Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Where the memories of a faltering mind meet the future, either we can’t imagine the same kind of world war coming again after the terrible lessons of history are so clear, or we fail to envision a different kind of war than we’ve ever known before. In the case of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and its collateral impact globally, we are seeing both unfold.
In his declaration last week annexing occupied regions still being militarily contested by Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes from a proxy battle over Ukrainian sovereignty to a frontal challenge to the open societies of the West that stand behind it.
The modern czar now casts himself as the tribune and champion of all those who suffered from Western imperialism over the centuries and whose cultural integrity, in his view, is now being corrupted by an encroaching liberal worldview.
“Now they have moved on entirely, to a radical denial of moral norms, religion, and family,” Putin preached in his Kremlin speech. “The dictatorship of the Western elites is directed against all societies, including the peoples of the Western countries themselves. This is a challenge to all. This is a complete denial of humanity, the overthrow of faith and traditional values. Indeed, the suppression of freedom itself has taken on the features of a religion: outright Satanism.”
He went on: “Do we want to have, here, in our country, in Russia, parent number one, number two, number three instead of mom and dad — have they gone mad out there? Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed on children in our schools from the primary grades? To be drummed into them that there are various supposed genders besides women and men, and to be offered a sex change operation? Do we want all this for our country and our children? For us, all this is unacceptable, we have a different future, our own future.”
Global Culture Wars
Revenge, resentment and recovery of national dignity in the wake of defeat and humiliation are familiar drivers of aggression throughout history. Lest we forget, the fascism of the interwar period during the first half of the 20th century rooted in this frame of mind also entailed a defense of traditional values against the “decadent” inroads of modern liberal culture.
Though he has fewer constraints on his power than others, Putin is not alone in his retrograde musings. They would find plenty of sympathy among the more extreme anti-woke crowd in the U.S. Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party prevailed in recent elections, has often spoken against “gender ideology” and “the LGBT lobby.” Her defining slogan of “God, family and country,” echoes that of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco: “Country, religion, family.” In China too, part and parcel of Xi Jinping’s rejuvenation of Chinese civilization is condemnation of the “effeminate men” and “sissy boy” culture influenced by the K-Pop invasion. One can only wonder how appalled the authorities in Beijing must be by Audrey Tang, the transgender digital minister of Taiwan.
What is new in this global battle is that these sentiments are dangerously entangled in unprecedented economic interdependence and, in the case of Russia, but also China, armed with nuclear weapons.
Trade And Energy Dependence
A prospering Europe that had grown dependent on Russian oil and gas is now going through withdrawal pains in its frantic effort to decouple from a reliable supplier of energy turned geopolitical enemy. Last week in Prague, tens of thousands of demonstrators filled Wenceslas Square, where enormous crowds once demanded freedom in the waning days of the Cold War. This time around they rallied under the slogan “Czech Republic First” to protest the shared sacrifices with the rest of Europe they are expected to make as energy prices skyrocket due to the war and sanctions. Newly resonant political forces elsewhere on the continent, notably in Hungary and Italy as well as Germany, are also questioning whether sanctions against Russia are worth the stiff leap in energy costs as winter approaches.
It has always seemed oddly naïve that Western leaders claimed such indignation at Russia’s “weaponization of energy supplies,” as if Putin would not use every tool in his arsenal after he summarily breached the very first tenet of peaceful international relations with his invasion. Now Russia is joining with another illiberal petro-power, Saudi Arabia, to cut production in order to drive up costs even further.
On the broader and longer-term horizon, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Australia and Indonesia — all so far aligned with U.S. leadership in the contest between democracy and autocracy– are at the same time dependent on China as their main trading partner. When the world splits further as the cleavage caused by Putin’s insurrection against the Western order widens, this conundrum of commercial interdependence in the context of rising hostility will inevitably become the next front. How China and its economic dependents navigate those treacherous shoals will determine whether limited war morphs into protracted conflict on a world scale.
Soil, Soul And Nukes
Those (almost everyone outside the Kremlin) who didn’t believe the Russian president would break the post-war taboo of “the rules-based order” by seeking to change borders through force are now responsibly obliged to believe he will follow America’s “precedent,” as he ominously alluded to last week, and use nuclear weapons if all else fails.
Putin could not have been clearer in declaring that any attack on the newly annexed zones of Ukraine will be considered an attack on Russian territory and met “with all the powers and means at our disposal.”
With so many setbacks on the battlefield and incipient resistance at home, the calculation of a rational statesman would seek to cut losses. In an inverse image of the invasion of Ukraine, there could be no more poignant expression of opposition to the war than draft-age men fleeing out of the country across the Russian border en masse to safety from conscription.
But as a mystic possessed with restoring the “spiritual Rus” of Saint Vladimir in the 11th century, desperation over a course gone awry dictates that Putin must double down and risk all. Soil and soul are for him one inseparable unity he is destined to recover at all costs. Though, so far, more cautious and pragmatic in his approach, Xi’s stance on Taiwan is not so distant from this vision.
Still gliding on the psychological inertia of the long peace among major powers, we are only just beginning to grasp that what was so lately deemed unimaginable is already at our doorstep; that the relative security we took for granted as an enduring condition could fall apart overnight. Looking ahead a few steps, one cannot reasonably escape the sense that things will get worse before they get worse.