“The notion that now Kevin McCarthy is going to make himself the leader of the pro-Putin wing of my party is just a stunning thing,” Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) told NBC News on Sunday. This was a provocative way of reminding the country about the House minority leader’s recent declaration that a GOP-controlled House might seek to roll back U.S. military funding for Ukraine’s war effort.
Many Republicans continue to support funding for Ukraine, so it’s unclear how real McCarthy’s threat would prove even if he were to become speaker. But with numerous GOP candidates running for the House and Senate while expressing hostility to that funding, the threat cannot be dismissed. The GOP’s budding “pro-Putin wing,” as Cheney put it, is a real phenomenon that must be reckoned with.
So I reached out to Timothy Snyder, a historian of Europe who has become one of the leading thinkers on the rise of authoritarianism around the globe, for help in exploring the larger implications of this development. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Greg Sargent: The guy likely to become House speaker is openly declaring that Republicans might not continue U.S. military aid to Ukraine. A number of House GOP and Senate candidates are also hostile to such aid. How seriously do you take this threat?
Timothy Snyder: I take it very seriously, because democracy around the world depends on Ukrainians winning this war. I also find it puzzling, because the Ukrainians are doing more for declared bipartisan American national security interests than any American foreign policy has done for decades.
By pinning down the Russian army and substantially weakening it, they are weakening China’s cat’s paw, which is Russia. By showing how difficult it is to carry out this kind of invasion, Ukraine is making the scenario for war with China — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan — much less likely.
A lot of Republicans genuinely support the Ukrainian cause and want the United States to help Ukraine prevail. But now we might see a genuine power struggle inside the GOP over whether the party will retreat from backing Ukraine.
I talk to quite a few Republicans who say and do exactly the right things regarding Ukraine. But an underlying source of the [power struggle] you mention is media. The guidelines for state-sponsored Russian propaganda television predict very well what Tucker Carlson says about Russia and Ukraine. Then Russian propagandists play clips of Tucker Carlson for their viewers.
So an awful lot of Americans and Republican voters are imbibing Russian propaganda tropes without knowing it.
It seems to me that the alignment of nontrivial swaths of the Republican Party with Vladimir Putin — we should try to understand this as potentially a serious geopolitical development.
We are actually on the verge of winning in Ukraine. We’re also on the verge of a tipping point back toward democratic institutions, and I don’t mean just in the West; I mean around the world. An awful lot hinges on Russia losing and Ukraine winning.
The tipping point can also go the other way. If the Ukrainians hadn’t fought — or if they had already lost — we would have already seen a tipping point where authoritarianism and Putin-style nihilism would be much more popular.