Putin’s Useful Idiots

Too many Republicans who know better are serving as mouthpieces for the Kremlin.

Illustration of three silhouettes, with Vladimir Putin's face.
Getty ; The Atlantic

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Mike Pompeo is of two minds about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the one hand, the former secretary of state is critical of America’s failure to deter the attack. “President Biden has been weak toward Putin, unstable and unclear—he doesn’t understand what is at stake in the fight against Russia and doesn’t know that it takes strength to defend America and keep us out of war,” he wrote in a Fox News column Thursday.

On the other hand, Pompeo has a great deal of respect for the man who has ordered the invasion. Those are his words, not mine: “I have enormous respect for him.” Even though Pompeo says he saw the attack coming, he’s spent the lead-up lavishing praise on Vladimir Putin. In an interview last week, he called the Russian president “very savvy” and “very shrewd,” adding, “I consider him an elegantly sophisticated counterpart and one who is not reckless but has always done the math.” In January, he said, “He is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts … He knows how to use power. We should respect that.”

You can guess which of Pompeo’s takes on Putin entered heavy circulation on Russian state television.

Pompeo’s jumbled response reflects the often-incoherent foreign policy of his former boss, Donald Trump. The invasion of Ukraine has prompted the latest round of the GOP’s attempt to figure out what it believes, other than backing Trump and opposing President Joe Biden. At the moment, three major factions seem to have emerged: orthodox Trumpists, old-line national-security conservatives, and a hybrid camp.

Trump’s statements about Ukraine are as confusing as ever, at least if you try to read them for anything other than improvisatory self-aggrandizement. Trump’s Ukraine policy was all over the place: He sent weapons to Ukraine, something that the Obama administration had refused to do. He also accepted Putin’s seizure of Crimea, and he infamously tried to withhold aid from the Ukrainian government in exchange for help in the presidential election, leading to his first impeachment.

This week, Trump has said that “Putin is playing Biden like a drum,” and also, “I know Vladimir Putin very well, and he would have never done during the Trump Administration what he is doing now, no way!” Yet at an event at Mar-A-Lago last night, Trump, like Pompeo, praised Putin’s strategic genius: “I mean, he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart.”

There’s nothing wrong (despite what some commentators might have you believe) with criticizing the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine and Russia. Although an old tradition held that “politics stops at the water’s edge”—in other words, everyone should back the president in foreign policy—the Trump administration showed the folly and futility of that view: Many people criticized his handling of world affairs, and often rightly so. (Some of the present criticism of Biden is inane, but other parts are substantive.)

What is galling about these comments from Pompeo and Trump is not their break with the White House but their insistence on heaping praise on Putin, a habit that springs from Trump’s personal affection for Putin as well as his admiration for authoritarian politics. Not so long ago, Pompeo was the house hawk in the isolationist-leaning Trump administration, which was led by a man who preferred pulling back from the world. A West Point grad and Army veteran, Pompeo knows better. He also knows that his presidential ambitions probably cannot withstand a sharp break with Trump.

Tucker Carlson, another orthodox Trumpist and the dominant conservative pundit of the moment, is unreservedly pro-Putin. “Why do Democrats want you to hate Putin?” he asked Tuesday. “Has Putin shipped every middle class job in your town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked your business? Is he teaching your kids to embrace racial discrimination? Is he making fentanyl? Does he eat dogs?”

The answers to these faux-naive questions are easy enough: Democrats are not alone in hating Putin, who is a likely war criminal who has repeatedly broken international law, poisoned dissidents, and killed journalists, to pick just a few offenses. Carlson is smart enough to know all of that, so maybe he’s playing dumb, or maybe he doesn’t find those things objectionable.

A second group of Republicans trying to figure out how to respond to Putin’s invasion is what we might call the anti–anti-Trump-foreign-policy faction: They want to capitalize on some of the energy and ideas of Trumpism, but their shame is too strong or their stomachs too weak to debase themselves like Pompeo and Carlson. An anti–anti-Trump view of the crisis brings in Trumpian culture-war themes and a “gotta hand it to them” attitude about authoritarians like Putin.

A prominent exponent of this school is Ben Shapiro, a pundit with a foot in the old conservative movement who once opposed Trump but gradually found accommodation with him. “Russia and China are focused on expanding their spheres of influence via aggressive action,” Shapiro tweeted today. “The West is focused on expanding its national debt and exploding the gender binary. Whatever advantages we have on an objective level are wildly undermined by our narcissistic idiocy.” The Ohio U.S. Senate candidate J. D. Vance has taken the view that the Ukraine crisis is simply not of interest or relevance to the U.S. and that Americans should focus on immigration, an odd (and politically perilous) false binary.

The third group comprises the remainder of the Republican Party—what was called the establishment before that became a dirty word. These are conservatives who came up in the movement when it was dominated by a focus on a strong military, whether in the Cold War or the George W. Bush era. Leading voices in this group come from across the party. One example is Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, one of the loudest Trump critics in the GOP. For months, Sasse has been loudly protesting Biden’s refusal to block a major gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. (Germany finally froze the project, under American pressure, this week.) His Senate colleagues Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, who both allied themselves with Trump during his presidency, have been very critical of Putin and pushed the Biden team to be more aggressive. So have Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

This third faction includes most Republican elected officials, as the Bloomberg columnist Ramesh Ponnuru points out. The problem for this group is that the most influential figures in the party are in the other two groups, and they’re most interested in fluffing Trump’s profile and playing footsie with Putin. During the Cold War, when Republicans were staunchly anti-Russia, there was a pithy term for people who for their own domestic political reasons defended Communist leaders and arguments in the West. The Soviet Union is gone, but the term is still handy for describing Putin’s American cheerleaders: useful idiots.