Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, most of the focus attention has been on the military and humanitarian aspects of the conflict. The war is, after all, a geopolitical earthquake, the worst fighting and refugee crisis on European soil since World War II. It is possible that the war in Ukraine will spread beyond its borders or escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. Major conflict between the world’s great powers is more likely than at any time since the 1980s, if not earlier.
But the most important and lasting aspect of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not the death and destruction it unleashed. It marks a major turning point in history, a paradigm shift in the political and ideological framework of the world in the same league as September 11, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the two World Wars. All of these disasters, in their time, destroyed the world’s ideological, political and even cultural frameworks replaced them with new ones.
For one thing, the post-Cold War optimism of the past thirty years is well and indeed destroyed. As John Horvat put it, the “end of history just ended.”1 After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War division between communism and anti-communism gave way to the nearly universal belief—a faith, really—in democracy, free-trade, peace, and global integration as the final stop of humanity’s evolution. Institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union personified this belief. Thomas Friedman expressed this faith in the 1990s with his so-called Golden Arches Theory, which stated that no two countries with McDonald’s franchises have ever gone to war with each other (both Russia and Ukraine have McDonald’s).
In truth, this post-Cold War dispensation started to crumble almost as soon as it began. Political divisions between the U.S. and Europe have been increasing for years. September 11 and its aftermath were a major blow to this democratic faith and trans-Atlantic unity. European powers, especially Germany, drastically cut their militaries to the point that they are practically defenseless. American Presidents of both political parties have steadily reduced the United States military presence to a shadow of what it was a generation ago. In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that NATO was “brain dead” and prosed replacing the alliance with a pan-European military that excludes the United States. The Western alliance also suffered a significant blow with the collapse of Afghanistan in August 2021.
Western weakness and political disunity were major factors in Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine. He assumed that the West would yawn and make an accommodation with Russia, just as it had done previously in Crimea in 2014 and Georgia in 2008 (Russia, Crimea, and Georgia, by the way, all have Mcdonald’s franchises).
Surprisingly, the opposite has occurred. Literally overnight, Putin’s invasion has united the Western countries and reinvigorated NATO as the main defensive alliance for the free world. European powers are now racing to rebuild their militaries. On February 27, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced €100 billion ($110.6 billion) in new military spending, meeting the 2% GDP target for defense spending for the first time in decades. “Our goal is to have one of the most capable, powerful armies in Europe in the course of this decade,” said German Finance Minister Christian Lindner.2 Calls for more military spending are resounding in nearly every European capital. Almost every NATO member has sent weapons to Ukraine, including rifles, ammunition, and anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles.
This unity is not only political. Western leaders and Putin himself have all made it clear that the war in Ukraine is not only about Ukraine. It is a fight between two political systems, two ideologies. The paradigm of the “end of history” marked by liberalism, consensus, and “dialogue” has given way to a new ideological struggle, which will define the twenty-first century, just as the Cold War defined the twentieth.
During the Cold War, an Iron Curtain divided Europe ideologically and physically. Both sides could not have been more clearly defined. On one side was the communist world dominated by the Soviet Union, promoting world revolution, atheism, and slavery to a totalitarian, socialist state. On the other side was the free world, led by the United States, representing order, Christianity, freedom, and Western civilization. One alliance represented good, the other evil.
In today’s standoff between Russia and the West, the political lines are also clear. The vast majority of Western and non-Western countries have united in opposition to Russia. The Russian invasion is clearly immoral and has isolated Putin from the international community more than Joseph Stalin ever was. Few in the West support Putin’s bloody offensive in Ukraine, even among his most ardent supporters. China, Putin’s most important ally, has remained neutral in the war.
The ideological division, however, is not so clear-cut. While polls show majority support in the West for Ukraine, many on the right and the left have taken Russia’s side. Both Russia’s and Ukraine’s supporters, however, agree on one thing: the war in Ukraine is a proxy war in a broader fight between two irreconcilable ideologies.
On one side is the cause of liberal democracy, the foundation of the modern world. Even before the invasion, many Western leaders had declared that the great battle of the future will be to defend democracy. On his trip to Europe in June 2021, Joe Biden stated that he was going to “rally the world’s democracies” in the face of threats from “autocracies,” in particular Russia and China. The struggle, he wrote, is “a defining question of our time.”3
This rallying cry for democracy increased greatly after the Russians invaded Ukraine. In the speech where he announced new German defense spending, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that the reason was to better protect the country from attack and “protect our freedom and our democracy.”4 In a guest essay for the New York Times, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote that “never in my life have I seen an international crisis where the dividing line between right and wrong has been so stark, as the Russian war machine unleashes its fury on a proud democracy.” Mr. Putin, he wrote, was attacking “the very foundation of international relations and the United Nations Charter.”5
In his State of the Union address on March 1, President Joe Biden clearly stated that the fight to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression is a fight for democracy. “In the battle between democracy and autocracy,” he declared, “democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”6 On March 2, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that the war in Ukraine shows that “democracy is no longer viewed as an undisputed system. It has been called into question right before our eyes.” Now, he said, Europe must agree to “pay the price of peace, freedom, and democracy.”7 In his speech to the U.S. Congress on March 16, Ukrainian President Zelensky presented the war in his country as a fight to defend democracy. “Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy.”8
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau framed the war in Ukraine as part of a struggle to restore faith in democratic institutions. “Democracy is always stronger than authoritarianism,” he said while lamenting: “If we’re going to be honest with each other, democracy hasn’t exactly been at its best.”9
Trudeau is correct to say that democracy is faltering, but not for the reasons he meant.
In the past, leftists in the West generally sympathized with the Soviet Union, while rightists opposed it. Today, many people in Europe and America on both the left and the right support Putin and are disillusioned with liberal democracy. The left sees voting as an obstacle to imposing a progressive, “woke” agenda on America. They are undermining or destroying the nation’s institutions that stand in the way, whether by packing the courts, adding new states, or making voter fraud easier.
On the right, many are disillusioned with representative democracy and see it as a major factor in the widespread social dysfunction of our times. In the name of “democracy,” the West has seen racial hatred in the form of Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory, monuments torn down, jobs shipped to China, election integrity harmed, borders violated by hordes of illegal immigrants, reputations destroyed by false “MeToo” accusations, unborn children murdered, the definition of marriage redefined, and schools teach children that they can choose one of 52 “genders.” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump happened, in part, because voters rejected this suicidal trajectory of liberal democracy.
On the other side of the ideological divide is “Putinism,” a somewhat muddled and eclectic ideology that mixes Russian nationalism, statism, dictatorship, nostalgia for communism, Russian Orthodox mysticism, hatred of the West, and other beliefs from strange nineteenth-century movements such as Russian Cosmism and pan-Slavism. This ideology, expounded and promoted by philosophers such as Alexander Dugin, is understood by few people, even in Russia. Putinism has led to a virtual police state in Russia with few real freedoms, a declining economy, and international isolation. It is also very corrupt, with cronyism rampant and ruled by a nouveau riche oligarchy.
While they don’t necessarily endorse him entirely, many rightists in the West sympathize with Putin or see him as an ally in the fight against what they consider the real enemy: woke Western liberalism. On his Fox News show on February 22, Tucker Carlson expressed this sentiment when he asked a rhetorical question, “Why do I hate Putin so much?… Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”10 Former President Donald Trump called Putin’s invasion “savvy” and “genius.” Steve Bannon said, “Putin ain’t woke—he is anti-woke.” Many other politicians and activists on the right continue to praise Putin’s Russia, including Candace Owens, J.D. Vance, and Mike Pompeo, who called Putin a “very talented statesman” with “lots of gifts.” In Europe, nearly all the right-wing populist party leaders such as Marine Le Pen, Eric Zemmour, and Mateo Salvini support Putin.
Support for Putin also comes from the left. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, and British MP Jeremy Corbyn—all socialists—are some of Putin’s biggest supporters. The first two work directly for the Kremlin, while Corbyn is one of Putin’s most reliable defenders in the U.K. parliament. Far-left populist political parties all over Europe are some of Putin’s biggest fans, including the Left Party of Germany (the former East German Communist Party), Podemos of Spain, Syriza of Greece, and France’s La France Insoumise.
In America, the left has always favored Russia and Putin. Many will recall the famous scene in 2009 when Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary of State under President Obama, presented the famous “reset button” to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In 2015, American Green Party candidate Jill Stein sat at the same table with Vladimir Putin at a Russia Today gala dinner in Moscow, during which she criticized the U.S.’s “disastrous militarism” towards Russia.
This standoff between Putinism and Liberalism is a false dilemma. The West should not have to choose between two false solutions. Neither one can resolve the crisis afflicting the Western world. On the contrary, both ideologies are at war with it.
A central point of Putinism is hatred for the “liberal” West. In his speeches, Putin often attacks the West for its acceptance of sexual perversions such as homosexual “marriage” and gender ideology. While condemnation of homosexuality is not incorrect, his sincerity in opposing immorality is doubtful. The facts show that Russia is one of the most morally corrupt countries in the world, with the world’s highest abortion rate, the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate and suicide rate in Europe, one of the world’s worst drug problems, and a religious participation rate significantly lower than Western countries.
Putin’s hate for the West comes from his nationalist ideology that sees Western civilization as a mortal enemy of Russia, hell-bent on its destruction. In Putin’s view, the West (and especially America) is synonymous with liberalism, which he sees as the source of the world’s problems. He has long promoted a fusion of European and Asian countries into a “Eurasian Union” that could oppose and destroy the Western alliance. His allies around the world are countries that oppose the West and especially the United States in one way or another, such as Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and China. Putin sees the West as encroaching on Russia’s “spiritual space” in Europe and preventing Russia from fulfilling its manifest destiny, to dominate “Eurasia” from Lisbon to Vladivostok.
While Putinism is waging war on Western civilization from without, liberalism is destroying it from within.
In the United States, “woke” liberals are waging a cultural war to destroy the remnants of order and tradition, whether by toppling statues of historical figures or inciting racial hatred with the Marxist BLM movement. For decades, liberals have undermined the natural family with the sexual revolution, first with so-called same-sex “marriage” and, more recently, with anti-natural transgender ideology. Big Tech liberals, who claim to defend “free expression,” have censored speech that contradicts the liberal orthodoxy. Religion, especially the traditional teachings of Catholicism, is banned from the public square in the name of “freedom.”
The choice presented to the general public between Putinism and liberalism is a false dilemma. Both are at war with Western civilization, the flower of the Catholic Church and whose remnants are the last bulwark against the chaos engulfing the world. Western civilization can only be saved—and indeed restored—by returning to the traditional social and moral teachings of the Church. As Pope Saint Pius X wrote in his 1910 encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique:
‘We must repeat with the utmost energy in these times of social and intellectual anarchy when everyone takes it upon himself to teach as a teacher and lawmaker – the City cannot be built otherwise than as God has built it; society cannot be set up unless the Church lays the foundations and supervises the work; no, civilization is not something yet to be found, nor is the New City to be built on hazy notions; it has been in existence and still is: it is Christian civilization, it is the Catholic City. It has only to be set up and restored continually against the unremitting attacks of insane dreamers, rebels and miscreants: ‘omnia instaurare in Christo.’