Meet the Democrat Siding With Putin on the Ukraine War

In 2018, Democrat Amy McGrath nearly accomplished the unthinkable when she came within three points of unseating Republican Representative Andy Barr in Kentucky's 6th Congressional District, a once-competitive pocket of the state that, for the last decade, has been dominated by Republicans.

It was a major spiritual victory for Democrats, propelling McGrath to a Senate run against Mitch McConnell and a fresh enthusiasm in the district after Republicans wrested the district from Democratic control during the Obama administration.

Four years and a crushing 2020 defeat later, and the Kentucky Democratic Party—and the state's Democratic governor, Andy Beshear—have all but abandoned the district after refusing to support or endorse the candidacy of their party's nominee, Geoff Young, a former state engineer.

Not because of his progressive politics. Not because the perennial candidate has never won a race. And not because of his anemic fundraising against a powerful incumbent. It's because he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of neighboring Ukraine was not only justified, but warranted, mirroring talking points pushed by the Kremlin designed to bolster public support for the war.

Geoff Young KY
Democratic nominee for Kentucky's 6th Congressional District Geoff Young, who is running against Republican Andy Barr, has lost the support of his party after his endorsement of numerous claims featured heavily in Russian propaganda, which landed him on a Ukrainian governmental watch list. Provided Photo/Geoff Young for Congress

In Young's view, Russia is not an imperialist state, but a nation acting in its own self-defense against Western aggression and seeking to liberate the Ukrainian people from an oppressive totalitarian government—claims closely resembling those in Russian propaganda supporting the war. And he has bought in to Russian allegations that the Ukrainian government is controlled by Nazis, a claim the U.S. State Department has described in official materials as a "particularly pernicious kind of Russian disinformation."

"My position is that ever since 2014, the main aggressors and mass murderers in Eastern Europe have been the United States, NATO and a group of well-armed Ukrainian Nazis supported by and armed by the United States," Young told Newsweek.

"We're not defending democracy. We're not defending the Ukrainian people. We are trying to, or have been trying to for the last eight years, set up a NATO base consisting of the entire territory of Ukraine, and point those weapons at Russia."

While Russian perspectives on the war have primarily found inroads in the right wing of American politics, Young's beliefs represent an increasing subset of the anti-war left that has become receptive to narratives perpetuated by countries like China and Russia critical of American imperialism.

A prominent example is found on Reddit, where popular progressive forums like /r/WayOfTheBern—where Young held a Q&A with subscribers Monday night—have beenincreasingly dominated by content advancing foreign interests while denigrating the United States. Other subsets of leftist politics have emerged that have bought in to the policies of Soviet bloc countries during the 20th century, earning them the online slang designation as "tankies."

But there are cultural factors playing into the phenomenon as well. Mary Blankenship, a Ukraine native and disinformation expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Newsweek that the source of many of the Russian narratives surrounding Ukraine arose from a limited number of suspicious accounts online that were posted about February 24, when Russia's military first entered the country, signifying a concerted effort to shape the narrative around the invasion.

What makes people vulnerable to buying in to them, however, is the current health of people's trust in institutions. Since reaching a high of 77 percent in 1964, public trust in government has fallen to 20 percent as of May of 2021, according to Pew data, while trust in the mainstream media has collapsed to an all-time low in 2022, leading members of the public to seek out other sources of information that comport with their worldview.

"There's a propensity to think that everything is an inside job," Blankenship said. "Many people become susceptible to different conspiracy theories and disinformation not just around the war, but on a lot of different topics. I think you have a lot of the same sentiments that carry from domestic issues and domestic events and the grievances that both left-wing and right-wing people have in the U.S. that kind of carry through into foreign policy and foreign events."

But part of the allure, experts say, also lies with the rise of anti-establishment figures in American politics like Noam Chomsky on the left and Ron Paul on the right, whose criticisms of American imperialism have found a loyal audience on both ends of the political spectrum.

In one notable example from the 2016 presidential election, a University of Minnesota study found that Donald Trump, who pitched himself as an anti-war president, had some of his most significant successes as president in regions that suffered disproportionately high levels of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some on the left, like Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, have called the prospect of increased military aid "potentially disastrous." Other progressives who initially participated in Congress' consensus on the war have begun to tread carefully around other planks of the American response, with progressive members of "The Squad" voting against measures like bans on importing Russian oil and opposition to broad-based sanctions on the Russian government, for fear they could have disproportionately negative effects on the country's citizenry.

After U.S. military failures in the Middle East and countries like Vietnam, longtime media critic Jeff Cohen—founder of media watchdog FAIR—said in an interview, the public has become more receptive to candidates willing to buck the American foreign policy establishment.

"The problem that we have in our country is that there's almost no debate on foreign policy, that there's a bipartisan consensus," Cohen told Newsweek. "And that bipartisan consensus is usually wrong. And the reason I can say that so bluntly is that if you look at almost any foreign policy adventure, every major intervention, 10 years later, even the mainstream media that was cheerleading for it at the time was wrong."

Young, and others, have equated criticisms of their beliefs to censorship. On July 14, the Ukrainian government's Center to Counter Disinformation released a since-deleted list featuring Young alongside figures who questioned U.S. involvement in the war—like journalist Glenn Greenwald and former Representative Tulsi Gabbard—as Russian propagandists for questioning the United States' increasing involvement in the war.

But the list also featured figures like New York Senate candidate Diane Sare, who attended conferences sponsored by the left-wingt Schiller Institute, a highly controversial political organization that has sought to build a collaborative economic order between nations like China, Russia, India and the United States.

Sare, who participated in the Reddit Q&A with Young, echoed several of Young's claims about the Ukrainian government in an interview with Newsweek, includingcontested claims that the Ukrainian military was bombing its own citizens in an effort to secure the country.

But Sare said her opinions questioning the United States' involvement in Ukraine were intended to warn against the likelihood of nuclear war between the two countries, which she believed to be a likely conclusion of a full-scale engagement between the two superpowers.

"The idea of saying that I'm an information terrorist, that somehow I am a war criminal for saying we should not have a nuclear war...that's what they are asserting," Sare said.