Vladimir Putin is losing his populist friends in Europe

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Putin has repeatedly associated himself with prominent Euroskeptic opposition figures, like France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, the Netherland’s Geert Wilders and, perhaps most damagingly for the EU, Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary. 

Whether that support is via symbolic visits to and from Moscow or through direct funding, rowdy populists who talk down the threat of Russia have played a role in Putin’s goal of dividing Europe — and preventing it from taking meaningful action against a belligerent Russia. 

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led to many of those who’d previously cozied up to Putin now looking to distance themselves from the Kremlin. 

Earlier this week, the far-right Italian politician Salvini, a long-standing staunch opponent of mass migration, visited Przemysl, a town in Poland that shares a border with Ukraine, supposedly to show his support for Ukraine, Poland and the refugees forced to flee their homes.

When he arrived, Przemysl’s mayor told Salvini to “see what his friend Putin has done,” while brandishing a T-shirt with the Russian President’s face on it. In 2014, Salvini was seen wearing an identical T-shirt while visiting Moscow. 
Meanwhile, French Presidential candidate Le Pen has had to walk a tightrope, defending her previous ties to Putin, which involved financial support from Russian banks. Her party has defended its association with Putin historically, but Le Pen herself was made to admit that he ran an “authoritarian regime” and that the invasion of Ukraine is a “clear violation straight of international law and absolutely indefensible.” 
The Russian invasion has forced Hungary’s Orban to “condemn Russia’s armed offensive” and allow NATO troops and weapons to pass through Hungary, although he has tried to mitigate blowback from Russia by preventing arms directly traveling from Hungary into Ukraine. 

Putin’s aggressive behavior is, of course, nothing new. All of these political figures saw what Russia did in 2014 and still maintained relations with the Kremlin. What were they gaining from befriending an autocrat? 

The mayor of Przemysl holds up a T-shirt with the likeness of Vladimir Putin as Matteo Salvini speaks with journalists on March 8, 2022.
The answer to that is more complicated than a simple financial transaction. Of course, in the case of Le Pen’s loans from Russian banks and Orban’s funding for a nuclear power station, Russia presented an investment opportunity that both would have struggled to find elsewhere. 

Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, explains that in recent years, European money has come with strings attached — like obeying the EU’s rules on human rights and freedom of expression. 

“There is a very clear financial benefit in dealing with Putin, especially at the time European money comes with questions about freedoms of media, human rights and corruption, which Putin doesn’t care about,” she told CNN. 

However, it’s more than just money that many of these fringe groups see in Putin. He also represents a type of political leadership that stands in direct contrast to what many conservative Europeans see as Brussels’ liberal agenda — one they say promotes inclusivity that threatens the Europe of traditional, Judeo-Christian values. 

Andrius Kubilius, the former Prime Minister of Lithuania and current Member of the European Parliament, told CNN that Putin’s goal, in this sense, was always transparent. 

“Putin’s strategy was to find people within the European Union who would support some of his more radical domestic political and social ideas. He understood very well this is how you divide us politically, splitting the European Council and Parliament so we could not take strong, unified positions against him,” Kubilius said. 

Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (R) embraces Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban ahead of a meeting in Milan on August 28, 2018.

Those political and social ideas include things like anti-LGBT laws, undermining the independent judiciary and clamping down on the free press. 

“Many of the liberal groups in the European Parliament have a hatred of the type of traditional conservatism they see in Russia,” said Gunnar Beck, an MEP for the German right populist party, Alternative fur Deutschland. 

Speaking of his party and their partners within the European Parliament, Beck told CNN that “many of us are opposed to the fashionable social trends of our time, some of which are promoted through with public money. We look at Russia and see a European country where these issues have not gone too far, as we see it.” 

While Beck said that Putin’s invasion is a “clear breach of international law,” he and others like him still feel that the West’s anger at Russia’s behavior is at times “deeply hypocritical,” and view Putin as an example of a leader defending his country’s “heritage and values.” 

In this sense, the kind words that flow from Europe’s populists to Moscow and vice versa feed a particular political narrative that is convenient for all sides. 

For those Euroskeptic Europeans, Putin’s Russia is a country that doesn’t tolerate things they believe erode the social and moral fiber of the country, like LGBT rights and mass immigration. They don’t see any cognitive dissonance in condemning Putin’s war while also applauding his resistance to liberal, modern values. 

For Putin, these European cheerleaders present an opportunity to sow disunity in both the EU and the Western alliance more broadly.

“Putin’s tool was to sow uncertainty in Europe, promoting a set of values very different from ours. For years, the Kremlin has used disinformation to exploit people and maximize divisions in society,” President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola told CNN. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Marine Le Pen at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 24, 2017.

However, she believes that “the war has changed everything” in ways that will last “probably for a very long time.”

“He has underestimated Europe’s resolve and the importance that Europeans give to freedom and democracy, just as he has underestimated the resilience and the resistance of the Ukrainian people,” Metsola said. 

It is likely that Putin’s actions have made him such a pariah that Europe’s security map has been changed forever. Senior European and NATO diplomats have previously told CNN that the Ukraine invasion has advanced thinking around security by light years. Historically, it has been very hard to get EU agreement on any foreign policy issue; now they are signing off sanctions packages and upping defense spending at a rate unthinkable just weeks ago. 

Putin’s merciless violence will also affect the domestic politics of those who’d previously stood beside him. 

It is likely that Le Pen will be reluctant to play up her ties to the Russian President ahead of the French election in April. Cseh notes that Hungary’s election, also in April, will force Orban to walk the tightrope of his traditional voters, whom, Cseh says, he has told for years that “the EU is the enemy and Putin is a great guy.”

Putin’s invasion has already cost him dearly, in terms of his complicated, but ultimately beneficial relationship with the rest of Europe.

And as the war rumbles on, it is likely that on top of the economic pain and personnel losses, he will live the rest of his life as a persona non grata with some of the individuals who helped him grow his — and Russia’s — wealth and status as a global player the rest of the world was willing to work with. 

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