Putin’s narrative of the Ukrainian government as Nazis and “junkies” is a rhetoric of legitimation of invasion and a performance of culture war. By invading Ukraine, Putin is not only taking back the land he believed to be part of Russia but also rescuing it from being the ‘puppet of the [morally corrupt] West.’ He is defending Russia’s state-civilization against globalism and liberal democracy based on plurality, human rights, and multiculturalism.
The post-Berlin wall world was lived in the belief of the victory of liberal democracy and thus the “end of history” (Fukuyama, 1992), a promise never fulfilled. The deindustrialization of Europe, alongside the emergence of multipolar economic globalism with the reallocation of production in Asia, gave room for a growing skepticism in different European countries (v.g., Taggart & Szczerbiak, 2002) during the 90s and further resentment with the emergence of populist parties (v.g. Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2016), returning to the nativist ideology, with the defense of native identities vis-à-vis capitalist globalization (v.g. Lindholm & Zúquete, 2010). The increased migratory waves of Muslims from the north of Africa and the Middle East and a welfare crisis that came after the 2008 global economic and financial crisis empathize the appeal of anti-globalist and identitarians movements (Zúquete, 2018), which pièce de resistance is the great replacement theory. However, a significant part of the identitarians does not use the “ethnic, biological and racist discourse of white supremacists, but that of the defense of European culture against Islam pointed out as a vehicle of values irreconcilable with those of modern Western civilization, civic, secular and liberal” (Marchi & Bruno, 2016: 42).
The moral panic of an unconcealable Europe and Islam was, for instance, well explored by the German party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) during the 2017 election after the 2015 refugee crisis. It is now widely admitted that misinformation and fake news played an important role in spreading moral panic and the appeal for nationalism. The anti-immigration propaganda was elaborated within fake news on refugees’ wave of sexual crimes in countries like Germany and Sweden. This helped people turn themselves to the parties who claimed that would stop the open-borders policies that gave free passage to “rapists.”
Russian Propaganda and Culture War
It is very liable and spotted that the growth of radical right movements in Europe is linked to Russia’s strategy of supposedly financial support and pro-Russian media propaganda (Juhász & Szicherle, 2017). The strategy is clear and effective: i) promoting moral panic; ii) driving the people to perceive right-wing radical parties as the solution against globalism and open borders; iii) weakening the European Union by growing nationalist parties; iv) strengthening the influence of Russia in Europe by presenting it as the example of moral strength and unity around the idea of ‘one nation.’ Thus, Russian civilization’s strength lies in its Christian moral and cultural unity and uniqueness.
Russian propaganda on the strength of its moral unity is related to the context of culture wars. The concept refers to a conflict about nonnegotiable conceptions embodied in cultural and moral spheres (Hunter, 1991, 1996; Wuthnow, 1996), such as moral sexuality, gay rights, gender parity, and abortion. Although literature emphasizes culture wars in the United States (US), it happens in different places around the globe, including Russia. According to Robinson (2014), Putin’s third presidential election in 2012 was marked by culture wars in the country. In that year, the members of Pussy Riot were arrested and sentenced for protesting against Putin. One year later, Putin promulgated a law forbidding gay ‘propaganda’ to minors, considering it an unacceptable moral disruption imported from Europe.
Putin’s rhetoric on Russian civilization’s uniqueness is presented in the idea that Russia is a ‘state-civilization’ carried by the Russian Christian orthodoxy and the joint of other religions in Russian territory around a common concern for preserving traditional moral values. For the Russian leader, globalization brought a different kind of international tension:“Many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between people and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognize everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil (…)” (Robinson, 2014: 28-29).
For Putin, the erosion of traditional values – which started with the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union – is particularly evident in today’s Europe, and Pussy Riots protest sounded the alarm for him. It helps explain the urgency of invading Ukrainian territory and the long-term support of the far-right in Europe (Polyakova, 2014, 2016; Shekhovtsov, 2017). Then, Putin took new programs on the culture wars, such as the reform of school manuals, the establishment of a Military-Historical Society with the involvement of the Minister for Culture, the cultural celebration of Russian feats of arms, including new war memorials, and more prominence given to Russia’s part in World War I. Moreover, he recovered Stalin’s physical and ideological fitness program (Gotov k trudy i oborone) in 2014. He started an intense persecution of the “traitors” of the “fifth column” – the liberal intelligentsia committed to Western ideas, ethno-nationalists, and Russia’s LGBT community.
Thereby, Putin’s narrative of the Ukrainian government as Nazis and “junkies” is a rhetoric of legitimation of invasion and a performance of culture war. By invading Ukraine, Putin is not only taking back the land he believed to be part of Russia but also rescuing it from being the ‘puppet of the [morally corrupt] West.’
Not surprisingly, Putin forced the comparison of Russia’s international isolation to ‘cancel culture,’ giving J. K. Rowling – author of Harry Potter – denunciations for her views on gender as an example. By taking ‘cancel culture’ to international relations, Putin signals the cultural dimension of the war in Ukraine. He is defending Russia’s state-civilization against globalism and liberal democracy based on plurality, human rights, and multiculturalism.
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