WASHINGTON: It has often been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Such is the case of America’s Right and Vladimir Putin. Examining the close ties which are emerging between Vladimir Putin and certain elements of America’s right-wing places President Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Putin and the controversy about Russia’s role in the 2016 election into an interesting picture.
Putin’s ability to impress America’s Right is not new.
After his first meeting with Putin, the newly elected George W. Bush declared that he had looked into the Russian’s eyes and seen his soul. His advisers were horrified. “I visibly stiffened,” national security adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told President Bush,
“You may have seen all that in his eyes. but I will look into his eyes and I see K-G-B. Remember there is a reason he is fluent in German.”
Vice President Dick Cheney agreed. Every time he saw Putin, he told people, “I think: KGB, KGB, KGB.”
A new generation enthralled with Vladimir Putin
Who Vladimir Putin is is the result of his being raised under Communism, working for the KGB from the day he graduated from college in 1974 until at least August 1991. He has brought many of his former KGB colleagues with him to the highest level of his autocratic government.
Putin’s KGB carries out assassinations, harasses and imprisons dissidents, and is one of the primary distributors of disinformation, the original, and real fake news.
A brief look at his embrace by so many on the right wing is instructive. In an article in Time Magazine, Alex Altman and Elizabeth Diaz describe Russia’s “new alliance with leading U.S.evangelicals, lawmakers and powerful interest groups like the N.R.A.”
They report that Evangelical Christians found common ground with Putin because of his strong opposition to LGBTQ rights, on the basis of “Moscow’s nationalist and ultra-conservative push, led by the Russian Orthodox Church, to make the post-Soviet nation a bulwark of Christianity among the increasing secularization of the West.”
Conservative Christians and Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin, who spent most of his life promoting atheistic Communism, and served a regime which persecuted religion, was suddenly being embraced by conservative Christians in the U.S. In 2013, Bryan Fischer then a spokesman for the American Family Association, called Vladimir Putin a “lion of Christianity.”
In 2014, Franklin Graham the influential evangelical defended Putin for his efforts “to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In December 2015, Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes.
Author Katherine Stuart notes that:
“Although the religious right’s affection for Mr. Putin appears to center on a shared disgust with ‘the homosexual agenda’ and other so-called family issues, it is impossible to overlook that attraction that the Russian leader’s authoritarian style has for his American admirers. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mike Pence hailed Mr. Putin as ‘a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country.'”
Maria Butina, Russian Foreign Agent
In the case of Maria Butina, recently indicted for conspiring to act as a Russian foreign agent, she has engaged in an effort to forge ties with the National Rifle Association, She effectively posed as leader of a Russian pro-gun organization. In 2015, NRA leaders traveled to Russia to attend her annual gun rights conference. There is great irony in the fact that in Russia, no such thing as “gun rights” exist.
But by using the appropriate pro-gun language, she evidently convinced many at the NRA to involve themselves with Putin’s Russia.
When Republican members of Congress visited Moscow in July, they were particularly conciliatory, acting as if they were visiting an ally rather than an adversary.
Completely ignoring Russia’s involvement in our 2016 election. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), told Russia’s foreign minister that while Russia and the U.S. we’re competitors, “We don’t necessarily have to be adversaries.”
Russia’s Election Interference
A member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, Vyachesplav Nikonov, said he had met with many American lawmakers in the past, and that this meeting “was one of the easiest ones in my life.” The question of election interference, he said, was resolved quickly because “the question was raised in a general form.”
It is not only the American right-wing which is being cultivated by Moscow. Russia contributed large amounts of money, for example, to the campaign in France of Marine Le Pen and her National Front. She and Putin, after all, had common goals: removing France from NATO and the EU. Russia has interfered in election campaigns not only in the U.S. but in Germany, Austria, Italy and other countries.
Putin was a strong supporter of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom as a way to weaken the EU.
Writing in the British magazine New Statesman, John Lloyd describes the formation of what he calls an “Illiberal International” that seeks to curtail immigration and weaken the EU and NATO. He pointed, in particular to the electoral victories of Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor; Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister; and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, whose League party is now in a coalition government with the Five Star Movement.
Vladimir Putin pursuit of support from the right wing in America and Europe seems to be working. Author Brian Bentler noted that “in many ways, Moscow understood Republicans better than Republicans understood themselves.”
Putin observes that what he and parts of the right-wing in both America and Europe share is contempt for liberal democracy.
Those on the American right who find a friend and ally in Vladimir Putin would do well to study his record and understand what his goals are at the present time. If they did, they might re-think their position. Consider just a bit of that history.
Russia’s moral equivalence to America
In a much-publicized interview with Donald Trump, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly referred to Putin as “a killer.” President Trump replied,
“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers What do you think our country is so innocent?”
This downplaying of Putin’s personal history is widely criticized as positing “moral equivalence” between Western democracies and Communist, now autocratic, Russia. That Vladimir Putin’s history includes the murder and brutalizations of untold numbers of people during his years as an influential KGB officer is beyond question.
In more recent years, his record has not represented a sharp break from the past.
Only recently, the British government accused him of poisoning the Russian defector Litvinenko and his daughter in London. In another case, journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Putin critic, is shot while returning home in downtown Moscow.
During 2015 Putin opponent and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is killed. In 1999, several apartment blocks in Moscow were bombed, killing more than 300 people.
The Russian regime blamed Chechnya for the bombing and used it as an excuse to invade that country. Many in Moscow, however, believe that Putin was personally responsible.
Russia’s Naked Aggressions
In addition to naked aggression, as in the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, Putin has sought to destabilize Western governments. Recently, NATO and the EU agreed to open membership talks with the Republic of North Macedonia. Putin immediately launched an ugly campaign to stop it. According to authorities in Greece, Russia tried to pay off Greek clerics and officials to.oppose the deal.
According to Macedonia’s prime minister, Moscow funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to NATO opponents, including soccer hooligans who were paid to stage violent demonstrations. Putin also launched a clandestine operation to stop nearby Montenegro’s accession to NATO, backing a coup plot in 2016. His long-term goal is to restore Russian control over now independent states and NATO members such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Weakening, or eliminating, NATO is an essential ingredient in this plan.
Vladimir Putin’s effort to destabilize American politics
When it comes to our own country, Putin’s efforts to destabilize our political life are clear. In early August, top national security officials made a rare appearance in the White House briefing room to warn that Russia continues to target the U.S. election system and vowed that the Trump administration has made combating interference a top priority. These officials included Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and national security adviser John Bolton.
In the face of all this, it is difficult to understand why some in the right-wing view Vladimir Putin as a friend and ally.
They would do well to consider the words of Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), a conservative Republican and former intelligence official:
“Many Americans have forgotten that Russia is our adversary, not our ally and the reasons for today’s tensions go back much longer than the 2016 election. For more than a decade Russia has meddled in elections around the world, supported dictators and invaded sovereign nation all to the detriment of United States interests.”
Friends and Foes
When participants in our political life in this case elements of the right wing, from some evangelicals to the NRA, to some members of Congress can not tell the difference between friend and foe, we are in real trouble. It is, sadly, reminiscent of an earlier era when many on the left were enthralled with Communism and failed to understand its real nature.
History, it seems, does tend to repeat itself.