Analysis

A field guide to Republicans' tangled relationship with Vladimir Putin

From the Russia hawks to the nervous realists...

Four years ago Mitt Romney was widely panned for saying that Russia remained the top geo-strategic foe of the United States. "The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back," snarked President Obama in a debate. Four years later Donald Trump responded to a question about Vladimir Putin by saying, "I think that I would probably get along with him very well."

The Republican coalition and the American right were once held together by their unanimous opposition to Communism, particularly as it issued forth from the Kremlin in Moscow. Now Russia is one thing that the American right seems to disagree about the most.

Some Republicans are still denouncing the country's meddling in the Middle East and in Europe, while others are following Trump's lead and praising Vladimir Putin's strength as a Russian leader. It can be difficult to sort out exactly what's happening here. So think of the American right's voices on Russia as being roughly grouped into four distinct camps:

Russia hawks: A number of conservative officeholders, writers, and thinkers are still with Romney on Russia. They say that the last four years have vindicated Romney's view. Russia illegally annexed Crimea and fomented disorder in Ukraine. These thinkers and writers defend NATO's post-Cold War expansion as the condition that helped Europe thrive and cemented fruitful relationships between the U.S. and the Baltic states. They point out, correctly, that allies like Poland and Estonia prefer it when America keeps Russia firmly in check. Some of them will charge that it was American weakness and retreat that invited Russia to annex the Crimea and intervene more directly in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The shallow anti-Obama partisans: This group of tub-thumpers often agrees with one premise of the hawks: that American weakness has been the deciding factor in Putin's more daring international forays. But they often aim this point as only a criticism of Obama's internationalist orientation, or even as an accusation that Obama does not love America at all. They will argue that Putin's willingness to stand up for his country's interests has improved the standing of Russia over the last eight years, while Obama has harmed America's. Sometimes these statements are issued in tones of admiration for Putin, but as often as not they are just insults aimed at the American president.

The nervous realists and Russophiles: Realists and Russophiles deplore Putin's rule, but claim to understand it. For them Russia's behavior in Ukraine and the Middle East — even its authoritarianism — can be explained by the country's history and geography. Land and resource empires tend not to be liberal, especially when pressed up so close to potentially powerful rivals like China, Japan, Germany, or threats like Turkey. This group tends to emphasize that Russia lost a lot of territory, access to resources, and power after the Cold War. They disagree with the shallow partisans about Russia's strength; they see Russia becoming more desperate, not strong, over the last decade. And their fear is that the West will blunder into open hostilities by insisting on something that is of trivial interest to the West, but of vital interest to Russia. Some nervous realists opposed NATO's post-Cold War expansion. Some regret it going beyond Poland. Many of them believe that Russia should be a useful ally against Islamic extremism. They tend to think the West was overreaching in its support of protesters in Ukraine. I would include myself in the group of nervous realists, along with the British writer Peter Hitchens.

Western Putinists: At the very hard end you will find a subset of people on the nationalist right who believe the U.S.-led liberal world order is irredeemably corrupt and corrosive of Western civilization. Russia strikes them as one of the last "free" countries, in the sense that it is free to defy the wishes of the U.S. State Department. They admire Putin as an ally of nationalism, who promotes other ideological allies, like when he bailed out Marine Le Pen's Front National. For them the promotion of traditional Christian religion and ethno-nationalism is consonant with human nature. It means saving souls for the next world, and bringing flourishing culture in this one. In their view Russia becomes an alternative model of governance. Sometimes Western Putinists come in a softer appearance, merely being fans of a state that publicly champions religion. Sometimes they have elaborate theories about how, in effect, through the influence of cultural Marxism, America is the communist world power that must be defeated by a re-Christianized Russia. The view circulates along the edges of the alt-right so much that even some hard-right nationalists are denouncing it as naive.

Most of the professional foreign policy debate is had between the hawks and the realists on Russia, while the other two camps are seen as irrelevant, or just crankish. But part of what people find so unnerving about Trump is that while he is not at all ideological or politically savvy, he seems to instinctively incline towards the view of the Putinists, admiring Putin precisely for his brutality and strength, and disdaining America and Europe's liberality as a weakness. Western Putinism may not be irrelevant after all.

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