The last fortnight or so has brought us some of the most memorable moments in Valdimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Certain of them are consequential, whereas others are simply illustrative in their insanity. What follows is an overview of just a few of the most interesting events.
On May 18, the chairman of the Russian parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, called English a “dead language” and recommended learning other languages, such as Chinese, instead. Volodin cited the Rise of India, which, according to him, had to a large extent abandoned the use of English. Of course, to any sane observer, the increasing prominence of India, where English retains a significant status, is just one more reason for the world to learn Shakespeare’s language. This logic should apply especially to Russia, which supposedly is one of India’s closest allies as a fellow member of the BRICS group. That international body also includes South Africa, where English is an official language. However, such simple logic is apparently lost on Russia’s chief parliamentarian, who would rather put his money on Chinese, a language prominent almost solely because of the People’s Republic of China, which will likely soon be in decline as a major power.
Volodin’s absurd statement once again confirms Russia’s conscious, intentional drift away from Western Civilization and its repositioning, under the Putin regime’s guidance, in opposition to the West. To the Kremlin, its conflict with Europe and the United States, including the present war in Ukraine, is no incidental dispute — it is a matter of clashing civilizations.
I have detailed this civilizational dimension to the conflict in a previous essay, and this is not the place to reiterate the arguments I made there. However, I should note the sense of déjà vu I experienced recently when reading James Burnham’s 1964 book “Suicide of the West.” In Chapter 1, setting the stage for the rest of the book by describing “the contraction of the West,” Burnham lingers on the curious case of Russia, which he finds somewhat more complex than the other regions of the world as regards his narrative:
“Peter the Great, the Napoleonic Wars, the Holy Alliance and the influence of Western ideas and technology had brought [Russia] in some measure within the Western concert of nations. But the combination of Byzantine, Asiatic and barbarian strains in her culture had prevented her from becoming organically a part of the West” (p.3).
Later, he adds: “In the years 1917–21 most of the huge Russian Empire, under the command of the Bolsheviks, became not merely altogether separate from Western civilization but directly hostile to it” (p.4).
Does this seem awfully familiar to anyone else? After the Cold War, Westernism was, for a few years, in vogue in Russia, with Boris Yeltsin’s administration taking steps to steer the country closer to the West. Later, a quiet echo of this orientation was heard during Dmitri Medvedev’s term in office. In the end, however, the opposing “strains” in Russian society and culture won out, supporting and imposed by the Putin regime. To quote an old witticism often attributed to Mark Twain, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Another interesting news item came to us on May 26, when Senator Lindsey Graham, flanked by a delegation, met Ukrainian government officials in Kiev. In addition to sending a atrong message of support, the visit saw discussions of subjects which even the staunchest of American isolationists can hopefully agree are worth discussing. As the Ukrainian Prosecutor General reported, among the topics of conversation were “continued joint efforts to counter the criminal activities of the Wagner Group [designated as a transnational criminal organization by the United States] in Ukraine and beyond” and “the possibility of redirecting the $5.4 million confiscated Russian oligarchs’ assets for the purposes of rehabilitation of Ukrainian war veterans.” Combatting transnational criminal organizations and redirecting robber barons’ cash to worthy causes certainly constitute better uses of a senator’s time than debating trivial regulations.
Senator Graham is an eclectic lawmaker, in that his initiatives vary between boldly brilliant and bafflingly bad. Fortunately, this trip was one of the good ones. Certain Republicans and supposed conservatives in the United States have disgraced themselves with calls for appeasement of Russia and the free world’s ignominious surrender. Meet Putin halfway, they say, as though the West had not been doing exactly that for the past twenty-odd years of his rule, as though it had not allowed him to push further and further with every successive assault on another country and as though that lenience had not culminated in this very war. Seemingly under the spell of some homeopathic dogma that “like cures like,” they clamor for more of the same failed policy which caused the war in the first place.
Pacifism of this kind, in the sense of a belief in peace through unilateral concession, is utopian, not conservative. I have made this case elsewhere, though that article probably should have quoted Professor Jerry Z. Muller’s pithy conclusion that “conservatism and pacifism are incompatible,” which appears in Chapter 6 of his landmark book on conservatism. (James Burnham takes a similar view in his aforementioned opus “Suicide of the West.”)
One point the longtime legislator made during his stay in Ukraine was that the issues of Russian expansionism in Eastern Europe and Chinese expansionism in the Pacific are closely related. “There can be no backing off of helping Ukraine because if we fail here, there goes Taiwan,” he cautioned. This, of course, is spot-on. A Russian loss in Ukraine would run counter to Chinese interests, as the Chinese themselves all but acknowledge. Last week, it was reported that Li Hui, an envoy from the Chinese government, had urged several European states to “recogni[ze] the occupied Ukrainian territories as […] belonging to Russia.” The Chinese government has essentially told the world that it wants Putin to win — and many in America are content to give the CCP exactly what it wants. One rule I often heard in my days of playing Bridge was never to take advice from the enemy. That counsel seems eminently applicable here.
Finally, the long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive seems about to commence. True, various commentators have been predicting the attack’s imminent beginning for weeks now, but the difference now is that Ukrainian officials themselves have hinted or stated that this is the case. A few days ago, Valery Zaluzhny, chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, posted the phrase “it’s time to take back what is ours” online, accompanying a propaganda clip which seemed to imply that a major Ukrainian assault was in the works. Around the same time, Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, remarked that his country was prepared to go on the attack “tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or in a week.” Then, on May 29, Kyrylo Budanov, “head of Ukraine’s military intelligence,” threatened retaliation after Russian missiles had struck Kiev once again. As quoted by the BBC, the general commented: “you will regret it very soon” and “Our answer will not be long,” promises which are hard not to take as allusions to a looming counteroffensive.
On the whole, the counteroffensive’s chances look about as good as they could be expected to look, all things considered. As Senator Graham said following his trip to Kiev, “I have never been more optimistic about the ability of the Ukrainians to go on the offense and take back their territory from the Russians.” Still, only time will tell how the push plays out.