USA Politics

Why Putin is suddenly gaining popularity among conservatives

Shift in thought

A new poll shows that Republicans viewing Putin as very or somewhat favorably rose from just 10 percent in July 2014 to 37 percent today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.
Franck Robichon/Pool Photo via AP
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When the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday proposed a resolution praising outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for supporting the world’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, Russia stood up to its Western colleagues and said no.

The wording about sexual minorities, whom Russian President Vladmir Putin disdains, was replaced with a benign reference to the “most vulnerable” and “marginalized.”

The Security Council's split on Mr. Ban’s promotion of LGBT rights may be a small thing at the UN. But it offers a partial clue as to why Mr. Putin, once roundly condemned in Western circles as a dangerous authoritarian, is increasingly viewed in a positive light by conservatives across the West – by the Trump wing of the Republican Party, but also by right-wing leaders in France and other European countries.

Now instead of facing near universal rejection in the West over his oppressive governance at home, his seizure of Crimea, and his intervention in Syria on behalf of a despot, Putin is for some a hero. Nationalist conservatives see Putin as defending sovereign nationhood in the face of globalization, and traditional values against an onslaught of threatening forces: from multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism to nontraditional sexual identity and radical Islam.

A new poll released this week by YouGov shows that in the US, self-identified Republicans viewing Putin as very or somewhat favorably rose from 10 percent in July 2014 to 37 percent today.

The turnaround in the Russian leader’s image in the US can be ascribed almost completely to Trump’s repeated contrasting of Putin’s strong leadership and President Obama’s “weakness,” says Keith Darden, an expert on Russian politics at American University’s School of International Service in Washington.

That sunk in with voters drawn to Trump’s rhetoric and style, and the result is that “a surprising number of people now see Putin in a positive light as a man of action,” Dr. Darden adds. “They see Putin as a leader who was dealt a weaker hand than the president of the United States, but who has somehow been able to play it better.”   

Even the uproar this week over Russia’s hacking of the presidential campaign and reports Putin signed off on the operation do not seem to be spawning universal condemnation of the Russian leader and his tactics.

Conservatives split over Putin

In the US, a conservative split over Putin is emerging as the old guard clashes with rising hard-right nationalists over the direction of foreign policy under a president Trump.

Traditional Republican hawks like Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona continue to view Putin as a danger to the West. Based on standard conservative objections to Putin’s disregard for personal freedoms, human rights, and his challenge to the West in Europe, Senator McCain says the Russian leader is a “thug and a murderer and a killer.” He cites shadowy killings of Russian dissidents, Russian undermining of Estonia, “dismembering” of Ukraine, and precision Russian airstrikes on civilian hospitals in Aleppo, Syria.

Some close observers of the Trump transition speculate that Mitt Romney was ultimately passed over in the search for a secretary of State in part because of his perspective from the 2012 presidential campaign that Russia is America’s chief geopolitical foe – a view in line with a traditional Republican national-security outlook but at odds with the Trump camp’s perspective on Putin.

But others have a different view altogether of Putin. Pat Buchanan wrote in 2013 that instead of seeing Putin through an old “Cold War paradigm,” conservatives should see Putin as a defender “against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”

More recently, some of Trump’s closest aides – including Stephen Bannon, named Trump’s chief White House strategist, and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who will be national security adviser – extol the Russian leader for his strong defense of national sovereignty, his promotion of traditional values, and his war against radical Islam.

Mr. Bannon told a gathering of European conservatives that the “Judeo-Christian West” should focus more on Putin’s promotion of “traditionalism” and values that support “the underpinnings of nationalism.” In August, General Flynn, still just a campaign adviser to then-candidate Trump, said Putin should be considered a partner in the global war on “radical Islamism.”

Not a crusader for white supremacy

There’s no doubting Putin’s opposition to sexual minorities and his deep disdain for what he sees as a decadent West. In his often-cited 2013 state-of-the-nation speech, the Russian leader defended Russia’s “traditional” values against the West’s “so-called tolerance,” which he condemned as “genderless and infertile” and for promoting “the equality of good and evil.”

But American University’s Darden says anyone seeing Putin as some kind of crusader for white, Christian, European culture is misreading the Russian leader.

“Putin holds very strongly that anything blurring the line between men and women is something to be fought,” he says. “But he’s not a racist, he leads a vast country of diverse cultures, he’s proudly built mosques in Moscow.” Some of these other crusades being assigned to the Russian leader are part of  “a white-supremacist narrative that has little to do Putin,” he adds.

The revalorization of Putin may be most visible in the Trump camp of Putin admirers, but there are signs the more positive image of the Russian leader is trickling down to Republican voters.

The YouGov poll released this week not only shows an uptick in support over the past two years, but also a decline in antipathy. Nearly half of Republicans – 47 percent – still view Putin somewhat or very unfavorably – but those seeing him “very unfavorably collapsed from 51 percent in 2014 to 10 percent now.

“If you look at public opinion in the United States, there were pretty universal negative views of Putin up to this summer,” Darden says. “Then we had the Republican nominee sounding very pro-Putin, and the public shifted shockingly quickly.”

Actually, that shift came only among Republican voters – surveys like YouGov’s show that Democrats have as negative an opinion of Putin as ever.

That backs up Darden’s hunch that Putin’s rising favorability in the US has more to do with politics than with the Russian leader’s “values” now touted by some Trump nationalists.

“It’s really the people who are opposed to Obama who are revising their view of Putin,” Darden says. “It’s pure partisanship that says, ‘Putin was the enemy of Obama, therefore he must be a pretty decent guy.’ ”