Vladimir Putin may have failed to conquer Ukraine, where “the second most powerful army in the world” is getting chewed up by one that few specialists had previously thought worth taking into account, but he has enjoyed some notable successes on the intellectual battlefield. Most of these have yet to be recognised, but as time goes by it will be clear that he has helped change much more than the way senior politicians think about international relations. While this will not be much of a consolation for a man who wants to go down in history as a 21st century equivalent of Peter the Great, it does ensure that his ill-starred imperial venture will have a lasting impact on the world.
Before Putin ordered his troops to march on Kyiv, virtually all Western politicians and commentators agreed that peace was here to stay. It was an appealing notion that would have many consequences, among them a growing contempt for what until then had been regarded as admirable masculine virtues such as raw courage and stoicism in the face of hardship, the weakening of patriotism and anything resembling the spirit of self-sacrifice that has always been considered appropriate for warriors.
It certainly did not take long for the word to get round that there was virtually nothing left worth fighting for, let alone dying for; to drive the point home, “activists” took to desecrating war memorials because, they said, those who had laid down their lives did so on behalf of what was a wicked criminal enterprise. After a couple of decades, self-criticism turned into something very like self-hatred as more and more individuals found they could make a packet by going on about the vileness of most of their fellow-citizens. It would seem that in many North American, British and Australian universities, taking pride in the achievements of one’s own civilisation is enough to make anyone rash enough to say as much a neo-Nazi who should be summarily dealt with.
Throughout the West, even in the United States, it was assumed that, though on occasion it might be necessary for prosperous countries to ask soldiers to perform “peace-keeping” duties in backward places where religious fanatics were causing trouble, since the demise of the Soviet Union they would no longer have to prepare for all-out warfare as had their forebears. This illusion persisted until Putin made it clear that he, for one, does not believe war to be an anachronism. He evidently thinks that might continues to be right and that the strong, beginning with people like himself, are fully entitled to either slaughter or enslave the weak. Though no Western leader is willing to go that far, most now understand that the “soft power” they gloried in is no substitute for the hard variety and that unless you are willing to kill large numbers of your enemies you could very well end up among their victims.
When, to almost universal astonishment, the Soviet threat vanished into thin air, Western governments decided they could spend far less than before on their armed forces. In the United Kingdom, they have shrunk to half the size they had in the 1980s. Those of the US are also much smaller. Attempts to attract more members of what may be described as “sexual minorities” do not seem to have helped; all they have done is put off young people from families whose members were accustomed to joining the army. As happened in much of Europe, politicians in the English-speaking countries assumed that technological innovations would reduce the need for “boots on the ground” and that, in any event, it would be far more realistic to invest in education, health and so on than in getting ready to fight wars which were unlikely to break out in the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately for those who imagined their countries had nothing to fear from outside predators, the anti-war idealism they expressed, and which was encouraged by awareness that spending more on social services, pensions and public works could be electorally advantageous, has proved to be wildly premature. What is more, for Putin and other autocrats such as China’s ruler Xi Jinping, it is a symptom of decadence, evidence that, if pressed, Westerners will always “give peace a chance,” as they did when Russia grabbed Crimea and a chunk of the Donbass.
The other day, when addressing a captive audience in Moscow, Putin went on at considerable length about what he sees as the Western cultural onslaught against traditional family values which, according to him, have come under a relentless attack, with paedophiles and other sexual perverts leading the charge. This sort of thing goes down well not only in Russia but in many other parts of the world, where hostility towards the West owes much to the feeling that, in addition to wanting to exploit whatever natural resources may be available, its leaders are seeking to oblige everyone else to adopt the sexual mores which have recently become fashionable in elite circles in the US and other wealthy countries. The urge to “educate” backward peoples was behind the tragicomic efforts to promote “gay pride” and other “rainbow” causes in Afghanistan US representatives undertook before Joe Biden suddenly decided to pull out and leave the country to the Taliban, whose views on such matters are decidedly non-Western.
Needless to say, the social conservatism of Putin, his Chinese and Iranian allies and others in Africa and Asia is shared by right-wingers in the West, which is one reason why there are Republicans in the US who criticise Biden harshly for handing Volodymyr Zelenskyy many billions of dollars when hard-working North Americans are struggling to make ends meet. They are in a minority even among Republicans, but their views, which have more to do with the “culture wars” which are dividing their country than with international politics, cannot be overlooked.
For such individuals, Putin is a valuable ally in the struggle they are waging against the “woke” ideologues who of late have been running rampant in academia and large swathes of the media. They are not entirely wrong. By forcing people to consider the possibility that the world is a far tougher place that the hypersensitive wanted others to believe, Putin has moved the intellectual centre of gravity rightwards as Biden, who until very recently seemed fully on board with the identity politics which is enthusiastically practised by members of his administration, appears to have realised if what he said while in Ukraine and Poland is anything to go by.