Putin and the American Far Right

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

– George Santayana, 1922

Russia methodically is destroying a neighboring independent democratic country and is accused of committing mass atrocities, war crimes that include evidence of executions of hundreds of civilians. Yet American far-right radicals applaud Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, the Russians, defeated by stiff Ukrainian resistance in their unsuccessful siege of the capital of Kyiv, switched tactics and are massing armor, aircraft and thousands of infantry for an assault against the eastern Donbas region that has been occupied by pro-Kremlin forces. It borders Russia, which makes resupply easy.

The mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, said there were more than 10,000 civilian dead in his besieged city after six weeks of Russian bombardments and assaults, their corpses “carpeted through the streets,” the Associated Press reported. The city is in the south, on the Sea of Azov.

This isn’t a war. This is a determined, calculated, purposeful slaughter of the Ukrainian people, an ungodly genocidal horror akin to a holocaust. And Putin apparently is not finished with inflicting brutality; it’s as if he has carte blanche.

President Joe Biden told it like it is Tuesday at an event in Iowa, accusing Putin of committing “genocide.” He said afterward he used that inflammatory description of the invasion “intentionally” because “it sure seems that way to me,” even if international lawyers may disagree.

“It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is trying to wipe out the idea of being Ukrainian,” he said. “More evidence is coming out literally of the horrible things that the Russians have done in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky applauded that statement in a tweet: “True words of a true leader. Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil.”

The allied democracies surely would have ended this war weeks ago if Russia weren’t a major nuclear power. Possession of those doomsday weapons is what keeps Putin going.

Faced with the prospect of a powerful Russian invasion on open Donbas terrain instead of more easily defended urban areas, Zelensky pleaded with the allies in an interview on “60 Minutes” Sunday for more weapons.

“They have to supply weapons to Ukraine as if they were defending themselves and their own people,” he said. He often has repeated that Ukraine is battling Russia alone on behalf of all democracies, not only his own country.

“If they don’t speed up [the supply], it will be very hard for us to hold on against this [Russian] pressure,” Zelensky said in Ukrainian, the translation to English in subtitles.

His repeated appeals for allied aid is reminiscent of how Prime Minister Winston Churchill begged President Franklin Delano Roosevelt for weapons at the outset of the Battle of Britain early in World War II, when London stood alone against the Nazi onslaught of Europe. The 1930s Neutrality Act, a series of laws passed by an isolationist Congress, initially prevented FDR from helping the British, until amendments permitted the Lend Lease of ships for resupplying the island nation.

The Western coalition has rejected Zelensky’s repeated appeals for creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine and fighter planes to attack Russian warplanes, arguing that they could incite an unpredictable Putin to launch a wider war, possibly with tactical nuclear weapons.

“I think that today no one in this world can predict what Russia will do,” said Zelensky, possibly the most popular head of state on the planet. “If they invade further into our territory, they will definitely move closer and closer to Europe. They will only become stronger and less predictable­­.”

Ukraine is bordered on three sides by former Soviet satellites, most of them NATO members except Belarus and Moldova. The others are Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania.

The Biden administration announced Tuesday it was sending heavier weapons to Ukraine, including helicopters.

By siding with Putin and defending his self-defense motive for invading Ukraine, the radical right forged a new page in its get-Biden playbook. The right is trying to make him look weak, ineffective and indecisive in combatting Russia only with weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles supplied by a surprisingly united U.S.-built coalition.

Putin has been concerned for years that Ukraine would join NATO, creating a Western military alliance on his dictatorial doorstep. But for every action there’s risk of an unintended reaction: Now Finland, which also borders Russia, and forever-neutral Sweden are considering joining NATO.

Right-wing radicals have lied their way into subverting the American narrative with barely disguised racism in the U.S. political arena, animosity aimed at books and learning and gay and transgender people in an unholy culture war against the country’s ideals, values and progressive hopes for a brighter future.

So, with the midterms coming up in November, why not stretch it to include the Russo-Ukraine war? More ammo to use against Biden.

The far-right American news site Infowars and others of its ilk repeated the Russian claim that Washington paid for bioweapons labs in Ukraine, The New York Times reported. Russia said it had documents backing up that claim, citing it as a reason for its “special military operation,” the paper said. Russia bars reference to its entry into Ukraine as an invasion.

And right-wing extremists defend Putin’s justification for the invasion, blaming America for the expansion of NATO into former Soviet countries after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Putin views that as a threat to Russia even though Ukraine is not in the 30-member alliance, much as it would like to be.

Tucker Carlson of Goebbels LLC (a.k.a. Fox “News”), who presented autocratic-run Hungary in a documentary earlier this year as a conservative heaven, has been sympathetic to Putin’s arguments for the invasion of Ukraine. He has gone even further, fomenting a conspiracy theory that U.S. encouragement to get “Ukraine to join NATO was the key to inciting war with Russia.”

Then, as Aaron Blake of The Washington Post put it, Carlson twisted his theory that Washington wanted war with Russia by making it sound as if that idea was fact by asking, “Why in the world would the United States intentionally seek war with Russia? How could we possibly benefit from that war?”

This is how conservative conspiracy theories, regardless of facts, get launched.

Divisive Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia late last month defended Putin’s motives for invading Ukraine, the Financial Times reported.

“You see,” she told the Voice of Rural America, a conservative radio show, “Ukraine just kept poking the bear, and poking the bear, which is Russia, and Russia invaded. There is no win for Ukraine here. Russia is being successful in their invasion.”

No, it isn’t. Pure lies.

Another radical from the Trump wing of the GOP, Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, called Zelensky a “thug” in a video that went viral, the Times said.

“Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies,” he said in the video. Being woke refers to someone who is conscious of racial discrimination, other forms of oppression and facts.

“Trump is primarily the leader in terms of those comments,” Olivia Troye, a former advisor to onetime Vice President Mike Pence, told the British newspaper. She now criticizes the previous administration.

Ours is a free country – still – with the right to speak what you believe without official retribution.

But it’s almost as if these Trumpist radicals were traitors as their leader, who is under investigation by government agencies and a congressional committee, characterized Putin as “savvy” and “smart” and ”genius” as the Russian leader amassed his forces to invade Ukraine in late February.

This from a former president of the United States, who has tucked himself under the wing of the world’s most powerful dictator, whom he no doubt envies for his ability to do what he wants without fearing the checks and balances of a democracy.

Imagine if Trump were in a second term now: No U.S. help for Ukraine in retaliation for Zelensky rejecting his request to find dirt on Biden; no U.S. help for NATO, which he dissed as president, charging that it was cheating the United States because it wasn’t paying enough for the common defense; and probable support for Putin because he accepted the Russian’s argument that Ukraine was not a separate country from Russia.

And this would-be America First dictator is considering running for a second term in 2024. If he does and wins, kiss goodbye to an already vulnerable American democracy.


Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.