Opinion | Vladimir Putin Shouldn’t Be a Right-Wing Hero

It’s not hard to see the Russian dictator’s appeal to American populists. But that’s no excuse to ignore his repression and corruption, or puff him up as an exemplar of conservatism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a ceremony in Moscow in December 2021.

No CPAC invitation will be in the offing anytime soon, but Vladimir Putin has picked up admirers on the populist right in the United States and abroad that he doesn’t deserve.

With Putin threatening to invade Ukraine, the Russian dictator will again become a top-of-mind concern for the United States. 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 and in theory, much tougher-minded about Moscow, while 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.

Pat Buchanan led the way in rehabilitating Putin nearly a decade ago, wondering if the Russian ruler wasn’t really “one of us” when it comes to “the culture war for mankind’s future.”

Tucker Carlson has routinely flayed the elite foreign-policy consensus against Putin, including in a lacerating monologue this week arguing that the Russian leader has his eyes on Ukraine only because he wants to protect his country’s western flank.

The cover of the latest Newsmax print magazine has a flattering picture of the Russian leader with the line, “Vlad the Great.” The piece apparently isn’t so positive, but the cover wouldn’t feel out of place if Putin framed it and put it up on his office wall.

The sources of Putin’s appeal to American populists 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 an antidote to the cosmopolitanism of the European Union, and 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 what they see as the traditional values of Western civilization.

Finally, the populist right harbors a profound skepticism toward U.S. interventionism after the misadventures of the past 20 years and a reflex to believe that, if the foreign-policy elite characterizes a foreign actor as a boogeyman, it is wrong — or, at the very least, likely to stumble badly in whatever action it undertakes.

The problem with all of this is that it 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 one thing to be opposed to NATO expansion and to be mindful of Russia’s own security interests; it’s another to excuse Putin’s offenses and puff him up into an exemplar of conservative governance that he’s manifestly not.

It’s possible for a political leader to defend national sovereignty, pursue an interest-based foreign policy, defend a common national culture and fight against woke insanity without jailing the political opposition, assassinating critics, invading and dismembering neighboring countries, enriching a kleptocracy and installing a de facto dictator for life. These aren’t incidental foibles; they are at the very heart of Putin’s repressive and corrupt regime.

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. Putin has gone to great lengths to see that there is no alternative to him. He immediately jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny after he had recovered from being poisoned (an unfortunate “accident” that befalls so many people inconvenient to Putin) and cracked down on the subsequent street protests. Meanwhile, Putin has seen that a band of associates have gotten very rich, making these loyalists a pillar of his regime.

While Putin sheathes himself in the symbols and rhetoric of the Orthodox Church, there is nothing genuinely Christian about his rule. Indeed, Russia persecutes unwelcome Christians, namely Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists. 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.

There is something very strange about American conservatives finding things to admire about Putin, given how distinctively and unmistakably Russian he is. Putin has revived a form of the ideological basis of the 19th century czar Nicholas I’s regime, “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” — a trinity alien to the American project. 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, course.” This has never really been the case in America, even prior to the Revolution, when we were ruled by the English crown.

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 (and reassuring nervous allies), but also an interest in avoiding the re-emergence of a Europe in which the fate of countries is decided by naked military aggression.

Presumably, Putin himself, who understands power politics, would be shocked if we talked ourselves into simply letting him have his way in a major geopolitical confrontation because we like the cut of his jib.

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 than America is, ultimately works his will with Ukraine. There is no doubt that he’s been punching above his weight in the international arena. But there is a serious question of how much any of this aggression is ultimately in Russia’s interest. 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. No foreign-policy victory is going to change that.

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.