Ukraine war exposes lack of support for Trump’s pro-Putin GOP wing

A piece of an aircraft sits in a street in Kyiv, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier inspects fragments of a downed aircraft in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday.
(Vadim Zamirovsky / Associated Press)

Since the 2016 election and Russian efforts to help Donald Trump‘s presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton, U.S. attitudes toward Moscow have featured a stew of partisan memes, personal grievances and Cold War tropes, all superimposed on top of the inevitable tensions between two big international powers.

As wars have so often done, the Russian invasion of Ukraine — predicted for weeks, but still a shock — has quickly begun to clarify who stands where.

One result has been to highlight how little support Trump’s Russia-friendly attitudes have within his party.

Some Republican elected officials have used the occasion to criticize President Biden, mostly by asserting that he has failed to take a tough enough stance. Very few have echoed the favorable comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin that in recent weeks have come from Trump and Tucker Carlson, the influential Fox News commentator.

That could have big consequences.

In the short term, Biden faces relatively little domestic opposition to ratcheting up economic sanctions against Russia. Hesitancy by European allies will constrain him more than domestic concerns. The one line the public clearly does not want to cross is any use of American troops — White House spokespeople have repeatedly stressed that Biden will not do that.

Longer term: It’s possible, although by no means certain, that widely aired pictures of civilian death and destruction in Ukraine at Putin’s orders will undermine support for Trump and other Putin apologists.

A long decline in U.S. views of Russia

The mainstream of American public opinion has flowed against Russia for most of the past decade.


During the late 1980s and 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. views of Russia were mostly favorable. Attitudes began to sour in the mid-2000s, then worsened starting in 2013, amid growing tensions between the two countries and the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, part of Ukraine.

By the time Trump became president, Americans had an unfavorable view of Russia by about a 3-1 margin, according to the Gallup poll, which has tracked U.S. attitudes toward Russia for years.

That image only worsened during Trump’s years in office, despite the former president’s consistent warmth toward Putin — a friendliness that has generated endless speculation, but no clear explanation ever since his presidential candidacy started.

American views of Russia have only worsened since. As the Ukraine crisis intensified this month, Gallup found that 85% of Americans had an unfavorable view of Russia, with just 15% favorable. American views of Ukraine were favorable by nearly 2-1, the poll found.

In a rare bit of agreement, Republicans and Democrats had equally negative impressions of Russia, although Republicans were slightly less favorable than Democrats in their view of Ukraine, 66% versus 57%.

Dissent from that mainstream, anti-Russian view has come largely from two directions.

On the left, a fairly small, but notable, segment views U.S. involvement overseas as a continuation of past imperialist adventures. As tensions have risen in recent weeks, prominent voices in that group have argued that there’s merit in Putin’s complaints about NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They also have highlighted the uglier sides of Ukrainian nationalism, which includes militias with clearly anti-Semitic and anti-democratic programs. And they’ve called for Ukraine to agree to abandon its goal of eventually joining NATO, while also urging Russia to show restraint.


As a share of the American electorate, however, the anti-imperialist left is in the single-digit range. Support for Putin has come more from the right, from Trump and some of his allies.

After Putin recognized two portions of Ukraine as independent countries — the final pretext for invasion — Trump repeated his long-standing praise for the Russian leader, recounting to a conservative radio talk show on Tuesday how he had watched Putin’s declaration on television.

“I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine — Putin declares it as independent,” Trump said. “Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, ‘It’s independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper.”

“They’re gonna keep peace all right,” he added. “Here’s a guy who’s very savvy.”

Trump returned to the theme the next day.

“I mean he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions,” he told an audience of donors and Republican lawmakers at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, according to news reports. “I’d say that’s pretty smart.”

A highly visible coterie of pro-Trump figures have adopted the same position. Trump’s former strategist, Steve Bannon, for example, has hailed Putin as an upholder of traditional values, singling out for praise the Russian leader’s opposition to gay rights. That mirrors a strategy Putin has used of allying himself with conservative nationalists and the Russian Orthodox Church, including the passage of a law in 2013 that the Kremlin has used to shut down LGBTQ organizations and websites and ban services for gay youth.

Outside of Trump, the most high-profile conservative defender of the Russian leader has been Carlson, who, the day before Russia launched its full-scale attack on Ukraine, called that country “a pure client state of the United States State Department.”


Americans have been told “it’s your patriotic duty to hate Vladimir Putin,” Carlson said, and as a result of that hatred, “all of us are about to suffer.”

Despite the large audiences those figures draw, they’ve had limited impact on the views of Republican voters.

A poll in January by YouGov for the Economist magazine found, for example, that only about 1 in 6 Republicans held a favorable impression of Putin; nearly half viewed him very unfavorably. Republicans were only slightly more likely than Democrats to hold a favorable view of the Russian leader.

Similarly, the latest annual survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only a tiny share of the public in either party, 2% to 3%, viewed Russia as “an ally — a country that shares or interests and values.” About 1 in 5 Republicans and about 1 in 8 Democrats viewed Russia as “a necessary partner — a country we must strategically cooperate with.”

About two-thirds of Americans in both parties viewed Russia as either “a rival” or “an adversary,” with Republicans about evenly split between the two and Democrats favoring the more adverse description by about 2-1.

Finally, a poll taken Saturday through Wednesday by Echelon Insights, a Republican firm, found that only about 1 in 5 Republican voters thought Biden was being “too aggressive” in his approach to Ukraine. Two-thirds thought he was either being “too cautious” (44%) or “about right” (16%) while the rest were unsure.


The best gauge of public opinion, however, sometimes comes from watching how elected officials behave, and the verdict there was unequivocal.

“Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is reckless and evil,” declared House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who only rarely shows daylight between his positions and Trump’s.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky urged Biden to “ratchet the sanctions all the way up. Don’t hold anything back.”

McConnell, of course, has tangled with Trump in the past, but he was joined by many others, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who has diligently positioned himself as a potential heir to the MAGA vote. Hawley declared that “Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine and invasion of its territory must be met with strong American resolve.”

Through most of Trump’s political career, he paid little price for his dalliance with Putin — most Americans didn’t much care. To some extent, that’s still true — foreign conflicts that don’t involve U.S. troops seldom rank high on voters’ list of worries.

That might begin to change now, suggested Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster and campaign strategist.

Republicans who have followed Trump’s line on Putin may reconsider “when we start to see the casualties coming from Ukraine,” she said. “I don’t know how they could not remember that he’s a really evil guy. I’m hoping this starts to create some distance from those people, or at least they shut up.”

“Tucker Carlson the other day was on [television] saying, ‘What reasons do I have to dislike Putin?’ I think we’re going to see a lot of reasons very quickly that we have not to like Putin.”


Full coverage of the Ukraine crisis

A crowded train station full of people with their belongings
Hundreds of people sought shelter in an underground train station in Kharkiv, Ukraine, as the Russian invasion continued Thursday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Our colleagues Nabih Bulos and Marcus Yam are on the ground in Ukraine. Here’s what they’ve been seeing.

Other Los Angeles Times staff members in Washington, Los Angeles and elsewhere have been following a host of stories about the growing war.

To single out a few:

Don Lee in Washington and Stephanie Yang in Beijing looked at the difficult choices facing Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Tracy Wilkinson examined the reasons behind Putin’s obsession with Ukraine.

Stokols reported on Biden’s latest round of sanctions.

U.S. diplomats have been in intense talks with counterparts from dozens of countries seeking votes for a tough United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but some major countries, such as India, are not yet on board, Wilkinson reported.


Jon Healey, Lee, Suhauna Hussain and Kenan Draughorne examined the potential impact on the economy nationally and in California.

Lorraine Ali reported on Carlson’s efforts to backpedal from his previous statements supporting Putin.

And Kate Linthicum, Henry Chu and David Pierson reported on the international reaction to the invasion — a reminder of the kind of war that many Europeans thought the continent had left behind.

Supreme Court nominee

Biden has chosen Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the Supreme Court vacancy brought about by the retirement of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, David Savage and Eli Stokols reported. Jackson, 51, a judge on the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, was the front-runner for the nomination from the start. She’s been on Democratic lists of potential Supreme Court picks since President Obama’s second term, and because Biden named her to the appeals court last year, she’s been through a recent Senate confirmation, giving her a significant advantage. The Senate approved her for that job, 53 to 44. She would be the first Black woman to sit on the high court, fulfilling a promise Biden made.

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll love our daily podcast “The Times,” hosted every weekday by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Go beyond the headlines. Download and listen on our App, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.

Latest from our California poll

Nearly two-thirds of California voters, including a majority of parents, support mask and vaccine mandates in K-12 schools, according to our poll of California voters conducted with the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. As Paloma Esquivel reported, the poll found that a significant number of Latino and Black parents statewide do not feel confident that their children are safe from COVID-19 at school.


Confidence in California’s public schools has declined as voters and parents overwhelmingly have concluded that the quality of education worsened during the pandemic, Howard Blume reported. The share of voters who give their local schools a D or F grade has significantly increased, and 72% of voters said the quality of education has gotten worse “since the outbreak of the coronavirus.”

The poll also found that California voters are open to the idea of creating a legal market for betting on college and professional sports, but fewer than half of those surveyed were sure of their support. As John Myers and Taryn Luna wrote, as many as three competing sports-betting measures could appear on the November ballot.

Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times

Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.

The latest from Washington

Vice President Kamala Harris has been hit with some really bad polls recently — including in California. Mark Barabak looked at why Harris doesn’t get much home-state love.

The Capitol Police and the Washington police department have asked the National Guard to help respond to an expected truck convoy aimed at disrupting traffic around the Capitol ahead of the March 1 State of the Union, Sarah Wire reported.

Wire also reported that a House panel has scaled up its investigation into missing and destroyed records of Trump’s tenure as president. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a letter to the National Archives that Trump’s efforts to remove presidential records could be “the largest-scale violations of the Presidential Records Act since its enactment.”

The latest from California

The Los Angeles Police Protective League on Thursday endorsed Rick Caruso for mayor, a coveted nod because of the union’s considerable political clout. As Ben Oreskes reported, by endorsing the billionaire developer, the union spurned council member Joe Buscaino, a former LAPD officer.

A Superior Court judge Thursday temporarily blocked the city of Los Angeles from allowing former Councilman Herb Wesson to return to City Hall, handing a victory to allies of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. The judicial order is the latest twist in the story of who will represent the south Los Angeles district that was Ridley-Thomas’ until he was hit with federal corruption charges and suspended from office.

Two prominent Latino Democrats are battling over one congressional seat, the new 42nd district, which sweeps from southeastern Los Angeles to Long Beach. Seema Mehta reported on the fight between Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and state Assembly member Cristina Garcia, which is shaping up as one of the hottest Democratic primaries of the year.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

Stay in touch

Keep up with breaking news on our Politics page. And are you following us on Twitter at @latimespolitics?

Did someone forward you this? Sign up here to get Essential Politics in your inbox.

Until next time, send your comments, suggestions and news tips to