Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of around 300,000 reservists last September. © Ilya Pitalev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin/AP/dpa
By portraying himself as a hero of the US right, Putin wants to undermine support for Ukraine. His tactics are likely to be successful.
- Putin's tactics in the Ukraine war: Why he tries his hand at being an anti-woke fighter
- Historical model from 1960: Putin takes his cue from North Vietnam
- No U.S. aid for Ukraine: Putin mobilizes anti-war sentiment
- This article is available in German for the first time – it was first published by Foreign Policy magazine on May 29, 2023.
Washington D.C. – As the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign approaches, the Ukraine war and Washington's support for Kyiv in the Republican primaries will play a bigger role than foreign policy issues normally would. While Republican candidates portrayed Russia as an enemy in the not-too-distant past, this time the primaries will feature voices that are much more ambivalent about the war and U.S. military aid due to the pledge of fighter jets.
These voices include those of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who called the war a "territorial dispute" rather than part of the "vital national interests" of the United States, and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who said that if elected, he would "not give another dollar to Ukraine." Former President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has refused to say who he thinks should prevail in the conflict. These and other statements suggest that the Republican candidates are appealing to a base that is increasingly skeptical of both the benefits and justice of the war effort.
Anti-war movements sympathize with Putin – is there a tactic behind it?
The specter of a right-wing anti-war movement is difficult to reconcile with the image generations of Americans had of the anti-war movement of the 1960s: long-haired hippies clashing with the police and chanting "Give Peace a Chance." Despite their myriad differences, some of those who opposed their respective wars today and half a century ago have one element in common: both base their opposition on a deep-seated critique of U.S. policies and institutions, and both see that criticism reflected in the overseas adversaries of the United States – then the North Vietnamese leadership, today, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Worryingly, in both cases, the opponents of the United States have exploited this alignment to try to exploit domestic divisions for foreign policy purposes. Republicans who oppose U.S. support for Kiev will find themselves in a quandary if they don't recognize Putin's moves for what they really are.
During the Vietnam War, protesters united against U.S. aid
In the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of students protesting against the Vietnam War felt that the United States, which supported the South Vietnamese government in its struggle against the communist North and its local allies, had no place in this conflict. They felt that the war was poorly conducted, and the resources deployed abroad could be better used domestically. However, many of the leaders of this movement were also guided by another conviction: the conviction that their struggle and that of the Vietnamese Communists were in fact one and the same.
These personalities saw the United States as the headquarters of imperialism, at the center of which was a military-industrial complex that sought power for the sake of wealth, and in return brought only violence and exploitation to the world. At an anti-war rally in November 1965, Carl Oglesby, president of the Students for a Democratic Society, denounced the United States as a "colossus that does not want to be changed," an alliance of corporation and government that, in the name of profit, suppresses revolutions at home and abroad by calling them communism.
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He argued that the foreign and domestic problems of his time were cut from the same cloth: "Can we understand why the Negroes rebelled in Watts? Why, then, do we need a devil theory to explain the rebellion of the South Vietnamese?" The struggles at home for civil rights, economic equality, and gender rights were thus part of the same struggle as that of the National Liberation Front (NLF) against the United States and its allies. As Che Guevara, a hero to many in the anti-war movement, explained, the way to defeat imperialism was to wage more wars against the American empire: to create "two, three, or many Vietnams."
Anti-war movements to undermine U.S. support for Vietnam
This conviction led some key figures in the American anti-war movement to view the Vietnamese Communists as their allies in the struggle against American imperialism at home and abroad. At a conference between an American anti-war delegation and a delegation from the South Vietnam National Liberation Front in 1967, Tom Hayden, a prominent activist, identified his cause with that of his Vietnamese colleagues, telling them, "We are all Viet Cong now."
North Vietnam saw an opportunity in this sympathetic audience and sought to capitalize on the domestic political failures of the U.S. to support its cause. Historian Lien-Hang Nguyen writes: "The key to Hanoi's eventual success in the war was not to launch general offensives or even win the hearts and minds of South Vietnam; rather, it lay in his campaign for international relations, which aimed to win the support of anti-war movements around the world." The aim was to undermine domestic political support for Washington's policy in Vietnam and force a US withdrawal - which finally happened in 1973. To this end, for example, the NLF was tasked with stirring up anti-war sentiment in North America and Western Europe.
The key to Hanoi's eventual success in the war was not to launch general offensives or even win the hearts and minds of South Vietnam; rather, it lay in his campaign for international relations, which aimed to win the support of anti-war movements around the world.
At the same time, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union adopted a resolution instructing the KGB to organize statements by leading political figures abroad. This was intended to mobilize public opinion against U.S. policy in Vietnam, according to documents from the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History. A year later, the ruling party of North Vietnam instructed its foreign propaganda apparatus to "use all the forces and the entire public opinion of the peoples of the world, including the American people, to induce them to agree with and support the anti-American cause of our people for national salvation."
The North Vietnamese Politburo was aware of its target audience. It passed a resolution calling for the war to be called a "struggle against American imperialism" rather than a communist revolution, in order to make its cause more direct to activists in the United States. Echoing Hayden, North Vietnamese Minister of Culture Hoang Minh Giam said to David Hilliard, leader of the Black Panther Party, in 1969: "You are Black Panthers. We are Yellow Panthers."
Republicans link anti-Russia sentiment with anti-Trump sentiment
Long before the invasion of Ukraine, the attitude of Americans towards Russia was increasingly shaped by domestic politics. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, whose administration sought to "readjust" relations with Russia, ridiculed his opponent Mitt Romney for calling Russia the United States' greatest enemy. However, the 2016 election was a turning point in this regard. Until then, more Republicans than Democrats saw Russia as an enemy; since the election, however, these opinions have been reversed. While the Democrats denounced Russian interference in the election, the Republicans increasingly linked anti-Russia sentiment to anti-Trump sentiment, seeing the former merely as a way to undermine the legitimacy of their president and party.
The Trump years also saw the right's obsession with so-called "wokeness" reach its peak, leading to attempts to reaffirm traditional notions of gender, assert the United States as a Christian nation—or at least a Judeo-Christian nation—and restore a solemn representation of U.S. history embodied by Trump's 1776 commission. Crucial to these efforts was the notion that "wokeness" had conquered the heights of American cultural power—Hollywood, the mainstream media, and academia—in the belief that, as Andrew Breitbart famously proclaimed, "politics is downstream of culture."
Putin tries to be an anti-woke fighter to undermine opponents
Putin, sensing an opportunity to undermine his opponents, has embraced this dynamic and is now portraying himself as the avatar of conservative criticism of Western society. Where once the North Vietnamese claimed to embody the anti-imperialist cause, Putin now claims to embody anti-wokeness, positioning Russia – most famously for cracking down on LGBTQ+ rights – as a bastion of traditional Christian values.
In public speeches, he has denounced the "abolition of culture", "reverse racism" and gender ideology, which he describes as "crimes against humanity". He combined this criticism with attacks on globalization, claiming that it has led to an "unequal distribution of wealth" and a "worsening of inequality" as some have sought to "open the borders of other countries to exploit their own competitive advantages." He has portrayed these policies as serving the interests of a decadent, cosmopolitan elite – a rhetorical move that parallels Trump's political synthesis of social conservatism and populist economics.
About the author
Jeremy S. Friedman is an adjunct professor at Harvard Business School in the Department of Business, Government, and International Economics. He is the author of Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (UNC Press 2015) and Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Harvard University Press 2021). Twitter: @JeremySFriedman
Putin apparently succeeds with anti-woke tactics
Putin invokes Russian history to claim the mantle of traditional conservatism. He argues that vigilance has already been tested by the Bolsheviks with their revolution: "For us in Russia, these are not speculative postulates, but lessons from our difficult and sometimes tragic history." By drawing a clear dividing line between the pitfalls of cosmopolitanism and the failure of communism, Putin is making an argument that many on the American right have long wanted to hear. His populist rhetoric holds up a mirror — and an alternative — to many of the deepest upheavals and greatest discontent in the United States, no different than North Vietnamese leaders did a few decades ago.
So far, this tactic seems to have some success. New research suggests that support for Putin is greater among Christian nationalists in the U.S., who feel that "liberal democracy is violating their religious beliefs," according to Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University and a member of the research team. Aside from his vocal defense of what some see as traditional Christian values, Putin's notion of defending nationalism against the cosmopolitan global elite also resonates in some corners of the Republican Party.
U.S. senators take their cue from Putin to spread anti-Ukraine sentiment
U.S. Senator Josh Hawley and other members of Trump's right-wing party have seemingly embraced Putin's logic, recently tweeting, "You can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists, or the party of East Palestine and working people in America." The notion that "globalists" are bent on destroying old, established identities – nation, race, religion, gender – in the name of profit leads some to reject support for Ukraine. Dominick Sansone's argument in American Conservative magazine is an example of this kind of thinking: "The real question at stake in Ukraine is whether the future of international relations will involve continued expansion and consolidation of a transatlantic one-world government."
It is obvious that Putin's modern application of a strategy from the 1960s has resonated with the target audience, perhaps in part due to the far-reaching similarities between these movements. Both see their respective wars as the product of an elite that has lost touch with the people in its unbridled pursuit of power and profit. They see the United States as dominated by corruption and decadence, as a country that does not live up to its professed ideals.
Putin wants to tactically undermine American democracy
Unfortunately, their visions of the future have very little to do with the real goals of the North Vietnamese of yesteryear or Putin of today. When the North Vietnamese army finally invaded Saigon in 1975, it did not establish a multi-party democracy, as many in the anti-war movement had hoped. Instead, they annexed the South and imposed a violent communist transformation that left hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives. At the time, many in the anti-war movement realized their mistake, but Hayden was not one of them.
Today, Putin is not trying to restore American democracy, but to undermine it. A victory for him will not help the concerns of traditional morality, freedom of speech, or whatever else he claims to represent. His stance is tactical, and those who imagine that a foreign adversary will help bring about the changes they want to see in the United States will ultimately be disappointed. Republican candidates who try to serve this kind of opposition are not helping to restore America's greatness; They betray them. (by Jeremy S. Friedman)
We are currently testing machine translations. This article has been automatically translated from English into German.
This article was first published in English in the magazine "ForeignPolicy.com" on May 29, 2023 - in the course of a cooperation, it is now also available in translation to the readers of IPPEN. MEDIA portals.
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