We were talking recently about how clever the Ukrainians had been to call the invading Russian troops ‘Orcs’ even before all the atrocities in the Russian-occupied towns around Kyiv came to light. Then Tina said: “If Putin’s troops are Orcs, then he must be Sauron.”
You can guess what happened next. We started trying to link other characters in the current drama with other characters from The Lord of the Rings, which many have begun to see as a tract for our times. Frodo was easy: that’s Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, diminutive, vulnerable, but also very brave.
We couldn’t figure out who plays Aragorn, but France’s newly re-elected president, Emmanuel Marcron, is a dead ringer for Legolas. Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is one of the more boastful and self-serving dwarves, not Gimli but maybe Bombur.
Alexander Dugin, also known as ‘Putin’s Brain’, is the obvious candidate for the role of Saruman. He’s the Christian fascist philosopher who advises Sauron/Putin on how to destroy the West, ‘the kingdom of the antichrist’ that seeks to submerge Russia in ‘the abyss of chaos and corruption’. But I’m getting too technical here.
Joe Biden is Treebeard, the eldest of the Ents, and I’ll leave it to you to flesh out the rest of the characters in this low-budget remake of LOTR. But do let me know if you figure out where the hell Gandalf is when we need him. Probably late, as usual.
But here’s the thing. Comparing the war in Ukraine to the Lord of the Rings is a harmless after-dinner game, but it’s a very poor guide to policy. Yet many Western leaders are starting to sound like JRR Tolkien is their speechwriter. That’s clear evidence that they’re losing the plot.
It’s perfectly normal for war aims to expand after an early success, but it’s usually a mistake. Ukraine didn’t collapse in the face of the Russian invasion, which was what both Putin and everybody in Western leadership positions expected it to do.
So Western pundits (and even Western politicians) are now predicting that Ukraine will reconquer not just the land Russia conquered since February, but also the territory that it seized in 2014. That may be possible despite Russia’s three-time-bigger population and tenfold bigger economy, though I doubt it.
But are the Ukrainians sure they want to push a nuclear-armed enemy who has shown himself to be irrational and unstable into such a humiliating corner? Are they sure their Western supporters would still back them if that leads to a nuclear showdown (as it probably would)?
Moreover, are the Ukrainians sure they really want the lost provinces of 2014 back? The people who remain in them now are not only Russian-speakers, but mostly people who actually identify as Russian. If Kyiv tried to forcibly reintegrate them into a victorious Ukrainian state, it would guarantee that state at least a generation of instability.
We will probably be spared all these awkward questions, because such a decisive Ukrainian victory is unlikely. What is of greater concern is the way that Western leaders have slipped so easily into a Tolkienesque mindset that lets them see themselves as the embattled
defenders of a West that faces mortal peril from a great evil in the east.
Tolkien had an excellent excuse for writing that sort of books, because he wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy between 1937 and 1949, when the West did indeed face a great threat, first from Nazi Germany and then from the Soviet Union. It was a fitting fable for his times. It is not relevant to ours.
How is it possible to see Russia one moment as a power so weak that it could be pushed out of all former Ukrainian territory by force, and the next moment as a mighty threat to all of Europe or ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’ or whatever?
If ‘the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’, then the current leadership class of the West are all geniuses.
Russia is not Mordor. It is a second-rate great power that must be respected because it has a lot of nuclear weapons, but it poses no serious threat to the security of the rest of Europe or to democracy. Its invasion of Ukraine was a squalid smash-and-grab raid that is being repelled with the help of Ukraine’s friends and neighbours, and that’s all.