Anti-Ukraine-aid European populists back Putin

Vladimir Putin looks to be a big winner from the far-right surge in the recent European Parliament elections. Not content with only exercising control over former Soviet Union members, the Kremlin is now increasing its support across the rest of Europe.

One significant symbol of the pro-Russia swing was the decision by the far-right Alternative for Germany party (Alternative für Deutschland – AfD) to refuse to attend Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to the German Bundestag (Germany’s national parliament) on June 11, along with the populist Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. (Bündnis means alliance and Sahra Wagenknecht is the name of that party’s leader.) Both parties oppose military support for Ukraine.

The AfD, which with 16% of the vote beat Olaf Schulz’s Social Democrats party to take second place in Germany, said that Ukraine’s leader needed to “negotiate so the dying stops” even if this meant losing its territory. These remarks echo Putin’s stance on the war.

After the recent election, two far-right groups – the European Conservatives and Reformists and the Identity and Democracy group – now control 131 seats out of 720 in the chamber. AfD has another 15 representatives. This adds up to a significant parliamentary far-right power base, and one which will have more influence over Europe’s position on the Ukraine war.

Concerns about German far-right parties being too close to Putin prompted a European Parliament resolution in April stating that the AfD must publicly declare all of its financial relationships, especially with Russia.

One might think that the alliance between a supposedly anti-fascist Russian regime and the increasingly fascist right-wing parties in Europe would not be a perfect match. But Russia inspires, encourages and funds extremist actors whether they are pro-Moscow or not. Why? Because they can disrupt other countries.

Far-right threats

Putin has skilfully influenced and infiltrated agendas of far-right groups, while also building up an extensive spy network in Europe. Propaganda operations that are disguised as legitimate news sources have spewed confusing and divisive information that promotes pro-Kremlin narratives, such as the claim that the cost of living crisis is being driven by sanctions on Russian energy products.

It’s not just Germany’s far right that is sympathetic to Russia. So are far-right parties in many other European countries including Slovakia’s neo-fascist Republika, Hungary’s Fidesz party, Romania’s Alliance for the Union of Romanians Party, Bulgaria’s Revival party, and France’s Rassemblement National party. All of these parties did well in the recent European Parliamentary elections, and many of the party leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán have been vocal opponents of Russian sanctions.

As well as increasing opposition to Russian sanctions, far-right MEPs have demonstrated a pro-Russia voting record. Many far-right politicians in the European Parliament have refused to vote on policies that aim to punish or criticize Putin or Russia.

This includes stances on how to respond to repression in Russia, the imprisonment of human rights activists Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Navalny, and Russian state support of terrorism. There is also the issue of security in the Eastern Partnership initiative, which aims to strengthen the political economic relationship between the EU and partner countries in the south Caucasus.

Exploiting the European far right offers numerous benefits to Putin. These parties tend not to be committed to upholding the institutions of democracy, especially if they are seen as obstacles to enacting conservative policies, such as tougher immigration laws or curtailing LGBTQ+ rights.

The free flow of information and a vibrant civil society pose major threats to Putin’s grip on power. But Russia models policies and laws that will erode these rights. These include foreign agent laws restricting funding for NGOs and independent media. Such laws have passed in Russia, Hungary, and most recently Georgia.

The more authoritarian the world is, the less likely it is that democratic voices within Russia will be supported by other nations.

It is not just democratic countries that pose problems for Putin, but also inter-governmental institutions such as the EU, which advocate an agenda based on human rights and democracy. Putin sees a united EU and its opposition to Moscow’s illiberal vision as a threat. So he seeks to sabotage the west by weakening democratic projects within the EU.

Putin also benefits from the disarray he creates in the European national political landscapes. This could lead to a less unified NATO. The alliance is currently another major obstacle to Russia’s ambitions and has the power to increase the supply of arms to Ukraine.

New world order

Russia’s fight against the world order that the West put in place at the end of the Cold War resonates with far-right parties. They often talk of “globalist” forces, which they view as threatening to their national sovereignty and cultural identity. Putin is seen by the far right as a strong and conservative leader who can defend himself against the liberal West, which is seen as trying to undermine those values.

Russia’s move to become more right wing, authoritarian and anti-western has served as an anti-liberal role model. The far right also appears to echo Putin’s stance on “traditional” family values, which typically include men taking leadership positions and women staying at home to look after children.

Putin will be delighted to see these allies doing well in the recent election and gaining more power, which can only be helpful to him. Far-right parties held only 1% of the vote in EU member states in the 1980s, but this rose to 10% in the 2010s. Today they are poised to hold more political power than ever before.

But there are splits in the far right — one of the most divided political groups in Europe . For instance, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni is generally supportive of the sanctions on Russia and has not joined the pro-Russia faction. This contrasts with France’s far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, who has had personal and political ties with Putin, and is against arming Ukraine.

The role that these far-right parties play in the upcoming years will have serious implications for European democracy and stability. The issues facing Europe are enormous and the rise of the far right is further evidence not just of the genuine angst brewing over cost of living and identity issues, but also of Russia’s expertise in psychological and information warfare.

Natasha Lindstaedt is a professor in the Department of Government, University of Essex.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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