This year’s oddest moment was when Vladimir Putin attacked the Church of England. Its sin was to consider the idea of a gender neutral God. In the midst of what he sees as an existential war, Putin has time to worry about same-sex marriages in America, Shakespeare and JK Rowling being cancelled on each side of the Atlantic, and gender reassignment surgery.
You might think that Putin was auditioning to replace Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ leading anchor. Then again, Carlson’s rhetoric is often indistinguishable from the Russian president’s. Carlson has described Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a “despot”, Joe Biden’s “Ukrainian pimp” and a “corrupt strongman”. Tell us what you really think, Mr Carlson.
The internet throws up strange affinities such as that between Putin and Carlson. But this one is less weird than it seems. The Republican voter is steadily shifting towards an antiwar position. Fewer than 40 per cent of them think the US should still be providing weapons to Ukraine. The party’s two leading presidential hopefuls, Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, are Ukraine war sceptics.
Trump says he would end the war within 24 hours of becoming president. DeSantis this week said that further entanglement “in a territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine” was not in America’s national interest. He disclosed this in a statement read out on Carlson’s show (but I repeat myself). DeSantis said the US should focus on securing its own border. Trump and DeSantis account for at least three-quarters of Republican support between them. It is a fair bet that one of them will be the 2024 nominee.
Is that what Putin is counting on? Even to ask this question would be provocative. If you want Americans of any stripe to lose their cool, just whisper “Russia 2016”.
Liberals believe, with slim evidence, that Putin won the presidency for Trump. Republicans believe, against judicial proof, that Putin’s interference in the 2016 election is a myth. The truth, which merits almost no airtime, is that Putin did interfere in the 2016 election but it was almost certainly not decisive. But he was happy to stoke America’s pre-existing fire.
There is little doubt that Putin’s best hope of winning his war in Ukraine is for Nato’s resolve to collapse and America’s supply of money and weapons to dry up. A Trump or DeSantis presidency would be Russia’s likeliest chance of disuniting the west.
This is where Putin’s training as a KGB agent who can manipulate perceptions is relevant. The danger is not that he will cause America’s electorate to change its vote. The US generates more than enough of its own disinformation.
The risk is that the Kremlin leader will further cement the view on the Maga right that Russia is the global champion of their anti-woke cause. Russian flags and T-shirts proclaiming “I would rather be a Russian than a Democrat” are a regular sight nowadays.
There are big differences between DeSantis and Trump. What their pitches have in common is the predominance of culture. They talk little about the size of the state, employment security or reshoring global supply chains. They rail a lot against woke culture, woke capitalism and Biden’s support for Ukraine.
Donald Trump Jr derides Ukraine’s president as an “ungrateful international welfare queen”. Were their platforms less cultural, Putin would doubtless find time to mock Biden’s tax policies. Instead, Russia’s leader keeps scratching that cultural itch.
Matters could come to a head sooner than the next presidential election. This autumn the $45bn in Ukraine funding that Congress passed in December will run out. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives, has already warned against a “blank cheque” for Ukraine. Many of his colleagues would pull the plug altogether.
Since it took McCarthy a record 15 rounds to win the speakership, and he has a majority of just four votes, he is beholden to extreme allies, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, to keep his job. Greene depicts Zelenskyy as a corrupt globalist who wants to put American men and women in harm’s way. Nobody knows what McCarthy believes. As one colleague quipped: “If McCarthy is alone, does he exist?” It is doubtful the US speaker could stick to a fishing rod, let alone hold a political line.
Either way, Ukraine is likely to be on the ballot next year. Foreign policy is rarely decisive in US presidential races. It is usually the economy, stupid. But culture often plays a role. The key point about the Carlson-Putin symbiosis is that Ukraine is turning into a US cultural divide. Much like wearing masks identified you as a liberal in the pandemic, the Ukrainian flag has become a symbol of woke culture.
Almost all of the remaining Republican field — from former vice-president Mike Pence to ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley — are Russia hawks. Indeed, they criticise Biden for not doing enough for Ukraine. Second to the war on the ground, the battle Putin will be watching most closely is the Republican primaries. If all goes well for him, he will place his hopes on the general.
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