Have no doubt, Russia is civilizational adversary

Rich Lowry, syndicated columnist

The poet Robert Frost once said that a liberal is someone too broad-minded to take his own side in a fight.

What would he say about those on the right who seem to be confused about the same question?

Over the last few days, Donald Trump told a rally about how he’d supposedly warned the leader of a NATO nation that he’d encourage the Russians “to do whatever the hell they want” against countries that weren’t spending enough on defense, while the former Fox News personality Tucker Carlson broadcast videos from Moscow praising its grocery stores and subways as superior to those in the United States.

For its part, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is refusing to approve another tranche of aid to Ukraine as it runs short of artillery shells in a defensive war against Russia.

What’s notable about all of this is that people who, in other contexts, are fierce about the need to defend West-ern civilization are unenthusiastic about a core institution of the modern West — namely, NATO — and feel little urgency about checking the aggression of a Russia that is an avowed and long-time civilizational adversary of the West.

There are legitimate policy disagreements about NATO and the Ukraine war, but there shouldn’t be any doubt about the larger significance of Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the West’s interests, values and resolve.

In his classic book “The Clash of Civilizations,” the late social scientist Samuel Huntington wrote of an “Orthodox civilization, centered in Russia and separate from Western Christendom as a result of its Byzantine parentage, distinct religion, 200 years of Tatar rule, bureaucratic despotism, and limited exposure to the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and other central Western experiences.”

There’s some ambiguity about this, as Russia has always had a conflicted relationship with the West. In the early 18th Century, Peter the Great grabbed his country by the neck and forced it to adopt more Western ways. He built St. Petersburg as a European-style city, and pursued a dizzying array of military, administrative, educational, legal and cultural reforms. Peter’s mode of Westernizing, though, was profoundly Russian — an exalted ruler wielding brutish, centralized power.

It also caused an anti-Western reaction — as the historian Orlando Figes points out in his book “The Story of Russia” — among the so-called Slavophiles who believed Russia had turned away from what should be its true, distinctive path.

For his part, Putin made a nod toward the Petrine tradition initially upon taking power. He stated his ambition to become “part of western European culture.” But this gave way, under the pressure of NATO expansion and of Russia’s traditional resentments and insecurities, to a determinedly anti-Western view that draws on Slavophile thought.

Putin believes in authoritarianism, in a strong Russian state, in the rehabilitation of the country’s Soviet past, and in a Russian civilization that is superior to a West corrupted by secularism and individualism.

He seeks to reunite “the Russian world,” a concept, according to Figes, he got from the patriarch of the Orthodox Church. He wants to protect the “family” of Slavs and the “tens of millions of our citizens” lost to the Russian state after the supposed disaster of the fall of the Soviet Union.

It’s the misfortune of Ukraine, which straddles the line of Western and Orthodox civilization, to use Huntington’s terms, to be in the firing line of these grandiose ambitions. Ukraine’s desire to be a sovereign state of its own and, in particular, to align itself with the hated West is intolerable for Putin. He’s explained at great length why he believes Ukraine has no legitimacy as an independent nation, and his model of a neo-tsarism where elections are fake and opposition leaders die in Arctic prisons would be threatened by a Ukraine that successfully embraced a version of the Western model.

Give Putin this — at least he’s defending what he considers his civilizational birthright of despotism and illiberalism. Any true friend of our own should be appalled.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.


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