The extreme right idealized the Russian army. Ukraine exposes all its errors.
Editor’s note: The Russian military has long boasted of its tenacity, pitting its recruits against what it sees as softness in the West – a theme echoed by critics of changes to the US military aimed at making it more inclusive. Stehanie Foggett of the Soufan Center examines how the Russian military’s poor performance in Ukraine is portrayed online in far-right circles and says the time has come to dispel the myth that hypermasculine military men fight better than military men inclusive.
Gender narratives figure prominently in far-right rhetoric, messaging and propaganda. The online ecosystems frequented by this movement are replete with rhetorical and visual content rooted in misogyny and calling for subjugation and violence against women and girls. This sexist rhetoric intersects with racist, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-democratic narratives to reinforce the violent worldview of far-right extremism and white supremacy.
A popular lie among the far right is that security is defined by masculinity and that Russia is the pinnacle of that ideal. This idea has seeped from the fringe to permeate the mainstream, as Senator Ted Cruz demonstrated last year when he assimilated diversity to an American army full of “thoughts”. And on April 5, Rep. Matt Gaetz chastised the U.S. military for falling behind in capability and strategy due to “mandatory pronoun training” and other “wake-up” causes. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is a strong refutation of these baseless beliefs.
For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has learned to woo the far right and tap into their shared disdain for democracy and liberalism. To this end, Russia has made common cause with right-wing political movements in the United States and Europe, as well as through “indirect” support for Western extremist groups. Putin is now looking for fault lines to challenge the cohesion and resolve of the international response to his actions in Ukraine.
To understand reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine among the far-right online, analysts need to understand the gender dynamics of these groups. Social and cultural issues provide an ideal focal point for these communities. Russia has exploited issues of gender, sexuality and race in the West for years. Putin has mastered the game in the far-right’s promotion of traditional values and hypermacho authoritarian politics, including the use of sexist and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Take, for example, a common talking point among the far right and white supremacists that the United States and other Western militaries are destroyed by diversity. Milestones for gender integration, diversity and inclusion in the armed forces are met with vitriol and claims that Western militaries cannot include women, minorities and LGBTQ+ soldiers without reducing military effectiveness and combat power.
The far right is obsessed with the idea of “natural” gender roles, with men portrayed as the protectors of white identity in their country and their women as fragile victims to be defended. Their worldview dehumanizes and threatens non-white populations, feminists, and the LGBTQ+ community with violence, whom they view as agitators and subversives who are denied full citizenship rights. The far right fights to keep gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, racial equality, and other human rights causes out of national institutions under the banner of fighting “awakening,” and their approach to the military is no different. The inclusion of people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations in the armed forces, as well as efforts to combatAl racial inequality, has drawn expected derision from the far right, and even from some right-wing politicians. The far right’s “anti-revival” military rhetoric claimed that they would be right if the “revival ranks” met Russia on the battlefield. Events in Ukraine show how hollow this thought has always been.
Many of these far-right talking points have entered the mainstream. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted last year that “[p]maybe a woke, emasculated army isn’t the best idea,” as he adored a video comparing a hypermacho Russian military recruitment ad featuring muscular, shirtless Russian recruits to an American ad featuring various American recruits representative of what the country really looks like. In a similar vein, BlazeTV host Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report said when comparing American and Russian recruiting videos: “We are screwed, people. … Can you imagine this Russian guy bumping into this girl? … If you give me an East Village lesbian against Vladimir Putin, who will win? A short story from Fox An article examining these responses to the opposing recruitment strategies between Russia and the United States highlighted posts by conservatives on Twitter, including one that read: “Pick your fighter”.
Russian state media also entered the debate. In the words of Russian English-language broadcaster RT, now sanctioned in Europe, the videos “contrast the Russian approach to attracting men to serve in the armed forces with that recently adopted by the US military”, and another article reference to U.S. military recruits as “thin picks”.
Now is the time to replace the sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic tropes that have been circulating for years, favoring macho military bravado over intelligent and inclusive security. The far right and their traditional pundits assured their audiences of the primacy of hypermasculine military supremacy. With Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine, this bomb has lost its potency. From the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the military balance of power has always been in favor of Russia, making the Kremlin’s military losses even more shocking to observers around the world.
The reasons for Ukraine’s military successes to date are countless and will be studied by military scholars for years to come. Some aspects, however, directly refute the far-right narrative and are worth highlighting: women make up around 15% of Ukraine’s armed forces and contribute heavily to non-combat support roles. Ukrainian LGBTQ+ soldiers participate in combat operations and fight for their country and their lives. And, in reforming its army, Ukraine has not looked eastward from Russia, but rather westward to conform to NATO military standards, which includes adopting the values, rules and common NATO processes, as well as the promotion of civilian control of armed forces. This prospect has paid off for Ukraine, unlike Russia’s rising death toll, low morale, and the inability to control crime and looting. Accusations of Russian war crimes abound, exposing the meaningless and often gendered Russian tropes that claim their military defends the defenseless.
In Ukraine, the world can see the weakness of Russia’s outdated and ineffective concept of power. Security experts should seize the moment to dismiss once and for all the far-right fiction that masculinity wins wars, that security is not inclusive, and that Russia represents any semblance of enviable military standards in the 21st century. .