Following Russia's de facto annexation of Crimea this weekend, Republican leaders have begun forcefully criticizing President Obama, blaming his supposed weakness and tendency toward indecision for Putin's aggressive move while suggesting that Russia's autocrat wouldn't have seized Crimea if he were more intimidated by U.S. power.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has long been one of Obama's most hawkish Republican critics on issues of foreign policy, said on CNN that America has "a weak and indecisive president," a situation that "invites aggression." GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, meanwhile, complained on Fox News that Putin was "playing chess" while the U.S., under Obama's leadership, was merely "playing marbles."
Yet all this tough talk from Republican circles is obscuring a salient fact: Until recently, conservatives were far more divided when it came to their estimation of Russia's president. While no high-ranking Republican in his or her right mind would ever praise Russia itself, it wasn't so long ago that many conservatives — especially those of a more socially reactionary bent — were celebrating Putin for his country's controversial anti-gay laws, which they described as being interested primarily in saving Christianity and "traditional" values rather than discriminating against LGBT people.
Here are just a few examples of right-wingers cheering on Putin:
The American Conservative's Pat Buchanan and Rod Dreher
Back in December, the former strategist and speechwriter for Richard Nixon won some attention for a column in which he asks, "Is Vladimir Putin a paleoconservative? In the culture war for mankind's future, is he one of us?" After a lengthy diatribe expounding on all the ways unelected judges and perfidious progressives had forced their radical, secular morals on the rest of the country, Buchanan comes so very close — just a centimeter away, really — from answering his own questions in the affirmative and welcoming Russia's president into the paleocon fold. "While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites," Buchanan writes, "Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind."
The American Conservative's socially conservative blogger Rod Dreher, meanwhile, also had kind words for Putin, writing that the Russian leader "may be a cold-eyed cynic" but was nevertheless "also onto something." Acknowledging that he's merely putting forward a "guess" as to Putin's motivations, Dreher writes, "If Russia is going to have a future, [Putin] must figure, it must be built on organic Russian traditions, which includes Orthodox Christianity." Dreher went on to guess that Putin "believes that Russia’s rebirth depends on its rediscovery of a life-giving Christianity, which depends on rebuilding a sense of social respect for and trust in the Orthodox Church and its teachings." Dreher also seems to endorse this reasoning, writing that "Orthodox Christianity is the only coherent basis for rebuilding the Russian nation from the ruins left by Bolshevism."
The Weekly Standard's Christopher Caldwell
Writing for the Financial Times in early February, one of the neoconservative magazine's editors, Christopher Caldwell, reprimanded Putin's critics in the West for focusing on "a short list of causes beloved of western elites" instead of all the good things Putin's done. "Certainly Mr Putin’s respect for the democratic process has been fitful at best," Caldwell grants, but then goes on to argue that those in the West who opposed Putin's anti-gay laws are hypocrites. As evidence, he cites the fact that some of the most prominent opponents of Putin's anti-gay law were previously supporters of an anti-blasphemy law that passed in the U.K. in 2006.
In the end, Caldwell implies that Putin's critics aren't much better at the whole democracy thing than he is, writing, "Those countries lecturing him about 'healthy democracy' ... have lately shifted power from legislatures to executives and from voters to bureaucracies. In Europe it has been done through delegations of power to the EU. In the US, it has been done through judicial reversals of democratic election results (including on gay marriage) and congressional abdication (on trade, warfare, healthcare and intelligence gathering)." Caldwell finishes his column by claiming that the distance separating civil rights in the West and Russia "is not quite so obvious as it was 10 years ago."
Liberty Counsel's Matt Barber and the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer
These two hardcore social conservatives both praised Putin for his anti-gay laws. In a December column for WND.com, Barber wrote that, during the Obama years, Putin has been able to claim for Russia "the mantle of world moral leader" and that Putin's anti-gay laws were an example of his being able to "out-Christian our once-Christian nation." He describes the controversial laws as banning "sexual anarchist propaganda."
Fischer, for his part, was even more effusive in his praise for Putin, calling the Russian a "lion of Christianity" back in October. Putin, according to Fischer, is "the defender of Christian values, the president that’s calling his nation back to embracing its identity as a nation founded on Christian value." Fischer went on to describe Russia as "more advanced spiritually than the United States."