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Republicans are backing Ukraine in the war. So why is there support for Russia on America's far right?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/28/2022 Will Carless and Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there has been near unanimous denunciation of President Vladimir Putin, from President Joe Biden calling Putin a "war criminal," to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell  describing him as a "ruthless thug." 

But the Ukraine invasion has found a significant pocket of support from prominent figures on the far right including white supremacist Nick Fuentes, who regularly gushes about Putin on his Telegram channel. The war is also a hot topic in QAnon chatrooms where Putin is often portrayed as a hero. 

Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump hang for sale at a souvenir street shop in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. © Dmitri Lovetsky, AP Face masks depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump hang for sale at a souvenir street shop in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016.

Conservative pundits have also voiced support for Russia. Candace Owens has pushed the Putin talking point that Russia created Ukraine. She also tweeted "Russian lives matter." She was retweeted by the Russian Embassy in the U.S. 

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Why is there support for Russia on the far right?

Putin has a long history of cultivating and providing material support to far-right leaders in Europe and the United States, according to Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In exchange, those leaders parrot Kremlin talking points, Weiss said.

America's far right shares a common enemy with Putin and Russia: the West's liberal values and the cabal of elites they say controls the economy and the media.

“It helped for Russian purposes to act like all of these other people agree with them,” Weiss said. “It was a way of creating an echo chamber where there isn’t one.”

Like Putin, former president Donald Trump has frequently professed his personal admiration for the Russian president and capitalized on the disdain for Western liberal values among some conservatives, said Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab who researches extremism.

With Trump out of office, many of his supporters are now looking to Putin to take on their enemies, Holt said.

"Some of these far-right cliques within the broader pro-Trump movement came to view Trump as an avatar, fighting against the ills of society they perceive," he said. "I think they view Putin, also, as an avatar standing up against similar forces."  

Why are Kremlin talking points in Americans' news feeds?

Unfounded claims to gin up support for the war – including claims that the U.S. is funding bioweapon labs in Ukraine or crisis actors are faking events in the war – have gained traction on social media throughout the conflict, according to Zignal Labs, a software company that tracks and analyzes trends in online narratives. 

The far right has echoed many of these claims. On his Telegram channel, Joseph Jordan, a white nationalist podcaster who goes by the name Eric Striker, claimed a pregnant woman injured in the bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital was an Instagram celebrity. QAnon-affiliated Twitter and Telegram accounts also spread the pro-Kremlin conspiracy theory which was quickly debunked

New conspiracies pop up daily. They are manufactured for a domestic audience in Russia and pro-Moscow Ukrainians but also push buttons in the U.S. The latest spreading on social media is an unfounded report from Russian state media outlet Sputnik that Hunter Biden and George Soros are funding biolabs in Ukraine.

The danger? That Russian propaganda will find a receptive audience beyond extremist channels, said Stephanie Foggett, director of global communications at intelligence and security firm The Soufan Group.

"The far right used the pandemic to creep into the mainstream and broaden their appeal to followers of QAnon and anti-vaxxers," Foggett said. “Now there is a really, really ripe ecosystem for conspiracy theories.”

Ukraine as extension of culture wars

Fueling support for Putin and his Russian offensive is the perception that he alone can save the world from identity politics and western globalization, extremism experts say.

Putin has long fomented aggression towards the LGBTQ+ community. He has passed stringent laws against "gay propaganda," and recently blasted gender nonconformity as a "pandemic" equal to COVID-19.

"Putin ain't woke," former Trump adviser-turned-far-right podcaster Steve Bannon declared on his show shortly before the Russian invasion. "He's anti-woke."

In Putin, the far right sees a strongman capable of remaking the world order and rejecting liberal values such as gay rights, said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University.

"This is similar to the way that we saw some far-right support for the Taliban last August," Miller-Idriss said. "There's the appeal of a 'strong man' or the idea of a strong resistor against the West and all that's gone with that in both of those cases – anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ, authoritarian hyper-masculine, all of that kind of tough-guy stuff."

Putin doubled down on this rhetoric in a speech Friday, in which he accused the West of trying to "cancel" Russia. The Russian president invoked author J.K. Rowling, who has been criticized for her anti-trans comments.

“Not so long ago, they canceled children’s author Joan Rowling whose books were spread all over the world in the hundreds of millions of copies, because she did not please fans of so-called gender freedoms,” Putin said in a televised speech. 

For some, the conflict in Ukraine is about the same stuff of the culture wars in the U.S. and that's dangerous, Foggett says.

“What really concerns me is that the right especially, they are projecting their own social anxieties into the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” she said. 

Not everyone on the far right supports Putin

Not everyone on the far right is siding with Russia in the war. Some Neo-Nazis and white supremacists oppose Putin because of his vow to "de-Nazify" Ukraine.

One U.S.-based neo-Nazi website declared support for Ukraine based solely on the claim that Russian military success would undermine a region that has previously been welcoming to white supremacist organizing.

Kesa White, a researcher at PERIL who tracks white supremacists and other groups, said she's also seen another narrative gain traction online.

"They're saying that Putin is enabling the 'white genocide,'" White said, referring to the longstanding racist trope that white people are being disproportionately killed across the world by people of color in order to undermine global white supremacy. "They feel that their white brothers and sisters are being killed, and having to fight for something that doesn't necessarily pertain to them." 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Republicans are backing Ukraine in the war. So why is there support for Russia on America's far right?



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