In Ukraine, the war of words between the West and Russia has finally mutated into a violent and destructive conflict. Local tensions existed before the coup in Kiev, the integration of Crimea into Russia and the eruption of civil conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine. But the unravelling of Ukraine is not merely the outcome of an escalation of those local tensions. Numerous global influences have also contributed to the escalation of the crisis, one of which is the generally unacknowledged phenomenon of the Culture Wars.
Although conflicts over values tend to be fought on the terrain of domestic public life, they also have a significant international dimension. For some time now, Western commentators have denounced Russia as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘misogynist’, ‘homophobic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘censorious’. The intertwining of the domestic and the global was evident during the media- and celebrity-directed campaign against the Russian political and cultural establishment in the run-up to Sochi Winter Olympics, as Brendan O’Neill argued here on spiked. The Russian political oligarchy has responded in kind to what it perceives to be an attempt to impose Western values on its society: it frequently mocks the West’s obsession with identity, difference and sexuality as a form of decadence, and it regards Russia’s traditional values as morally superior to those of its opponents. In Ukraine, the same conflict has played itself out: Russophiles have portrayed the EU as a gay-rights-focused institution determined to force Ukrainians to adopt an alien lifestyle.
The politicisation of values has clearly created a destructive dynamic. Western NGOs, the media and assorted vain celebrities have campaigned to ensure that other societies live by their ‘universal’ values. Their assertive exportation of the ideals of Hollywood-style identity and gender politics often borders on the bellicose, which in turn provokes the fierce, defensive and irrational reaction of traditionalists.
Putin vs Obama
In their pronouncements, Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Barack Obama personify two very different sets of values, which underpin the Culture Wars both domestically and internationally.
Putin, for instance, self-consciously cultivates an image of Russia as the moral guardian of human civilisation. Last December, in his annual state-of-the-nation address, he responded to Western criticism of Russia’s attitude to homosexuality by lamenting the ‘review of norms of morality’ in the West. He drew attention to the supposedly morally disorienting consequences of Western-style social engineering: ‘This destruction of traditional values from above not only entails negative consequences for society, but is also inherently anti-democratic because it is based on an abstract notion and runs counter to the will of the majority of people.’ In his populist appeal to the Russian everyman, Putin embraced the values of back-to-basics conservatism. He claimed that traditional family values were the only effective defence against ‘so-called tolerance - genderless and infertile’.