The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The right’s rationalization of Putin colors the Russia-Ukraine tension

Traditional Russian wooden dolls of Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Biden at a souvenir store in Moscow. (Pavel Golovkin/AP)

The word “great,” of course, has multiple meanings. One meaning is that something is superlatively good. Another is that something is simply superlative, great in the sense of massive or important.

When the cover of Newsmax’s monthly magazine describes Russian President Vladimir Putin as “Vlad the Great,” it’s not clear the sense in which it is meant.

The right-wing media outlet’s description of Putin includes various negative descriptors, but they’re offered in the way one might describe Darth Vader: titillating, exciting.

“From his days as a cutthroat KGB spy stationed in East Germany to his power-hungry ascension to the presidency of Russia, Putin has given the U.S. and the world unending headaches with his nonstop amassing of nuclear weapons, incessant saber-rattling, and deadly espionage plots,” the description reads. “ … Newsmax exposes Putin’s private life — from his secret girlfriend to his love children, to his favorite books and pop group. And you’ll learn why, incredibly, he has become a sex symbol in Japan!”

Tiger Beat for authoritarian teeny-boppers.

This isn’t particularly surprising, coming from Newsmax. The outlet has made clear where it stands in the tension between performative toughness and liberal democracy with its post-2020 embrace of Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud. But the timing of the issue is awkward: As The Washington Post has reported, Putin’s Russia appears to be poised to invade Ukraine, a key U.S. ally. Should that happen, Newsmax magazine readers might be primed to view the incursion with sympathy.

Granted, that’s probably not many people. For example, it’s not anywhere near the hundreds of thousands of people who probably tuned in to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last night, where Carlson explicitly rationalized a potential invasion.

In his telling, Putin is salivating over Ukraine because the Russian president simply “wants to keep his western border secure.” After all, Ukraine might join NATO, which Carlson describes as the United States “plan[ning] to control Ukraine no matter what.” Massing tens of thousands of troops at the border with Ukraine is simply Putin acting defensively, Carlson insists, akin to “how we would feel if Mexico and Canada became satellites of China.”

Of course Carlson also couldn’t resist framing this as a celebration of Putin particularly when contrasted to President Biden. He showed a snippet of an interview in which Biden agreed that Putin was “a killer,” a belief probably born in part of the number of political assassinations (and assassination attempts) that have unfolded in Putin-era Russia. But Carlson waves this away.

“These people are children, again, children pretending to be leaders,” he said of Biden. “Vladimir Putin is a killer — presumably unlike every other head of state on Earth through all human history.” Shrugging at an invasion threat is one thing. Shrugging at political murder is another.

Carlson centered his defense of Putin on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.

“NATO’s takeover of Ukraine” — an odd way to describe Ukraine joining an international alliance — “would compromise Russia’s access to its Sevastopol naval base,” Carlson insisted, something that an expert quoted by Carlson said would be “the biggest military geopolitical defeat of Russia in the last thousand years.”

What Carlson is doing here is not just defending Putin’s current aggressive posture toward Ukraine but also rationalizing his prior attack on Ukraine’s territory. That naval base is on the Crimean peninsula. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Russia paid rent to Ukraine to maintain the base. In 2014, though, Russia simply seized the peninsula, triggering international blowback — and a separate round of Putin apologia by the American right.

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, appeared on Fox News to declare that Putin was “what you call a leader” for his strong hand in annexing the region. A number of other conservatives similarly framed Putin as a more effective leader in contrast to President Barack Obama.

What really shifted how partisans view Russia, though, was not Putin’s efforts to influence Europe but, instead, the United States. The brief war with Georgia that occurred in 2008 prompted a spike in the number of Americans who saw Russia’s power as a threat to the United States, as did the seizure of Crimea. After each of those incidents, the increase was seen among both Democrats and Republicans, according to Pew Research Center polling.

It wasn’t until the 2016 election, when Putin and Russia sought to influence the outcome on behalf of Trump (who’d similarly excused Putin’s assassination efforts) that a partisan gulf emerged. Suddenly, Democrats were far more likely to see Russia as a threat than were Republicans. In fact, Republican concern about Russian influence decreased in the wake of those revelations.

This isn’t just about the Democratic response to the interference effort. In August, YouGov conducted polling on behalf of the Economist that asked Americans how they viewed various world leaders. Republicans were more likely to say they viewed Putin at least somewhat favorably than they were to say the same of Biden. Among those who reported having voted for Trump last year, twice as many viewed Putin with at least some favorability.

In the abstract, one can chalk this up to the fervor of partisan sentiment or to the Republican Party’s increasing antipathy to liberal elections. But that Newsmax’s elevation of Putin and Carlson’s defense of his geopolitics emerge now removes the discussion from the abstract. Government officials believe that Putin has designs on Ukraine more broadly than just protecting its base in Crimea — which, again, Russia already controls. It’s certainly true that those officials might be wrong, and it’s certainly true that there are officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle who are eager to embrace military solutions to problems. But if Russia does invade Ukraine with precisely the sort of ambition that Carlson went to great lengths to deny, how will Newsmax readers and Fox News viewers consider any American response?

Putin’s goal in seeding conflict during the 2016 election was to amplify divisions in American politics. Five years later, that effort has generated a weird side effect: It seems also to have widened the gap on perceptions of Putin himself. If Russia further invades Ukraine, there will be a lot of Americans who are primed to take Russia’s side.