Note: the following is not meant to suggest that the Putin regime is left-wing. In fact, it is not genuinely committed to any ideology — at least, any respectable one.
The love affair of some Western conservatives with the Putin government is harmful and antithetical to true conservatism. Unfortunately, Angelo Codevilla’s 2019 article “What’s Russia to Us?” is a relatively mild example. Yet even this piece uses the dubious narrative of “Russophobia” and whitewashes Putin’s foreign policy with typical claims, e. g. that there is a “Russian part” of Ukraine and that Western sanctions against Russia have been fruitless, an idea belied by extensive data. Importantly, friendliness towards the Putin regime is all but incompatible with conservative principles.
While Russian propaganda loves to harp on symptoms of Western decadence, Russia’s government hardly embodies conservative principles. Conservatives value the traditional institutions that keep society running smoothly. Meanwhile, about two decades after Putin was first elected president, Russia had the lowest score of institutional trust among twenty-six countries surveyed in a “Trust Barometer” report. Divorce rates have been on the rise in the country, and tend to be higher than in the West. What about corruption, so contrary to conservative notions of duty and honesty? A comparison of the Transparency International corruption index for ten years ago (2012) with the most recent version (2021) shows that Russia has worsened by three places, whereas Ukraine, which has moved away from Russia politically, has bettered itself by twenty-two places, overtaking its aggressive neighbor.
The Putin government has also been assiduously rehabilitating Joseph Stalin and quite openly supporting far-left groups throughout Europe and the Middle East, which sympathize with Russia partly because of its anti-free market policies. In the US information space, Putin’s propaganda frequently toed the BLM line even as some of his other state media opposed the protests, revealing that the ultimate goal of Russian information operations was to destabilize the USA.
Putin has even acted after the leftist playbook in throwing the term “Nazi” around with wild abandon, often at groups to which it does not really apply. Even the notorious Azov battalion is much more ideologically diverse — and mellow — than Russia would like it to be.
Indeed, the true conservatives in Russia tend to be enemies of Putin. The big names in the genuine Russian opposition, not the phony one comprised of such entities as the Communist party and designed to give the illusion of choice, seem to be generally right-wingers after the American conservative’s heart. There is the nationalist and pro-gun rights Alexey Navalny, the self-described libertarian Yulia Latynina, and former presidential adviser Andrei Illarionov, who has worked for the Cato Institute. There is the party PARNAS, headed by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, which calls for “systemic decommunization” and federalism in its program, and flatly states: “Government should not partake in entrepreneurial activity”. There is Alexey Venediktov, long-time editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, perhaps the Russian opposition’s main media outlet. Venediktov has described himself in an interview as a “hard-core reactionary” and “much further right than […] Putin”. “In politics, my ideals are Reagan and Thatcher,” he said, and denied that his radio station was liberal.
Even Boris Nemtsov, a conspicuously non-ideological figure, proved his qualification as a supporter of the rule of law (and Western Civilization): the opposition leader who would be assassinated appealed to Russia’s clandestine law enforcement bodies to crack down on the lawlessness in Chechnya. He also attacked Putin for transferring astronomic sums to the region’s Islamist dictatorship.
Meanwhile, how much common ground can there be between a Western conservative and the Putin government? Typically clear-eyed, Alexey Navalny once expressed surprise at the idea of affinity between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, since the two were, he said, “one hundred per cent different” on matters “from migration to the economy”.
Calling opposition to Russian foreign policy “Russophobia” equates the corrupt, oligarchic Russian government with the Russian nation, ignoring the courageous opposition figures fighting for true conservative principles in Russia. Hardly anyone has been more unequivocal in arguing along these lines than Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsova. In a testimony to the Helsinki Commission, she laments: “This praise[ for the Putin government] is a thin disguise for a condescending belief that Russians […] are not mature enough to live in a free society”. With Stefan Meister, she stresses that “the Western community continues to create an external environment that accommodates and even stimulates Russia’s decay”.
The Putin government is deeply beholden to principles in zero-sum opposition to those of Western conservatism. Incidentally, this also proves the inadequacy of foreign-policy “realism” in dealing with Russia. Values matter in international politics, not just rational calculations of relative power. Was it rational of Russia to invade Ukraine with at most about 200,000 troops considering that Ukraine had a military of 215,000 active members? “Realism” sees sovereignty as effectively all countries’ top priority. Was it in keeping with this view that the Putin government pursued policies liable to give the Chinese Communist Party control over Russian natural resources? Putin’s Russia is driven by profound anti-Western animus. As Yulia Latynina stated after the current full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, “Putinism is [a] unique social formation. We all didn’t take these guys seriously[ and] thought they just stole and lied. But it turns out they really believe this stuff.”
A truly conservative position on Russia would want to see the Putin government, a promoter of corruption and enemy of Western civilization, replaced by the likes of Navalny, Kasyanov and Venediktov. As for misguided notions of realpolitik, consider this: a major part of believing in our values is believing that values actually have an impact.