What Ukraine shows us about American politics

The war in Ukraine does not directly involve the United States. More than two thirds of Americans oppose any U.S. military engagement in Ukraine. But Americans are hardly neutral. By better than three to one (75 to 22 percent), Americans sympathize more with Ukraine than with Russia.

It’s essentially a moral sentiment. Americans see Russia as a bully, and you have to stand up to bullies. Which is exactly what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doing, with U.S. support. Sixty-four percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of Zelensky. And Russian President Vladimir Putin? 11 percent.

The war between Russia and Ukraine is not simply a regional conflict. It has worldwide resonance because it represents a clash of civilizations — Russia against “the West.” Putin sees himself as the savior of Russian civilization — orthodox in religion, traditional in values and authoritarian — against the liberal, democratic and pluralistic “West.” 

Putin appears to be genuinely shocked by the fierce resistance his forces are facing both from the Ukrainians themselves and from the U.S. and Europe. He published an essay last year (“On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”) arguing that Russians and Ukrainians are actually “one people” with the same origins and values, aligned against “the West.”

Ukraine is really a frontier country in the clash of civilizations. Catholics are concentrated in western Ukraine, which was historically dominated by Poland. Orthodox Christians predominate in the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country. The showdown came in the “Orange Revolution” in the aftermath of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential election when, after a tumultuous campaign of protests, strikes and civil disobedience, the more pro-Western candidate was elected.

It’s a division over politics, not just religion. Western Ukraine traditionally identifies more with “the West” and its tradition of liberal democracy. Eastern Ukraine traditionally identifies more with Russia and its tradition of authoritarian government. A Ukrainian historian wrote recently that Putin’s invasion is “based on the belief that he is at war, not with Ukraine, but with the West in Ukrainian lands.” 

As a result, the West — meaning the U.S. and other NATO countries — are giving Ukraine strong support. It has become a war between Western civilization and Putin’s “Eurasianism,” which combines Orthodox religion, traditional moral and sexual values and the restoration of Russian empire across Europe and Asia. To the West, however, Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has set off a global political confrontation between democracy and authoritarianism. A new cold war.

Speaking in Warsaw on Saturday, Biden said, “The battle for democracy could not and did not conclude with the end of the cold war.” He even tried to enlist the support of the Russian people, saying, “For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” Many Russians do not understand why they are at war with Ukraine. But Russia, of course, is not a democracy. 

That conflict has some resonance in American politics. The American political tradition is deeply anti-authoritarian (“Don’t tread on me”), which explains why Putin gets so little support from the American public. But the radical right, which came to power with Donald Trump in 2017, includes a fringe element that sometimes expresses authoritarian sentiments.

Trump himself called Putin “smart,” “genius” and “savvy” (“He’s taken over a country for two dollars worth of sanctions . . . just walking right in”). When President Trump’s own intelligence community concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Trump sided with Putin, who denied it.

Republicans now have a Putin problem. 

Some Republicans who have been critical of Putin have tried to blame President Biden for facilitating the invasion. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said, “Putin is a megalomaniacal dictator. Biden is the president who decided to lift sanctions on him and greenlight the project that Putin was building in order to enable him to invade Ukraine.”

One far-right Republican has even been harshly critical of Zelensky. “Remember that Zelensky is a thug,” said Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) at a town hall. “Remember the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt and is incredibly evil and has been pushing ‘woke’ ideologies,” he said.

That’s a clue that helps explain Putin’s appeal to the radical right. Putin is on their side in the culture wars, attacking homosexuals, defending Russia’s “traditional values” and criticizing the West’s “genderless and infertile” liberalism. He endorses strongman politics and — something communists could never do — he embraces Christian nationalism. Like Trump, Putin may not be personally religious, but he accepts religion as a source of national identity.

Anne Applebaum, author of “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism,” writes that Putin wants to “remove the power of the democracy rhetoric that so many people in his part of the world still associate with America.” It is an enduring contradiction that the U.S. is the most religious advanced industrial country in the world and also the most committed to democracy.

Some years ago, when the U.S. Catholic church was under attack for sexual scandals, lay Catholics were demanding a greater voice in church governance. I interviewed a bishop, who told me, “The church does not operate on the principle of democracy. The church operates on the principle of authority.”

So does Russia. 

And if Putin has his way, so will much of the world.

The authoritarian threat is replacing the communist threat.

Bill Schneider is an emeritus professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable” (Simon & Schuster).

Tags American politics authoritarian governments Authoritarianism countering Putin countering Russia domestic politics Donald Trump Far-right politics In Ukraine International relations Joe Biden military aid to Ukraine NATO Public image of Vladimir Putin Republican Party Russia Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian sanctions Russo-Ukrainian War Ted Cruz Ukraine US aid to Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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