Putin’s War in Ukraine Has Made Him Toxic to Even His Far-Right Fans in Europe

Politicians such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen who banked on Vladimir Putin’s popularity with their supporters are rattled by the war in Ukraine.

It wasn’t the type of publicity that Matteo Salvini was seeking when the Italian populist leader showed up in Przemyśl, a Polish border city that has been inundated with refugees fleeing Ukraine.

Standing next to Przemyśl’s mayor, Wojciech Bakun, before a throng of reporters at the local railway station, Salvini looked uncharacteristically rattled as the city leader brandished a T-shirt of Russian President Vladimir Putin in a military cap, above the slogan “Army of Russia” – the same T-shirt Salvini had proudly modelled in Red Square during a trip to Moscow in 2014.

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“I would like us to go to the border and to a refugee centre, so you can see what your friend Putin did,” Bakun told him, before Salvini walked away amid a volley of insults from those present. “No respect for you.”

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The scene encapsulated a new reality for European right-wing populists and far-right politicians, whose years of unabashed admiration for the Russian leader have become a political liability as Russia mercilessly attacks Ukraine. 

Fierce public condemnation of Russia’s actions has left prominent right-wing populist politicians like Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban squirming over their support for Putin. They have long lionised him as a strong defender of traditional European values and identity, but he’s now widely seen as an unambiguously bloodthirsty, authoritarian warmonger.

The invasion has also proved a wedge issue on the right-wing extremist fringe, exacerbating the divide within the European far-right between pro- and anti-Putin camps.

Like Przemyśl’s mayor Bakun, who told Polish media that Salvini’s trip to his city, intended to help coordinate support for refugees, was “impudent,” lots of people found Salvini’s trip galling, given his track record of demonising migrants, and years of staunch support for Putin.

Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, supported Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in 2017, called for the EU to lift sanctions on Russia in 2018, and a year later,​​ praised the Russian leader as “the best statesman currently on Earth.”

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Since the invasion of Ukraine, however, he’s been forced into a dramatic U-turn. He has condemned the military aggression, brought flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in Rome – and removed a notorious 2015 Facebook post that showed him wearing a Putin T-shirt in the European Parliament, saying he’d swap two of Italian President Sergio Mattarella for “half a Putin.”

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In France, two far-right presidential candidates in the impending elections in April have faced similar pressures. Le Pen has long been a vocal admirer of Putin, backing Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and visiting the Kremlin as part of her 2017 presidential campaign – which had been financed with a loan from a Russian bank – at the same time Russia was meddling in the French election campaign.

A photo from that visit of the two politicians shaking hands was even featured in one her campaign leaflets, prompting questions within the party over whether to scrap the million-plus copies of the pamphlet for her run at the presidency.

Le Pen’s main competitor on the far-right, the pundit turned presidential candidate Éric Zemmour has also come under scrutiny for his history of statements praising Putin, describing him in 2016 as “the last bastion” defending the traditional institutions of family, religion and nation against politically correct values emanating from the US, and lamenting two years later that he “dreamed of a French Putin, but there is none.”

Amandine Drouet, an expert in the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that both candidates’ track records of praising Putin were now being highly scrutinised in the wake of the Russian assault.

Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin meeting in Moscow in 2017. Photo: MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP via Getty Images

“The far-right in France in France is traditionally pro-Russia and pro-Putin,” she told VICE World News.

“Now the invasion is going on, that looks really bad. It reflects poorly on them.”

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READ: The US far-right has picked a side in Ukraine: ‘Lol Putin is brilliant’

Prior to the invasion, both candidates had dismissed President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to defuse tensions between Moscow and Kyiv, insisting that Putin would not invade. Since then, both have condemned the Russian aggression. Le Pen said that the war had “partly changed” her view of the Russian leader, and claimed that “the Vladimir Putin of five years ago is not exactly that of today.”

Zemmour claims to condemn Russia’s invasion “without reservation,” but also still blames the war on NATO encroachment into former Soviet territory, saying that “if Putin is guilty, the West is responsible.” In contrast with Le Pen, he’s also argued that France should not accept Ukrainian refugees.

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For that reason his popularity has taken a hit since the Russian invasion, while Le Pen’s has remained static, said Drouet. By contrast, Macron’s diplomatic efforts to stop the war have given his polls a boost.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Putin’s war has created a headache for another of his most ardent admirers. Orban, who is seeking to win another term next month as prime minister of the country he has led since 2010, has for years been one of Putin’s most reliable allies in Europe.

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In his 2014 speech outlining his vision of an “illiberal democracy,” Orban cited Putin’s Russia as a model to emulate. He’s routinely worked to hamper EU criticism and sanctions against the Kremlin, while promoting closer business and political ties with Russia.

But that relationship has now emerged as a potential liability. In a recent Euronews poll, 60 per cent of respondents said Hungary had grown too close to Russia, and that this stopped it from doing more to help Ukraine. Analysts say it’s an unexpected hurdle for Orban, who is already facing a united opposition that polls show is trailing his party by only four points.

Meanwhile, on Europe’s right-wing extremist fringe, the war is also creating tensions, exacerbating the divide between pro- and anti-Putin factions, which have fuelled a flow of far-right foreign fighters taking up arms on both sides of the conflict since 2014.

READ: How a war on the edge of Europe became a training ground for the far-right

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In Germany, the conflict has proven especially divisive, with far-right groups coming down on either side of the conflict, and some appearing split over the issue. 

“Many show solidarity with the Ukrainian people and are sharing information on how to sign up for Ukraine’s far-right Azov battalion,” said Nicholas Potter, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin.

“Others sympathise with Putin and buy into Kremlin propaganda.”

Some forces which had previously been seen as highly sympathetic to Russia.  The far-right Alternative for Germany party, which won about 10 percent of the vote in last year’s federal elections, has condemned the invasion – although some people in the party blame NATO.

READ: The ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is back

One chapter of the neo-Nazi party Die Rechte, a party which has previously had close ties to the Russian far-right, has been sharing information on how to sign up to fight for Ukraine as a foreign volunteer, and calling for donations for the volunteer battalions. 

“They appear to take Putin’s claims of ‘de-Nazification’ at face value, describing the Russian government as ‘dirty communists’,” said Potter.

Others, like the fringe neo-Nazi party NPD, blame the war on NATO alone. On the other hand, one of the party’s former officials is actively recruiting for Azov on Telegram and has made clear to his followers that anyone supporting Russia was no longer his “comrade,” Potter said.

Meanwhile, other groups, particularly those active in the anti-vax COVID conspiracist scene, which is highly influenced by QAnon, have positioned themselves as pro-Putin.

READ: Why QAnon believes Vladimir Putin is the good guy

“Most of the conspiracy believer scene… see Russia’s attack as a defence manoeuvre, and adopt the narrative of the Kremlin,” said Potter.

Tagged:

russia, Far right, Ukraine conflict, global conflict, worldnews

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