AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
When informed that the Pope was upset by some of his actions, the Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin once famously asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” That question was partially answered when the election of the Polish bishop Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II helped pave the way for the Solidarity Protests in Poland in 1980, which in turn helped bring down the Eastern bloc a decade later. More than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the space of less than a week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, previously Ukraine’s most famous actor, has performed the role of a lifetime. To hundreds of millions, especially in the West, his quotes and videos have turned him into a hero and a cultural icon. He has upstaged Vladimir Putin in his own show. While it is too soon to say how many divisions this performance will prove to be worth, the answer right now is “enough to keep Ukraine in the fight.”
The effect of Zelenskyy’s heroics has been far-reaching and perhaps necessary for Ukrainian survival. For one thing, Ukraine’s victory in the battle for public opinion has forced genuine policy changes in the U.S., and, more importantly, in Europe. The idea that fear of Russia alone would motivate leaders is belied by their behavior in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion. The Europeans initially seemed willing to do little. Biden, for his part, consistently stressed what he would not do. He would not send in American troops. He would not even use the most extreme sanctions if Russia made only a “minor incursion.” Germany said that they would not commit to ending Nord Stream 2.
Today, Germany has not just killed that project, but announced the largest rearmament program in 60 years. European politicians are falling over themselves to come up with ways of offering military support to Ukraine. Even the Swiss are freezing Russian assets, something they refused to do against the Nazis. This is not the result of strategic imperatives, or some sort of quiet diplomacy by Joe Biden. It is the result of overwhelming public pressure, generated by the images being broadcast from Ukraine. Not just of Russian actions but of the Ukrainian response.
On a wider level, the Ukrainians have done what Western elites on both the left and right, as well as dissident political populists, failed to do: Create a genuine nationalism which embraced both the democratic social values of the West and traditional masculinity, nationalism, and concepts of self-sacrifice.
One of the most spectacular phenomena to witness has been liberal and left-leaning social media accounts, which demonized the NRA as a Russian front and blame the Second Amendment for gun deaths, celebrating images of ordinary people in Ukraine carrying AK-47s. The decision of the Ukrainian government to distribute tens of thousands of assault rifles to ordinary people was not greeted with horror by those who have for decades seen bans on private ownership of “assault weapons” as intrinsic to any sort of “civilized” society. Rather, it was suddenly seen as something to be proud of, to be emulated.
When it comes to energy and defense, meanwhile, Green parties in Europe have raced to embrace nuclear energy and increased defense spending.
There is a tendency among some on the Right to try and take a victory lap, seeing this as a vindication of their own positions by their ideological opponents. This is no more mature than the tone-deaf efforts of those on the left to try and refight battles over Donald Trump and Brexit by smearing their opponents for being pro-Russian. Instead, conservatives, especially those who termed themselves “national conservatives,” should take a long hard look at why Zelenskyy and his team succeeded so quickly.
For one thing, the Ukrainian propaganda extols conservative concepts – masculinity in the form of Zelenskyy, self-defense, self-reliance, self-sacrifice, nationalism – through an inclusive and even progressive lens. The Ukrainians contrast their self-defense with the staid conservatism of the Russians. Putin’s distant, clearly staged, manicured, and stern paterfamilias image is contrasted with the younger, disheveled image presented by Zelenskyy and his team on the battlefield carrying weapons. Putin’s efforts to pander to a caricature of traditionalism contrasts with the Ukrainians showing women driving tanks and carrying weapons.
Most dramatically, the greatest propaganda weapon the Russians have used to offset Western influence, one America in some sense handed to them, the defense of traditional gender roles and sexuality, has been turned around. Russian media flooded the West and Ukraine with mocking references to the U.S. and its allies as having They/Them militaries. Yet rather than associating the West with sexual liberalism and thereby undermining it, it backfired by associating the Russians with insecurity. Ukrainians decided that nothing could be more humiliating than Chechens being killed by female soldiers or the tanks and weapons (which are colored pink in Russian propaganda) blasting Russians.
Putin, by declaring war on a European nation, seems to have reminded the disillusioned and lost young Westerners of Generation Z, of a purpose other than self-obsession. This may not be the nationalism American conservatives wanted, but if it transforms Gen Z into supporters of a strong military, secure borders, gun rights, and converts them to the belief that self-sacrifice for one’s nation, family, and home is a higher virtue than individual gratification, Putin will have done a lot to course correct a generation.
Many older Americans, especially conservatives and those worried about the potential of a wider war, likely find much of the Ukrainian enthusiasm slightly worrisome. But Churchill was corny and over-the-top for decades before he hit upon the time and place where it was needed. Zelenskyy, the former actor, is suddenly delivering the performance of a lifetime. It’s not only the one his nation needed, but one the West badly needed as well.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.