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Opinion Why Putin hopes for a GOP victory, as explained by a top Russia expert

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Pool via Reuters)

“The notion that now Kevin McCarthy is going to make himself the leader of the pro-Putin wing of my party is just a stunning thing,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told NBC News on Sunday. This was a provocative way of reminding the country about the House minority leader’s recent declaration that a GOP-controlled House might seek to roll back U.S. military funding for Ukraine’s war effort.

Many Republicans continue to support funding for Ukraine, so it’s unclear how real McCarthy’s threat would prove even if he were to become speaker. But with numerous GOP candidates running for the House and Senate while expressing hostility to that funding, the threat cannot be dismissed. The GOP’s budding “pro-Putin wing,” as Cheney put it, is a real phenomenon that must be reckoned with.

So I reached out to Timothy Snyder, a historian of Europe who has become one of the leading thinkers on the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, for help in exploring the larger implications of this development. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Greg Sargent: The guy likely to become House speaker is openly declaring that Republicans might not continue U.S. military aid to Ukraine. A number of House GOP and Senate candidates are also hostile to such aid. How seriously do you take this threat?

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Timothy Snyder: I take it very seriously, because democracy around the world depends on Ukrainians winning this war. I also find it puzzling, because the Ukrainians are doing more for declared bipartisan American national security interests than any American foreign policy has done for decades.

By pinning down the Russian army and substantially weakening it, they are weakening China’s cat’s paw, which is Russia. By showing how difficult it is to carry out this kind of invasion, Ukraine is making the scenario for war with China — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan — much less likely.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
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Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
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A lot of Republicans genuinely support the Ukrainian cause and want the United States to help Ukraine prevail. But now we might see a genuine power struggle inside the GOP over whether the party will retreat from backing Ukraine.

I talk to quite a few Republicans who say and do exactly the right things regarding Ukraine. But an underlying source of the [power struggle] you mention is media. The guidelines for state-sponsored Russian propaganda television predict very well what Tucker Carlson says about Russia and Ukraine. Then Russian propagandists play clips of Tucker Carlson for their viewers.

So an awful lot of Americans and Republican voters are imbibing Russian propaganda tropes without knowing it.

It seems to me that the alignment of nontrivial swaths of the Republican Party with Vladimir Putin — we should try to understand this as potentially a serious geopolitical development.

We are actually on the verge of winning in Ukraine. We’re also on the verge of a tipping point back toward democratic institutions, and I don’t mean just in the West; I mean around the world. An awful lot hinges on Russia losing and Ukraine winning.

The tipping point can also go the other way. If the Ukrainians hadn’t fought — or if they had already lost — we would have already seen a tipping point where authoritarianism and Putin-style nihilism would be much more popular.

Right now, we have an opportunity for a positive tipping point. We could throw it all away if we do the wrong thing after November. Things could go either extremely well or extremely poorly.

If much of the GOP does back away from support for Ukraine, could that signal to our allies that our commitment is weakening even as energy challenges in Europe strain the Western alliance?

Yes. Right now, the NATO alliance, the European Union and individual member states have rallied, have consolidated and have taken risks on behalf of Ukraine. Not since the end of the Cold War has there been this much coordination and success. That bodes very well for the future of transatlantic and European cooperation.

If we get through three months of winter without breaking, I think the Ukrainians are going to win. But if after the November elections, the Americans pull the blanket away from everyone else, things could go very badly.

Is it fair to surmise that Putin hopes that the GOP does take power and then undermines U.S. funding for Ukraine’s efforts?

This is no secret. This is what Russian propagandists root for on Russian television practically every night. When they talk about how they’re going to win in Ukraine, what they say is “We’re counting on the Republicans in November.” It’s up to Republicans to prove them wrong.

There’s a way to understand this as a Hail Mary on Putin’s part: hope for a Republican victory that would then undermine the Ukrainian war effort. But that might not happen, and Putin’s bet on the Republican Party could fail.

The Republicans have agency. I very much hope that if they do win, their first step will be: “We want to do more than the Biden administration.” I hope they compete. There are Republicans who say this, that we should be doing more.

Can we apply this context to the move by Russia and Saudi Arabia to cut back oil supplies to push up gas prices? Do you see this as a conscious effort to shift our midterm election outcome?

I do. Are there any other interpretations of it?

There’s another Mideast connection: Another place where Republicans want to be tough is on Iran. And Iran is supplying Russia with drones. Who is now resisting Iranian power directly? It’s the Ukrainians who are shooting down the Iranian drones.

If your line is that you’re going to be tough on Iran, that’s one more reason you should be supporting Ukraine.

I think that makes it genuinely harder for the pro-Putin caucus inside the Republican Party to make real headway.

I would like to hope that’s true.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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