Russia, Ukraine and America's New Right | Opinion

Until Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, a sizable minority among the American "New Right"—an assortment of economic nationalists, national conservatives, Donald Trump fans and populists—seemed to admire the leadership of Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Some admired his supposed promotion of traditional values, while others respected his desire to protect his nation. For these reasons, many in the New Right looked down upon Ukraine, which they, like Putin, saw as a fake, corrupt and weak state.

While the invasion has tempered open expressions of support for his leadership, it is clear that some endearment remains. But a closer look reveals that the opposite should be the case—it should be Putin who the American New Right looks down upon and Ukraine which it holds up.

Some conservatives stress the idea that Putin stands against progressive ideologies. "Russians know which bathroom to use" is a not-infrequent way to praise the Kremlin's social policies. But this isn't due to Putin's leadership; this is a result of Russia being in a socially conservative part of the world. Had Russia been ruled by anyone else it is unlikely that it would be a progressive paradise today.

Putin is, however, responsible for the sorry state of the Russian Orthodox Church. The centuries-old institution has under Putin become unserious, its patriarch being widely seen as corrupt and pro-government. This collapse is borne out in the data. In a 2019 survey just 6 percent of Russians reported attending church more than once a month. Russia's history of state-enforced atheism under the Soviet Union is not to blame for this recent decline; in fact, over the course of the 1990s monthly church attendance in Russia went up from a paltry 2 percent of the population in 1991 to 9 percent in 1998, higher than today. Trads in the West may applaud when Putin builds gigantic churches or talks about the importance of God, but these are mere Potemkin façades, covering up a Russian church which has gone from hallowed to hollowed.

But hasn't Putin put "Russia First?" Hardly. Putin has put himself first—literally, as he's been speculated to be the richest man in the world, having stolen a significant fortune. Putin's title is "president," but he lives like a czar, with palaces dotting the Russian countryside (Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny revealed the largest of these last year). To compare Putin and Trump in the "First" category is an insult to the latter. Whereas Trump donated his salary and, by some accounts, lost money running for and being president, Putin has stolen several fortunes. And naturally, he cashes the check he gets for his hard work as president.

Ukraine flag
People walk past a large Ukrainian flag in Prague on March 8, 2022. Michal Cizek / AFP/Getty Images

Putin flouts every ideal the New Right holds—unlike Ukraine, a country which until now has been seen by many on the U.S. right as, to quote Cosmo Kramer's description of the country from Seinfeld, a "weak," "feeble" "road apple."

Ukraine lives up to the ideals of the New Right more than Putin ever could. Like the GOP, the Ukrainians used their votes in 2019 to throw out the incumbent establishment-friendly oligarch president and replace him with a comedian best known for playing a fictional president on TV. That man, Volodymyr Zelensky, set out to finally crack down on the rampant corruption in his country. While he had no gigantic successes, he managed some major wins, including the passage of a national referendum law (allowing him to circumvent an at times bought-and-paid-for parliament) and a law making "oligarch" a legal term for purposes of taxation and prosecution. But to much of the world, which only tuned into Ukrainian politics as of late February, Zelensky has become known for one thing: resisting the Russian attack.

Some on the New Right have grown wary of Zelensky, expressing annoyance at his latching on to any story which paints Ukrainians in a positive light, or at his angry demands for Western aid and a no-fly zone. But the Ukrainian president is in the middle of a country which is being bombed relentlessly; he is making demands any other would make in his position. While we of course do not have to follow them—as a no-fly zone would surely be a path to World War Three—we should not criticize the president of Ukraine for stretching to do anything he can to save his nation.

And it is the Ukrainians' defense of their nation which should most inspire support among national conservatives. Some on the Right seem to have bought into Putin's idea that Ukraine is not a "real" nation, that it never should have broken off from Russia and will inevitably return to the motherland. But the war has laid waste to this idea. The entirety of Ukraine's political spectrum has come together to put Ukraine first. Oligarchs once at odds with Zelensky are donating vast sums to the war effort. Even Petro Poroshenko—the former president beaten by Zelensky—has been seen armed on the streets of Kyiv, ready to die for his country. Zelensky has stayed far past the point of danger, refusing an American evacuation offer with words which will go down in history: "I need ammunition, not a ride."

Proud nationalists understand that great nations are forged in fire. While Ukraine's divorce from the Soviet Union was mostly peaceful, the last 30 years, and in particular the last eight, have not been. As Vladimir Putin tries to tear down Ukraine, the Ukrainians are trying to build themselves up. American conservatives should reject the former and rejoice in the latter.

Anthony J. Constantini is writing his Ph.D. on populism and early American democracy at the University of Vienna in Austria. Previously he received an MA in Arms Control and Strategic Studies from St. Petersburg State University. In 2016 he was the War Room Director for the NRSC.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.