Is Vladimir Putin’s invasion down to ‘toxic masculinity’?

Boris Johnson describes Ukraine invasion as a ‘crazy, macho war’

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin has been accused of displaying ‘toxic masculinity’
(Image credit: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images)

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a “perfect example of toxic masculinity” and wouldn’t have happened if the Russian president was a woman, Boris Johnson has said.

The prime minister was speaking at a Nato summit in Madrid when he described the invasion as a “crazy, macho war” and called for “more women in positions of power”.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace later supported this assessment by telling LBC Radio that Putin had “small man syndrome” and that a “macho” view of the world had caused the war.

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'Hypermasculine performances'

It is not the first time Putin has been denounced for his “hypermasculine performances of power”, as Alia E. Dastagir described them at USA Today; performances that have become “part of his persona and crucial to his brand”. Since the beginning of the war, a debate has emerged over whether “Putin’s brand of manhood” has been a causing factor in the invasion as he attempts to justify his motives.

Past images of the Russian leader horse-riding shirtless, shooting guns, and competing in judo matches are all part of the “PR machine for toxic masculinity” wrote Brad Slager at conservative US blog Red State, making up for a lack of “charisma”.

This public persona of Putin has been starkly juxtaposed with his counterpart in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, since the war began. Putin is an example of masculinity the “modern world is trying to leave behind”, said Annalisa Merelli at Quartz, while Zelenskyy – who once appeared in a pink suit on the Ukrainian equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing – is unafraid to show “empathy and vulnerability”. Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s “oppression and authoritarianism” fits into a wider movement to “push back against and replace patriarchal values”.

It is what Ukraine stands for, “its assertion of autonomy”, that has been the causing factor in Putin’s “patriarchal belief that Ukraine’s proper ‘feminine’ role was to submit to the will of its stronger neighbour”, wrote four political science experts at The Conversation. Ukraine’s democracy, and adoption of more progressive gender rights, are a threat to Putin’s “cult of masculinity” and Russia’s reliance on “unequal gender roles”, said political science professors Valerie Sperling, Janet Elise Johnson, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom and gender studies expert Alexandra Novitskaya.

‘Blinkered’ by identity politics

Of “all the ill-informed explanations” for why Putin invaded Ukraine, this is “perhaps the most absurd”, argued Jessa Crispin at UnHerd shortly after the war began. Viewing a geopolitical conflict through the lens of “the very Western, very modern framework of identity politics” is “shockingly irresponsible”, she said.

While the concept of toxic masculinity is not “empty”, the West’s discussion around Ukraine “is blinkered”. “Part of the problem is that toxic masculinity is squishy language, used to describe everything from war crimes to taking up too much space on the subway,” explained Crispin.

Importantly, an over-simplification of a war “between good and evil” leads us to ignore the “roots in centuries-old discussions of territory and autonomy” and means the West avoids facing “our own hypocrisy”, said Crispin. “We have invaded sovereign nations. We have killed civilians,” she said.

War though, is almost always caused by a “particular kind of men behaving a particular kind of way”, countered Darryl Peers in the Press and Journal. Conflict, including Putin’s, is the “inevitable result” of societies where “virile maleness” is the “ideal quality for institutions to exhibit”.

Not so cut and dried

While “there is indeed a certain gendering of political leadership impulses, anyone who remembers Margaret Thatcher pushing her often uncertain cabinet into war over the Falklands, knows that things are never so cut and dried”, said Mark Galeotti in The Spectator.

He pointed to other examples, such as “Catherine the Great, who conquered and colonised the lands of Novorossia – which just happens to be where Russian troops are fighting today” and Maria Zakharova, Russia’s “pugnacious foreign ministry spokeswoman who slams western governments as having ‘neo-Nazi preferences’”.

Galeotti suggested Johnson’s comment about the Russian leader “speaks to a dangerous tendency of modern democratic leaders to make sweeping and exaggerated statements presumably meant to be crowd-pleasers, which risk backfiring in all kinds of ways”.

Sam Ashworth-Hayes at The Critic agreed that “Boris is almost certainly wrong”.

“From Boudicca to Elizabeth I through to Margaret Thatcher, British history alone provides plenty of examples of women who were more than happy to resort to armed conflict,” said Ashworth-Hayes, director of studies at the Henry Jackson Society national security think tank.

He pointed to research suggesting that greater female representation in executive governing bodies led to a higher likelihood of conflict behaviour and defence spending.

“As Rudyard Kipling once observed, the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”

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Richard Windsor is a freelance writer for The Week Digital. He began his journalism career writing about politics and sport while studying at the University of Southampton. He then worked across various football publications before specialising in cycling for almost nine years, covering major races including the Tour de France and interviewing some of the sport’s top riders. He led Cycling Weekly’s digital platforms as editor for seven of those years, helping to transform the publication into the UK’s largest cycling website. He now works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant.