression. Ukraine, struggling toward democracy before the war and now fighting for its life, is at best an obstacle to the larger cause, perhaps, as Putin likes to say, not even a real country. All of this exquisite distortion is necessary if the fiction that Russia is somehow fighting for social conservatism or democratic socialism is to be maintained. No doubt Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the troll factory in St. Petersburg, is busily promoting these arguments, warping American discourse about the war with an eye not only to blunting Western opposition to Russia but also to keeping America a house divided.

The political center in America and the West has its failures; that there is a horseshoe is evidence enough of that. But center-left and center-right are not confused by the war. They see clearly that Russia has illegally attacked a neighboring sovereign state, brutalized and killed thousands of civilians who only want their country to join the democratic West, implied that it plans to invade other former Soviet republics and satellites, and flirted with nuclear war. Putin is showing the world where extremism can lead if unchecked—to paranoia, aggression, destruction, self-impoverishment, and a mortal test of international order. Back to the miserable 1930s, in other words. It is true, then, that our culture wars are implicated in the battles in Kherson and Mariupol. Liberalism is a palpable threat to Putin’s power and to the order he has established in Russia. He promotes and enforces social conservatism at home; he is pushing against the hegemonic West abroad. Had Russia won quickly in Ukraine, his model would have become more attractive, Russia’s influence would have grown in some parts of the world, and the United States would have suffered some loss of credibility. Should Russia end up utterly defeated, with a collapsed army and regime, the opposite will happen: Putinism will lose a measure of credibility in Russia and abroad.

In the end, however, the war is about them, not about us. Russia is fighting not for traditional morality or against empire and oppression, but to keep democracy and NATO away from its western border so that Putin can remain in power. Ukraine is fighting not for expressive individualism or the separation of powers but for its own survival. We must take care not to let our culture wars drive our response to Russia’s war. The political center must not follow the far right and far left into thinking that everything is at stake.

For if everything is at stake, then we are left with the Hitler analogy. When one is dealing with a Hitler, one can only settle for unconditional surrender. Putin is wicked, ruthless, and more desperate and dangerous than we knew. But he is no Hitler. He has not (yet) evinced Hitler’s irrational propensity to play Russian Roulette. He thought he would conquer Ukraine quickly, and he turned out to be wrong. But up until the first few days of the war, the vast majority of military intelligence people in the West agreed with him. In fighting on in Ukraine’s east and south, and threatening NATO, he is following a familiar playbook for countries that have bitten off more than they can chew. As morally repulsive as the prospect is, unless Putin’s fellow Russians depose him, eventually some kind of settlement with him will be necessary. And lest we forget, one more difference between Putin and Hitler is salient: Hitler had no nuclear warheads; Putin has 4,500.