The Cold War, to a great extent a farcical display of bumbling and brutality, was at least about something. The Soviet Union represented nationalisation while the United States defended the free market. The Soviet Union supported dictatorships while the US tended to advocate democracy. (I am of course aware of counterexamples in Chile or Iran but permit me this sweeping generalisation.)
Liberal hawks have struggled to impose similar narratives on recent tensions between Western powers and Putin’s Russia. One can feel that Pussy Riot and FEMEN have been treated harshly but it would be ludicrous to think their stunts represent flowering free expression against arid censorship. One can think the Syrian rebellion began with legitimate anger towards Assad’s despotic, autocratic tendencies but it would be absurd to claim the rebels, as they stand, represent liberal, democratic values. If our totems are exhibitionists dancing in cathedrals and “moderate rebels” who often turn out to be jihadists it is hard to see this as a conflict of values (or, at least, it is hard to think that we deserve to win).
Wary as I am of words that bear the suffix “phobia”, there have been Russophobic elements to our discourse. Tim Wise, comically an anti-racism activist, suggested that Russia’s contributions to the civilised world were, “Faberge eggs, autocracy and pogroms”. Never mind Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov.
Yet there is a conflict. A geopolitical conflict. Putin does not want strong rivals challenging his interests and seeks to undermine the EU and the United States. This puts nationalists in the awkward position of advancing Putin’s aims. “Who cares?” say isolationists. I am not one of them. An isolationist, at worst, is a man sitting in his house, convinced that if he stays inside the fire sweeping his neighbourhood will not imperil him. Others are fearmongering about war to such a ludicrous extent that any criticism of the Russian president is portrayed as a thirst for nuclear Armageddon.
I have never supported intervention in Syria, though our policy of aiding the rebels enough that they can fight but not enough that they can win strikes me as a pathetic, cruel form of enablement. With little prospect of welcome replacements for Assad, and, if we’re honest, limited national interests in the region, this is not, I think, worth a clash of nuclear powers. But we should defend NATO, not because Russia is an enemy but as it is a rival, and a rival that intimidates our economic partners and cultural cousins. One need not believe that Putin is a latter-day Stalin to believe that he is cynical, dishonest and power-hungry, and a secure union of states discourages him from venturing out beyond his little Crimean annex.