Russia’s Strength

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the British have been steadfast in their support for Kyiv.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the British have been steadfast in their support for Kyiv. While others have faltered, we have stood firm, just as Churchill did in 1940 – though it is the Ukrainians who are making the ultimate sacrifice. Putin’s Russia is a gangster state led by a monstrous tyrant; Ukraine is the innocent victim of unprovoked Russian aggression; Putin dreams of a new Russian empire and is a threat to all Europe; we must therefore support Ukraine in its fight to recover its lost territories, including Crimea. Ukraine’s agony and Putin’s ruthlessness are plain for all to see. 

Such is the national mood that one hesitates to raise the slightest objection to this analysis or express the slightest doubt. Nevertheless, there are legitimate Russian interests in the region – some of us documented them prior to the invasion – that Russia regarded as under threat. For example, that the 30 per cent of Ukrainians who speak Russian faced discrimination under Ukraine’s 2019 language law (the European Commission raised concerns about the law in a report in the same year); that neo-Nazi paramilitary Azov battalions were operating in Eastern Ukraine (concerns were raised in the US Congress, which banned arms supplies to them in 2018); and that the prospective expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders was in breach of an informal commitment given in 1990 by US Secretary of State James Baker prior to German reunification, namely that NATO would not be moving “one inch eastward”. The Russian fear of being encircled might verge on the paranoid, but one need only imagine the American reaction if Mexico made a military pact with Russia and threatened to station missiles on its border.  

Clearly, Russia’s attack on Ukraine was an act of aggression against an independent sovereign state, a flagrant violation of international law. But unpalatable though it may be to admit it, the Russian interests in the region that existed before the invasion still exist and will have to be considered in any settlement – assuming that the total defeat of Russia is not a realistic objective. For without a negotiated settlement, and with Russia now dug in, pounding Ukraine into submission, its supplies of munitions apparently inexhaustible, and prepared to resort to any means, there is every prospect that Russia will win this war, and that the West will have been defeated by an axis of Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.   

How have we got ourselves into this appalling situation? How is it that the predictions made at the start of the war that Russia would quickly collapse have proved so wrong? Did we seriously believe that Prigozhin would topple Putin? What happened to the sanctions that, according to Boris Johnson, speaking shortly after the invasion, were going to “cripple” Putin and “starve Russia’s war machine”? What happened to the noose that was “being tightened round Putin’s neck”? Is it still tightening? If anything, it is Russia that is going from strength to strength, and the West that is being suffocated. 

It is against this depressing background that Emmanuel Todd’s La Défaite De L’Occident, (The Defeat of the West), published earlier this year in France, provides a timely counterblast to the windy rhetoric and misinformation that we have been fed. There is plenty to object to in Todd’s book: sweeping assertions, superficial analysis, a reliance on Marxian notions of exploitation, and the depiction of anyone who opposes immigration as xenophobic, all spiced up with a sprinkling of conspiracy theories – like the bizarre proposition that leading American politicians with Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, like Anthony Blinken, want war because they want to see Ukraine suffer as retribution for the pogroms inflicted on their ancestors. Nevertheless, the core argument is disturbing as it is compelling, and it is supported by a wealth of statistics in the best tradition of the French Annales school.  

Todd argues that Putin delivered Russia from the nightmare years of the 1990s, when near chaos reigned, and ushered in a period of prosperity and much-needed stability. On the economic front there have been rising living standards, low unemployment, improvements in health care and investment in strategic industries and agriculture. Russia is now the world’s biggest exporter of wheat, replacing America, and it earns more from its food than it does from its gas exports; it is the world’s leading exporter of nuclear reactors, and second largest exporter of both arms and natural gas; and it has developed a viable Internet (Runet) that is independent of the Tech giants, along with its own financial messaging and payments systems, which makes it independent of Swift. 

Comparative statistics that depict Russia as having a fraction of the GDP of America are, argues Todd, highly misleading because the American GDP is grossly inflated by a host of over-valued and over-priced services, like those of lawyers and financiers. The reality is that Russia is a powerful economy, largely self-sufficient, and enjoys the world’s second highest trade surplus after China. The “moral statistics” are even more startling. Since Putin took over, alcohol-related deaths, suicide rates and homicides have all fallen dramatically. Infant mortality has fallen from 19 per thousand to 4.4 in 2020, which is less than in America, and life expectancy has increased from 65 to 73 in 2019.  

None of this detracts from the ruthless nature of Putin’s rule. But in a country that has never known democracy, Putin is by no means the worst of its dictators. As Todd notes, Putin is no Stalin. Todd’s characterisation of Putin’s Russia as “an authoritarian democracy” will raise eyebrows, but the continued widespread support for Putin among ordinary Russians reflects the care Putin has taken to cater to their interests and look after their welfare. There is a thriving market economy, the freedom to travel abroad, even now, and “an almost complete absence of anti-Semitism” – all things that mark a clear break from Russia’s Stalinist past.    

Another important factor in the stability of Putin’s Russia, argues Todd, is that social life is rooted in communitarian values of authority and egality, as exemplified by the patrilinear family. These values and social structures have their origins in peasant life, made a fertile ground for communism, and have not been extinguished. The Western nuclear family and the principle of the sovereign individual are foreign to Russia, as they are to most of the rest of the world. Which helps explain why the rest of the world has failed to rally to the cause of Ukraine. 

It is, argues Todd, sheer hubris for the West to assume that its secular liberal ideology has universal appeal and is morally superior to any alternative. For in traditional socially conservative societies, it is not at all clear that the rights of the sovereign individual trump all other values, beliefs, and traditions. Where the West sees progress toward a liberal democratic nirvana, others see American imperialism and mass consumerism. America may once have been a beacon of freedom, democracy, and prosperity, but what many now see is a system loaded in favour of an oligarchic elite, social decomposition, a hollowing out of American industry, a chronic trade deficit, and a dysfunctional political system. Nor is it obvious to the rest of the world that a perverse obsession with LGBT rights, that crowning expression of hyper-liberalism, symbolises the West’s moral superiority.   

But what of Russia’s unprovoked aggression? Boris Johnson spoke for many when he argued that the West’s faltering support for Ukraine represents “a failure to grasp the essential lesson of the 20th century – that you cannot ignore the actions of faraway dictators”, a clear allusion to Britain and France’s appeasement of Hitler in the Munich agreement of 1938, which heralded the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Yet the parallel here is double-edged. Yes, Hitler was emboldened by Britain and France acquiescing to his demand that the Sudetenland be ceded by Czechoslovakia to Germany. But the Sudetenland contained 3 million Germans whose demand for self-determination in 1938 merely mirrored that of the Czechs in 1918, who had up till then been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Moreover, in 1993, Czechoslovakia itself broke up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, a development which suggests that Czechoslovakia was never a viable state to begin with.   

Like Czechoslovakia, Ukraine is also a divided state. It is not merely that 30 per cent of Ukrainians are Russian speakers, but that the entire East and South of the country leans towards Russia – linguistically, culturally, socially, and economically. In successive Ukrainian presidential elections, these regions have overwhelmingly supported the pro-Russian candidate (Yanukovych in 2004 and 2010) while the central and Western regions have supported the pro-Western candidate who favoured integration into the EU and NATO (Yushchenko in 2004, Tymoshenko in 2010). The fault line dividing the country is dramatic, as Todd shows in a series of maps with provinces shaded according to how they voted.    

Would a negotiated settlement that involved Russia making territorial gains, that even ceded the Donbas to Russia, represent a pragmatic settlement, a recognition of the right to self-determination of the Russian population of Ukraine? Or would it merely reward Putin for his aggression and embolden him, like Hitler, to go further? No doubt Putin harbours dreams of recreating the imperial Russia of the Tsars, but the Russian campaign in Ukraine does not augur well for further territorial expansion. Moreover, as Todd argues, if Putin intended to invade and occupy the whole of Ukraine, why would he have committed only 180,000 men to the task? It took 500,000 men to occupy the much smaller Czechoslovakia in 1968. It took Hitler over a million men to invade Poland in 1939.    

Whatever one’s view on these questions, it cannot be denied that Putin has widespread support among Russians. And though wall-to-wall propaganda has no doubt played its part, there is more to it than that. The unpalatable truth for us in the West is that Putin has brought a large measure of prosperity and social stability to Russia. As a nation state rooted in traditional values and cultural nationalism, economically and militarily powerful, and determined to defend its interests, Russia is easily a match for its Western counterparts, who are self-immolating in a witches’ brew of hyper-liberalism, cultural Marxism, and uncontrolled immigration.    

  

Alistair Miller is a teacher and regular contributor

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  1. I was surprised and irritated to find ‘Russia’s Strength’ in the print edition. It’s the second article you’ve published suggesting capitulation to Russian bestiality and neither contained anything of substance. What has the latest to do with “small-c” conservative thought? The supposed facts are rubbish – “not one inch eastwards”, NATO missiles on the border – the opinions unsubstantiated and the philosophy second-hand drivel from a French neo-Marxist. But worse was to follow. Who on earth put it on the website as an example of the best the Review has to offer?!! Russia’s Strength. Did anyone actually read it? What do the subs do all day?

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