The blindness of Putin's friends

One of the most disturbing symptoms of the malaise of the West is the readiness of leading conservatives to make common cause with Vladimir Putin's dictatorship.

Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and Francois Fillon are only the most prominent representatives of a growing current in right-wing politics that blames the West for Russian aggression and extols Vladimir Putin as an effective leader.

Australia's most outspoken representative of this tendency is Tom Switzer, a commentator of impeccable conservative credentials. Since Putin's invasion of Crimea, Switzer has argued incessantly that NATO expansion and Western democracy promotion is the cause of Russia's conflict with the West. His latest rendition of this argument ("The prowling bear may be well worth a cuddle", January 9) is predictably enthusiastic about the prospect of an entente between Trump and Putin.

Like other pro-Russia conservatives, Switzer denies that he is a Putin apologist. As evidence, he offers criticisms of such hollowness that they would not be out of place in Kremlin propaganda. Certainly Russian censors would be unlikely to object to his declaration that he "does not defend the Russian-backed rebels who badly mishandled the MH17 Ukraine plane-crash controversy in 2014".

To describe the killing of 298 innocent civilians as "mishandling a controversy", as if it were merely a matter of poor PR, is surely one of the most grotesque euphemisms put forward to describe this atrocity. Of course, Switzer offers no hint of Putin's own culpability in making a sophisticated missile launcher available to the reckless and incompetent band of Kremlin proxies and ultranationalists in the Donbass.

The guiding assumption of Putin's right-wing apologists is that his conduct is normal for a great power. According to Switzer, Russia is "protecting legitimate security interests in the Baltics and the Middle East and its objectives are limited". This is an article of faith for Switzer, who informs us that "any Western politician or propagandist who claims otherwise is either ignorant or suffering from Russiaphobia".

There are many Russian dissidents, figures like Aleksei Navalny and Gary Kasparov, who have made the case that Putin is not reacting to the West and that his outbursts of aggression have roots in his struggle to protect his own kleptocratic autocracy against a democratic revolution. Presumably Switzer also regards these courageous Russians as ignorant Russophobes.

What is most extraordinary about the conservative Russophiles is their fawning concern for Kremlin sensitivities. Switzer denounces "hyperventilating pundits" who have spread exaggerations about the Russian threat, fuelling hatred and sowing misunderstanding. He ignores the fact that for a dozen years, the Kremlin has squandered millions of petrodollars on a propaganda apparatus dedicated to the vilification of the West as an existential threat to Russia and the world. No conspiracy theory is too bizarre, no label is too inflammatory, no prejudice is too offensive, no threat is too apocalyptic, for the makers of this toxic propaganda, many of whom began their careers in the 1990s on the neo-fascist fringes of public life.

A similar blindness applies to the conservatives' understanding of their own traditions. Switzer justifies his call for appeasement by claiming that Ronald Reagan "embraced détente with the Soviet Communists". In fact, Reagan's record is a reminder of how Trump's Republicans have betrayed his legacy. Reagan was an outspoken critic of détente and a supporter of Soviet dissidents.

His Westminster speech (1982) was an eloquent denunciation of cultural relativist excuses for dictatorship and a manifesto for democracy promotion. It led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, a grant-donor foundation that supports NGOs campaigning for democratic reform around the world. In Kremlin propaganda, it is the incarnation of evil.

Reagan extended a hand of friendship to Mikhail Gorbachev only when the Soviet leader had demonstrated a brave commitment to democratisation. By contrast, Switzer proposes to embrace a dictator who has consolidated a full-blown authoritarian regime. Two weeks ago, Putin's servile judiciary escalated the assault on Gorbachev's legacy by imposing another massive fine on Memorial, the human rights and historical research organisation that has shone a spotlight on current repression and the Stalinist past. Like other platforms for critical voices, Memorial is slowly being suffocated by a combination of draconian legislation and harassment by Kremlin-sponsored thugs.

The conservative embrace of Putin is driven by Islamist terror. Defending Russia's brutal intervention in Syria, Switzer exhorts the West to join Russia in the battle against jihadism. What he ignores is Russia's role in inciting terrorism. On the one hand, the Kremlin's global propaganda machine demonises the West as a place of sexual depravity, unbridled secularism, and predatory imperialism, in terms that reinforce the central tenets of Islamic State propaganda.

On the other, Putin's airforce has enraged a generation of potential militants by its indiscriminate use of incendiary weapons, which unleash infernos and leave survivors with horrific injuries, in the urban centres of Aleppo and other parts of Syria. The blowback is yet to come. To make common cause with the perpetrator of these war crimes is to invite vengeance.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times.

Photo: AP