That the West is quaking down to its foundations at present seems broadly understood by many Westerners, based on numerous opinion polls. The population of the West, despite its vast wealth, is mired in self-doubt and worries about its future. Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East are part of this concern. Resurgent Russia, led by the boastfully confident Vladimir Putin, is openly mocking ceasefires in Ukraine, which he agreed to with major NATO members, while the ink remains less than fully dry. Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues its murderous march across Iraq and Syria, undeterred by intermittent U.S.-led airstrikes, butchering and decapitating for the cameras now on the Mediterranean shore. Rome is preparing for war on Libya, a troubled state pushed past the point of coherence by botched NATO intervention in 2011, so grave does the threat appear to Italian eyes.
In contrast, President Obama sees little threat at all, or at least nothing that can be termed “Islamic.” Recent comments from the White House do not inspire confidence that Obama and his national security staff have taken the full measure of the threat emanating from the advancing Islamic State, ISIS for short. The mainstream media has come around to an understanding that ISIS, as its name implies, is grounded in a vehement ideology wrapped up in a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam. They are unquestionably violent extremists, as the White House has noted, but of a particular kind which is identifiably Islamic. That the Islamic State has nothing to do with “real” Islam is a epiphany that only overeducated Westerners can witness. This is more evidence that, to paraphrase Orwell, some ideas are so silly that you have to be an intellectual to believe them.
ISIS is so absurdly, sick-cartoonishly violent that they surpass the ability of post-modern Westerners, what I have referred to as the WEIRD contingent, to comprehend what’s going on. Having never been taught about the West’s long, often unpleasant history with Islam, except to emphasize Western misdeeds, grasping that ISIS is tapping into a virulent and violent strain of Islam that has deep historical roots is impossible. WEIRDos, led by Obama, know all about the Crusades, or at least think they do, but have never pondered Tours 732, Kosovo 1389, Constantinople 1453, much less Vienna 1527 and 1683. Does even one American in a thousand know how the “shores of Tripoli” wound up in the Marines’ Hymn?
Moreover, the testosterone-laden appeal of the bloody and hateful ISIS message to a disturbing number of young men (and women), including thousands of Westerners accustomed to comfort, is incomprehensible to WEIRDos. White House messaging that employment opportunities will fix this problem is not only untrue, it’s the opposite of the truth. Teenaged fanatics, many of them far from pious in their faith, are seeking to join ISIS precisely to reject the softness and decadence of the Western post-modern way of life, which they despise and quite literally wish to kill. To date, this warrior’s call to adventure appeals mainly to losers, criminals, and the psychologically unbalanced, but it may not remain confined to such déclassé elements.
Yet ISIS represents a second-tier threat to the West at present. If Obama should find the backbone to issue orders, U.S. airpower and special operations forces can decapitate the Islamic State in its heartland in a few months. While ISIS-inspired jihadists will create mayhem in Europe, and eventually America too, these will mostly be low-level attacks of the sort recently witnessed in Paris and Copenhagen: evil but limited. In the West to date, ISIS-inspired jihadists, many of them merely wannabes, are incapable of pulling off “big weddings” that will kill hundreds of innocents. Periodic incidents of homegrown terrorism may become simply “how we live now” in the West, something that will change lives and lifestyles but will not overturn civilization. There is no security solution to this challenge and a political fix seems impossible, since real issues cannot be discussed honestly, so increasing violent extremism in our midst looks like the West’s new normal.
Russia, however, is a different matter. The world’s biggest country, possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, and led by a man seething with hatred and resentment against the West, represents a potentially existential threat to the Western way of life — and countless lives. While Vladimir Putin does not seek a nuclear war, he is willing to gamble with hard power, with all its attendant risks, in a fashion no Western leader has countenanced in decades. In recent months, Putin’s embrace of duplicitous diplomacy backed by Special War and periodic outbursts of conventional combat, most recently at Debaltseve, another stinging — because needless — defeat for Ukraine, have delivered victory after victory for the Kremlin.
Strategically speaking, none of this should be happening. Notwithstanding that Ukraine’s deeply flawed leadership, which has refrained from real mobilization much less reality-based war planning, has been a highly cooperative adversary for the Kremlin, Putin has been winning round after round of poker with Kyiv and NATO despite holding mediocre cards. Putin’s Russia, hobbled by sanctions and the collapse in oil prices, is no Soviet Union: in economic terms, it’s dwarfed by the European Union, while militarily, anything resembling a European war would be a disaster for Russia. Americans are advised to think of Putin’s Russia (143 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 14K) as basically Mexico (114 million citizens with a per capita GDP of USD 11K) with thousands of nukes and fiercely anti-Western leadership.
Yet Putin’s streak of wins cannot be construed as anything but impressive, particularly considering how weak his cards really are. With his recent Minsk escapade, where he got terrified German and French leaders to sign off on a “ceasefire” in eastern Ukraine which Russian-backed fighters never honored at all, instead opting to push harder — with weapons, ammunition, intelligence, and skilled commanders coming from Russia, mind you — Putin demonstrated his contempt for the West, as well as how he plans to establish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe, breaking NATO in the process, preferably without major war.
How important Putin’s grand strategic goal is to the Kremlin should not be underestimated. He aims to achieve what the mighty Soviet Union never could, winning Moscow’s control over Eastern Europe — and thereby pushing America out of Europe, at least de facto — without major war and extended occupation. Whether he can actually pull this off remains to be seen, but it’s not difficult to see why, surveying the last twelve months, Putin is brimming with self-confidence, while viewing the West with sneering contempt.
The risk to world peace at present, since Putin’s continuing to gamble with high stakes is now a given, is that Russia will eventually cross a NATO “redline.” It’s impossible to know if the Atlantic Alliance would really go to war over an aggressive Kremlin provocation against a Baltic republic, which is clearly an attractive option for Moscow now. If the West has a redline in Eastern Europe, where exactly it is seems to be unknown to Western leaders, except in a highly formal (and therefore meaningless) sense. Given Obama’s shaky track record with redlines, we should expect the Russians to keep pushing, and in so doing, they may go too far, causing the Third World War.
Or perhaps not. Given the dismal conduct of Western diplomacy over Ukraine, with bouts of weakness amidst bursts of sheer panic, it’s worth pondering if there is anything Europeans in 2015 will fight for, even their own homelands. Over the last generation, Europeans have become accustomed to their comfortable, post-modern lifestyle, with ample state support, where war is impossible, so defense budgets can be cut down to nearly nothing. This is indeed a lovely life — which is why I spend as many months of the year in my rustico, high in the Alps, as possible — yet it cannot last much longer without major changes. Demographics alone will undermine the post-modern European project, as too few children are being born to sustain such generous welfare states and their attendant dolce vita.
Even before demographic demise, the Russians are coming. The Kremlin, which is winning every diplomatic fight and battle in Ukraine, sees no reason to stop now. As Western sanctions inflict pain, doubling-down by Moscow seems a rational choice, as was evident months ago. Putin represents a drastically different vision of Europe’s future than what passes for received wisdom among Europe’s elites. Mired in old-think, including a downright nineteenth century take on force, war, and diplomacy, Putin represents an atavism, a crude, outmoded version of ourselves — the angry white male of liberal nightmares — that Western progressives believed had been killed off by the gender and social revolutions of the 1960’s.
Putin, a staunch traditionalist in matters of belief and social order, oozes contempt for the post-modern West, viewing it as feeble, feminine, and dying. He rejects the European post-Cold War consensus in toto, and seeks to remake the continent along Russian lines. He has promised Russians glory and order, not comfort and decadence. While he cannot succeed in the long run, for reasons I’ve already elaborated, he can create enormous damage along the way, as well as creating conditions which will mandate a return to traditional values in any countries that wish to survive in a Russian-dominated Europe.
Analogies to Adolf Hitler are hazardous, but some appear obvious in the case of Vladimir Putin. In the first place, Hitler was shaped profoundly by the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918, just as Putin was by the demise of the USSR in 1991. Both men viewed the state they served ambivalently — Hitler wasn’t much of a monarchist and Putin wasn’t a diehard Marxist either — but defeat was a life-changing ordeal that created new political and social realities which, in time, Hitler and Putin exploited masterfully.
From 1918, Hitler took the lesson that Germany needed moral rearmament more than anything else since, in Nazi telling, collapse at the end of the Great War was caused by moral shortcomings more than military defeats. Thus Hitler’s famous line that, though he was a socialist, he had no need to nationalize German factories because “I shall nationalize the people.” Similarly, Putin considers that the sudden implosion of the USSR was not due to economic or military weakness, rather to loss of faith in the Soviet system. Such a withering away of national morale, and therefore of the state itself, is something Putin will not have happen on his watch. Hence the emphasis on nationalism, unity, propaganda, and religious imagery to bind citizens to the state — which makes a better motivator of average Russians than Marxism-Leninism ever was — as in venerable Muscovite tradition.
Also like Hitler did in the mid-1930’s, Putin in a few months has managed to overturn European diplomacy, through clever and cautious use of force, remaking it in his own, tough image (though Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC, haven’t quite realized this yet). By re-writing the rule-book of international relations, recasting it in terms of force and will, Hitler and Putin alike created a new diplomatic reality, despite their own weakness, that bears little resemblance to the happy never-never-land of conferences, summits, heated debates over beef subsidies, and cocktail parties that polite Europeans thought constituted statecraft. That naive vision has been steamrolled by the Kremlin over the past year, as surely as Ukrainian volunteers have been crushed under Russian tank treads.
At a certain level, what Putin represents to Western post-moderns is so terrifying that they simply deny reality, individually and collectively. Of course, continuing to deny what Putin is, and what his Russia wants, and is willing to kill and die for, will only encourage more Kremlin aggression and game-playing with nuclear weapons, so a strong dose of reality would be welcome in NATO capitals, and soon, if we wish to deter Putin while he still can be deterred.
However, I am decreasingly optimistic that Western leaders will rise to the occasion in time. I have been sharply critical of Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s candy entrepreneur turned war president, for his diffident leadership as Putin devours his country, one bite at a time. In good post-modern European fashion, Poroshenko has emphasized hashtags, peace vigils, and tough talk (not action), rather than national mobilization and coherent strategy-making, which is why Ukraine is losing badly. Yet NATO deserves sharper criticism still, since their military and economic power dwarfs Ukraine’s, while Western leaders seem every bit as mired in fantasy thinking and hope-as-strategy when it comes to Putin as anybody in Kyiv.
The essential incomprehensibility of Putin’s Russia, which after 1991 was supposed to have become “like us” in matters economic, political, social and sexual, albeit at a languid Russian pace, looms large in the minds of Westerners today, who utter nervous laughter about Putin and his shirtless photo-ops with dangerous animals, rather than pondering what this says about Russia. Some are slowly noticing that twenty-first century Russia has embraced values which are not merely unlike ours, they are the actually the opposite of them.
The WEIRD take on Putin has been perfectly captured by a piece in The New York Times Magazine, authored by just the self-absorbed, nebbishy sort who both writes and reads the Grey Lady. The author, a Russian Jew who came to America as a child, covers his subject with roughly the same dispassion as a Palestinian would write about Israelis. To learn what makes Putin’s Russia tick, the author submitted himself to a week of non-stop Russian TV, while holed up in a swanky Manhattan hotel, fed with room service finery to counteract all the Kremlin agitprop.
Lots Seinfeld-y inside jokes about calling therapists ensue, amidst constant jibes about how latently homosexual Putin and his testosterone-driven Russia really are. What comes through clearly, however, is that popular culture under Putin has created a mindset that is nationalist and firmly anti-Western in virtually every way; at times, it drips with hatred towards the West, seeing nefarious plots against Russia everywhere. That Russians are a bunch of uncouth idiots is made obvious. But the crux of the matter, as revealed in the piece’s title, “Out of My Mouth Comes Unimpeachable Manly Truth,” is that Russia has simply opted out of the post-modern Western way of life, emphasizing outmoded values such as masculinity, faith, plus traditional sex and gender roles, in a thoroughly atavistic manner.
Anybody who has met actual Russians knows how little they, even the cultured ones, have been touched by post-modern Western mores on race, gender, and sexuality. They remain comfortable with the tough, ugly, dog-eat-dog world we have. I have tried on multiple occasions to explain “trigger warnings” to educated Russians, but they never believe me and burst out laughing. What causes this — Communism? Byzantinism? Tsarism? something in Russian water and/or DNA? — is debatable but that Russians simply live in a different mental universe than twenty-first century Westerners do is not.
Besides, Russia’s return to atavism is more disturbing to Westerners than any ISIS madness. At a deep, if unstated level, Muslims acting like barbarians has been part of our script for so long that it fails to stir our fears except when it comes close, as in Paris recently. The only thing that’s shocking is how the madmen are capturing it all on YouTube now. But Russians are Europeans of a sort, they look rather like us, but they certainly don’t think and act like us, and this is disconcerting to Europeans, and many Americans, at a level that cannot be easily expressed. The white caveman of progressive nightmares is back, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
A big part of why the West cannot seem to grapple meaningfully with the Russian threat, despite the fact that in any strategic sense NATO is holding most of the cards in this high-stakes game, is because he challenges not just what we have, but who we are. Putin and Putinism represent a direct challenge to the post-modern way of life that has become normative, especially among educated Westerners since the 1960’s. A worldview that prefers soft, feminine values to tougher masculine ones, that finds patriotism risible, that believes there is nothing worth dying for, has little to say when the monsters we firmly believed were safely behind the fortress walls, lurking hungrily, turn out to be on our doorstep, and the front door is unlocked.
Europeans who wish to resist Putinism will need to become a bit like the Russians, reemphasizing the utility of force in international affairs, and that reassessment brings social and gender implications that post-moderns will find uncomfortable. It should not be excluded that some Europeans actively prefer Moscow’s vision of the future, even if they don’t like Russians, to what Brussels can offer now. Greece may only be the beginning of a disturbing trend. Small, if ardent, numbers of Europeans will be enticed by the mad jihad offered by ISIS, but far larger numbers of disaffected Westerners may find Putin’s worldview enticing, particularly as he moves from victory to victory.
The moral outweighs the physical in war, as sages have counseled for millennia, and today Putin is drinking the elixir of easy triumphs over his feeble foes. This aura is intoxicating to many even outside Russia. If the West wishes to deter Putin before he unleashes continental war, by accident or by design, it needs to examine what it has become and how it can realistically defend its way of life. Only then will it be sensible to discuss strategies to deter and, if necessary, defeat this resurgent Russia.