The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s praisers in the West have suffered less than you might think

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When Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, some observers reasoned that the unmasking of Russian President Vladimir Putin would sour support for his Western appeasers. Voters from Peoria to Paris would witness the human suffering caused by Moscow’s invasion and come to their senses, waking as if from a daze to the moral flaws in politicians who had flattered or courted the Kremlin.

Polls on both sides of the Atlantic suggest strong public outrage against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, as well as massive support for Western sanctions. But a smattering of emerging evidence also suggests that the war’s initial impact on core support for figures who have offered praise for Putin — from former president Donald Trump to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro — is more of a mixed bag than the champions of liberal democracy might have hoped.

Positive positions on Putin do seem to have come back to haunt some candidates. And in France, the war has changed the narrative of April’s presidential election. But for some of the highest profile figures seen as generous to Putin, initial polls show virtually unchanged or even slightly strengthened approval ratings since the Feb. 24 start of the Russian invasion.

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Other factors beyond the war are almost certainly driving those trends. In Brazil, for instance, observers link Bolsonaro’s recent positive bounce in the polls to domestic affairs. But there’s little evidence to suggest that his cozying up to Putin — including a visit to Moscow a week before the invasion — has damaged Bolsonaro at home.

“I think the war is too far away for Brazilians to perceive it as something of immediate concern, and I’m not sure the average Bolsonaro supporter really understands his position anyway,” Guilherme Casarões, a political expert at Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo, told me. “What’s helping him at home is optimism; the perception that the pandemic is finally coming to an end, new benefits [for the poor] and that after two years, Brazilians could finally celebrate Carnival again.”

Ambiguity might be one moderating factor. Trump has called Putin “savvy” and a “genius,” and held back from denouncing the Russian leader. But he has criticized the Ukraine war, even describing it as a “holocaust.”

On Feb. 24, FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages showed favorable views of Trump at 42.9 percent — a figure that by March 15 had shifted slightly, to 41.8 percent. A Wall Street Journal poll showed Trump’s support in early March at 41 percent, unchanged from last November. The Journal poll did show a disconnect between a growing edge for Republicans in U.S. midterm elections, and Trump’s flatlined numbers. But there is little indication that Trump has bled core support since the war began, or that his views have necessarily hurt his party.

Putin, Trump and the West’s new ideological alliance

Observers cite the extent of political polarization in Western democracies: Voters will not change hard-held views overnight, particularly as some politicians contort to recast or sidestep favorable stances toward Putin. But the minimal shift also speaks to how some voters exist in the echo chambers of their own beliefs — including in far-right news and social media outlets still rife with Kremlin talking points.

Putin has also used language designed to appeal to the hard-right in the West — following a script that has flipped in recent years, as segments of the right that once embraced Cold War militarism turned toward Russia, and progressives became harsher critics. He has cast his war as one against those who would undermine “traditional values” while insisting his enemies are trying to “cancel” Russia.

“It goes to show you that in terms of public opinion, people remain in their silos,” Vera Zakem, an expert on the intersection between information and foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “They’re going to believe whatever truth or disinformation fits their views.”

Question and Answer with Marine Le Pen

Nowhere has the impact of the war on a Western election been greater than in France. Ahead of the April 10 presidential vote, incumbent Emmanuel Macron has surged in the polls since the invasion. After a failed attempt at peacemaking in Moscow, he moved to punish Putin with sanctions and position himself as Europe’s wartime leader.

His history of maintaining a pro-Europe line has stood in stark contrast to the records of two of his far-right challengers — Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour — as well as the far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, all of whom have now had to defend Kremlin-friendly pasts.

But while Macron is surging, Le Pen, his closest rival, is not necessarily doing worse. In Politico’s poll of polls, the far-right, nationalist dynast whose party borrowed funds from a Russian bank in 2017 — and released a pamphlet just last month with a photo in which Le Pen is seen shaking hands with Putin — has actually edged up from 17 percent to 18 percent since the war began. In a second-round runoff, the poll predicts, she would score 42 percent — significantly better than her dismal 2017 showing of 33.9 percent.

That may be partly because Zemmour — a right wing commentator and provocateur — has borne more of the brunt of the post-invasion backlash. In recent days, videos suggesting the extent of his leanings have emerged in France, including one where he describes Putin as the “last resistance fighter against the storm of political correctness.” Since the day of the invasion, Zemmour’s support has sunk by 3 percentage points to 12 percent. Meanwhile, Le Pen has been at least moderately successful at a new balancing act — denouncing the war, while also portraying sanctions against Russia as wrong for France on economic grounds.

“I do think the war has really put these candidates who defended Putin on the defensive … but it’s hurt Zemmour more,” Benjamin Haddad, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, told me. “Le Pen is maybe more resilient because she spoke less about Putin than Zemmour, and everything he’s said is being aired now. Until right before, he’d been saying that Putin would never invade Ukraine. Now he’s trying to say he was wrong, and praising [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky]. But he’s lost momentum.”

Still, it’s hard to grasp the true influence of the war, and past support for Putin, on political popularity. Other factors — including new accusations of sexual assault against Zemmour — could be playing a role. It was never just the far-right in France, or other parts of Europe, who embraced Putin. Many on the far-left clung to the communist nostalgia of the Soviet Kremlin, seeing its latter-day version as an antidote to American hegemony, or in some cases, adopting a knee-jerk unwillingness to criticize aggressors on the world stage other than the United States. Even some European centrists approached Putin with friendly pragmatism.

But Macron’s rise — since the invasion, he’s leaped from 25 percent to 30 percent in Politico’s poll — appears linked to his success at transforming the war into his primary talking point, making criticism of his domestic policies hard to stick now.

“Obviously, our role in an international crisis is not to undermine the role of the French president in negotiations and diplomacy,” Laurent Jacobelli, Le Pen’s campaign spokesperson, told the Guardian.

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