Paleos and Putin

As a card-carrying member of the Old Right for the last 50 years, having suffered the slings and indignities that come with it, I am responding to other members of my fraternity who can’t bring themselves to condemn Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine and his destruction of its people. 

This recognition of Putin’s aggression and what it might portend for Ukraine’s neighbors to the west has not been lost on Europeans, including Europeans on the Right. Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour in France, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and the present conservative governments of Hungary and Poland have all been on record condemning Putin’s brutal invasion. None of these figures is in love with wokeness or has kind words for what now passes for constitutional government in the West, but they do understand that Putin is a Russian expansionist and that the murder and mayhem he is now raining down on Ukrainians is nothing new. He unleashed even worse atrocities in Chechnya and later in Syria. 

The attempts to defend Putin’s actions in Ukraine proceed from two unshakable beliefs among his defenders on the traditional American Right. The more grandiose explanation is that Putin is the upholder of Western conservative values, who is courageously battling LGBTQ+ enthusiasts in his country. He is also fighting back rhetorically against attacks on the family coming from onetime constitutional democracies that have fallen into the hands of woke totalitarians. Putin is also supposedly a man of faith, who devotes his energies to defending the Orthodox state religion and who is opening up monasteries and rebuilding churches in his country. We therefore cannot criticize him without endangering his sacred mission. If he is smashing Ukrainian cities, well that’s the price we pay for all the good he’s doing.

I’ve also been hearing from acquaintances that Ukrainians do not really constitute a nation but are ethnic Russians who are mischievously denying their identity. The Kiev-Rus settlement that took place in the 10th century (and was carried out by Scandinavians) was supposedly the starting point for the Russian national adventure, and “Ukrainian” is just another name for Russians who happen to be living in the area in which the Russian state origionally took form. In any case, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy is supposedly just a corrupt lowbrow comic who has been built up by the U.S. government against his godly Russian counterpart. 

The second reason for this rallying to Putin is that he is not responsible for his aggression. The U.S. State Department and scheming neoconservatives have created the present tensions between the Russians and Ukrainians. This happens to be partially true, if we recount the U.S. government’s involvement in the overthrow of a pro-Russian government in Kyiv in February 2014 and Joe Biden’s recent hints to the Ukrainians about their fitness for NATO membership. Neoconservatives have incited hatred against Putin as an antidemocratic leader and have been confusing statecraft with ideological wars for decades. I’d be the last person to defend these fanatical warmongers; and having suffered professionally at their hand, I have no reason to like them.

But it was Putin, not the neocons, who invaded Ukraine, and Russian military forces, not Victoria Nuland or the Wall Street Journal editorial page, who are murdering Ukrainian civilians. I keep telling friends on the Right who want to stress those “other circumstances” leading to Putin’s invasion that by all means let’s discuss them. But we should preface that discussion by blaming Putin and his military for the havoc they have wrought. They have behaved outrageously no matter how defective American foreign policy has been and no matter how repugnant neoconservative rhetoric may sound. Looking at babies killed and maimed in the streets of Kharkov and Mariupol, it seems to me that the blame should be ascribed to someone more immediately responsible than blundering U.S. foreign policy mavens or rabid neoconservative journalists.  

Without belaboring historical parallels, I can’t help noticing the similarities between Putin’s attack on the Ukrainians (who are certainly fighting like a nation) and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. In both cases, historians could cite abuses that the invaded countries committed against members of the nations who were invading them. Hitler may have had even more just grievances against the Polish government than Putin has against the Ukrainian government. The Polish regime, which had become a military quasi-dictatorship by 1939, bullied its ethnic minorities, particularly the Germans living in what had been German West Prussia. But a brutal invasion and occupation, characterized by the devastation of civilian populations, understandably came to overshadow the earlier justification or pretext for the German invasion. In Putin’s case, too, what he has done to devastate the country he decided to invade seems far more relevant than earlier territorial quarrels between Russia and another government.

A final observation: Members of the Old Right who have told me repeatedly that Abraham Lincoln was wrong to invade the seceded South and that Ukrainians had been sorely oppressed under Soviet Russian rule have undergone a staggering sea change. They have become the sudden well-wishers of Russian imperialists.

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About Paul Gottfried

Paul Edward Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.

Photo: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images