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Kremlin Talking Points Are Back in the U.S. Debate

Elon Musk, Tucker Carlson, and midterm candidates are peddling Russian propaganda on Ukraine.

By , the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends a gala event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 2.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends a gala event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 2.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk attends a gala event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on May 2. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

When Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine, he used some highly revealing language. Crimea should be Russian, he tweeted, because of “Krushchev’s mistake”—a reference to Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s redrawing of internal Soviet borders. That particular wording has never been part of the U.S. debate about Ukraine, but it is the standard language used by the Kremlin for its claims on Ukrainian land. It’s not the only talking point Musk has embraced that will be familiar to anyone following Kremlin propaganda.

Musk’s tweets are a prominent example of a worrisome trend: Kremlin talking points are creeping back into the U.S. debate. Few issues have united Democrats and Republicans again after years of intense polarization as much as supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion. In the U.S. Congress, there has been strong bipartisan backing for weapons deliveries and other aid to Kyiv, as well as for fortifying NATO’s eastern frontier. Until recently, voices supporting the Kremlin were few and far between, most prominently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. Carlson openly declared he was on Russia’s side, and Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his cleverness for invading Ukraine. As noisy as they were, these voices were overpowered by a consensus about the war and how the United States should respond.

Now, there are cracks in this consensus, with Musk the latest example of Russian propaganda slipping back into the public conversation. With campaigning for next month’s U.S. midterm elections heating up, Putin’s talking points are increasingly being spread by candidates running for office, as we document with the Midterms Monitor, a joint social-media tracking project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshal Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice. The monitor has captured more than 2,300 tweets by U.S. candidates for Congress or high state office dealing with Ukraine since Aug. 1. Many of these posts are critical of Russia and back U.S. policy on the war. Some criticize the high cost of aid. But a noisy minority—most, but not all, Republicans—are also parroting the most egregious Kremlin propaganda. Should these candidates be elected, especially to Congress, they could push for a shift in U.S. policy on Ukraine.

When Tesla chief executive Elon Musk tweeted his support for Russia’s dismemberment of Ukraine, he used some highly revealing language. Crimea should be Russian, he tweeted, because of “Krushchev’s mistake”—a reference to Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s redrawing of internal Soviet borders. That particular wording has never been part of the U.S. debate about Ukraine, but it is the standard language used by the Kremlin for its claims on Ukrainian land. It’s not the only talking point Musk has embraced that will be familiar to anyone following Kremlin propaganda.

Musk’s tweets are a prominent example of a worrisome trend: Kremlin talking points are creeping back into the U.S. debate. Few issues have united Democrats and Republicans again after years of intense polarization as much as supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion. In the U.S. Congress, there has been strong bipartisan backing for weapons deliveries and other aid to Kyiv, as well as for fortifying NATO’s eastern frontier. Until recently, voices supporting the Kremlin were few and far between, most prominently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and former President Donald Trump. Carlson openly declared he was on Russia’s side, and Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his cleverness for invading Ukraine. As noisy as they were, these voices were overpowered by a consensus about the war and how the United States should respond.

Now, there are cracks in this consensus, with Musk the latest example of Russian propaganda slipping back into the public conversation. With campaigning for next month’s U.S. midterm elections heating up, Putin’s talking points are increasingly being spread by candidates running for office, as we document with the Midterms Monitor, a joint social-media tracking project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshal Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice. The monitor has captured more than 2,300 tweets by U.S. candidates for Congress or high state office dealing with Ukraine since Aug. 1. Many of these posts are critical of Russia and back U.S. policy on the war. Some criticize the high cost of aid. But a noisy minority—most, but not all, Republicans—are also parroting the most egregious Kremlin propaganda. Should these candidates be elected, especially to Congress, they could push for a shift in U.S. policy on Ukraine.

Some of these candidates have taken their cues from Fox News, the most influential source of pro-Russian disinformation in the United States. As catalogued by The Bulwark, the network’s hosts have labeled Ukraine as parasitic, called Ukrainians’ defense of their country an attack on Russia, and called the war “another Russia hoax” as part of a plot led by Democrats. In a bizarre twist of reality that directly repeats Russian propaganda, the Conservative Political Action Conference called Ukraine’s own territories claimed by Russia “Ukrainian-occupied” in a tweet last month. Showing a Russian flag waving in the background, the tweet also demanded an end to U.S. “gift-giving” to Ukraine. (The tweet was later deleted but can be read here in full.)

There is little doubt that some of these positions are the result of Russian influence operations, not least because some candidates are retweeting Russian propaganda sources.

Republican candidates—and some Democrats—are joining in. Many anti-Ukraine messages center on keeping money at home. J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, is campaigning on an end to aid for Ukraine and just called for “negotiations” with Putin, who of course continues to insist on Ukraine’s dismemberment. Mayra Flores, a Republican candidate for the House of Representatives from Texas, tweeted: “Congress just voted to send another $12,300,000,000 to Ukraine! … Why aren’t we putting America’s best interests first?” Allen Waters, a Republican House candidate from Rhode Island, shared, “#AmericaFirst not #Ukraine. Keep Rhode Island safe from nuclear conflict.”

But candidates are also repeating Kremlin narratives almost verbatim. This includes calling Ukrainians “Nazis,” accusing Kyiv of war crimes, saying the United States started the war, and blaming Washington for the Nord Stream pipeline explosions. Donnie Palmer, a Republican House candidate from Massachusetts, praised Trump by saying: “did he get us into a war … did he blow up 2 pipelines, is he backing Nazis in Ukraine?” Eric Brewer, Republican House candidate from Ohio, attacked the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Carpenter: “@USAmbOSCE Carpenter is omitting the context for Putin’s military operation … He’s ignoring Ukraine’s 8 years of war crimes & Russia’s 8 years of restraint. Putin acted late.”

Derision for the Ukrainian government is being spread as well. “What classy people the government of Ukraine employs,” tweeted Irene Armendariz Jackson, a Republican House candidate from Texas, at a Ukrainian diplomat who used an expletive in response to Musk’s suggestion to surrender Crimea. Some candidates have blamed Ukraine’s NATO aspirations for the war instead of Putin’s clearly stated view that Ukraine has no right to exist as a country.

Among the Democrats who have joined in, by far the most prolific is Geoffrey Young, a House candidate from Kentucky. He has tweeted some 680 times about Russia or Ukraine since Aug. 1, including retweeting the Russian state-owned propaganda network RT, Redfish, and some of Russia’s most infamous propagandists, such as Dmitry Polyanskiy, Moscow’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations. When he’s not celebrating Russian military advances, Young parrots the Kremlin’s attacks on NATO and launders Putin’s narrative that Ukrainians are “Nazis.” “Since 2014, the war criminals, aggressors, and mass-murderers in and near Ukraine have been Washington first & foremost, NATO, the Ukrainian government (which has been a U.S. puppet), and groups of Ukrainian Nazis,” he tweeted. Of the Biden administration, he wrote: “My country is being run by genocidal war criminals.” In part due to these positions, Young has not received support from the Democratic Party.

There is little doubt that some of these positions are the result of Russian influence operations, not least because some candidates are retweeting Russian propaganda sources. The ideas, too, aren’t all homegrown. Framing Ukraine as a Nazi state did not originate in U.S. domestic debate, but was imported from mainstream Russian discourse, just like Musk’s phrasing of the supposed “mistake” that made Crimea a part of Ukraine.

American anti-Ukraine voices are also often rebroadcast on Russian state media for a Russian audience, which also serves the Kremlin’s propaganda operations. Naturally, Musk’s proposal to dismember Ukraine was all over Russian state media, while Sputnik highlighted former presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard’s announcement on Monday that she is leaving the Democratic Party because it is supposedly run by a “cabal of warmongers.” Similarly, RT has amplified Republican Congressman Paul Gosar’s statement that the United States “doesn’t owe Zelensky a damn thing.”

A compounding problem is that much of our tracked social media content with the highest user engagement—counting likes and retweets—is critical of Ukraine. This may be a result of the social media algorithms or just human behavior, where negativity attracts more attention. The most-tweeted mentions of “NATO,” for example, do not favor the alliance’s effort to help Ukraine defend itself, which is the majority consensus among Americans. Instead, Twitter is flooded with content calling NATO a “war machine.”

Not every anti-Ukrainian candidate will win office next month. But if enough of them do, they could shift critical foreign policy decisions in Washington. Congress could reduce the aid Ukraine desperately needs. The return of U.S. political divisions over Russia would also send troubling signals to the United States’ already skittish European allies, who are understandably anxious about U.S. foreign policy shifts if a Republican president is elected in 2024.

Like all efforts to defend against information operations, the spread of Kremlin talking points in the U.S. political debate can only be countered by proactively debunking, counter-messaging, and flooding the zone. Ukraine’s defenders need to go on the offensive by stating why the outcome of the war matters to the United States. Supporters of Ukraine, not least the Biden administration, have plenty to learn from Ukraine itself, which has effectively shaped the narrative and out-operated the Kremlin in the information space.

If the bipartisan and popular consensus in support of Ukraine is to be maintained, Democrats and Republicans need to put forward an unambiguous defense of Ukraine and not let a noisy minority of candidates and celebrities like Musk grab the public stage. Come November, we will know if they succeeded.

Correction, Oct. 13, 2022: A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Dmitry Polyanskiy as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations. He is the deputy ambassador. 

Laura Thornton is a senior fellow and the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund. Twitter: @LauraLThornton

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