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Putin's Unholy Alliance
Those on the extremes of Western politics are enchanted by the Russian president's worldview.
by Nick Cohen
If they did not have bigger targets, the Ukrainian democratic forces might turn on their enemies in the extremes of Western politics. Even as Ukraine’s heroism astonishes and inspires the world, it remains a source of shame that powerful factions on the left and right would undermine their cause.
On the right, admiration for Putin is a dark thread that runs through Donald Trump, Fox News, Nigel Farage and his acolytes who helped wrench Britain out of the EU, French post-fascist leaders Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour, and their counterparts across Europe. Speaking in 2014, Steve Bannon said that Putin inspired nationalists who wanted to see “sovereignty for their country.” At least “Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism.”
Their reasoning carries a superficial plausibility, until you examine it. Bannon and Trump must have known that Russia is an empire, not a nation state. First in Georgia, and now in Ukraine, Putin’s avowed aim is to expand imperial borders. Ukrainians are paying an enormous price in blood and treasure to defend their nation against an enemy invader. But from Bannon to Trump to Farage there is no instinctive sympathy for them as they fight a desperate war for national survival.
The Putinist right admires Russian imperialism, not Russian nationalism. They are in the grip of power-worship, and no one can doubt that there is a political market for their sycophancy.
When confronting fellow-traveling with autocracy too many of us find it easier to believe in the evil of a handful of men than the malignancy and ignorance of millions of our fellow citizens. For example, I hear Americans blame Rupert Murdoch for Fox News apologias for tyranny. They seem to think Murdoch satisfies his own personal spite when he pays Tucker Carlson to declare that Ukraine was “not a democracy” and the invasion was a mere “border dispute.”
Murdoch, in truth, is simply a media entrepreneur giving his American conservative customer base what it wants. If he were to fire Carlson, another station would pick him up and take a slice of his market. Rather than indulge in conspiracy theories it is better to face the hard truth that the Western far right has a life of its own, and you will never beat it if you do not understand it.
For Farage and the British anti-EU forces, the visceral attraction was closely bound to Putin’s hatred of the European Union, so obviously inspired by his fear that Europe’s promotion of the rule of law would one day attract Russians. In every country with a significant pro-Putin movement, race and religion play their parts too. It turned out that when the conservatives of the 20th century opposed the godless, communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, for some of them it was the godlessness, not the dictatorship, that mattered most. Even so, the right’s affection endured when Putin unleashed war against Ukraine and its overwhelmingly white and Christian population, proving that power worship is a drug the addicted cannot kick.
Christian conservatives in the West are able to see Russia as an ally in the struggle against secularism, feminism, LGBT rights and all human rights. As a garbling Steve Bannon said, “the Judeo-Christian West [has] to look at what [Putin]’s talking about, as far as traditionalism goes.” To add to Russia’s appeal, the officially atheist Soviet Union has gone, and the obsequious Russian Orthodox Church has returned to its pre-communist role of endorsing the Kremlin whatever it does.
In other words, you let off elements of the Western right too lightly if you say they have fallen for the old lie that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” It is an observable fact that they do not endorse Putin merely in an unthinking reaction against wokeness, the Biden administration, or pan-European cooperation. They find Putin’s illiberalism and dictatorship thrilling in themselves. They admire and seek to imitate him, and brush aside all contradictions.
The far left, which has proved such a receptive audience for Russian fake news, is not the far right’s twin. The socialist movement, for all its faults, once had a coherent and universal political creed. In theory, its adherents deplore the racism, homophobia and imperialism of the Putin regime. Indeed, for a generation now, they have awarded themselves the title of the “anti-imperialist left.”
But now the left has degenerated into thrashing factions, and parts of it subscribe to the doctrine that any enemy of the West is better than the West having no enemies at all. The far left takeover of the Labour Party in my country, the UK, between 2015 and 2020 illustrated the moral and intellectual vacuity this inability to apply universal values brought. When Russian secret agents poisoned a defector living in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s leader, was reluctant to blame Putin, and asked that the UK give Russia a sample of the nerve agent so it could run their own tests (as if the Kremlin would admit to its crimes).
As Putin’s war began in 2022, Corbyn and his faction were blaming NATO expansion for stirring the justified anger of the Russian bear in a statement initially supported by many of the far left’s remaining Labour MPs. They were matched in the European Parliament by members of the left group, including Communists, who led the opposition to condemning the Russian invasion.
The horseshoe theory that far left and right end up meeting cannot explain the vast differences in economic and social policy between the two sides. But the legacy of communist totalitarianism ensures that the far left is as opposed to liberal democracy as the far right.
Of the two, the right-wing Putinists are the most dangerous for a reason anyone who considers themselves liberal or socialist should learn: The right, and in our age the far right, is much better at winning. Their indulgence of Putin is terrifying and will become a global menace again if Donald Trump retakes the U.S. presidency. Left-wing pro-Putinism does less damage because the extreme left is in retreat after its flourishing in the 2010s, and rarely comes close to power.
On both sides, it is a measure of the savagery of the Russian assault that it has in recent days all but silenced the liars and insinuators, the whatabouters and the hired propagandists. But I would not count on them staying silent for long. The West’s rediscovery of its resolve will lead to economic pain as sanctions send fuel and food prices rising. As the pain grows, his fellow travelers will be back arguing that we should appease Putin rather than pay the cost of standing up to him.
“On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind,” says Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. “It becomes a pleasure.” When the time comes, taking on the enormous hypocrisies of nationalists who support the destruction of nations, and anti-imperialists who cannot make a stand against the revival of the Tsarist empire, will be exactly that.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for The Guardian and The Observer in London.