On the morning of February 24, Putin ordered a “special military operation” under the guise of demilitarizing, denazifying, and democratizing Ukraine. This came after weeks of stationing hundreds of thousands of troops, tanks, and other armaments at the Russia-Ukraine border. Russia has since launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, infiltrating and attacking not only the separatist republics of Donbas, but going so far as attempting to seize the capital, Kyiv, under Putin’s direct orders.
Before the invasion, right-wing populist sentiment towards Putin was largely favorable. However, since the beginning of the war, there has been a marked decline in support from these formerly pro-Putin right-wing populist politicians and partisans. As the Russian troops continue to attack a sovereign Ukraine, indiscriminately shelling civilian homes and hospitals, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the pro-Putin populists to justify his course of action. Even to right-wing populists, Putin now shows real signs of being a “global menace” with ambitions to reestablish some form of a Russian empire, threatening nuclear war, and destabilizing Europe. Yet, there remains some degree of support for both Putin and his invasion from the populist right.
Right-wing populist sentiment towards Russia, Putin, and his regime within the past few years has been generally positive. As a strongman, Putin has been idolized by many populist and nationalist leaders, and consequently, by their supporters as well. For years, right-wing populist politicians have praised Putin for his defense of “closed borders, Christian conservatism, and bare-chested machismo in an era of liberal identity politics and Western globalization.” Putin is seen as an ally “in their rebellion against the liberal and globalized world order.”
However, while most right-wing populists maintain their stance that the West and their push for NATO expansion is to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many have condemned Putin’s attack, notably, with some populist leaders taking a stronger stance against Putin than others. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party of France, had previously sung her praises to Putin and even declared that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was not illegal. However, Le Pen, who staunchly opposes NATO, and who, like many other right-wing populists, had previously downplayed the risk of a Russian invasion claiming much of it to be American propaganda, has since denounced Russia’s military aggression, stating that “what he has done is completely reprehensible.” In Britain, Nigel Farage, founder of the right-wing populist “Reform UK” party, former UKIP member, and champion of Brexit, had also expressed disbelief that Russia would attack Ukraine. Following Russia’s invasion, while maintaining that the European Union and NATO had unnecessarily provoked Russia with their desire for expansion, Farage tweeted that “Putin has gone much farther than I thought he would,” but added that “it made no sense to poke the Russian bear with a stick.” Italy’s leading right-wing politician, Matteo Salvini, another staunch supporter of Putin, similarly has condemned the violence in Ukraine by Russia, but has been more hesitant to condemn Putin by name for ordering the attacks.
In the United States, former President Donald Trump – who had a controversial yet positive relationship with Putin during his presidency – praised Putin for being “very savvy” and making a “genius” move by declaring the separatist Donbas republics as independent states to legally justify moving in the Russian military. Many of Trump’s supporters, such as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have echoed his sentiments towards Putin, arguing that NATO is to blame for the Russian invasion. Last November, in a conversation with a GOP congressman, Carlson posed the question of why shouldn’t America be on Russia’s side, when, out of the two countries, they have the energy reserves and are a major player in world affairs. After the invasion, Carlson “urged Americans to ask themselves what they had against Mr. Putin” and “denigrated Ukraine as not a democracy but a puppet of the West and the United States,” aligning with the Kremlin’s justifications for their invasion. While both Trump and Carlson have since slightly backpedaled and spoken of the horrific nature of the war, much like the European right-wing populists – with Trump going so far as to call the invasion a “holocaust” – they still displace blame from Putin to other Western powers and leaders. These sentiments expressed by Trump, Carlson, and other right-wing populists are largely mimicked by their supporters.
Moreover, Trump and his supporters go so far as to purport that had Trump been in his rightful position as president, the invasion would never have occurred, and that President Biden is at fault. Trump, who has proudly expressed his positive relationship with Putin, has repeatedly emphasized that he was the only president in the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade a country. His claim, which is echoed by his supporters, is that the Ukraine invasion would not have occurred had the election not been stolen from him. The narrative held by the American right-wing populists is that Putin was emboldened by U.S. missteps and weaknesses, and by “weakman” Biden, particularly evidenced in Biden’s withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. However, most of the traditional Republican party members condemn Trump for his praises of Putin and argue that only Putin is to blame, not NATO or the West. Furthermore, in the classical right-wing politics of both America and other Western democracies, leaders who displayed tyrannical and authoritarian characteristics were largely opposed. Classical right-wing political ideologies such as libertarianism and conservatism argue for a smaller government and warn of the threats strongmen pose to democratic regimes, capitalism, and the liberal establishment. As such, modern right-wing populists diverge from this classical right-wing ideology and have instead moved towards support for strongmen with authoritarian tendencies, as can be evidenced by their support, although wavering at times, for Putin and other strongmen leaders such as Trump, Le Pen, etc.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties have denounced Putin, expressed their full support for Ukraine, and have called for strong sanctions to be imposed against Russia. On the other hand, like other right-wing populists, Salvini, Trump, Carlson, etc. walk a fine line between condemning Russia’s attacks while also shifting the blame away from Putin. According to German scholar Hajo Funke, this is “a sign of their ideological closeness to Putin’s aggressive nationalism.” It is not difficult to discern that on a personal level, Trump and other right-wing populist leaders are admirers of Putin’s “strongman” leadership in Russia. In fact, Trump tried to project and emulate this strongman persona during his own presidency. Some right-wing populists, while they may condemn the attacks on Ukraine, may not condemn Putin himself because they admire his leadership and display of power. However, while modern right-wing populists may call for “strongmen” in power, as Putin continues to intensify the war in Ukraine, he increasingly displays behaviors and actions that are difficult for leaders to defend and justify on the global stage.
While the future of right-wing populist relations with Putin remain unclear and undefined, they are likely to depend on the outcome and consequences of the invasion. As the war rages on, right-wing populists will have to choose between continuing to condemn the attacks in Ukraine while maintaining a certain degree of support for Putin, or beginning to take a stronger stance against Putin as the wrongful aggressor.