Shortly after news broke that Russia had launched a large-scale attack on Ukraine, a Telegram channel operated by a user known as “QAnon John” posted a photo of former President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and posed a question to its more than 80,000 followers: Do you trust Putin? In the hundreds of comments below the question, his followers replied with “yes” after “yes.”
Throughout the building tensions in Ukraine over the past few weeks, the messaging from Republican leaders has been consistent: blame Biden, but don’t praise Putin. And the majority of Republican voters don’t trust the Russian president, according to polls taken prior to the invasion. But there have been notable exceptions to this response in recent days, including former President Trump, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and online conspiracy theories among the far right — all of which may shift Republican rank-and-file views as the conflict continues.
Polling over the last few weeks has found Republicans, like most Americans, don’t trust Putin. In an Economist/YouGov poll conducted Jan. 22-25, 15 percent of Republicans said they had a very or somewhat favorable view of Putin, similar to the 11 percent of Americans overall who said so. A plurality of Republicans (45 percent) said they had a very unfavorable view of the Russian leader. In a Morning Consult/Politico poll from last week, more Democrats (20 percent) said they strongly or somewhat approved of how Putin was handling the conflict in Ukraine than did Republicans (10 percent). And when asked in a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted Feb. 8-11 whether the U.S. should support Ukraine, support Russia or neither, only 4 percent of Republicans said “support Russia” (in line with the 5 percent of Democrats who said the same).
But that hasn’t stopped influential figures on the right from taking a friendlier position on Putin. On Tuesday, Trump appeared on a conservative radio show and called Putin “smart,” “savvy” and a “peacekeeper.” Even after news broke of the invasion on Wednesday night, Trump called the attack “sad” but also defended Putin, saying, “I really don’t believe he wanted to do this initially. I think he wanted to do something and negotiate it. It just got worse and worse.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson struck a similar tone on his Tuesday-night broadcast, telling his audience to ask themselves why they hate Putin. “It might be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious: What is this really about? Why do I hate Putin so much? Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him? Has he shipped every middle-class job in my town to Russia? Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years?” The answer to all these questions, Tucker noted, is “no.” However, Carlson changed his tune slightly after Russia invaded, saying on Thursday that “Vladimir Putin started this war,” which he called a “tragedy.”
This contrarianism has been noticed by Russian state media, which has been running clips of Trump, Carlson and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent days.
In right-wing spaces online, the conversations following Russia’s attack mirrored these two responses. On the pro-Trump message board Patriots.win, posts and memes focused on criticizing and mocking Biden and Democrats but steered clear of actually praising Putin for his actions. Many took an isolationist stance instead.
“The more I hear about this, the more I wonder why we should care,” one user wrote in a popular comment on a highly active thread that day.
“Fuck the Great Reset. Fuck puppet Xiden.1 And fuck Russian AND Ukraine. I WANT MY ‘AMERICA FIRST’ AGENDA & PRESIDENT BACK,” wrote another, capturing a sentiment shared by many on the forum.
But among QAnon and other conspiracy-theory communities, like the channel created by QAnon John, praise for Putin was easier to come by. This is because a prevailing theory among QAnon followers is that Putin invaded Ukraine to flush out a supposed “deep-state cabal,” which the followers baselessly allege runs the world and is involved in Satan-worship and child sex trafficking. Many interpreted a line from Putin’s speech Thursday where he pledged to “denazify” Ukraine as code for taking out the deep state.
“What does Putin mean by the denazifying of Ukraine?” one user asked in a Telegram chat group Thursday.
“Get rid of the Deep State players,” another user replied. “It’s happening all over the world.”
Many QAnon followers were also promoting a conspiracy theory about Russia targeting secret U.S. biolabs located in Ukraine that study deadly viruses. The claim that the U.S. has secret biolabs in Ukraine is false and has been pushed by Russian propagandists for years. A tweet thread that was retweeted more than 1,700 times before Twitter suspended the account (though it has since been shared on Telegram and TikTok), expanded on that conspiracy theory, claiming the sites of reported air strikes correlated with the sites of clandestine, U.S.-owned biolabs. QAnon followers later claimed that Twitter’s suspension of the account proved the theory was true.
“Must be on to something if they were suspended,” a user posted on the QAnon message board GreatAwakening.win.
Recent polling and the messaging of most Republican leaders show a mostly unified front against Putin, albeit with disagreement over the best way to respond to Russia’s assault on Ukraine. But the mixed messaging from influential sources like Trump, Carlson and the QAnon community threaten to chip away at that resolve. Clearly, some Americans already believe that Putin may not be the bad guy.
“Take note of every single ‘elite’ person screeching about Putin and Russia in defense of Ukraine right now,” QAnon influencer IET 17 wrote on Thursday, to his more than 90,000 followers on Telegram. “They’re the enemy.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2022, 1:20 p.m.): An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the first name of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
CORRECTION (Feb. 25, 2022, 3:55 p.m.): An earlier version of this article said 15 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of Putin according to an Economist/YouGov poll. In fact, 15 percent of the Republicans polled said they had a favorable view of him.