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Putin Is Trying to Turn Ukraine Into a Culture War

A conservative message isn’t selling well on the Russian homefront.

By , an adjunct professor in the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and a co-editor of Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations, and , professor emeritus of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with volunteer ornithologists at a falcon center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with volunteer ornithologists at a falcon center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with volunteer ornithologists at a falcon center in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia, on Sept. 5. Gavril Grigorov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

For most of us, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a brutal act of aggression. But a small yet growing and influential group of European and U.S. pundits and politicians is justifying it as a check against the spread of a decadent West. Members of Europe’s far-right are quick to qualify that Russia’s war is a “clear violation of international law and absolutely indefensible,” as France’s Marine Le Pen noted at the war’s onset. Yet almost in the same breath, they applaud Russian President Vladimir Putin as a defender of Western Christian civilization under attack from an unchecked mob of so-called woke liberals.

As Gunnar Beck of the populist Alternative for Germany party told CNN after the invasion, “Many of us are opposed to the fashionable social trends of our time, some of which are promoted through with public money. We look at Russia and see a European country where these issues have not gone too far.” By invading Ukraine and bringing it back under Russia’s fold, Putin will prevent this internal rot and decay from spreading farther eastward or in the West.

Canadian psychologist and conservative polemicist Jordan Peterson is somewhat more nuanced in his thinking but still makes the civilizational argument that the moral, cultural degeneration of the West is a contributing factor to the war. “We do not … have all the moral high ground,” he told his more than 5 million followers on YouTube. Invoking Dostoyevsky, he described the war as one fought not over territory but over ideas, values, and traditions—one that “can only be won on the intellectual or even the spiritual front.”

For most of us, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a brutal act of aggression. But a small yet growing and influential group of European and U.S. pundits and politicians is justifying it as a check against the spread of a decadent West. Members of Europe’s far-right are quick to qualify that Russia’s war is a “clear violation of international law and absolutely indefensible,” as France’s Marine Le Pen noted at the war’s onset. Yet almost in the same breath, they applaud Russian President Vladimir Putin as a defender of Western Christian civilization under attack from an unchecked mob of so-called woke liberals.

As Gunnar Beck of the populist Alternative for Germany party told CNN after the invasion, “Many of us are opposed to the fashionable social trends of our time, some of which are promoted through with public money. We look at Russia and see a European country where these issues have not gone too far.” By invading Ukraine and bringing it back under Russia’s fold, Putin will prevent this internal rot and decay from spreading farther eastward or in the West.

Canadian psychologist and conservative polemicist Jordan Peterson is somewhat more nuanced in his thinking but still makes the civilizational argument that the moral, cultural degeneration of the West is a contributing factor to the war. “We do not … have all the moral high ground,” he told his more than 5 million followers on YouTube. Invoking Dostoyevsky, he described the war as one fought not over territory but over ideas, values, and traditions—one that “can only be won on the intellectual or even the spiritual front.”

This camp frames the threat to their vision of the West as coming from within, not without. For them, the war that matters is the culture war. It’s a framing that Putin himself has been employing—but one that is much less successful, even in Russia, than its adherents believe.

Putin has played the culture card for years in France, Hungary, and other European countries with strong attachments to so-called traditional values. In so doing, he has tapped into larger fissures over identity politics in the West, which Putin has sought to deepen since taking power.

In these struggles, the Russian president has portrayed himself as defending an authentic European culture highjacked by a radical cultural left. Take Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda” law—which bans the “promotion of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” and further stoked homophobia in Russia. (Putin himself has likened such “gay propaganda” to pornography.) Putin’s actions encouraged similar bills to criminalize homosexuality in Hungary, Poland, and Romania. In short, Putin’s Russia looks to export its version of traditional values across a region it once dominated.

At home, Putin has doubled down on his support for Orthodoxy. While Putin has for years stressed the centrality of religious and cultural values for Russia’s ontological security, he has reinforced this position to justify and bolster a war effort that has fallen far short of his expectations. “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature,” Putin said in a fiery speech declaring war on Ukraine. “This is not going to happen.”

Even as the war has exhibited the brutality (and often ineptitude) of Russian hard power, it is Russian soft power that Putin likely considers his ace in the hole. He has found a loyal tribe of followers and fellow propagandists in the West among culture warriors such as Peterson. Despite working for a liberal mayor in St. Petersburg earlier in his career, Putin has often invoked culture as a fifth column of sorts that has threatened regimes, many of them puppets installed by the Kremlin, within Russia’s sphere of influence. Color revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan often were framed as attacks on Russian values and interests by Western liberals, the CIA, or George Soros, a coded reference to the financier’s Jewish roots. In this sense, the Kremlin views Western liberal democratic culture as a deadly method of hybrid warfare that must be resisted with Russia’s own cultural weapons and propaganda.

But this framing has backfired on Russia inside Ukraine itself. A survey in July by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that only 12 percent of Ukrainians support European or Western values, as opposed to 78 percent who support “traditional Ukrainian values.” But when traditional values are framed as “common to Eastern Slavs,” and Russia or Belarus is mentioned, then support evaporates: Only 33 percent support traditional values, while advocacy for European values jumps to 51 percent.

Ukraine is not as united a country in cultural terms as often portrayed, and its citizens—especially in the Russian-speaking, industrial, and lesser educated parts of the east—arguably lean more conservative than their western counterparts. Yet Putin’s invasion has squandered almost all the soft power Russia once enjoyed in the country. Other surveys underscore that the invasion has accelerated the reshaping of a post-Soviet national identity and culture in Ukraine that is understandably much more hostile to Russia and significantly more receptive to joining the West.

Similar, if less dramatic, reactions have occurred in other post-Soviet countries and in post-communist Eastern Europe. While significant parts of the population may agree with Putin’s embrace of religious values and cultural traditionalism, many have been shocked by the Russian invasion, which has often reinforced or generated positive assessments of the West’s own soft power and security institutions. In this context, the allure of Putin’s conservative interpretation of culture is a secondary, even tertiary, issue for most.

Even in Russia, this approach has not particularly paid off. This may be surprising, since much of Russian society, and particularly the Orthodox Church—which is closely aligned with Putin in support for the war—is culturally conservative. To take one barometer, 69 percent of Russians are against same-sex relationships. By contrast, a similar percentage (64 percent) of Ukrainians support such rights (while backing other restrictions).

Yet Russia’s turn to Orthodoxy after the Soviet collapse derived for the most part from a search for a post-communist cultural identity, not from the emotional embrace of religious beliefs that might be used to justify war. Relatively few Russians attend church services regularly, and when given the choice in opinion surveys, most Russians value living in a country with a high standard of living as opposed to one with strong spiritual values—or one with a powerful military that commands respect and fear abroad. While most Russians view the United States and NATO as dangers to Russia and its great-power status, which helps explain Putin’s popular support as well as significant (if often ritualistic) mass approval for the war, they also display a limited appetite for making serious sacrifices to support the war in Ukraine.

A primary cause of this disinterest is that many Russians do not feel fundamentally threatened by the West in either military or cultural terms. For example, a key component of the Kremlin’s domestic media campaigns is to inculcate fear and loathing of Westernized “traitors” in Russia in the guise of “fifth columnists.” After he launched the war, Putin confidently asserted that Russians would readily distinguish “true patriots from scum and traitors.” Yet recent evidence suggests that most Russians are unmoved by, or have only an unclear understanding of, the purported threat of a Western fifth column, marking a significant failure of Russian propaganda. In surveys just months before the start of the war, most respondents were indifferent to Russian laws that branded entities with ties to the West as “foreign agents And a large minority felt the laws were designed to repress civil society, not defend Russian culture.

Even though the Kremlin struggles to whip up mass support for the war through appeals to defend Russian civilization, prominent Russian elites—particularly the siloviki, current and former members of the security services and armed forces—provide strong support for the continuation of the war. These leaders are often closely aligned with the Russian Orthodox Church, a relationship buttressed by a common commitment to patriotism and conservative, often mystical, religious principles that brand Western progressivism as immoral and aggressive and its global influence a form of hybrid warfare. These groups have long embraced the necessity of cultural conflict with the West as well as within it.

Even without offering strong support for the culture war line, Russian society has nevertheless fallen into line, with little public protest or approbation, behind the Kremlin’s anti-West cultural narrative. By contrast, fierce debates over culture continue to divide Europe as well as the United States openly and deeply, providing political fodder for far-right groups in Italy, Austria, France, and elsewhere. In Italy, the recent collapse of the government and the rise of parties such as the League and Forza Italia suggest a greater affinity for Putin’s push for war in Ukraine. Italian society itself is almost equally split on the issue of which side, if either, to support.

The synergies between Europe and the United States on culture remain significant. This May, for the first Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, organizers described Hungary as “one of the engines of Conservative resistance to the woke revolution.” (When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addressed a CPAC conference in Dallas in August, he stood in front of a backdrop that read “Awake, Not Woke.”) Even though Hungary’s halting support for Ukraine has more to do with not upsetting its energy supplies from Russia, the country has been held up as a cultural model within conservative circles in the United States.

While only about 6 percent of Republicans support Russia in the war, a small but vocal minority has promised to withdraw U.S. military support for Ukraine. Reasons vary from the right’s isolationist tilt in foreign policy to realist concerns over the war’s irrelevance to U.S. core interests. Yet culture has crept into the discourse over Ukraine. “Remember that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky is a thug,” Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn told supporters in March. “Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing woke ideologies.”

Favorable views of Russia have plummeted in developed countries, and most white Christian nationalists and the extreme populist right in the West, Putin’s natural cultural allies, have condemned the invasion or remained silent. But depending on the group, these positions may shift. Peterson condemns the invasion—but quickly offers significant qualifications, implying that some cultural threats may be existential and might justify the violation of national sovereignty and basic human rights.

The revival of the appeal of Putin’s Russia for the Western cultural right will depend on several factors, including how long the carnage lasts in Ukraine. While many in the United States are repulsed by Russia’s brutality, others wonder whether the mounting cost of defending Ukraine, given growing inflation and a looming recession, is necessary to safeguard U.S. core interests and values. Still others balk at deeper involvement in the conflict due to fear of the inadvertent spread of the war. And if Donald Trump (who characterized Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as “genius”) receives his party’s nod as presidential candidate, supporters of Putin may feel emboldened. The combined, if uncoordinated, political influence of these strange bedfellows may allow for the creeping rehabilitation of Putin and his cultural policies.

Lionel Beehner is an adjunct professor in the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program and a co-editor of Reconsidering American Civil-Military Relations.

Thomas Sherlock is professor emeritus of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His writing does not represent the views of the U.S. government, the Department of the Army, or the U.S. Military Academy.

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