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How Trump’s and Tucker Carlson’s rationalization of Putin could play into views of the Ukraine standoff

Since early December, U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that Russia was planning a massive military invasion of Ukraine. Here’s why Moscow would do that. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
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We are entering a profoundly uncertain time with regard to a potential Russian invasion in Ukraine. And one of the biggest uncertainties is in how united Americans will be behind a potential response.

Some prominent voices on the right — particularly Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, but also some of the more extreme members of the House GOP conference — are pushing the idea that the United States basically has no business getting involved in Ukraine, with military force or otherwise. This follows on years of portions of the right, including Donald Trump, building up Vladimir Putin and effectively rationalizing his actions and territorial ambitions.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) has now offered a striking anecdote to The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Marianna Sotomayor:

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran, said he recently “unleashed hell” in a text message chain with fellow Republicans serving on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after a colleague shared an article about the United States approving the dispatch of Javelin missiles from the Baltic to Ukraine and asked, “Why is Biden being allowed to provoke Russia?”
Surprised that a Republican would not support mobilizing to protect a fellow democratic nation, Kinzinger said he pushed back. “I think the vast majority of Republicans would certainly support Ukraine, but there is a very loud minority” who do not, he said.

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) has also reported an uptick in calls to his office echoing the sympathetic view of Russia’s actions promoted on Carlson’s show.

We can say a couple of things about this: One is that it doesn’t yet appear to be the prevalent view on the right — with views toward Putin. Polling also suggests that, despite in Ukraine’s favor. And two is that there are signs that this could change.

The Post’s Early 202 looked at early reactions from congressional Republicans and found that they generally support a tough posture toward Putin. Polling also suggests that, despite an uptick in Republican sympathy for Russia during Trump’s four years of saying nice things about Putin, views of what to do now are pretty similar across the political spectrum.

A poll released in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs was the latest to suggest Americans’ supposed noninterventionist turn in recent years wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It showed a continued increase in the percentage of Americans who favored sending U.S. troops if Russia were to invade Ukraine.

While Americans opposed that idea 68 percent to 30 percent in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, the latest poll showed a virtually even split. Half of Americans — 50 percent — favored sending troops in that increasingly real circumstance, and 48 percent opposed. And nearly equal majorities of both Democrats (54 percent) and Republicans (51 percent) were in favor.

Likewise, an Economist-YouGov poll released last month showed very little difference between the two parties. While 41 percent of Democrats said the United States should defend Ukraine with military force, 37 percent of Republicans agreed. (About 2 in 10 on each side opposed using military force. About 4 in 10 of each offered no opinion.)

But, even in that poll, you begin to see where the partisan differences could creep in. The poll asked whether it was more important to take a strong stand so Russia doesn’t take over Ukraine, or for the United States to maintain good relations with Russia. Democrats favored the former option by 50 points, and Republicans favored it by 32 points.

A more recent YouGov poll, conducted for Yahoo News and released this week, suggests that there could be more cleaving on this issue. While Democrats said by 44-23 that the United States has a responsibility to protect Ukraine, Republicans said it does not have such a duty, by 40-36.

That view echoes, in part, the kind of rhetoric we’re seeing from Carlson and a few House members like Reps. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Florida state representative and candidate for Congress Anthony Sabatini (R) and the GOP congressman Kinzinger referenced, who have basically said there is no role for the United States in the looming conflict and that we shouldn’t pick sides against Putin.

What’s pretty clear about these views is that they are malleable. This issue came to the fore with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but otherwise it’s not something that will have been front of mind for many Americans. That’s evidenced by the many who don’t offer an opinion in some of these polls. It also suggests the line pushed by the likes of Carlson could catch on, with potentially significant repercussions for U.S. foreign policy.

Carlson often pretends as if nobody has offered any real justifications for siding with Ukraine in such a conflict. In doing so, he ignores the most obvious ones, such as its strategic importance as a barrier between Russia and the rest of Europe, as well the fact that the United States in 1994 literally gave Ukraine assurances that it would be protected if Russia were to invade. (It did so in exchange for Ukraine giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal, in what is known as the Budapest Memorandum.)

And however attractive that kind of dismissiveness toward our interests in Ukraine might be in some portions of today’s GOP, foreign policy is perhaps that one area in which the establishment wing of the party has shown some resolve in standing up to the loud, Trumpian portions of its base — and even standing up to Trump himself. Also, while Carlson has a significant following, this is otherwise something that’s being shouted largely from the rafters. Trump himself has used the Ukraine situation to criticize President Biden but hasn’t otherwise taken a position on what should be done moving forward.

Given the evolving GOP views of Russia we’ve seen in recent years, it’s possible we could see more of a split emerging. It’s too early to say whether it will with any certainty.