Putin's war and the Chaos Climbers
Why pro-Russia narratives are uniting -- and exposing -- all the worst people
In the first couple of weeks after Vladimir Putin ordered his legions into Ukraine, the media narrative was overwhelmed by the moral clarity of the situation. A totalitarian tyrant had launched a murderous, unprovoked invasion of another country, whose people were valiantly fighting to defend themselves. America’s hyper-partisan shouters, if not exactly silenced, were at least forced to momentarily keep their heads down. Almost everyone basically agreed that Russia was the bad guy. But now, almost a month into the war, Russia’s propaganda narratives are slowly pushing their way back into the conversation. There are basically three Putinist narratives:
1. Russia’s invasion is a reaction to NATO expansion.
2. Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis and needs to be “denazified”.
3. Russia is inevitably going to win the war, so Ukraine should surrender for humanitarian reasons.
All three of these narratives are baldly ridiculous and extremely easy to debunk. Just for the record:
1. Putin’s seizure of Crimea and Donbas made it impossible for Ukraine to join NATO even before this invasion, because that would have immediately required NATO to go to war with Russia. So this invasion wasn’t sparked by fear of NATO.
2. Ukraine has a very small neo-Nazi element — a group called the Azov Battalion. They number fewer than 1000 people, compared to Ukraine’s total fighting force of somewhere around 400,000. Ukraine’s far-right parties won only 2.3% of the vote in a recent election.
3. Neutral observers like the Institute for the Study of War agree that the Russian offensives in Ukraine have now ground to a halt. Independent visual confirmations of Russian losses are increasing at a rapid and steady pace, and Ukraine is still receiving massive amounts of military aid from the West. Russia still has a lot of ability to deal death and destruction in Ukraine, but they’re far from the inevitable victors.
This isn’t a full and complete catalog of the pro-Putin narratives — there’s also a weird conspiracy theory about U.S. chemical weapons labs in Ukraine, for example. But the three narratives above are the most common ones. And you can see these narratives being parroted more and more by Americans on both the far Right and the far Left.
Putin apologists of the Right and the Left
Here are just a smattering of examples of people promoting and defending pro-Putin narratives.
First we have Marjorie Taylor-Greene, the far-right Georgia congressperson, declaring that Ukraine is doomed:
She also asserted that both sides are at fault.
Tulsi Gabbard, meanwhile, has helped to spread the bioweapons conspiracy theory, and argues that Ukraine ought to make concessions (i.e. surrender) to end the war.
Here is the Democratic Socialists of America’s “international committee” condemning U.S. military aid to Ukraine:
Here’s Tucker Carlson pushing the conspiracy theory that U.S. labs in Ukraine are creating weapons of mass destruction:
Tucker also argues that military aid to Ukraine will simply “prolong the fighting” (i.e. delay Russia’s supposedly inevitable victory):
Although Tucker did once grudgingly condemn the invasion, Putin’s government has gone to great lengths to feature Tucker’s show on all the media it controls.
Jacobin magazine persists in assigning NATO part of the blame for the war:
Before the war, Marcetic wrote an article blaming Joe Biden and the U.S. media for “fanning the flames of war”.
Here’s a former Trump Defense Department senior official declaring that we should support Putin’s invasion:
Trump ally and criminal Roger Stone is also vocally supporting Putin’s invasion.
Leftist shouter Ryan Knight declares that Ukrainian President Zelensky is a fascist (and that U.S. Democrats are fascists):
British leftist George Galloway, meanwhile, is claiming that the U.S. is about to launch a “false-flag WMD incident” in Ukraine, whatever that means.
And here are a list of the only 8 members of Congress to vote against the removal of normal trade relations with Russia:
Anyway, the list goes on. These are some of the most prominent people carrying water for Putin’s preferred narratives of the war, but there is also a small army of tankies, neo-Nazis, and associated other grifters eagerly pushing pro-invasion propaganda. Just to show one tiny example, some tankie even put a “Z” — the Russian symbol for the Ukraine invasion force, which now carries heavy fascist connotations — over a poster for a Ukrainian organization in Washington:
Why do people carry water for Putin?
The real question, of course, is why this diverse array of rightists and leftists is tripping over themselves to carry water for Vladimir Putin’s preferred narratives of the war. The easiest and simplest explanation is that all of these people are basically on the same team — part of a new global axis of authoritarianism, with the extreme left and the extreme right basically indistinguishable in their desire to create totalitarian societies.
I don’t think this theory is entirely bunk — there is a clear trend toward authoritarianism all over the world, and it doesn’t have an obvious left-right valence. But I think it’s a trend more than a movement, and while I think the new authoritarian impulse might nudge people toward support for Putin, I frankly don’t think most of the people listed above have thought far enough ahead to envision any kind of a future regime.
Another, more subtle theory — which I’ve advanced myself — is something I call Last Bastion Theory. This is the tendency of people in the U.S. and Europe to view Russia as the distant protector of something they hold dear. For traditionalists, Russia can be seen as the last protector of Christianity, or of traditional gender roles. White supremacists might see Russia as the last White empire on the globe. And for leftists who view America as the world’s imperialistic Great Satan, Russia might seem like a bastion of resistance. Of course, the Russian government goes out of its way to encourage such perceptions. To all of these groups, the distant sphinx of the Kremlin might have seemed like a power capable of offering support while representing no threat.
But I don’t think this completely explains it either. Once Putin’s rocket launchers rolled into Ukraine and started slaughtering the locals, it became clear that Russia’s rulers were not such a distant, safe ally after all. And the combination of incompetence and cruelty with which Russia has prosecuted the war makes Putin both a toxic and unreliable patron.
And yet some people still defend Putin’s war narratives. There must be something else at work here, and I have a guess as to what it is.
The title of this post is a reference to a line from the TV show Game of Thrones, where the scheming nobleman Littlefinger declares that “Chaos is a ladder.” By disrupting the stability of the current regime, he intends to create space to move up in the world. In the same way, I see many of the above-mentioned figures on both the Right and the Left as Chaos Climbers — people who believe that the travails of the liberal order built after World War 2 represent an opening for their own fringe ideologies to advance their power.
This might sound wildly accusatory, but it’s not — it’s just a description of what has been actually happening over the last decade.
It was the failure of conservatism that gave rise to the Trumpist movement and the alt-right. Bush’s muscular interventionism ran aground in Iraq, laissez-faire economics crashed the economy in 2008, and Christian conservatism failed to halt the gay rights movement. The conservative paradigm that had taken over the GOP in the 70s and 80s failed all at once, and fringe elements — the alt-right, conspiracy theorists, Trump — sort of took over the party.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the socialist Left that started to revive itself with the antiwar movement and Occupy blossomed into a full-blown generational movement with the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign that revived the DSA, spawned a new generation of activist orgs like the Sunrise movement, and created a new (though still modest) socialist media. So far, despite fierce factionalism, the socialists have not yet succeeded in taking over the Democratic party like Trump took over the GOP. But in highlighting the failures of centrist Dems to curb inequality, revive unions, fix health care, or save the welfare state, they clearly hope to be able to pull off a takeover at some point.
In other words, all of the people now pushing Putinist narratives are people who have been able to use chaos as a ladder to build up their own positions within the U.S.’ two political parties, to some extent. Establishment failures equal insurgent opportunities. That shouldn’t be too controversial.
So where does Putin come into this? Both the liberal center-Left and the conservative center-Right are basically committed to upholding the global liberal order. Putin, by invading and attempting to conquer a sovereign state, challenges that order. If Putin succeeds, even modestly, it represents a failure for the U.S. establishment figures who tried to stop him. And establishment failures equal insurgent opportunities. Both the rightists and the leftists here are fighting against the Fukuyaman end-of-history idea that gives their own movements little space to move up.
If Putin defeats the Ukrainians, the conservatives that are standing against Putin will look ineffectual and weak. The Trumpists will then be able to solidify their control over the GOP. And it also means a victory for raw power and will (perhaps implying that efforts like the January 6th putsch are the preferred method for attaining power). But if Putin loses, then Trump and his allies who for years praised and defended Putin’s regime will be discredited. Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan. Even more damningly, if Putin loses, it’ll be a success for the globalist order — sanctions and aid to Ukraine will represent a triumph of international cooperation. Exactly the kind of world order the Trumpists want so badly to smash.
As for leftists, if Putin wins, it’ll represent another failure of what they perceive as the American empire. As with the pullout from Afghanistan, failure to stop Ukraine from being overrun with military aid and sanctions would show that America is a paper tiger, has feet of clay, blah blah blah — pick your metaphor. Frustrated by Joe Biden’s triangulation of some of their economic ideas (just as communists were enraged by FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s), leftists have been hoping to score anti-establishment victories in the foreign policy realm instead. If Putin defeats Ukraine, it’ll be a debacle for Biden and the establishment, and perhaps a socialist candidate will be a little closer to winning the next primary.
So Chaos Climbers on the Right and Left both have some incentive to want Putin to win — or at least for the war to be perceived as a NATO loss. This doesn’t mean they’re ready to cheer for Putin openly, or even to hope for his victory — the blazing moral clarity of the situation is still too strong for that. But it does mean that they feel the need to muddy the waters, to curb U.S. support for Ukraine and make the establishment look irresolute, and to prepare narratives that would allow them to take advantage of a Putin victory.
What these people all fear is the return of the order of the 1990s — a return to the idea of liberal internationalism as the least bad of all possible systems of human organization. If Fukuyaman ideas return to the pole position in American thought, all of the various revolutions that people have allowed themselves to dream about during the past eight years of unrest will be put on indefinite hold. With domestic unrest starting to flag a bit as well, the rightists and leftists must now see their shared nightmare unfolding before them — a great muddling-through, a slow revivification of the institutions that failed in Iraq and the Great Recession and the Trump Era. To paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, many people all over the ideological spectrum allowed themselves to see the chaos of the last decade as a high and beautiful wave that would carry them to power…and now, if Putin is ejected from Ukraine by a triumphant international liberal West, the various Chaos Climbers may see their waves break and roll back.
Maybe what makes someone act like a Chaos Climber is just the craving for simplicity: the simplicity of a single enemy, responsible for all evil things. That enemy, of course, is the American Establishment.
But if the only fight worth fighting is "down with Establishment America," then you're going to want, very badly, to find a way to blame the Establishment for whatever's wrong.
Usually that's fine; you can be anti-establishment without being openly crazy. Crime, poverty and sickness? It's because Washington is in the thrall of evil businessmen / evil socialists (choose your side's flavor) who are stealing our money / corrupting our values. Simple! You can say the same lines, every time, and always know you're fighting the good fight.
But then something like "Russia invades Ukraine" happens. What are your lines? How do you blame the establishment for this? It's confusing! Where's your simplicity gone?
Fortunately, Russian propaganda has suggestions you can follow, showing you how to keep it all America's fault. With Russia's kind help, you can go on blaming the establishment.
I guess some people want a little too badly to have One Weird Trick that lets them explain the whole world of politics. Especially a trick that promises they'll always be The Noble Underdog against The Man.
This is a truly good column, and very much matches my thoughts.
There's one point I must note though: Much of the liberal international order was perfectly willing to let Ukraine fail. Had Putin limited himself to a 'minor incursion' or managed to win within 72 hours - as many analysts expected at the start - he'd have gotten away with it. It's the Ukrainian resistance that deserves most of the credit here, Russia's weakness and corruption the second place, and the international response gets the third place. That's not such a good look.
Now, assuming Putin loses, the big question that remains is how many of the existing order's flaws will be fixed - or whether this episode will lead to overconfidence and return of the reasons that led to the war in the first place. Will the European states remain committed to NATO? Or will they say 'Russia is a paper tiger, no need to invest, not when I can divert funds to my favorite election-winning projects!' Will Russia be abandoned again, or will the West have a realistic policy finally? Will the energy transition advance further? Will the UN remain useless? (ok, nothing to done there) If Russia loses, will the EU try neutrality with China?
1) The extent of EU countries' commitment to NATO remains to be seen. The statements are nice, but that's very easy now. The true test will come a few years from now.
2) There are truly good news on the energy front, at least in EU. In America, the discussion seems to have turned to partisan slinging (and not so many solutions) as usual.
3) Granted, this is a bit in the future, but it's clear many countries will never look at Russia the same way. I expect this to be translated into policy.
So I'd give 1.5 out of 3, for now.