Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, above all, a crime; in fact, war crimes continue as you read this.
But it was also a mistake.
In less than five weeks, Putin has destroyed Russia’s military reputation, battered his nation’s economy and strengthened the democratic alliances he hoped to undermine.
A damaged Ukrainian government administration building is seen after a shelling, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. REUTERS/Nacho Twelve
How could he have made such a mistake? catastrophic?
Part of the answer, surely, is the strong man syndrome:
Putin has surrounded himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear.
Everything indicates that he entered this debacle believing in his own propaganda about the martial prowess of his army and the enthusiasm of the Ukrainians to submit to Russian rule.
But there are also reasons to think that Putin, like many of his admirers in the West, thought that modern democracies were too decadent to provide effective resistance.
And here’s the thing:
when I look at the United States, I worry that the West is, in fact, weakening from decline, but not the kind that obsesses Putin and those who think like him.
Our vulnerability stems not from the decline of traditional family values, but from the decline of democratic values traditional ones, such as a belief in the rule of law and a willingness to accept election results that don’t go your way.
Of course, the idea that loose morals destroy great powers goes back centuries.
In the Hollywood version of the story, the Roman Empire fell because its elites were too busy with orgies to bother with the business of defeating the barbarians.
Actually, the timing is wrong in that story, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.
Today’s right-wingers seem less concerned about the weakness of sexual license than the weakness of gender equality:
Tucker Carlson warned that China’s military was becoming “more masculine” while ours was becoming “more masculine.”more femininewhatever feminine means, since men and women no longer exist.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, retweeted a video that compared a US Army recruiting video to footage of a Russian paratrooper with a shaved head and declared that a “progressive, emasculated military man” might not be a good idea.
It would be interesting to know what has happened to that paratrooper since Putin invaded Ukraine.
In any case, the heavy casualties suffered by Russia’s anti-progressive army, as it failed to outmaneuver the vastly inferior Ukrainian forces, has confirmed what anyone who has studied history knows:
modern wars are not won with boastful machismo.
Courage and endurance, physical and moral, are as essential as ever, but so are more mundane things like logistics, vehicle maintenance, and communication systems that actually work.
By the way, I can’t help but mention that recent events have also confirmed the truism that many, perhaps most men who pose as tough guys… they are not.
Putin’s response to the failure in Ukraine has been extremely Trumpian:
insisting his invasion is going “according to plan,” refusing to admit any mistakes, and complaining about cancel culture.
I’m half expecting him to post crudely modified battle maps with a marker.
But back to the kind of decline that really matters.
As I said, Hollywood’s version of Rome’s decline and fall doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
True, the spoils of the empire made it possible for a few people to live in great luxury, possibly including the occasional orgy; the closest modern counterpart to that elite would be… the Russian oligarchs.
But Rome preserved its territorial integrity and military effectiveness for centuries after the rise of that libertine and pampered elite.
So what went wrong?
Historians have many theories, but without a doubt an important factor was the erosion of norms which helped establish the political legitimacy and growing disposition of some Romans, especially after AD 180. C., to use violence against each other.
Obviously, what is happening in the US today bears no detailed resemblance to the problems of the ancient world.
Yet these days not a month goes by without further revelations that a large part of the US body politic, which largely includes members of the political elite, flouts democratic principles and will do whatever it takes to win.
It is amazing how quickly we have normalized the fact that the last president tried to retain power despite losing the election and that a mob that he incited stormed the Capitol.
Many people participated in the effort to overturn the elections, including, as we recently learned, the wife of a sitting Supreme Court justice, who has not even recused herself in cases about the attempted coup.
And although the effort donald trump by staying in office he failed, most of his party, in effect, retroactively endorsed that effort.
Why is that relevant to Ukraine?
Putin effectively gambled that a decadent West would stand by while he carried out his conquest.
Instead, President Joe Biden very effectively mobilized a democratic alliance that rushed aid to Ukraine and helped humiliate the aggressor.
But the next time something like this happens, the United States may not lead an effective alliance of democracies, because we will have renounced democratic values ourselves.
And that, if you ask me, is what true decadence looks like.
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