‘War criminal’ or ‘savvy strongman’? Putin invasion deepens Republican divide

<span>Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed a schism in the Republican party between “hawks” who condemn Vladimir Putin and “America first” followers who express admiration for the strongman.

But what has united the two wings so far is an opportunity to score political points by casting Joe Biden as weak and paying the price of failure in Afghanistan.

Related: Ron DeSantis fuels US presidential run speculation with CPAC speech

The split was evident on Thursday as Republicans in Washington condemned Putin as a “war criminal” while many grassroots conservatives attending a conference in Florida agreed with former president Donald Trump that the Russian autocrat is “savvy”.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, described Putin as a “thug” and criticized Biden for being too slow to impose tough sanctions. “Sadly, deterrence after the fact is not deterrence at all,” he said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, who is both a Trump ally and traditional hawk, added: “The Biden administration continues to misread the moment ... We should move ahead forcefully against Putin, a war criminal, and demand our allies join us.”

Even Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives who is typically loyal to Trump, focused his statement on Putin’s invasion as “reckless and evil” and echoed Biden by saying the Russian president “must be held accountable for his actions”.

But 850 miles away in Orlando, there was less sense of urgency at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering dominated by Trump where party stalwarts such as McConnell and Senator Mitt Romney have long been persona non grata.

Ted Cruz at the conference in Orlando.
Ted Cruz at the conference in Orlando. Photograph: Chris duMond/Rex/Shutterstock

The Ukraine crisis did feature in some speeches and panel discussions but played second fiddle to domestic issues such as “cancel culture”, mask and vaccine mandates in the coronavirus pandemic and the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools.

Anyone listening to diatribes by Ted Cruz, senator for Texas, or Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, would never have guessed that Europe’s biggest military conflagration since 1945 was taking place.

But Josh Hawley, a rightwing senator from Missouri who backed Trump’s false claim of a stolen election, did cut through the apathy to address the crisis, suggesting that it was down to “weakness on the part of Joe Biden”.

He said: “He comes to office and what does he do? He shuts down American energy production and greenlights Russian energy production. He greenlights Putin’s pipeline and he shuts down American pipelines. Is it any wonder that Vladimir Putin feels emboldened to do whatever the heck it is he wants to do?”

You can be a military genius and a jerk at the same time

Marnie Allen

Hawley used this argument to call on Biden to “open up American energy” production with no mention of the climate crisis. He added: “We are the number one energy producing nation in the world – or we should be. Joe Biden gave that away.

“It’s time to take it back. And if you want to send a message to Vladimir Putin, here’s a message to send him: ‘We are going to be the ones who supply the oil and gas to the world. We’re going to shut down your energy sector and we’re going to open ourselves like you’ve never seen it before.’”

Earlier, the conference heard a similar message from K T McFarland, who served as Trump’s deputy national security adviser. Wearing yellow as an expression of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, she claimed that energy independence had been a key part of Trump’s strategy.

“We could replace Russia, we could replace other countries in the world as the world’s dominant energy supplier, but it would also drive the price of oil down. That’s key for Russia. If oil is at $40 a barrel, which it was when president Trump left office, the Russians are broke. They can’t afford to go to war, war is expensive.”

Josh Hawley speaks at the summit.
Josh Hawley speaks at the summit. Photograph: Chris duMond/Rex/Shutterstock

McFarland added: “Now, president Biden comes in, what does he do? Well, if president Trump liked it, Biden hated it, so he immediately shut down the American energy industry. Oil and natural gas, the energy that we were exporting to other countries, stopped as well. What happened? The price of oil went sky high. Vladimir Putin’s rich, he gets to choose when to invade.”

Trump, who has frequently expressed admiration for authoritarians, this week praised Putin’s invasion of separatist areas of Ukraine as “genius”, “savvy” and “smart”. Mike Pompeo, his former secretary of state, has called Putin “talented”, “savvy” and a “capable statesman”.

And Tucker Carlson, a leading host on the conservative Fox News channel, told viewers: “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?”

Related: Kimmel on Tucker Carlson’s pro-Russia stance: ‘I want to see the tape Putin has of him’

Interviews with attendees at CPAC found sympathy for such views. Marnie Allen, 51, said of Putin: “Obviously he is much more savvy than Joe Biden or else he wouldn’t have walked into Ukraine and taken over an entire country with barely a shot fired so far. You can be a military genius and a jerk at the same time.”

Allen, a higher education manager who lives in Orlando, was wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” (rightwing code for insulting Biden) t-shirt and a “DeSantisLand” cap. She said she used to be a hawk but was “shown the right way” and now considers herself “America first”.

She said of the invasion: “One tweet under President Trump, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Tom Freeman, 66, vice-president of a retail company and a self-described “studier of history”, agreed: “I don’t think they would have done it had Trump been the president.”

Asked about Trump’s descriptions of Putin as “genius,” “savvy” and “smart”, Freeman, from Jupiter, Florida, replied: “Well, I don’t think any of those are falsehoods. Putin’s always been full of shit but he’s very powerful and he’s certainly more savvy than our President Joe Biden.”

Others at CPAC appeared ready to understand Putin’s point of view. Sam Leiter, 56, said: “I guess you could say he’s following his interest. The reason why Putin is popular in Russia is because he flexes Russian muscle: he acts like a tough guy. He’s kind of Russia’s Al Capone, I guess, but he’s doing what’s in their best interests.”

Leiter, a speech therapist from Baltimore, Maryland, elaborated: “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you want a fresh water port and you want access to the land that Ukraine has and you see what Biden did in Afghanistan, you have to be an idiot – really stupid – not to take this opportunity to go and do whatever you think it is in your country’s interest.”

Lauren Lamp, 22, from New York, said: “It’s a perfect storm for him. You have Biden who’s like, ‘You did this, let’s put sanctions.’ They’re not going to undo what’s already happened. Putin’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, you know what? We’re just going to pull back now.’ No, they’re going in for all of Ukraine and maybe farther and it’s very strategic on his part because there’s nobody to stop him, especially now that they’re friends with China.”

Many here are convinced that, had Trump served a second term, the war would not have happened. Lamp, who works in corporate bankruptcy, asked: “Would Putin have ever done this when Trump was in office? Absolutely no, and that’s because Trump in himself was a big enough deterrent and Putin was like, ‘You know, we don’t want to mess with that bear’.”

In reality Trump lavished praise on autocrats such as Putin and infamously exchanged “love letters” with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. But some analysts felt that Trump embodied “madman theory” of foreign policy and there were benefits to his volatile unpredictability.

Nikki Murphy, 35, a healthcare worker in Winter Haven, Florida, said: “When your mother disciplines you and has rules and boundaries, you’re going to listen to her, you’re going to not cross those boundaries. That’s how Trump treated foreign countries with an iron fist. They knew that he was probably crazy enough to go through with his threats, so they did not try him.”

In the CPAC corridors and exhibitor halls, there was little sense of a global tragedy unfolding. Asked if she fears escalation into a third world war, Rachel Sheley, 53, a chief information security officer from northern Kentucky, said with a laugh: “Well, if it does, it might be a good opportunity to get certain people out of power. You know what I mean?”