Putin failed to conquer Navalny or Ukraine. He's had better luck with Trump’s GOP

The Republican Party’s alignment with Putin’s Russia becomes clear

Putin failed to conquer Navalny or Ukraine. He's had better luck with Trump’s GOP
Photo by Jørgen Håland on Unsplash

by Gil Duran and George Lakoff | FrameLab

Alexey Navalny was one thing Vladimir Putin can never be: heroic.

Navalny’s murder, carried out by Putin’s agents in an Arctic Circle prison on February 16, is a testament to this fact. The dictator could only beat him by killing him — or so he believed.

Even now, Putin continues to fear his murdered opponent. He refused for weeks to hand Navalny’s body over to his family for burial. The punishment for Navalny’s crime continued even after his death.

Let’s always remember the “crime” for which Navalny gave his life: the act of believing in democracy and freedom. His audacious and insistent hope that Russia could one day be free from the chains of corruption and dictatorship terrified Putin. The mere act of using his voice to inspire others apparently constituted an existential danger to the dictator.

The murder of Navalny provided a depressing end to a two-week run during which Putin — with lots of help from prominent Republicans — dominated the news.

Alexey Navalny marching for freedom in Russia, with Russian flags in the background
Alexey Navalny. Photo: Gregory Stein/Shutterstock

Let’s recap:

February 7: Republicans in Congress killed a bipartisan border bill that included billions in aid for Ukraine. Republicans have become increasingly pro-Putin as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third year, and it’s clear most of the GOP would prefer to see Ukraine defeated.

“Vladimir Putin will not lose this war,” declared Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

“That argument — that the Russian president cannot be stopped so there’s no point in using American taxpayer dollars against him — marks a new stage in the Republican Party’s growing acceptance of Russian expansionism in the age of Donald Trump,” reports the Associated Press.

February 10: Trump said he would tell Putin and Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to American NATO allies that don’t spend enough on defense. This was a stunning genuflection to the Russian dictator, who sees NATO as a threat to his imperial ambitions.

February 13: Putin put former Fox News host Tucker Carlson on a leash and walked him like a dog. Carlson had secretly traveled to Russia on a propaganda mission for the dictator, who has refused interviews from actual journalists. Carlson debased himself on film by, among other things, appearing to suffer a meltdown in a Moscow grocery store during which he proclaimed the alleged superiority of Russian groceries had “radicalized” him against US leaders.

February 16: Putin capped off his run of miniature triumphs by murdering Navalny in prison, and then having his police forces beat and arrest protestors who attempted to honor Navalny’s memory.

Why such a burst of activity of Putin’s part?

One possible explanation: February 24 marked the two-year anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin had expected to roll to a quick victory in Ukraine, but the people of Ukraine have put up a fierce fight for their freedom and independence.

After two years, the war is at a stalemate and Putin’s military has never looked so weak on the global stage. But appearances can be deceiving.

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Russia conquers Republicans

While Putin has stalled in Ukraine, he appears to be making significant gains here in the United States of America.

On February 20, federal authorities revealed that the man at the heart of scurrilous allegations against the President Biden — Alexander Smirnov — admitted to having lied about Biden at the behest of Russian intelligence. Smirnov’s lies, designed by Russian intelligence agents, became the basis for Republican investigations targeting the president and his son, Hunter Biden.

While Putin has not been successful in conquering Ukraine, he’s clearly had more luck conquering the Republican Party. The alignment between Trump’s GOP and Putin’s Russia becomes clearer with every passing day. Thanks to the Smirnov affair, we now see how quickly and easily Putin’s lies become Republican talking points.

Yet the more obvious the Trump/Putin alignment becomes, the more Republicans deride and mock any suggestion that they are doing what they are doing (even as they are very obviously doing it).

This tactic of psychological manipulation — the denial of the obvious, which goes by names such as “gaslighting,” “denialism” and “double speak” — is a hallmark of aggressive propaganda.

Subversion strategy

So, what’s going on here?

In the 1980s, a former KGB propagandist named Yuri Bezmenov outlined the key steps for undermining a democratic society through a process of subversion:

1. Demoralization: This phase involves the long-term process of demoralizing the target nation. Tactics include the infiltration of, and influence on, the target nation’s educational system, media, politics, and culture. The aim: to alter the population's perceptions of reality, creating a generation of citizens who are unable to recognize or resist the subverter's ideology or objectives.

2. Destabilization: In this stage, the focus shifts to creating instability. This can be done through the manipulation of the target nation’s economy, politics, and society. Strategies include sowing discord, social unrest and polarization, usually by exploiting existing divisions. This phase might involve supporting radical groups, spreading disinformation, and undermining trust in the government and institutions.

3. Crisis: This stage is characterized by a significant upheaval or crisis that leads to a state of emergency or a situation that destabilizes society to a critical point. The crisis could take various forms, including economic collapses, riots, or significant political upheavals, leading to a high uncertainty and fear among the population.

4. Normalization: After the crisis, the stage of normalization begins, where the subverter seeks to establish a new status quo. This often involves the implementation of policies and measures that solidify the subverter's control or influence over society, supposedly to restore order. The subverter's power and the oppressive new conditions become "normal."

The overarching objective of these tactics is to weaken a society from within, making it vulnerable to influence or control without a direct military confrontation. Bezmenov emphasized that success depends on the subverter's ability to keep the society in the dark about the manipulation process until it’s too late.

Bezmenov was, in many ways, a problematic figure who lived a tragic life. He was an ultra-conservative who saw Soviet influence and infiltration as a threat coming from the left-leaning groups and liberal social beliefs. Yet his framework for subversion has been taken seriously by generations of researchers. (Of course, as a right-wing Cold War figure, he could not have imagined a future scenario in which the party of Ronald Reagan would become a main agent of a dictatorial Russian oligarchy.)

This is frightening stuff, but we have unfortunately reached a point where it’s impossible to deny the Republican Party’s obvious alignment with Putin.

2024: Freedom vs. Putin’s GOP

The 2024 election will be a key test of our democracy. Can it withstand Putin’s strategy of 21st century information warfare?

As a first step, we must acknowledge how closely the Republican Party has linked its fate to the Putin Playbook. The future of the GOP appears to depend on undermining American democracy, installing a dictatorial leader, rolling back freedoms and poisoning the political discourse with disinformation that makes it hard for Americans to distinguish fact from fiction.

The Republican Party has become an existential threat to the USA. This year’s election may prove to be the most consequential moment in our nation’s history.

This needs to be said — loudly and frequently.

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