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Horseshoe Theory Comes to Ukraine

Putin’s Western apologists don’t reflect the usual conflict between Left and Right—but rather comprise an example of both poles making common cause against the center.

Horseshoe Theory Comes to Ukraine
Ukraine-bound M777 howitzers being loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III at March Air Reserve Base in California on April 27th, 2022 (US Air Force photo).

When nations go to war, it is often the morale of their soldiers—not the size of their armies—that dictates who wins and who loses. It is a principle that Russian generals leading enormous armies have learned the hard way on multiple occasions. In the first days of the USSR’s 1939 invasion of Finland, Stalin’s force of 600,000 soldiers outnumbered the Finnish defenders by a ratio of more than four to one. Yet the initial Soviet assault floundered amidst bad weather, unfamiliar terrain, and ferocious resistance. On the Soviet side were poorly trained and unmotivated troops fighting a naked war of aggression. Facing them were men fiercely protecting their homes, farms, and cities. Eighty-three years later, the same script is being written in Ukraine.

Yet it is not just Russian incompetence and Ukrainian bravado that have turned this seeming David-versus-Goliath war into something close to an even fight. Led by the United States, Western nations have given Ukraine more than US$10 billion in military aid since the conflict began—including artillery, tanks, rocket launchers, shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons, drones, and anti-aircraft missiles. The combination of high morale and state-of-the-art Western weaponry has permitted Ukraine to not only stymie the overall Russian advance, but even launch an ambitious counterattack that’s brought something like 6,000 square kilometres of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory back under Kiev’s control.

Crucially, this area includes Izyum, which the Russian military had been using as a repair and supply center for operations in north-eastern Ukraine; as well as the rail hub of Kupiansk. In many cases, the Russian evacuation from these areas has been no orderly retreat, but rather a full-on rout, with many units taken utterly by surprise. “There are tanks, artillery pieces and the remains of a tos-1a heavy flamethrower with its rocket pod sheared off,” reported an Economist correspondent from near Izyum. “More than a dozen vehicles stand abandoned in one garage alone. Remarkably, much of this graveyard of Russian might seems to have filled up without any fighting. The invaders appeared to have panicked, abandoned their kit to the advancing enemy and fled.”

One might think that Ukraine’s ability to defend itself so ably, and even to give the invaders a bloody nose in the process, would be met with cheers from across the political spectrum in Western nations. Yet Putin has his stubborn apologists in the free world—including some who’d seem to prefer that the Russian flag were still flying over Izyum, Kupiansk, and all over eastern Ukraine besides.

Two prominent figures who’ve criticized the Western campaign to support Ukraine are Jeremy Corbyn and Tucker Carlson, men who likely would have difficulty finding any other issue to agree upon. The former is a British politician who describes himself as a socialist, and who infamously led the Labour Party to a disastrous 2019 showing that left it with its lowest parliamentary seat total since 1935. The latter, as most readers no doubt know, is a conservative US television host who’s headlined on Fox News since 2016. Corbyn has argued that arming Ukraine would merely “prolong” the war, apparently on the theory that Putin would be interested in talking “peace” in good faith but not for Ukraine’s irritating insistence on defending itself. (Corbyn also has called on the UN to broker a ceasefire through diplomatic means, as if this sort of solution hadn’t already been proposed and rejected.) Carlson, for his part, has couched his attack in financial terms, arguing that US aid to Ukraine represents a waste of taxpayer money that would be better spent on helping Americans.

To be fair, the idea that Russia was simply going to steamroll its way into Kiev in a matter of a week or two was widespread when this war began. In those early days, even some commentators and politicians who were genuinely appalled by Putin’s actions suggested that it might be more practical and humane for Ukraine to place itself at Russia’s mercy rather than fight a losing war.

Thankfully, that view was overtaken quickly by events. Yet Carlson seems to be in denial of this fact. On September 12th, his Fox News guest was retired US Army Colonel and Trump-era defense advisor Douglas Macgregor, who told Carlson’s three million nightly viewers that, “this entire war may be over … right now things are going very very badly.” Amazingly, he was speaking not in reference to the Russian troops fleeing eastward, but to the Ukrainian troops running inventory on all the materiel those Russians had left behind. These Ukrainians, Macgregor inexplicably said, were in a “desperate” state.

Of course, the fog of war shrouds every battlefield to some extent. And on more than one occasion, war news has been skewed in the West by pro-Ukrainian social-media forces. But by September 11th, the day before Macgregor’s appearance on Carlson’s show, even the Russian government was acknowledging that its units had surrendered control of the northern region of Kharkiv (which was the subject of Macgregor’s commentary). Ironically, while Carlson was discussing fictional Ukrainian failures with his guest, Russian-language media itself was airing surprisingly candid admissions about Putin’s real defeats.

This war has been going on for seven months now. And many in the West have, perhaps understandably, stopped paying as much attention to daily news from the front. Still, more than half of Americans surveyed in August said they supported their country backing Ukraine “until all Russian forces are withdrawn”—three times more than said they opposed such backing. And in an age when Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on the color of the sky, this is one of the few issues that commands bipartisan agreement: The August survey data indicate that American backing of Ukraine is supported by a majority of survey respondents from both major parties.

All of which is to say, the heterodox viewpoints offered by Corbyn and Carlson don’t represent the usual conflict between Left and Right. Rather, it’s an example of both poles making common cause against the center.

In a 1996 book, Le siècle des idéologies, French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye articulated a “horseshoe theory” of politics, by which the extreme of Left and Right begin to curl back toward one another as they get more and more alienated from centrist politics. As one might expect, the theory has plenty of critics—since, needless to say, few leftists want to be lumped in with their opposite number on the Right, and vice versa. But any objective observer can see that there are a number of ideological elements—a tolerance for street violence; a desire to censor opposing viewpoints; a weakness for powerful strongmen; a disdain for due process and democratic politics; and a tendency to lionize foreign autocrats as offering some viable alternative to liberalism—that really do answer to horseshoe-theory analysis.

On the Left, opposition to the West’s support for Ukraine isn’t difficult to explain. Leftist figures such as Corbyn, Noam Chomsky, and Australian journalist John Pilger generally view the United States (and the West in general) as the main engine of evil in the world, and so are disposed to respond to any geopolitical crisis simply by putting down stakes on the opposite side of Western interests. (And to such extent as they can bring themselves to criticize the West’s enemies, they will usually add, in the same breath, that their misdeeds are scarcely worse than those of white imperialists). It’s a pattern of rhetoric that goes back generations.

When it comes to explaining right-wing agitation against Ukraine (or against Western support for Ukraine, at any rate), on the other hand, things are more complex. From the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 50s, to Ronald Reagan’s famed “Tear down this wall” speech of 1987, conservative US politicians traditionally have been hyper-vigilant in regard to Russian militarism, sometimes to the point of paranoia.

But that reflex has been ebbing since the Cold War. The binary dynamic of capitalism versus communism is a thing of the past. China, not Russia, is now seen as America’s most important competitor on the world stage. And since 9/11, militant Islam has rivalled (and often surpassed) communism as an object of concern within the Republican Party and conservative politics more generally.

Many American conservatives now dwell more on the moral threat from decadent progressive culture, far more than on any geopolitical threat looming over the West as a whole. And when it comes to the moral sphere, Putin is actually seen by many social conservatives as a kindred spirit, what with his frequent propaganda about traditional family values (as opposed to, as the Russian leader describes it, the “genderless and infertile” spirit of feminized Western institutions). Some Republicans have even seemed entranced by the macho-seeming aesthetics associated with Putin’s personality cult. Back in 2014, Rudy Giuliani said of the Russian autocrat, he’s “what you call a leader.”

But the most obvious factor at play is domestic political tribalism. The onset of the Ukraine war, remember, followed shortly after the changing of the guard in the White House. And if it were Donald Trump instead of Joseph Biden who was sending military aid to Ukraine, Carlson likely would be praising Trump’s policy as proof of his hero’s commitment to liberty (though, in truth, it’s not clear which side Trump would be on). “Can you even imagine if Trump hadn’t been re-elected and it was Biden in the White House during this moment of truth?” one can imagine Carlson asking his alternative-universe viewers. “He’d be too terrified of Putin to send Kiev a single bullet.”

This war is likely a long way from over, as it will take more than one successful Ukrainian offensive to end Putin’s dreams of Kiev’s submission. But however long the conflict lasts, it will be important for all of us to remember what the fighting is truly about: a relatively small country defending itself from an unprovoked attack launched by a ruthless belligerent bent on conquest.

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