Putin’s proxy culture war
By Michelle Goldberg
Recently I reached out to Serhiy Leshchenko, one of Ukraine’s most prominent investigative journalists, whom I’d met in Kyiv shortly before Donald Trump’s first impeachment. At the time, Leshchenko was being regularly smeared by people in Trump’s orbit who placed the journalist at the center of an elaborate conspiracy theory designed to make it look as if Trump was fighting corruption in Ukraine, not encouraging it.
Now Leshchenko is advising the chief of staff for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Russian disinformation. He’s been especially worried about Russian lies about Ukrainian chemical and biological weapons, fearing that their purpose is to sow confusion ahead of a possible Russian chemical weapons attack. “Every day they have dozens of different stakeholders” promoting falsehoods about unconventional weapons made in Ukraine, he said. “It has to have an explanation. Why do they repeatedly say the same stuff?”
Leshchenko’s fear is shared by some American officials. “Based on a number of factors, some of which I can’t discuss, I sadly would be surprised if they don’t use chemical weapons,” Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told me last week.
Given the stakes, it’s alarming to Leshchenko to hear influential Americans repeating Russian talking points. “You maybe know this Georgia congresswoman, Marjorie Greene?” he asked, and then mentioned a recent floor speech in which Greene speculated that bioweapons labs in Ukraine could end up killing people.
Last week, further juicing the conspiracy theory, the Russian government linked the alleged biolabs to Hunter Biden and George Soros. On Thursday, Tucker Carlson picked up the Hunter Biden story line. (America has funded programs in Ukraine to secure labs studying pathogens and toxins, sometimes for vaccine development, and to watch for disease outbreaks.)
There is, Leshchenko said, a pattern to Russian disinformation campaigns. This one started, he said, with anonymous social media accounts. Then it was propagated by Russian propaganda outfits like Russia Today, followed by Russian officials like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and President Vladimir Putin himself. Finally it went global. In information warfare, Leshchenko said, it helps to have “international recognition” of fictitious claims. Elements of the American right were happy to supply it.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has for the moment led many Republicans to rediscover their inner Cold Warriors. But pro-Putin sentiment — or, at least, anti-anti-Putin sentiment — remains strong on parts of the right. As NBC’s Ben Collins and Kevin Collier reported, “The biolab conspiracy theory has taken over as the prevailing narrative on pro-Trump and QAnon websites like The Great Awakening and Patriots.”
With Trump out of power, it can be tempting to dismiss the import of such fantasies, but the Republican Party doesn’t have a great record of standing up to its fringe — witness the recent QAnon-inflected attempt to link Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson to pedophilia. Having watched Trump try to extort Zelenskyy, Ukrainians know it can be geopolitically consequential when crackpot Russian conspiracy theories gain a foothold in U.S. politics.
Putin, presumably, knows this as well, which helps explain why he’s appealing to Anglophone culture warriors. On Friday, Putin gave a speech in which he complained about cancel culture and compared Russia’s international isolation to denunciations of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling for her views on gender. It was preposterous, but it was also a signal to the Western right that his struggle is theirs. It’s what Putin has been doing for years, particularly in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when, as Casey Michel wrote in Politico, “Moscow began forging a new role for itself at the helm of the global Christian right.”
Defending itself from Russia, Ukraine has been waging a globalized culture war of its own, trying to rally the world to an idealized liberal internationalism. Zelenskyy has framed Ukraine’s fight for survival as a fight not just for national self-determination, but for progressive modernity. As he said in his address to Congress, “Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine; we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future.” He speaks to the highest aspirations of Western audiences who’ve been starved for inspiration.
Some of the most resonant videos coming out of Ukraine are about their determination to keep music in their lives even in wartime — like the man playing cello on a ruined street in Kharkiv and the people in Odesa building fortifications while a band performs Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” These videos go viral because they link the staggering courage of the Ukrainians to a common Western culture: Ukrainians seem like us as we wish we were.
The ability of Ukraine to elicit international solidarity has been among its most potent weapons in this war. Against it, Putin needs some solidarity of his own, and the natural place for him to look for it is among liberalism’s enemies. He is working to cultivate cynicism about Ukrainian heroism and convince those alienated by Western culture to identify with Russia. If he’s going to visit further atrocities on the Ukrainians, it helps to have Americans claiming it’s their own fault.