Defending Vladimir Putin’s regime is a thankless task these days, when Putin’s bad reputation as Europe’s bully is rivaled only by his reputation as a repressive autocrat in domestic policies. It is also a job that makes the strangest of political bedfellows, with veteran leftist Tom Hayden on the same side as veteran right-winger Pat Buchanan. It’s a fascinating case study in ideological opposites converging over a deep alienation from the political mainstream.
Hayden’s article in the current issue of The Nation blasts “Western triumphalists” who, in the long afterglow of communism’s defeat, “sought to expand their sphere of influence . . . across the Ukraine to Russia’s border.” Then, in Hayden’s narrative, ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine rebelled against an unfriendly regime in Kiev — but the West wrote them off as “pawns of Moscow” while the Ukrainian government chose force over political settlement. Agreeing with Putin, Hayden blames the tragedy of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to end a ceasefire — and on the West for backing that decision.
Somehow, Hayden manages to omit the fact that Eastern Ukraine’s insurgents are led by Russian citizens. Nor does he mention that Poroshenko ended the unilateral ceasefire because the insurgents took advantage of it to kill more than two dozen Ukrainian soldiers.
In the same Nation issue, the magazine’s resident Russian scholar, New York University’s Stephen F. Cohen, accuses the United States of sponsoring a coup in Ukraine and covering up the new regime’s “war crimes” while praising Putin for his restraint. (The insurgents’ well-documented brutalities went unmentioned.) This is nothing new for Cohen, whose commentary during Russia’s takeover of Crimea earned him the title of “Putin’s American apologist” from The New Republic.
Meanwhile, Buchanan, the far-right culture warrior and erstwhile presidential candidate, warns against “ostracism of Putin” in his latest column in the American Conservative. When Russia annexed Crimea, Buchanan argued that Putin was championing legitimate Russian interests against Western aggression and NATO expansionism (repeating the disputed claim that the United States once promised Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand to Eastern Europe if the Soviet army moved out).
This odd meeting of minds is not just an American phenomenon. In England, the two most prominent pundits who regularly take the pro-Russian stance in foreign policy debates are Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, a strong social and religious conservative, and far-left Guardian columnist Seumas Milne.
What accounts for this alliance? To some extent, both the leftists and the rightists see Putin’s Russia as perhaps the only force that can counteract American hegemony, which leftists see as an embodiment of global imperialism driven by capitalist greed and rightists as a deeply anti-conservative force that drives the “new world order,” undermining national sovereignty and tradition. Hitchens has lauded Putin — though at least recognizing his corrupt authoritarianism on the home front — for defending the principle that governments can do whatever they want within their borders without foreign meddling.
Both also project their own social and political passions onto Putin’s domestic rule. Cohen, as his writings make clear, resents Boris Yeltsin for dismantling the Soviet Union and seeking to steer Russia toward Western-style democratic capitalism rather than “socialism with a human face”; Putin’s partial reversal of that course, including his push to restore pride in Soviet-era “achievements,” appeals to the left’s never-quite-forgotten romance with communism. Meanwhile, Buchanan sees Putin as a champion of godliness who promotes family values, bans “homosexual propaganda,” and “is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity” against a secularized, hedonistic West.
The irony, of course, is that Friends of Vladimir on both the right and the left have to settle for a lot of baggage that comes with what they see as the good parts of Putinism. The conservatives’ new Christian soldier is a proud KGB veteran who sees the Soviet Union’s breakup as a tragedy. The leftists’ foe of capitalist imperialism is a man who runs a corrupt crony capitalist regime, using state-sponsored religion as a prop and homophobia as a propaganda weapon. The anti-globalists’ defender of national sovereignty is an aggressive interventionist when smaller nations he regards as Russia’s satellites seek an independent course.
The real Putin is neither a man of God nor a champion of the people, but a cynical player who seeks to manipulate political and cultural concerns, fixations, and disaffections across the spectrum. Sometimes, he obviously succeeds.