ONE OF THE surreal twists of the past year in American politics has been the rapid realignment in attitudes toward Russia. Democrats, many of whom believe that Russian interference was key to Donald Trump's unexpected victory last November, are now the ones sounding the alarm about the Russian threat. Meanwhile, quite a few Republicans--previously the keepers of the anti-Kremlin Cold War flame--have taken to praising President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and Moscow as an ally against radical Islam. A CNN/ORC poll in late April found that 56 percent of Republicans see Russia as either "friendly" or "an ally," up from 14 percent in 2014. Over the same period, Putin's favorable rating from Republicans in the Economist/YouGov poll went from 10 percent to a startling 37 percent.
The dominant narrative in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and mainstream media casts Putin as the implacable enemy of the Western liberal order--an autocratic leader at home who wants to weaken democracy abroad, using information warfare and covert activities to subvert liberal values and to promote Russia-friendly politicians and movements around the world.
In this narrative, President Donald Trump is like the French nationalist Marine Le Pen, whose failed presidential campaign this year relied heavily on loans from Russian banks with Kremlin ties: a witting or unwitting instrument of subversion, useful to Putin either as an ideological ally or as an incompetent who will strengthen Russia's hand by destabilizing American democracy.
At its extremes, the Russian subversion narrative relies on a great deal of conspiratorial thinking. It also far too easily absolves the Western political establishment of responsibility for its failures, from the defeat of European Union supporters in England's Brexit vote to Hillary Clinton's loss in last November's election. Putin makes a convenient boogeyman.
Nonetheless, there is a real Russian effort to counter American --plus NATO and E.U.--influence by supporting authoritarian nationalist movements and groups, such as Le Pen's National Front, Hungary's quasi-fascist Jobbik Party, and Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Today's Russia is no longer just a moderately authoritarian corrupt regime trying to maintain its regional influence. Cloaked in the mantle of religious and nationalist values, the Kremlin positions itself as a defender of tradition and sovereignty against the godless progressivism and the migrant hordes overtaking the West. It has a global propaganda machine and a network of political operatives dedicated to cultivating far-right and sometimes far-left groups in Europe and elsewhere.
Tom Palmer, vice president for international programs at the Atlas Network, has been actively involved in projects promoting liberty in ex-Communist countries since the late 1980s; he has taken to warning against a new "global anti-libertarianism." Writing for the Cato Policy Report last December, Palmer noted that "Putin, the pioneer in the trend toward authoritarianism, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting anti-libertarian populism across Europe and through a sophisticated global media empire, including RT and Sputnik News, as well as a network of internet troll factories and numerous made-to-order websites."
Slawomir Sierakowski of Warsaw's Institute for Advanced Study and Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute have also warned about the rise of an "Illiberal International" in which Russia plays a key role.
Of course, for many libertarians, the post-Cold War international order that Putin seeks to undo is itself of dubious value. For one thing, that order is based on America's role as Globo-Cop, which isn't very compatible with small government. For another, it enforces its own "progressive" brand of soft authoritarianism, from over-regulation of markets to restrictions on "hate speech" and other undesirable expression. Yet for all the valid criticisms of the Western liberal establishment and its foreign and domestic policies, there is little doubt that the ascendancy of hardcore far-right or far-left authoritarianism would lead to a less freedom-friendly world. And there is little doubt that right now, Russia is a driving force in this ascendancy.
THE PRESIDENTS RASPUTINS
ONE COMMON VIEW is that weve re-entered a Cold War--style ideological confrontation--but that this time, in a head-turning reversal from the Communist era, Russia sees itself as leading a global traditionalist resistance. The argument is superficially persuasive but tends to confuse rhetoric with motive.
Former National Security Agency analyst John R. Schindler, that rare pundit who is vehemently critical of Clinton but also strongly believes Russian interference was instrumental to Trump's win, goes so far as to call Putin a champion of "Orthodox Jihadism."
In a post-election New York Observer column titled "Why Vladimir Putin Hates Us," Schindler asserts that the Russian leader's holy-war ideology sees the West as "an implacable foe" of Russia and her Orthodox faith, and Russia as a country with a special spiritual mission to fight evil. Schindler anticipates the objection that Putin, a career KGB officer under the atheist Soviet state, is an unlikely Christian zealot. But in his view, it doesn't matter what Putin or other nominally Orthodox Russians may believe in their hearts. The important thing is that Putin acts like a champion of religious nationalism on a "spiritual-cum-ideological" crusade against the decadent West. As evidence, Schindler cites a 2013 speech in which Putin deplored the rejection of "Christian values" by "many Euro-Atlantic countries," defended Russia's right to protect traditional morality, and criticized attempts to export "extreme Western-style liberalism" worldwide. (The main example of Western decadence and liberal extremism was, of course, same-sex...