Painting the war in Ukraine as the Russian David against a Western-armed Goliath seems absurd to us, but Russians are buying into it
JADE MCGLYNN 21 February 2023 • 5:42pm
If it was ever in doubt, Vladimir Putin’s state of the nation address showed, once again, that the Russian president inhabits not only a different reality, but a different epoch. To Western ears, he has never seemed so out of touch.
The speech began in 2014, with tall tales of Russia’s patient efforts to achieve peace in the Donbas while the West and Ukraine undermined Russia and attacked civilians. It only went backwards from there, as Putin ventured deeper into history, drawing parallels between the assault on Ukraine and the Red Army’s heroism in repelling Nazi Germany.
To us, the idea of a Russia cast as David against a Western-armed Goliath in a war of liberation from American imperialism is absurd. But seen within the mainstream world view propagated by Russian media, popular culture, and large swathes of society – reinforced by state media for the two decades Putin has effectively been in power – it makes more sense. It’s the Putin’s fantasy world, and Russians are living in it.
I still believe that in re-declaring the war as existential, Putin is overestimating the extent to which most Russians have bought into the conflict. Many are detached from it. But his broader framing of the war as a front line in a much deeper conflict between Western global dominance and the right to sovereignty does resonate among his subjects.
The purpose of his bizarre claim that paedophilia is a normal part of life in the West is not merely to denigrate our culture. It is cleverer, enabling Putin to argue he is standing up not just for Russian values and the nation’s sovereign right to protect them, but for traditional values full stop: an appealing narrative for Russia’s many believers.
Such a narrative has been prominent in Russian culture since at least 2012, when large-scale protests against falsified elections inspired Putin to take a sharply conservative turn towards his base outside the metropoles. Sadly, a majority do believe Putin’s fantastical claims of Western moral degeneracy and Russia’s role in repelling it. They appeal to cultural anxieties relating to demography and the destabilising impact of the amoral 1990s, when porn, prostitution and pyramid schemes became indelibly linked with Western culture in the minds of those formerly protected from these vices by the paternalistic Soviet regime.
In this context it is easier to grasp how ordinary Russians perceive Western culture as a threat to their way of life, feeding into Putin’s argument that the country is fighting a defensive war for which it is in no way responsible. There was no admission of any failures; just an insistence that war came to Russia’s door.
Such comments, combined with maximalist war aims, discussions of how Russian industry would ramp up weapon production, and the insistence that the Russian people were ready to make long-term sacrifices, give little grounds for optimism. The gulf in how this war is seen by both sides makes peace almost impossible.
Putin is digging his heels in – he thinks time is on his side. While his view of reality might seem very distant, that makes it all the more important to track his perverse logic. After all, it is a view shared by many of his citizens and, equally importantly, it dictates what is possible in our reality too. And while Putin and the Russian army have failed on many counts, they are by no means beaten yet.
Dr Jade McGlynn’s next book, Russia’s War, is published in March
Selected comments from DT readers:
David NK: “It’s easy to read between the lines in the state controlled Russian media despite censorship.
It’s reported obliquely: for example ‘Putin condemns speech by Biden’ but Biden’s words are then given in full.
This would not and could not have happened in the 1930’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union when it was possible to utterly imprison a whole state.
Russians are still lying on the beaches in Turkey!
So Russians know exactly what the free world thinks of them and why.
There is actually far less excuse in the 21st century that they at the very least, acquiesce with Putin’s madness than the Germans and Soviet citizens.
We can’t just carry on trading and holidaying with Russians once this is over as though nothing happened.”
Dave Morris: “Seems putin is a fan of Joseph Goebbels, who once said:
‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
“Yes, Putin is conveniently choоsing to harbour post WII suspicions, if not delusions, about the West.
This also naturally serves to cover-up his kleptocratic mafia-state crimes, all from his St. Pete’s cronies, in order to continue to rob the Russian state blind.
Playing the good Tsar, whilst casting all of the West as degenerate, has so far served him well acting as an autocrat linking himself to the Rus. Orhtodox Ch. with his mostly quiescent population – for now.
Maybe the game will be up for him soon, if more Russians wake up from the chimera he has created round them.”
“There’s one problem with this otherwise very excellent analysis. Putin, with his emphasis on traditional family values (even if much of it does consist of husbands being allowed to beat up their wives) and his railing against “genders”, paints himself and his country as extreme “anti-woke”.
Which puts him exactly in lockstep with most of the Telegraph and their readers.
I’ve had this argument with countless commenters, who literally cannot cope with the revelation and attempt to dismiss it with derision. Sadly, if you need proof, it is precisely why Putin appeals to so many MAGA right wingers who see him as a defender of those values and want no more support or aid to be sent to Ukraine.
“Putin is in no way an exceptional Russian leader. He is pretty much the norm historically speaking. To frame this war as “Putin’s war” is to make the mistake that any other Russian leader in Putin’s place would be saying anything substantially different. That is not true.”
“…while Russia remains a prisoner of Putin’s delusion”
Are the ruskies really prisoners of his delusion, or is he merely telling them what they want to hear? Are you a slave if you willingly choose to live the life of a slave? Or are you just a brain-dead moron?
IMO it takes a sick mind to send 200,000 troops to surround a country then decide to send them in to destroy and murder the entire country…….then try to blame the victim or worse, the victim’s friends.
Neither Brussels, Washington nor Kyiv gave the order to invade. This is NOT Ukraine’s war, this is Putin’s war! As its been said, if Putin stops fighting the war will end but if Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine will end.