As the war in Ukraine drags on, it becomes increasingly apparent that one of the major parameters is disinformation. For example, the attitude inside Russia seems to be that Vladimir Putin’s military operations are justified because Putin is protecting “the fatherland” from neo-Nazis. Pro-Putin propaganda has been disseminated throughout the world; It has infected Republican legislators.
Russia: In the United States, a narrative has circulated suggesting the war will end when Russians rise up and depose Putin. Nonetheless, Russian opinion polls suggest that Putin is very popular because the average Russian believes that Putin is protecting “the fatherland.” A recent Levada poll discussed in Newsweek (https://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-approval-rating-increase-russia-1693521 ) “Showed that approval of Putin’s actions increased from 69 percent in January to 83 percent in March.” (Statista (https://www.statista.com/statistics/896181/putin-approval-rating-russia/) confirms that within Russia, Putin has strong approval ratings.) Nonetheless, a recent academic study discussed in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/13/putin-public-opinion-propaganda-levada-center/ ) indicates that Putin’s ratings are fragile: “These findings suggest that much of Putin’s support is based on perceptions that he is popular. Without that perception, Putin’s popularity fades.”
The Russian media has a consistent message: “Ukraine is a threat to ‘the fatherland’ and Vladimir Putin is a strong president who is protecting Russia.” The monolithic Russia media is also dismissing reports that the initial Russian effort was unsuccessful or that Russian troops have committed war crimes.
If this seems familiar, it is similar to the situation in Nazi Germany at the beginning of World War II. Hitler was very popular in Germany and disliked in most of the rest of the world. One of Hitler’s lieutenants, Joseph Goebbels, ran the ministry of propaganda. He succeeded in convincing most Germans that Adolph Hitler was the right person to protect their country.
Europe: Russia’s distorted view of Putin isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Throughout the world, there are many countries where the Russian actions in Ukraine are viewed more sympathetically than US citizens would believe. For example, “In polls on several Chinese websites, generally about 40 percent of Chinese people remain neutral, about 30 percent support Russia, and about 20 percent support Ukraine.” (https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/why-do-many-chinese-sympathize-with-russia-in-the-ukraine-conflict/)
While most of the NATO countries have strong support for Ukraine in the war, and equally strong dislike of Putin, there is a different attitude among Europe’s far-right parties. This is seen in Hungary with the government of Viktor Orban. It is also a feature of the current French election which pits centrist Emmanuel Macron against right-wing Marine Le Pen.
Al Jazeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/4/4/forbidden-love-putin-and-the-french-european) recently observed: “French opposition leader Marine Le Pen, the de facto spokesperson of the European far right, has been rising in the polls despite her ongoing support and admiration for [Putin] …. In 2014, Le Pen endorsed the Kremlin’s referendum in the Russian-annexed Crimea as legitimate and has been accused of being a Putin stooge. In 2015, reports in the French press based on hacked Kremlin records showed that Le Pen may have lent her support to Putin’s annexation in return for a nine million euro ($9.9m) loan from a Russian bank – although the allegations of a quid pro quo have never been proved.”
On April 24, Macron and Le Pen will vie for the French presidency. Le Pen is close despite her long-time support for Putin. The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/04/11/french-election-runoff-marine-le-pen-putin/) noted: “A National Rally campaign leaflet distributed this year depicted her shaking hands with the Russian president, and the party funded itself with a 9 million euro loan from a Russian bank in 2014. Ms. Le Pen’s long-standing hostility to NATO is well-known; she is promising to withdraw the French military from the alliance’s command structure.”
United States: Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin is well known. On February 27, Trump said: “Yesterday, I was asked by reporters if I thought President Putin was smart. I said, ‘of course he’s smart… The problem is not that Putin is smart, which of course he is smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb.”
But Trump wasn’t the only Republican leader to admire Putin. “Putin’s high-profile admirers include alt-right agitator Steve Bannon and former White House communications director and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Prominent television host Tucker Carlson spoke out in support of Putin just one day before Russia invaded Ukraine, questioning whether Putin was the enemy liberals painted him to be: ‘Why do Democrats want you to hate Putin? Has Putin shipped every middle class job in your town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked your business? Is he teaching your kids to embrace racial discrimination?'” (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-02/putin-s-supporters-in-united-states-europe/100944412)
Late in January, a Yahoo/YouGov poll (https://news.yahoo.com/poll-as-ukraine-tensions-escalate-62-percent-of-republicans-say-putin-is-a-stronger-leader-than-biden-192437439.html ) found “more than 6 in 10 Republicans and GOP-leaning independents (62 percent) now say Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a stronger leader” than Joe Biden.”
50 days into the war, most Republicans have changed their tune. According to the latest Pew Research Poll (https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2022/04/06/seven-in-ten-americans-now-see-russia-as-an-enemy/ ) “69% of Republicans [describe] Russia as an enemy.” (Only 6 percent express confidence in Putin.) Nonetheless, there are huge partisan divide on the conduct of the war; for example, like Marine Le Pen, most conservative Republicans do not have confidence in NATO.
The latest Pew Research poll indicates that Americans are divided on the Biden Administration’s handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: 47 percent strongly approve and 39 percent strongly disapprove. Opinion is divided along partisan lines: 69 percent of Democrats strongly approve and 67 percent of Republicans strongly disapprove.
Analysis: Note that since Russia invaded Ukraine, most Republicans have become negative on Putin and Russia, but have not rallied around President Biden. We’re at war with Russia but unlike the situation in previous wars, Republicans have not rallied around the commander-in-chief.
There are two connected explanations for this. One is that many Republicans like Putin because he reflects their world view. Putin is a racist misogynistic bully. Many conservatives see him as a rugged individual guided by the philosophy of self-interest popularized by Ayn Rand (BTW: She was born Alisha Rosenbaum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.) In other words, Vladimir Putin is not woke. He has a very simple moral philosophy; the ends always justify the means. Writing in the New Statesman ( https://www.newstatesman.com/world/americas/north-america/us/2022/03/why-parts-of-the-us-right-cant-quit-putin) Emily Tamkin opined: “The far right – or at least the Trump-aligned far right – is already too deep into conspiracy theories to break with Russia, or at least to side cleanly with Ukraine…”
The other explanation for the undue influence that Putin has had on US politics is that we have allowed Russian money to have undue influence in US politics. Since Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign, there have been indications that Russia funneled money to the Republican Party. The Mueller investigation reported that Russia “interfered” in the 2016 election and there were troubling links between the Trump campaign and Russian actors including Russian Oligarchs; see for example, this article by professor Ruth May (https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2018/05/08/how-putin-s-oligarchs-funneled-millions-into-gop-campaigns/ )
Summary: Recently, CNN host Jim Acosta (https://www.politicususa.com/2022/04/10/jim-acosta-nails-tucker-carlson-for-using-russian-talking-points.html ) pointed out that Tucker Carlson (Fox News) was repeating Russian talking points about Ukraine: ” Last week Tucker Carlson tried to imply that some of what you are seeing [about Russian atrocities] has been fabricated and amplified by news organizations. That sounds a lot like what we heard from Putin’s spokesman who said bodies lining the streets were, quote, a forgery, aimed at denigrating the Russian army.” Prominent Republican members of Congress like Marjorie Taylor Green and Josh Hawley are also repeating Russian talking points.
It’s time to call out the ongoing Russian-sponsored disinformation campaign for what it is: a national security threat.
It’s time to call out Republicans, who praise Putin and denigrate Biden, for what they really are: traitors. It’s time to brand Tucker Carlson as a traitor.
We are at war with Russia. We don’t have to put up with Republican craziness any longer.