As the United States seeks to rally its allies and impose tough penalties for Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, a vocal group of Republicans and right-leaning commentators is expressing praise and admiration for the president’s strength and shrewdness. President Vladimir Putin, that is.
Trump complimented Putin on Tuesday, saying it was a “smart move” by the Russian president to send “the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen” to the Ukraine border.
“This is genius,” Trump said in a conservative talk radio interview at his Mar-a-Lago resort, echoing his past praise of the Russian president. “Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. He used the word ‘independent’ and ‘we’re going to go out and we’re going to go in and we’re going to help keep peace.’ You’ve got to say that’s pretty savvy.”
Trump is hardly the only figure making such arguments. Many on the right seem to have bought into Putin’s claims that he is merely protecting his country and that it is the West that is showing aggression as NATO has moved closer to Russia’s borders since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted this week: “I suggest every American who wants to know what’s *actually* going on in Russia and Ukraine, read this transcript of Putin’s address. As I’ve said for month — NATO (under direction from the United States) is violating previous agreements and expanding eastward. WE are at fault.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson, like many others on the right, minimized Russia’s move to invade and overpower a neighboring country as a “border conflict” that should not concern Americans.
“It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious: ‘What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much?’” Carlson said Tuesday. “‘Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?’”
The comments reflect the novel phenomenon of a major political faction openly siding with the leader of a U.S. adversary against the American president. They cite Putin’s shrewdness and strength, along with an unfettered willingness to use force to expand his country’s reach, suggesting that creates a flattering contrast with Biden, whom they portray as weak and feckless.
Yet Putin is an authoritarian leader who has jailed adversaries, shut down political opposition and moved to eliminate a free press and independent judiciary. He has dispatched his powerful military against an independent neighboring country.
When he was president, Trump sought to project his strength in his own ways, regularly trying to exert his will over federal judges, Congress, media and other institutions in ways that violated long-standing American norms but were cheered by his supporters as a show of strength.
Now some of his supporters see an admirable figure in Putin. That includes Mike Pompeo, who served as secretary of state under Trump and recently called Putin “savvy” and “very talented.”
“I have enormous respect for him,” Pompeo said in a Feb. 18 call with the Center for the National Interest. “I’ve been criticized for saying that.” And he told Fox News: “He’s a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts. He was a KGB agent, for goodness’ sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that.”
Democrats and some Republicans denounced the suggestion that Putin was a nonthreatening figure, let alone an admirable one.
“Former President Trump’s adulation of Putin today — including calling him a ‘genius’ — aids our enemies,” tweeted Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). “Trump’s interests don’t seem to align with the interests of the United States of America.” Cheney is a high-profile critic of Trump and his supporters.
Some GOP strategists argued that praising Putin was not a wise move, especially if it involved denigrating the United States and its democratically elected president.
“I think anyone who gives Putin credit is making a mistake,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist in Texas. “Putin is weakening Europe, attacking a sovereign country, which is to undermine the global position of the United States, which is to undermine the sitting president of the United States, has a vast nuclear arsenal and is risking the first world war in 70 years.”
Mackowiak said he believes that Trump and Pompeo are not assessing the moral implications of Putin’s tactics with their comments but rather his single-minded pursuit of his goal. But glowing language about Putin goes too far, Mackowiak said.
Some polling suggests that Republicans view Putin positively compared with their view of Democratic leaders. But Mackowiak said that based on his conversations with GOP voters, many of them simply do not consider Ukraine a priority, and that Republicans and Democrats are wary of overseas entanglements after years of wartime abroad.
Still, he added, “non-interventionism can be nice in theory — until the practical realities of the world oftentimes come to your doorstep.”
Conservatives’ arguments against the United States aiding Ukraine vary. J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” who is now running a hard-right campaign for U.S. senator in Ohio, acknowledged that Putin is hardly a praiseworthy figure but argued that Ukraine still does not merit U.S. support.
“Vladimir Putin is an evil man, who has done a number of evil things during his time in government,” Vance said in a statement. “But spare me the performative affection for the Ukraine, a corrupt nation run by oligarchs, that is as close to a functional democracy in 2022 as Afghanistan was when Joe Biden handed it over to the Taliban in 2021.”
Others have adopted the mantra that Biden is showing more concern for Ukraine’s border than for America’s, a way to twin their criticism of Biden’s foreign policy with what they see as an overly lax policy toward would-be immigrants. Vance was among those who pointed to the illegal import of fentanyl across the southern border as an issue more deserving of attention than the international conflict.
Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) tweeted last week, “We should just call ourselves Ukraine and then maybe we can get NATO to engage and protect our border.” Gosar had previously tweeted: “Putin puts Russia first as he should. Biden should put America first but instead he will let in terrorists and welfare seekers.”
That rhetoric is unfolding as most Republicans in Washington are making a somewhat opposite argument — criticizing Biden for not taking stronger action against Russia, for example by imposing hard-hitting sanctions earlier.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that the United States and its allies must issue “devastating sanctions” against Russia and the Kremlin.
“As he escalates his war against Ukraine, Putin must be made to pay a far heavier price than he paid for his previous invasions of Georgia and Ukraine,” McConnell said.