By Tod M
In the weeks following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, a vast quantity of analysis has gone into how European and American hard right figures have responded to Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine. From Marine le Pen’s disavowal of a regime that was once her benefactor, to Tucker Carlson’s doubling down on pro-Kremlin reporting, to Viktor Orban’s increasingly improbable continued efforts to avoid taking a side at all, a whole range of responses has been on show. But interesting as it may be to watch this schism, and see just how far some are willing to go to justify Putin, there is a perhaps more interesting question in play here – why did the hard right seek, and find, backing from Putin in the first place?
So what do I mean by the hard right? Broadly, the section of the right that has pushed for illiberal policies, such as hijab bans or restrictions on abortions, and adopted an antagonistic approach to international organisations. From their perspective, there have been two key motivating factors. Firstly, Putin has provided benefits: Russian-backed disinformation and hacking in major Western elections. The political gains for the likes of Trump, who had the benefit of Russian government interference in the 2016 election campaign on his side in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” according to the Mueller Report, are clear – particularly as they can avoid being involved in any of the actual interference. The same applies to Britain’s own Nigel Farage, whose largest donor Arron Banks has, according to the Times in 2018, been offered business opportunities. In the UK, the 2020 Intelligence and Security Committee Russia Report made it clear that there have been Russian efforts to promote pro-Brexit views online through disinformation and malicious cyber activity. This makes Putin a desirable helping hand for the unscrupulous, beyond the obvious prestige and propaganda potential of photo-ops with Putin himself.
But this is only part of the picture. If the hard right’s allegiance with Putin’s regime were only about political expediency, then you’d expect support for Putin to have evaporated, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made him one of the world’s most politically toxic figures. For those who depend on their electorates, this is true. But for right-wing commentators and agitators, particularly in the US, it is not. Instead, many have stepped up pro-Russian rhetoric – white nationalist Nick Fuentes at the AFPAC, GB News’ broadcast of Russian disinformation claims about bioweapons, and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson to name just a few. Here, pro-Kremlin sentiments are representative of a dark admiration for the Russia Putin has built. Many on the more extreme alt-right have always viewed Putin’s Russia as a bastion of Christian nationalism, but in recent years this view has moved from the likes of longtime KKK leader David Duke to the (more) mainstream hard right, such as Anne Coulter in 2017 said that “In 20 years, Russia will be the only country that is recognisably European”.
As the hard right have upped the ante in their fight against socially progressive ideas such as LGBTQ rights, feminism, and racial diversity, they have looked east. They have found a natural ally – and example – in a Putin regime that has demonised the queer community with the 2013 ‘Gay Propaganda’ law, emphasised the importance of cultural and ethnic Russianness, and in 2017 decriminalised some forms of domestic violence. For the more assertively Christian elements of the American right in particular, the tight links between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church provide an attractive example of an (un)holy alliance. It has aligned the Russian state and church to the point that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, has even issued a statement of support for the invasion of Ukraine. This alignment is another facet of Putin’s regime that some elements of the western hard right would like to mirror in their own countries. So more than just providing political benefits, for some in the west the Russian state is an aspiration, and a model to be copied – a natural ally.
For Putin, meanwhile, the motives are a little murkier. Many actions are denied by the Russian regime, so it can be hard to divine any strategy. However, there is a common thread that has run through the Kremlin’s activities abroad: disunity. Whether it has been anti-EU sentiments fostered through Brexit, le Pen, and Orban, anti-NATO ones that Trump promoted, or (allegedly) separatist ideas they promoted in Scotland and Catalonia, the overarching theme is dividing the west. The Kremlin has worked to influence western politics to undermine not only our democracies, but our international unity. This, then, has been for Putin an advancement of the Kremlin’s geopolitical, rather than ideological, goals, and does give some coherent explanation for the Kremlin’s efforts to interfere with western democracies.
So the explanation for this alliance comes in two different types: political gain, and ideological allegiance, both fostered by the Kremlin for its own geopolitical benefit. The distinction between those who see Putin as a tool, and those who see him as an ideal, also helps explain why some in the west have not withdrawn their backing of him as the war in Ukraine has unfolded. They – the Tucker Carlsons, Anne Coulters, and even Trumps – see, to a greater or lesser extent, Putin’s Russia as a model of the state they seek to build in the west.