No CPAC invitation will be in the offing anytime soon, but Vladimir Putin has picked up admirers on the populist right here and abroad that he doesn’t deserve.
With Putin threatening to invade Ukraine, the Russian dictator will again become a top-of-mind concern.
In recent years, there’s been a reversal in which Democrats who were consistently soft on Russia from the Cold War to Hillary Clinton’s attempted reset have become, at least rhetorically, much tougher-minded about Moscow, whereas elements of the American right that once were the fiercest Cold Warriors have warmed up to Russia as Putin has grounded his autocracy in religion and social conservatism.
The sources of Putin’s appeal to populists, from Pat Buchanan to Tucker Carlson, are manifold. They admire his strength and audacity in advancing Russia’s interests. They think he has the right enemies, namely the same establishment that also scorned Donald Trump. They see in him a bracing reassertion of national sovereignty. They envy his pushback against fashionable progressive causes and his alliance with the Russian church to form a bulwark in favor of traditional values and Western civilization.
The problem is that all of this is abstracted from the reality of Putin’s rule, which makes him one of the world’s most cynical and dangerous men and a hideously unworthy steward of the Russian people’s interests.
It’s possible for a political leader to be a robust nationalist and social conservative without jailing the political opposition, assassinating critics, invading and dismembering neighboring countries, enriching a kleptocracy and installing a de facto dictator for life.
Putin’s nationalism trespasses against a pillar of true nationalism, which is that the nation belongs to the people, who deserve to govern themselves and not see the national wealth plundered by a ruling elite.
While Putin sheathes himself in the symbols and rhetoric of the Orthodox Church, there is nothing genuinely Christian about his rule. The alliance with Putin’s state has been corrupting for the Orthodox Church, though the arrangement is inarguably traditionalist from the point of view of Russia’s long-running, deeply ingrained experience with authoritarianism.
Indeed, if at any time in the past 500 years a knowledgeable observer were told that a self-interested autocrat with absolutely no respect for individual rights or the rule of law was ruling Russia, he or she would have replied, “Why, yes, of course.” This has never really been the case in America, even prior to the revolution.
So Putin can’t teach us anything useful about how to honor America’s national tradition. Likewise, just because Putin is pursuing his self-interest in Ukraine, it doesn’t mean we can’t pursue ours.
Putin has an interest in projecting strength; enhancing his geopolitical position at Ukraine’s expense; and destabilizing Ukraine as much as possible, for fear of the emergence of a prosperous, self-governing state on his border that might give the Russian people their own nettlesome ideas.
America, too, has an interest in projecting strength, but also an interest in avoiding the re-emergence of a Europe in which the fate of countries is decided by naked military aggression.
The United States obviously shouldn’t get into a shooting war over Ukraine, and it might be that Putin, much more willing to court risk over the matter, ultimately works his will with Ukraine. It’d be another instance of him punching above his weight. Yet Putin has managed to create a simulacrum of a great power while presiding over a second-rate country with a stagnant economy and enormous weaknesses in its governing model.
His grand strategic play is apparently to make an autocratic alliance with President Xi Jinping of China, a move that — given the power disparity in China’s favor — might not work out for Russia in the long term. Regardless, making himself the junior partner of a Chinese potentate intent on restoring China’s greatness and becoming the preeminent power in the world is a funny way to defend Western civilization.
Definitely withhold that CPAC invitation.