The Reporter (Lansdale, PA)

Putin’s ungodly appeal invoking God

- E.J. Dionne

Here’s a scoop for you: Vladimir Putin is sounding like someone who wants to enter the 2024 Republican presidenti­al primaries.

How else do you explain that in the middle of his bellicose speech Tuesday promising success in his assault on Ukraine, the Russian dictator fired a series of heat-seeking verbal missiles into our culture wars.

“Look at what they’ve done to their own people,” he said of us Westerners. “They’re destroying family, national identity, they are abusing their children. Even pedophilia is announced as a normal thing in the West.” Never mind that Russia is a world leader in sex traffickin­g.

Among his enemies, Putin charged, “even the sacred texts are subjected to doubt.” Also, watch out, Britain: The “Anglican Church is planning to consider the idea of a genderneut­ral God,” Putin mourned. “What can you say here? Millions of people in the West understand that they are being led to spiritual destructio­n.”

It has become a habit to cast the struggle over Ukraine in Cold War terms. Maybe that’s natural, given Putin’s old job as a KGB agent and his determinat­ion to expand Russia’s imperial reach to something closer to the hegemony once enjoyed by the old Soviet Union.

But it’s closer to the truth to see Putin as trying to build a right-wing nationalis­t internatio­nal movement (no pun intended). And it’s obvious that his embrace of social and religious traditiona­lism is aimed at winning over right-wing opinion in the democracie­s and splitting the traditiona­l right.

You don’t have to watch Fox News commentato­rs waxing warm about the Russian president to see that this strategy is working. Opposition to helping Ukraine is growing among rank-and-file Republican­s.

A Pew Research survey in January found that 40% of Republican­s and Republican-leaning independen­ts said that the United States was providing too much help to Ukraine, up from 32% in the fall and 9% last March. A Jan. 27-Feb. 1 Washington Post/ABC News poll found 50% of Republican­s saying that the United States was doing too much to support Ukraine, up from 18% in April.

Although it is fortunatel­y true that many Republican leaders are resisting the lure of selling out Ukraine (Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky) has been especially outspoken), many are not so brave. Especially striking were the comments of former president Donald Trump’s leading 2024 rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Back when he was in Congress, DeSantis was a devout Putin adversary and a critic of President Barack Obama for being too soft on Russia. “If you had a Reaganesqu­e policy of strength,” DeSantis told the Fox Business Network in 2015, “I think you would see people like Putin not want to mess with us.”

There’s nothing “Reaganesqu­e” about his response to Putin now. When President Joe

Biden visited Ukraine, DeSantis accused him of “neglecting” domestic problems.

“I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderland­s or over Crimea,” DeSantis said on Fox News. He added: “It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that and steamrolli­ng that is not even coming close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”

About all that the two statements had in common were attacks on a Democratic president and the media company providing him with a venue.

As a narrow political matter, DeSantis has been crafty in straddling the fence dividing Republican opinion. He has been Trumpy enough for the former president’s base, but different enough to appeal to those in the GOP who want to be done with Trump. On Ukraine, DeSantis fell off the fence. It was not an auspicious illustrati­on of how he will deal with the balancing act he faces.

The much larger problem is for U.S. foreign policy. For the medium term, enough Republican­s share Biden’s view of the Russian threat and Ukraine’s heroism to maintain assistance to the war effort.

But Putin is very shrewd about opinion on the right end of politics — in the United States and in Western Europe, too. He is counting on a backlash against social liberalism and the idea of a “gender-neutral” God to rustle up support for ungodly aggression.

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