The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The tide has turned against the Russia apologists — and the neutrals

Alexander Shalal, 5, grabs an American flag as antiwar demonstrators and Ukrainians in the United States protest Russia's invasion. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)

For the better part of five-plus years, Donald Trump attempted to inject some nuance into the GOP’s posture toward Russia. It was partially a strategy of necessity — given how Russia’s 2016 election interference loomed over his presidency — and partially a symptom of both Trump’s penchant for provocation and admiration for authoritarians. But the result was the same: As Vladimir Putin inched toward an invasion of Ukraine, he had plenty of isolationists, conspiracy theorists, rationalizers and even apologists in prominent positions on the American right arguing for averting our eyes.

Their argument, though, has clearly run into reality and fallen badly out of favor. And many of those who downplayed or dismissed Russia’s threat have been forced to reckon with the rather black-and-white view that has now registered with the American people.

Yahoo News and YouGov are the latest out with a poll testing Americans’ views of the war in Ukraine. It shows that Americans — and particularly Republicans — are edging away from the kind of neutrality that seemed prepared to creep into the mainstream.

Three weeks ago, the same poll showed that Americans were about evenly split on whether to take Ukraine’s side in the conflict, with 46 percent favoring that view and 49 percent favoring neutrality. It was a striking finding given Ukraine’s status as an ally and Russia’s as an antagonistic foreign power (no matter how many tried to pretend otherwise). Today, the American people are more than 2-to-1 in favor of siding with Ukraine, 57 percent to 25 percent.

The shift has been the most pronounced on the GOP side. While their side favored neutrality by eight points three weeks ago, the latest shows them favoring siding with Ukraine by a whopping 34 points, 58 percent to 24 percent.

Perhaps most strikingly, just 5 percent of Republicans said they sided with Russia — a position Fox News’s Tucker Carlson adopted in 2019, before saying he was joking, and then saying he would pick Russia if forced to decide.

Two other polls released last week also show this kind of Russia neutrality and foreign policy agnosticism fading.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Friday showed a post-Cold War high in terms of anti-Russia sentiment, with 80 percent saying Russia is “unfriendly” or an “enemy.” That included at least three-quarters of both Democrats and Republicans.

The poll was conducted both before and after the invasion began last week. But a Gallup poll conducted even earlier showed that this kind of reaction was largely baked-in.

The Gallup poll also showed a post-Cold War record 85 percent of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, while just 15 percent viewed it favorably — down from around one-third early in Trump’s tenure.

The same poll showed clear majorities of both Republicans (56 percent) and Democrats (61 percent) saying the situation in Ukraine constituted a “critical” threat to the vital interests of the United States. And Republicans were actually more likely to see Russia’s military power, overall, as a critical threat — 72 percent. This, again, was before the invasion.

You see these numbers — along with the images out of Ukraine — and you begin to see why some have developed buyer’s remorse about downplaying Putin’s nefariousness and/or Russia’s threat.

Fox News hosts and others who cast U.S. intelligence on the imminent Russian invasion as dubious or even an elaborate ruse have reverted to decrying the thing they suggested might be a hoax. Carlson has acknowledged that the piddling “border dispute” spearheaded by the not-necessarily-a-bad-guy Putin, which was of no concern to us, is now worthy of sanctions amid a potential “world war.” Former Trump secretary of state Mike Pompeo went full Russia hawk days after echoing Trump’s praise for Putin’s formidability and saying he had “enormous respect” for Putin. Even Trump, after praising Putin’s strategy in the run-up to the invasion and declining to warn him off it, on Friday alluded going further than sanctions. “There are things you can do that could be very powerful if you want to get it ended,” Trump said, while declining to get into specifics for some reason.

Exactly how this manifests itself moving forward in the still-nascent war remains to be seen. It’s possible to think that the United States has plenty at stake and that Russia is the bad guy without supporting the most extreme measures in response. But what’s evident is that Americans of all stripes now believe that we have something at stake and that Putin and Russia are the bad guys.

That was a pretty likely conclusion for anyone who was paying attention as of early last week, with Russia having an estimated 190,000 troops on the border; even if an invasion weren’t as imminent as it turned out to be, these were the tactics of a bully. But the official narrative had to be questioned, because Trump spent five years assuring everyone that any anti-Russia narrative was a personal attack against him and his supporters. It was questioned, and then the question was answered pretty emphatically, with an assist from Putin himself.

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