The Right’s Putin Problem
The counterintuitive argument that Putin should be considered a hero of American conservatives probably originated with the founder of this magazine who asked last year whether in “the culture war for mankind’s future,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was “one of us,” speculating that the former member of the Soviet Communist Party and ex-KGB agent was, well, a paleoconservative.
Other conservative-leaning pundits perpetuated the meme. Matt Drudge called Putin the “leader of the free world,” while Victor Davis Hanson, who in what sounded like a bizarre S&M fantasy, ruminated that “Putin is almost Milton’s Satan–as if, in his seductive evil, he yearns for clarity, perhaps even a smackdown, if not just for himself, for us as well.”
More recently, the British Spectator magazine published a big “think” piece suggesting that Putin actually hopes to become the “the leader of global social conservatism.” The Daily Show even ran a spoof titled, “Better Off Red,” which portrayed Russia as the new “conservative paradise.”
While Putin’s anti-gay tirades on the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi may help explain why some American conservatives are fond of a foreign politician who is supposedly rallying against Western secularism and decadence, the crisis in Ukraine, like the one in Syria, has highlighted the policy differences between non-interventionist conservatives and their neoconservative opponents, with the former urging Washington not to intervene in “somebody’s else civil war” and the latter warning of the challenge to U.S. security interests by a resurgent Russia.
There is no denying that Russia under Putin has been flexing its diplomatic and military muscle in service of its strategic interests, which is basically what great powers, including China, India, and lest we forget, the United States, are supposed to do. In that context, the idea that Putin is a new Stalin bent on aggressive expansion of Russian power sounds a bit phony when it’s articulated by Americans who applauded the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As I explained in the National Interest, Russian opposition to Western and Arab efforts to depose Syria’s Assad should not have been interpreted as a reflection of anti-American attitudes but as the continuation of the traditional Russian policy of maintaining influence in the Middle East, as well as being derived from concerns that “the Christians in the former Byzantine province, including a large Orthodox community, would be persecuted if Muslim fundamentalists came to power.”
In fact, as part of this policy, the Russians have also strengthened ties with Israel and have floated the idea of a trilateral strategic and economic nexus of Israel, Greece, and Turkey aimed at containing Turkish pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean, a policy that should have precipitated at least a mild form of cognitive dissonance among pro-Israeli neoconservatives.
Similarly, by exerting influence on developments in Ukraine, the Russians are protecting their interests in a country that has always been a part of their strategic sphere of influence and is a home to a population with which they share common linguistic and religious ties. One can, of course, criticize Russian conduct in both Syria and Ukraine, but when neoconservative and liberal analysts advance the idea that Russia’s moves are a part of a Cold War strategy, they may be actually projecting their own ambition to amplify the current disagreement with Moscow into a global strategic confrontation.
At the same time, the thesis promoted by Owen Matthews in the Spectator that “Russia is decisively back as an ideological force in the world—this time as a champion of conservative values,” is no less absurd than the assumption that we are about to resume the Cold War with Moscow. If the latter is a neoconservative dream, the former is a paleoconservative fantasy.
That Putin has formed a political alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church and has been exploiting nationalist and religious sentiments to mobilize support from the Russian electorate makes a lot of political sense, and is not so different from the GOP using its alliance with Christian Evangelicals and former southern segregationists. It is not a sign, however, that the Russian President is transforming Russia into a some sort of universal model for conservatives.
If anything, there is something very Russian and even provincial about Putin, which explains why he is very popular among those who belong to the equivalent of the red states in Russia, and why most of us find his mannerisms very odd, in the same way, I suppose, that many Europeans (or for that matter, many coastal Americans) couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to have a beer with the unsophisticated but very American George W. Bush.
So Putin is opposed to same-sex marriage. So what? Why should that make Putin’s Russia more of a natural ally of traditional conservatives in the United States and Europe than those Islamic fundamentalists, who are also staunch opponents of gay marriage, abortion, feminism, and secular elements?
Indeed, the Catholic magazine Crisis recently published an article proposing just that, that Muslims should be regarded as the “natural allies” of Catholics and other traditional conservatives. The irony is that Putin is now allied with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria that is battling Islamic fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia, which has remained a great ally of the United States in the Middle East, under both liberal and conservative presidents.
From that perspective, the idea that Putin should become the Patron Saint of American conservatives makes as much sense as having Turkish Islamist President Tayyip Erdogan, a proponent of teaching creationism, play that role. If anything, unlike Putin, Erdogan has remained happily married to his first wife, and presides over a country that with all its problems is much less corrupt, and certainly more committed to free market principles than Russia, with its statist and static economy controlled by Putin’s political cronies and crime syndicates.
The bottom line is that Putin is first and foremost an autocratic right-wing nationalist who not unlike the fascist-communist clique ruling Beijing could care less if other countries embrace his political model or not, as long as Russian interests—and his—are being served.
You could have probably said the same thing about the communists who ruled Russia in the last century. They enunciated their commitment to the idea of the international solidarity of the socialist parties, but at the end of the day, the national interests of Russia took precedence over any universal principles, just as they do now.
Putin, contrary to the fantasies of some paleoconservatives in the West, doesn’t even pretend to speak for the world’s conservatives, traditionalist or otherwise. Hence it was weird to hear Western critics of the European Union (EU) applaud Russia’s attempts to sabotage an agreement between Kiev and Brussels, suggesting that Putin was trying to defend the national sovereignty of Ukraine against the expanding power of the Eurocrats.
But it is ridiculous to portray Putin as an ally of the Euroskeptics battling the creation of European super-state, when what he really wants is to tie Ukraine to his own Eurasian economic community that will be ruled from Moscow by his own political apparatchiks instead of Brussels’. Putin’s super-state for poor people, if you will.
All things considered, it’s not surprising that many Ukrainians prefer closer ties with the EU than with the Russia’s Eurasian bloc. And no one can blame the Germans, French, Poles, and Brits, who learned the hard way not to trust the Russians, for trying to counter Moscow’s policy moves in Ukraine. That has nothing to do with the secular direction of the EU. Even if the EU were transformed into a Europe of Nations, and Jean-Marie Le Pen was leading France, the French would still be trying to work together with other Europeans countries and seeking support for the United States in forming a common front vis-à-vis Russia.
So while the developments in Ukraine don’t have a direct effect on U.S. interests, they deserve more attention from Washington than the latest bloodshed in the Levant. Preventing a great power from emerging as a dominant power in Europe and a threat to its neighbors is a vital American interest and should be recognized as such by any astute foreign policy thinker. Whether that great power opposes or favors gay rights is beside the point.
That doesn’t mean that Putin’s Russia should be considered a threat to the United States or a potential rival, or that we need to demonize what is an old and proud civilization. But conservatives certainly shouldn’t get too sentimental over Uncle Vlad or act as apologists for a leader who doesn’t share their dreams and aspirations. Ronald Reagan’s “Trust and Verify” still remains the best advice when dealing with Russian leaders whose souls we will never be able to read, no matter how long we look into their eyes.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.