As the first conflict to take place in the era of popular cancel culture, the widespread social media backlash against Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month and ongoing military operations was expected. This was accompanied, not only by Western sanctions against Moscow, but a plethora of major Western brands and multinational companies suspending operations or pulling out of the country completely.
There are some companies that are defying pressure to follow suit, including corporate giants, Unilever and Nestle. Though, it seems, many other brands buckled and sought out social media and public approval, eager not to be seen as being on the wrong side of a culture war. According to Kyle Chayka who recently wrote in the New Yorker, "the invasion of Ukraine is by no means the first conflict to play out over social media, but it is perhaps the first war to be mediated primarily by content creators and live-streamers rather than by traditional news organisations."
Since the conflict began, thousands of social media users have updated their handles and personal bios to include the Ukraine flag and sunflower emojis in solidarity with a country questionably depicted as being a bastion of freedom and democracy at the frontlines in a battle for civilisation itself.
This 'cancelling' of Russia has reached hysterical heights – even Japan's Sony PlayStation, which has been headquartered in California since 2016, joined in the mass corporate virtue signalling, along with rivals Nintendo and Xbox by announcing a halt on all game sales and hardware shipments to Russia, because this will surely have an impact on Russia's strategy and territorial gains.
The sporting world, which was once thought to be apolitical, at least whenever atrocities and wars take place in the non-Western world, has been particularly outspoken on the Ukraine war with various governing bodies imposing their own sanctions against Russia, but this spectacle is far from limited to sporting events. Earlier this month, Russian cats were banned from international competitions; popular cross-stitch stores based in Russia have been taken down on the website, Etsy.
Bizarrely, Russian arts and literature have also been boycotted by several universities and other institutions in the West, a scale not even seen during the Cold War. The University of Florida went as far as to rename one of its study rooms, which before the invasion of Ukraine was named after Karl Marx, who was not from Russia but rather from present-day Germany. Meanwhile, other performative gestures have included British supermarkets removing Russian vodka from shelves and re-spelling chicken kiev to kyiv, "in support of Ukraine" and the removal of a fictional Russian-accented meerkat character from the adverts of price comparison website, "Comparethemarket".
The fixation with cancel culture by liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America offers a partial explanation behind the West's collective response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to "demilitarise and denazify Ukraine", but this phenomenon under the wider scope of 'wokeness' has been deemed as having gone a step too far and detrimental, even before the crisis in Ukraine, setting the Western societies on a self-destructive path.
In an interview last year, American Democratic political consultant, James Carville, stated that "Wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it." While in the build-up to Putin's invasion of Ukraine, British MP and former Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, warned of the security threats posed by "woke ideology" and called on both the US and Britain to stop "obsessing over pronouns". The current co-chair of the Conservative party also said that "our attention should be focused on external foes" as "Rogue states are seeking to challenge the international order. And at the precise point when our resolve ought to be strongest, a pernicious new ideology is sweeping our societies". Recent social media distractions have surrounded the understandable controversy of the inclusion of a transgender athlete who came first place in a US women's swimming competition, having been criticised as possessing an unfair advantage, being a biological male. The fallout of this incident even reached the US Senate, where President Joe Biden's Supreme Court judge nominee, Kentanji Brown Jackson, who is also the first black woman nominee refused to define what a woman is, because she's "not a biologist".
Indeed these political and social developments are taking place amid a gradual realignment in the international order with the balance of powers shifting eastwards, specifically to China, which has cemented its relations with Russia over the past two decades. The failure of the US to win over support from Beijing in isolating and adding pressure on Moscow also demonstrates this growing entente amid the decline in Washington's global influence.
The nuclear deterrence factor and the lack of political will by the NATO alliance to engage in direct military action against Russia has left the West with only strong words of condemnation and the issuing of sanctions. NATO leaders have wisely rejected repeated requests by Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, to impose a no-fly zone over the country but are trying to supply the Ukrainian armed forces with more powerful arms. However, plans to supply the Soviet-era S-300 anti-aircraft missile defence systems have stalled, with some of the European members fearing how Moscow will interpret the move. NATO also will be cautious with the extent of its arms supply so as not to escalate the conflict beyond Ukraine's borders, especially in light of the Russian missile strike on a military convoy used to transfer weapons into Ukraine on 13 March, just ten miles from the border with NATO-member, Poland.
The sanctions may also prove to be a double-edged sword, strengthening Sino-Russian relations and accelerating de-dollarisation. The partial exclusion of Russia from the international payment system, SWIFT, was anticipated by Moscow which has developed its own alternative system, SPFS, and it is likely that Russia could use China's CIPS, although this currently remains under-developed. As writer Thomas Fazi explains, although unprecedented in number and scale, many of the sanctions have been imposed against Russia since the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and Putin has ensured the country has built up its international reserves, diversifying them away from the US dollar.
The position of the US dollar as the world's reserve currency is secure for now, but the signs are showing of changes to come in the foreseeable future, significantly after Saudi Arabia said it was considering accepting payments from China in yuan instead of dollars. For all its sanctions against Russia, the EU still relies on its gas supplies and, amid soaring prices, Putin announced this week that "unfriendly countries" will have to pay for natural gas in rubles, which will strengthen it in the process. On track to become the world's 5th largest economy in the world, India is expected to announce a rupee-ruble payment agreement which could bypass Western sanctions.
The lack of political and military resolve by the US and its Western allies come at a time when the world is gravitating towards a multipolar world order and an end to the unipolar era. However, the West's preoccupation with woke ideology, centred on identity politics and hyper-individualism is not helping in this regard and is proving costly, especially with such accusations even levied at the Pentagon, of all institutions. We are seeing this played out in how the West is ultimately dealing with the Ukraine crisis and Europe's first major security challenge in decades, with a mixed bag of economic warfare and corporate virtue signalling. Still, it is unlikely that briefing TikTok influencers in the White House and withdrawing Big Macs from Russia will yield favourable long-term strategic results.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.