Putin is bring­ing back the 1930s

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Ge­orge Will

— Vladimir Putin’s se­rial hu­mil­i­a­tions of Amer­ica’s bewil­dered sec­re­tary of state re­gard­ing Syria in­di­cate Putin’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to desta­bi­lize the world. Here is an even more omi­nous in­di­ca­tion of events mov­ing his way: On just one day last week, Ital­ian ships plucked 6,055 mi­grants from the Mediter­ranean.

What has this to do with Putin? It por­tends ful­fill­ment of his as­pi­ra­tion for Europe’s political, so­cial and moral dis­ori­en­ta­tion.

The Fi­nan­cial Times re­ports that of the 138,000 mi­grants who have come by sea to Italy this year, few are from Syria. The “vast ma­jor­ity” are from Africa, with the largest num­ber from Nige­ria. The U.N.’s World Pop­u­la­tion Prospects says that only 10 per­cent of global pop­u­la­tion is in Europe, which is pro­jected to have fewer peo­ple in 2050 than to­day. Just 16 per­cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion is in Africa but “more than half of global pop­u­la­tion growth be­tween now and 2050 is ex­pected to oc­cur” there. It will have the world’s high­est growth rate, and 41 per­cent of its peo­ple cur­rently are un­der 15. Of the nine coun­tries ex­pected to ex­pe­ri­ence half the world’s pop­u­la­tion growth by 2050, five are in Africa (Nige­ria, Congo, Ethiopia, Tan­za­nia, Uganda). Nige­ria’s pop­u­la­tion, cur­rently the world’s sev­enth largest, is the most rapidly grow­ing.

Even with­out what is likely — pop­u­la­tion pres­sures pro­duc­ing some failed African states — a por­tion of Africa’s mul­ti­tudes, per­haps scores of mil­lions of mi­grants, might cross the Mediter­ranean to Europe. There, 24 per­cent of the peo­ple are 60 and over, and no coun­try has a birth rate suf­fi­cient to main­tain cur­rent pop­u­la­tion sizes. Who but im­mi­grants can work and fund Europe’s wel­fare states for its gray­ing publics?

Europe has re­cently been po­lit­i­cally desta­bi­lized and so­cially con­vulsed by the ar­rival of a mil­lion Syr­ian mi­grants seek­ing asy­lum. Fu­ture mi­gra­tions from Africa, with a large Mus­lim com­po­nent, could pose the great­est threat to the so­cial co­he­sion of Europe since 1945, or even since in­vad­ing Arab forces were halted at Poitiers in 732.

Un­der­min­ing the West’s con­fi­dent sense of it­self is im­por­tant to Putin’s im­ple­men­ta­tion of his ide­ol­ogy of Eurasian­ism. It holds that Russia’s se­cu­rity and great­ness de­pend on what Ben Ju­dah calls a “ge­o­graph­i­cally or­dained em­pire” that “looks east to Tashkent, not west to Paris.”

Writ­ing in the Bri­tish jour­nal Stand­point, Ju­dah re­ports that Rus­sian tele­vi­sion re­lent­lessly presents “a dan­ger­ous, an­gry won­der­land”: “Russia is spe­cial, Russia is un­der at­tack, Russia


swarms with traitors, Russia was be­trayed in 1991, Russia was glo­ri­ous un­der Stalin’s steady hand.” This jus­ti­fies gi­gan­tic mil­i­tary, in­tel­li­gence and po­lice es­tab­lish­ments steeped in Eurasian­ist tracts pub­lished by the Rus­sian Gen­eral Staff.

Putin’s Russia, writes Owen Matthews in The Spec­ta­tor, is de­vel­op­ing a “state-spon­sored cul­ture of prud­ery” to make it a “moral fortress” against West­ern deca­dence. The Rus­sian Ortho­dox Church ben­e­fits from a 2013 law that crim­i­nal­izes “of­fend­ing the feel­ings of religious be­liev­ers.” Twenty-one per­cent of Rus­sians want ho­mo­sex­u­als “liq­ui­dated” and an­other 37 per­cent fa­vor “sep­a­rat­ing them from so­ci­ety.”

In a new col­lec­tion of es­says, “Author­i­tar­i­an­ism Goes Global” (Johns Hop­kins), the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion’s Lilia Shevtsova says Putin is si­mul­ta­ne­ously im­pos­ing a do­mes­tic rev­o­lu­tion of cul­tural con­ser­vatism, con­vert­ing Russia into a re­van­chist power and “forg­ing an anti-West­ern In­ter­na­tional.” She warns:

“Ever since Stal­in­ism’s re­lent­less as­sault on all ‘hor­i­zon­tal’ ties (even those of fam­ily), Rus­sians have been trag­i­cally at the mercy of the state and its claims: In­di­vid­u­als are in­vited to com­pen­sate for their help­less­ness by look­ing for mean­ing in col­lec­tive na­tional ‘suc­cesses’ that prom­ise to bring them to­gether and re­store their pride.” Such as the an­nex­a­tion of Crimea.

In the same vol­ume, Peter Pomer­ant­sev, a stu­dent of 21stcen­tury pro­pa­ganda, says “the un­der­ly­ing goal” of Putin’s do­mes­tic dis­in­for­ma­tion is less to per­suade than “to en­gen­der cyn­i­cism”: “When peo­ple stop trust­ing any in­sti­tu­tions or hav­ing any firmly held val­ues, they can eas­ily ac­cept a con­spir­a­to­rial vi­sion of the world.” Putin’s Krem­lin is weav­ing a web of in­con­gru­ous but use­ful strands. Its con­ser­va­tive na­tion­al­ism is con­gru­ent with that of ris­ing Euro­pean fac­tions on the right. Its anti-West­ern, es­pe­cially anti-Amer­i­can, mes­sage res­onates with the Euro­pean left. It funds Euro­pean green groups whose op­po­si­tion to frack­ing serves Putin’s agenda of keep­ing Europe de­pen­dent on Rus­sian gas.

In many wor­ri­some ways, the 1930s are be­ing reprised. In Europe, Russia is play­ing the role of Ger­many in fo­ment­ing anti-demo­cratic fac­tions. In in­ward-turn­ing, dis­tracted Amer­ica, the role of Charles Lind­bergh is played by a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date smit­ten by Putin and too ig­no­rant to know the pedi­gree of his slo­gan “Amer­ica First.”

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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