How Russia's invasion of Ukraine divides Republicans

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Primetime viewers of Fox News may be confused by the network’s recent coverage, as ardently pro-Trump hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson offer sharply divergent views on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine.

On Hannity’s program this week, one could hear former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decrying Putin as “a former KGB full-blown communist” and Hannity lambasting President Biden for failing to deter aggression from “the hostile regime in Russia.”

On Carlson’s show, on the other hand, viewers were asked on Tuesday to ponder if Putin is really so bad after all.

Tucker Carlson speaks during the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt in 2021 in Hungary.
Tucker Carlson at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium Feszt in Hungary in 2021. (Janos Kummer/Getty Images)

“Has Putin ever called me a racist?” Carlson asked, rhetorically and presumably in contrast with American activists who have condemned Carlson’s anti-immigration views. “Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? … Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs? Vladimir Putin didn't do any of that.”

The two hosts' differences on Ukraine stem from a larger disagreement among conservatives over how the United States should respond to authoritarian regimes. “This is getting caught up in a broader fight for the soul of the Republican Party when it comes to foreign policy issues,” Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, told Yahoo News.

In one camp stands the party’s internationalist establishment, which, in the tradition of past Republican presidents, supports international engagement and democracy promotion. Most Republicans in Congress are following that line. “All the free nations of the world will be affected if Putin’s aggression is allowed to stand unchallenged,” warned Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The world is watching. Our allies, our adversaries and neutral countries will all judge the West by our response — and plan their futures accordingly.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters after addressing the Senate chamber.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The mainstream Republican criticism of Biden is that he didn’t intimidate Putin into backing off. “Our adversaries around the world have been assessing and measuring Joe Biden’s leadership on the world stage, and he has abysmally failed on every metric,” House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York said in a statement in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion on Thursday morning.

But Carlson is not the only Putin defender on the right. Most notable among them is former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly praised Putin in recent days, calling the tyrant “very savvy” and describing the invasion as “pretty smart.” Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn issued a statement on Thursday sympathizing with Putin and alleging that the Biden administration “ignored and laughed at Putin’s legitimate security concerns.”

Trump has long equivocated on America’s commitment to protecting European allies. In 2016, his campaign blocked an amendment to the Republican platform that called for arming Ukraine. Early in his tenure as president, he avoided affirming the U.S.’s commitment to mutual defense with other members of NATO. And although he later did so, he frequently criticized NATO and its members throughout his term and called for European nations to spend more on their militaries.

Meanwhile, Trump spoke warmly of Putin and echoed the former Russian spy’s claim — rather than the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community — that his country had not interfered in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf. At the same time, Congress passed sweeping sanctions against Russia with bipartisan veto-proof majorities, leading Trump to sign the bill despite expressing opposition to it. The Trump administration also sold advanced weapons to Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-President Donald Trump shake hands.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets then-President Donald Trump at a G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in 2019. (Kremlin Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But Trump’s praise of Putin seemed to resonate among some Republican voters. In the second half of 2016, Putin’s net favorability rating among Republicans improved by more than 50 points, according to an Economist/YouGov poll.

“It used to be that Republicans and Democrats generally had a very strongly, broadly disfavorable view of Putin, but after 2016 — after Putin helped defeat Hillary Clinton … Republicans no longer see Putin as a geopolitical foe,” said Craig Harrington, research director at Media Matters for America, a liberal group that tracks conservative media and messaging. In a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released late last month, 62 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said Putin is “a stronger leader” than Biden.

Trump is by no means a historian or political philosopher, but his ideology has deep roots on the right. He termed his foreign policy platform “America First” — the same phrase used by isolationists who opposed U.S. entry into World War II and selling arms to Britain for its fight with Nazi Germany.

One hears echoes of that mindset from Trump supporters such as Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist and popular talk radio host. “It feels as if Putin is going into places that want him,” Kirk said on Tuesday. “They have voted overwhelmingly to be part of it. It is a family dispute that we shouldn't get in the midst of.” He also predicted on Twitter — without citing evidence or acknowledging evidence to the contrary — that Biden would send American troops to defend Ukraine, which Biden has insisted he will not do.

Some “national conservatives,” such as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., say Europe should take the lead in countering Russia while the U.S. focuses on confronting China. “American foreign policy should be based on what’s best for preserving American freedom and American prosperity, not expanding an empire of ‘liberal order’ around the world,” Hawley wrote in an op-ed for Fox News earlier this month.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

“There is still time to deny China’s hegemonic ambitions, starting in Asia,” Hawley added. “But — and here is the key point — doing so will require us to do less in other theaters. ... Russia poses a far greater threat to Europe than it does to the United States. It is time for our allies to act accordingly and take primary responsibility for the conventional defense of Europe.”

Democrats and liberals are comparatively united in their opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the most dovish Democrats are found on the party’s left wing, Putin’s record of human rights abuses and the illegality of his invasion under international law led progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders to condemn Russia’s moves and support the Biden administration’s economic sanctions of Russia.

In fact, the highest-profile Democrats and progressives who side with Putin are now allied with the right. Former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii who ran unsuccessfully in the 2020 presidential primaries on an isolationist platform, is scheduled to speak at the just-started Conservative Political Action Conference.

For Republicans who support Trump but oppose Russian expansionism, the former president’s deference toward Putin creates an uncomfortable tension, which some resolve by very selectively, some would misleadingly, characterizing Trump's record on Russia. Fox News contributor and retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a former acting national security adviser to Trump, told Hannity on Monday that Putin was invading because Biden has been weak on national security.

“When you look at this administration, and when you look at the chief executive and you look at the national security staff that he has around him, and you look at the vice president, it’s a constant pattern of weakness,” Kellogg said. “When President Trump was in office, you know, he was resolute, and he was also predictably unpredictable.”

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Jerusalem Post's annual conference in 2021 in Jerusalem.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2021. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another Trump administration veteran, said on Fox News the following morning, “The only thing that has changed in the last 14 months is the leadership in the United States of America.”

Trump’s critics argue that a president who sided with Putin against his own intelligence agencies and illegally withheld aid to Ukraine cannot accurately be described as “resolute” against Russia. But experts note that many members of Trump's own national security team were at odds with his stance toward Putin.

“I think that just reflects the incoherence of the Trump administration,” said Brands, regarding Republicans who claim Trump would have more effectively countered Putin. “President Trump himself was not particularly hawkish on Russia; his administration actually was fairly hawkish on Russia, and it increased spending on NATO’s eastern defenses.”

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