The GOP is still largely skeptical of Putin — for now

Shortly after news broke of Russia’s announcement of a large-scale attack on Ukraine, a Telegram channel operated by a user known as ‘QAnon John’ posted a photo of the former President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and posed a question to his more than 80,000 followers: Do you trust Putin? In the hundreds of comments below the question, her followers replied with “yes” after “yes”.

Throughout the mounting tensions in Ukraine over the past few weeks, the message from Republican leaders has been consistent: blame Biden, but don’t praise Putin. And the majority of Republican voters do not trust the Russian president, according to polls taken before the invasion. But there have been notable exceptions to that response in recent days, including former President Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and online conspiracy theories among the far right — all of which can alter Republican views. from the grassroots as the conflict continues.

Polls in recent weeks have shown that Republicans, like most Americans, don’t trust Putin. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Jan. 22-25, 15% of Republicans said they had a very or somewhat favorable opinion of Putin, similar to the 11% of Americans overall who said so. A majority of Republicans (45%) said they had a very unfavorable opinion of the Russian leader. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll last week, more Democrats (20%) said they strongly or somewhat approved of Putin’s handling of the conflict in Ukraine than Republicans (10%). And when asked in a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted Feb. 8-11 whether the United States should support Ukraine, support Russia, or neither, only 4% of Republicans said responded “support Russia” (in line with the 5% of Democrats who said the same).

But that hasn’t stopped influential right-wing figures from adopting a friendlier stance toward Putin. On Tuesday, Trump appeared on a conservative radio show and called Putin “smart”, “savvy” and a “peacekeeper”. Even after the invasion was announced on Wednesday night, Trump called the attack “sad” but also defended Putin, saying, “I really don’t believe he wanted to do this in the first place. I think he wanted to do something and negotiate it. It got worse and worse. »

Fox News host Tucker Carlson took a similar tone on his Tuesday night show, telling his audience to wonder why he hates Putin. “Maybe it’s worth asking, because this is getting pretty serious: what is it really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Did he threaten to fire me for disagreeing with him Did he send all the middle class jobs in my town to Russia Did he manufacture a global pandemic that destroyed my business and kept me inside for two years?” The answer to all of these questions, Tucker noted, is “no”. However, Carlson changed his tune slightly after the invasion of Russia, declaring on Thursday that “Vladimir Putin started this war”, which he called a “tragedy”.

This counter-arism has been noticed by Russian state media, which has aired clips of Trump, Carlson and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent days.

In right-wing spaces online, conversations following the Russian attack reflected both of these responses. On the pro-Trump message board Patriots.win, posts and memes focused on criticizing and mocking Biden and Democrats, but avoided praising Putin for his actions. Many have instead taken an isolationist stance.

“The more I hear about this the more I wonder why we should care,” one user wrote in a popular comment on a very active thread that day.

“Fuck the Great Reset. Fuck the Xiden puppet. And fuck Russian AND Ukrainian. I WANT MY CALENDAR AND MY “AMERICA FIRST” PRESIDENT BACK, wrote another, capturing a sentiment shared by many on the forum.

But among QAnon and other conspiracy theory communities, like the channel created by QAnon John, praise for Putin was easier to come by. Indeed, a prevailing theory among QAnon followers is that Putin invaded Ukraine to root out a supposed “deep state cabal,” which followers say runs the world baselessly and is involved in the cult of Satan and child sex trafficking. Many interpreted a line from Putin’s speech on Thursday where he pledged to “denazify” Ukraine as code to eliminate the deep state.

“What does Putin mean by the denazification of Ukraine? a user asked in a Telegram chat group on Thursday.

“Get rid of Deep State players,” another user replied. “It’s happening all over the world.

Many QAnon followers were also promoting a conspiracy theory about Russia targeting secret US biological labs located in Ukraine that study deadly viruses. The claim that the US has secret biological labs in Ukraine is false and has been pushed by Russian propagandists for years. A tweet thread that was retweeted more than 1,700 times before Twitter suspended the account (although it has since been shared on Telegram and TikTok), expanded on this conspiracy theory, claiming the sites of reported airstrikes correlated with the sites of clandestine, US-proprietary biolabs. QAnon followers later claimed that Twitter’s suspension of the account proved the theory to be true.

“Must be on to something if they got suspended,” posted one user on the QAnon message board GreatAwakening.win.

Recent polls and messages from most Republican leaders show a mostly unified front against Putin, although there is disagreement over how best to respond to Russia’s assault on Ukraine. But mixed messages from influential sources like Trump, Carlson and the QAnon community threaten to undo that resolve. Clearly, some Americans already think Putin might not be the bad guy.

“Take note of every ‘elite’ person screaming about Putin and Russia in defense of Ukraine right now,” QAnon IET 17 influencer wrote Thursday, to his more than 90,000 Telegram followers. . “They are the enemy.”

CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2022, 1:20 PM): An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first name.

CORRECTION (February 25, 2022, 3:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article stated that 15% of Republicans had an unfavorable opinion of Putin according to an Economist/YouGov poll. In fact, 15% of Republicans surveyed said they have a favorable sight of him.

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