Vladimir Putin’s appeal to right-wingers in the West is mostly self-explanatory. Putin’s tough guy image, traditionalism, and homophobia meet receptive ears among many in the more radical European and American right. Eurosceptic far-right political parties have close relations with the Kremlin and have vocally defended Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Curiously, non-mainstream leftist groups in the West have also formed a tacit alliance with the Kremlin in the information war against Ukraine, often defending Russia’s actions. The fringe left has teamed up with the far-right in siding with Russia in the ongoing information war.
The leader of the French far-right Front National, Marie Le Pen, has said that her party together with Vladimir Putin are “defending common values” and the “Christian heritage of European civilization.” Similarly, the leader of the United Kingdom’s right-wing populist party UKIP, Nigel Farage, has praised Putin’s foreign policy by claiming that the EU has “blood on its hands” for its policy in Ukraine. Figures on the fringe of the American right have also praised Putin, including former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Writing on a conservative blog, Buchanan defended Putin’s actions in Ukraine and panned the West for “capitulation to a sexual revolution of easy divorce, rampant promiscuity, pornography, homosexuality, feminism, abortion, [and] same-sex marriage.”
If the relationship between Putin’s Russia and the ultraconservative Western fringe is at least politically understandable, given their similar worldviews, the left’s defense of an oligarchic and ultraconservative Russia make much less sense. Pro-Putin leftists are probably best embodied in the personage of Stephen Cohen, an American Sovietologist turned Putin apologist at leftist magazine The Nation. Cohen has gone far past the point of mere devil’s advocate, parroting Putin’s talking points such as that the Ukrainian nation doesn’t exist and that EuroMaidan was a Western coup. In yet another example, Alan Grayson, an American Congressman and left-wing firebrand, previously said that the United States should thank Putin for the annexation of Crimea from “this artificial entity called the Ukraine.”
The Kremlin and the fringe left share a disdain for American foreign policy, NATO, and other flagship Western military and political institutions. The Iraq War was an important turning point in alienating young people from mainstream politics and gaining followers for “alternative media” sources such as Democracy Now!, Truth-out, and other web-based sources with questionable credibility. Add in years of highly coordinated propaganda from Russia Today, which explicitly targets disaffected Westerners, and there’s an unwitting alliance of Kremlin policymakers and Western leftists. Russia Today’s biggest breakthrough was the Occupy Wall Street protests, as it devoted significant coverage of these events as a propaganda tool to gain a following for its network. Many people outside of the political mainstream increasingly used Russia Today as a media platform, consuming not only coverage of the Occupy movement, but also other world events from the Kremlin slant.
Russia Today and other alternative news sources focus on the failings of politics in the United States and the West, while conveniently ignoring much more disturbing developments elsewhere. The Syrian government has killed nearly 200,000 of its own citizens? It must be the West’s fault. Anti-authoritarian protests challenge a corrupt and undemocratic government in Venezuela? The CIA must be to trying to unseat a leftist government. And so it is for Ukraine, too.
Fringe political groups in the West are primarily concerned with challenging their own governments, and are eager to share a platform with the Kremlin when they share the same interests, even if not the same values. Today, the Russian government has managed to maintain established ties to the far-left, while simultaneously gaining huge influence within Europe’s resurgent right. In tandem with the attractive aesthetics of propaganda outlet RT, an entire generation of people disaffected with the West, its politics and economy, are unconsciously consuming a carefully designed Russian narrative.
Combating the appeal of conspiracy theories and fringe media outlets in the West is a difficult proposition, but is ultimately a battle that begins at home. The appeal of fringe political ideologies have many causes, but are ultimately rooted in real problems—income inequality, unemployment, and unresponsive politics. Just as Ukraine’s best defense against Russian aggression is the reform of its decrepit economy and corrupt political system, the information war is best waged through reform in the West. Ukrainians risked their lives on Maidan because of what Europe symbolizes as a place of tolerance, representative politics, and stability. It would be a shame of historic dimensions if Europe, and by extension the rest of the West, fails to fulfill its own ideals.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center