Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and not a big fan of Putin's attack on Ukraine. Yesterday he said that "Putin has shown no interest in a negotiated outcome that’s within the ZIP Code of reality. That could change, but only if three things occur: if his military suffers high battlefield costs, if the sanctions begin to exact a real economic cost and if popular unrest grows. Our policy ought to be aimed at bringing about those three conditions." Not every American agrees. Trump has actually turned much of the GOP into an anti-democracy, pro-authoritarian/fascist cheering squad.
This morning, Frank Schaeffer told me that "Evangelical Americans like Franklin Graham heralded Putin as a miracle defender of Christianity. It is Ukrainian Christians whom he is now slaughtering. Evil is the right word when leaders like Graham and Putin use religion to justify in God’s name invasion and annihilation. American evangelicals love Putin because he said 'We see many countries rejecting their roots including Christian values that constitute the basis of western civilization... denying the moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and sexual.' Putin is insistent young Russians start going back to church. He wore a cross and said he had been secretly baptized by his mother in the USSR. Putin is a global leader of White Christian Nationalists. Like Hitler with the Lutherans he co-opted U.S. evangelical support."
Trump, reported CNN's John Harwood, "sided with the butcher. That's right: In the struggle now uniting the free world against an autocrat's lawless aggression, America's most recent ex-President sided with the autocrat... Since his political career began, Trump has backed Putin in ways connected directly to the Russian's quest to subjugate that country."
For years, relations between Russia and the celebrity real estate executive were lubricated by money. There was the development financing Trump's sons boasted about, the Palm Beach mansion he sold to a Russian oligarch for $95 million four years after buying it for $41 million, the Manhattan project in association with a mob-linked Russian émigré.
He sought to place a Trump Tower in Moscow even as he ran for president. In 2013, when he staged a beauty pageant there, Trump asked on Twitter: "Will (Putin) become my new best friend?"
Putin seized Crimea from Ukraine the following year. Protests in Kyiv had forced a Kremlin ally to quit the presidency. The ousted president, who fled to Russia, had been advised by an American political consultant. That consultant, Paul Manafort, subsequently became Trump's 2016 campaign manager.
Candidate Trump spoke forgivingly about Russia's violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. He mused about lifting sanctions to smooth relations with Putin.
"The people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were," Trump told ABC News in July 2016. That had been Putin's justification for the invasion.
President Trump sought to undo one punishment imposed on Putin by proposing that Russia rejoin the G7, an organization of the world's major industrial economies. Other members, who had teamed with the US to kick Russia out during Barack Obama's presidency, declined to go along.
His administration implemented some new sanctions on Russia at the insistence of national security officials and Congress. Trump himself objected.
"In almost every case, the sanctions were imposed with Trump complaining about it and saying we were being too hard," his former national security adviser John Bolton said on Newsmax recently.
Russia menaced Ukraine throughout Trump's term. He strengthened Putin's hand in several ways.
Trump cast doubt on America's decades-old commitment to defending European partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Aides feared he might try to withdraw from NATO if he won a second term.
He fomented discord at home, advancing Putin's objective of sapping American resolve. "Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people," his former Defense Secretary James Mattis said in 2020.
Trump shielded Russia from opprobrium. Echoing Russian propaganda, he led fellow Republicans in smearing Ukraine by falsely suggesting that Kyiv rather than Moscow had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," Fiona Hill, who had directed Russia policy on Trump's National Security Council, told a congressional impeachment inquiry in 2019.
Republicans protecting Trump cast the impeachment as Democratic partisanship. But it traced back to Trump's alignment with Russia against its vulnerable neighbor.
Congress had voted to provide Ukraine nearly $400 million in military aid. Trump delayed sending it.
"I would like you to do us a favor," Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in their infamous July 2019 telephone call.
The favor was for Zelensky to smear presidential rival Joe Biden by investigating him and his son, Hunter. Zelensky never complied.
Things haven't worked out as either Trump or Putin wanted.
Trump lost his reelection bid. Biden, who defeated him, now leads the global effort to stop Putin's aggression.
Instead of splintering under military and economic pressure, NATO and the European Union have pulled together in support of Ukraine. Within the US, the two normally brawling political parties have joined to condemn Russian savagery.
Today Senate Republicans, led by the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, are threatening to derail crucial aid for Ukraine-- when every hour counts to stop Putin's onslaught-- over their whiny concerns about vaccine mandates and any other grievances they can conger up.
Writing for the Daily Beast over the weekend, Matt Lewis called the Trumpists Putin's Useful Idiots. "The same ultra-nationalists passionate about building a wall on the U.S.’ southern border... also known for the fetishization of masculinity and toughness... suddenly became introspective, nuanced, and dovish in their excuses for Putin’s invasion of a sovereign nation. Up until now, the ultranationalists enjoyed the luxury of criticizing the establishment without having to accept any actual responsibility. In their minds, the elites of both parties were always effete, decadent, and bumbling-- regardless of what they said or did. Opposing whatever they said carried little risk. So when the Biden 'regime' and the 'corporate media' started warning about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nationalists reacted with mockery, working off of the assumption that this was all so much globalist hyperventilating. Instead, Putin called their bluff, and the national populists became the dog who caught the car... Putin’s invasion has exposed the fact that America’s ultra-nationalist populism isn’t just hypocritical, it’s incoherent."
They noted that (a) Ukraine is far away (“I’m sick of being told that we have to care more about people 6,000 miles away than we do people like my mom.”) And besides, b) what about America’s borders? I mean, c) Putin never called me a racist! And don’t forget, d) all the Burisma money the “Biden crime family” got paid. Besides, e) Putin is pro-Christian and f) the “woke” U.S. military is a godless arm of the Democratic Party. Besides, g) “there is quite literally no Russian threat.” Warnings of invasion were h) “baseless and embarrassingly incorrect.” Sure, i) Russia may annex some separatist areas full of Russian language speakers, but that’s no big deal. Biden just has to j) “call it an ‘invasion’ otherwise this whole media/government act will seem like a fraud.” I could go on.
Again, movements are messy, and this incipient coalition is far from monolithic. But it is clear that these bullshit natcon excuses were tantamount to throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if anything sticks.
...What their miscalculation of Putin’s invasion illustrated is that natcons lack a shared commitment to any concrete philosophical principles, other than admiration for authoritarians who wield power without concern for inconveniences like democracy. Many also have a tribal affinity for the “right” (which seems to, more often than not, feature an affinity for white cultural Christians), and a concomitant visceral opposition to the “left.”
Where does this ultra-national populism lead? As America has only dabbled in this unsavory brand of politics, this is, perhaps, the most important question.
To the degree that Putin and his cheerleaders are avatars of it, I think we now know the answer: The “little guy” gets screwed. In the name of “peacekeeping,” cities are destroyed and innocent citizens are slaughtered.
This morning, Margaret Sullivan reported about how the right-wing media has been clearly and firmly on Putin's side. She wrote about Russia expert Fiona Hill's statements on "how Putin, as he reaches for domination, relies heavily on his skills at the influence-and-information game. 'What happens in a Russian all-of-society war, you soften up the enemy,' she told her interviewer, Maura Reynolds. Hill named some names: 'You get the Tucker Carlsons and Donald Trumps doing your job for you.' And now, after a few years of their apologetic rhetoric on behalf of Russia, Putin 'has got swaths of the Republican Party' and 'masses of the U.S. public saying "Good on you, Vladimir Putin," or blaming NATO, or blaming the U.S.' for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she added. It was quite an indictment from a well-respected intelligence officer, who worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. She became known to the American public for her unsparing analysis when she testified during Trump’s first impeachment hearings."
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) said that in the run-up to the invasion, his office heard complaints from constituents who watch Carlson and “are upset that we’re not siding with Russia in its threats to invade Ukraine, and who want me to support Russia’s ‘reasonable’ positions.”
That Russian state TV has repeatedly played clips of Carlson’s rants, complete with Russian subtitles, is a tribute to just how well-received his rhetoric has been by Putin and his allies.
Laura Ingraham’s show was a big help late last month as she trashed a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “really pathetic” and brought Trump on as a guest. The former president’s analysis: His strongman idol would merely have taken over two regions in eastern Ukraine but went further because “he sees the weakness and the incompetence and the stupidity” of the Biden administration.
The circularity and symbiosis of right-wing media and Russia’s own talking points can be quite remarkable.
On Tuesday, former Trump-era assistant treasury secretary Monica Crowley told Fox News’s Jesse Watters that economic sanctions were so severe that “Russia is now being canceled.” Within days, we heard about Russian Foreign Intelligence Director Sergei Naryshkin using the same cancel-culture rhetoric. “The West isn’t simply trying to close off Russia behind a new iron curtain. This is about an attempt to ruin our government-- to ‘cancel’ it, as they now say in ‘tolerant’ liberal-fascist circles,” Naryshkin said.
As one Twitter wag responded, “sounds like a press release from the Republican National Committee.”
How serious is Putin’s effort to control information? Russian American journalist Masha Gessen noted in the New Yorker last week that the Russian military banned the possession of smartphones by soldiers last year. Russia, she wrote, has become “an atomized society held together by a hermetically sealed ideology.”
Efforts to keep that hermetic seal are getting more desperate. Late last week, Russia’s parliament passed a law to punish journalists who contradict the party line on Ukraine, banning the words “war,” “invasion,” and “attacks.” It’s now a criminal offense-- with jail terms up to 15 years-- to publish “fake news,” a term popularized by a certain Putin-friendly former American president.
As he tries to deal with ugly truth-- images leaking out of Ukraine showing the destruction of civilian neighborhoods-- Putin is relying on uglier lies, trying to insist that his military is doing everything it can to avoid civilian deaths.
He severely limits truthful information inside Russia and uses politically friendly Americans-- and their media magnifiers-- to plant propaganda and lead cheers in the West.
In the age of real-time video and the relentless presence of social media, controlling the message has became more challenging for Putin. As the estimable Fiona Hill argues, he’s trying to do nothing less than take down the world order and reconstitute the Russian-speaking world as one entity.
That’s an ambitious plan. But at least his trusty American apologists laid some groundwork for him.