Putin has repeatedly teamed up with prominent Eurosceptic opposition figures, such as French Marine Le Pen, Italian Matteo Salvini, Dutch Geert Wilders and, perhaps most damaging to the EU, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister.
Whether that support comes through token visits to and from Moscow or through direct funding, vocal populists who speak out against the threat from Russia have played a role in Putin’s goal of dividing Europe and the world. to prevent meaningful action against a belligerent Russia.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has led many who had grown close to Putin to now seek to distance themselves from the Kremlin.
Earlier this week, far-right Italian politician Salvini, a longtime opponent of mass migration, visited Przemysl, a town in Poland that shares a border with Ukraine, supposedly to show its support for Ukraine, Poland and the refugees forced to flee their homes.
Putin’s aggressive behavior is of course nothing new. All of these political figures saw what Russia did in 2014 and still have relations with the Kremlin. What did they gain by befriending an autocrat?
Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament, explains that in recent years EU money has come with strings attached, such as obeying EU rules on human rights and freedom of expression.
“There is a very clear financial benefit to dealing with Putin, especially at a time when European money comes with issues of media freedom, human rights and corruption, which Putin doesn’t care about,” she told CNN.
However, it is more than money that many of these fringe groups see in Putin. It also represents a type of political leadership that stands in direct contrast to what many conservative Europeans see as Brussels’ liberal agenda – which they say promotes the Europe-threatening inclusivity of traditional Judeo-Christian values.
Andrius Kubilius, the former Lithuanian prime minister 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 most radical national political and social ideas. He understood very well that this is how you divide us politically, by dividing the Council European Union and the Parliament so that we cannot forcefully take unified positions against him,” Kubilius said.
These political and social ideas include things like anti-LGBT laws, undermining the independent judiciary, and cracking down on the free press.
“A lot of liberal groups in the European Parliament have a hatred of the kind of traditional conservatism they see in Russia,” said Gunnar Beck, MEP for Germany’s right-wing populist Alternative fur Deutschland party.
Speaking of his party and his partners in 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 with public money. We let’s look at Russia and see a European country where these problems haven’t gone too far, as we see.”
While Beck has said Putin’s invasion is a “clear violation of international law”, he and others like him still feel that the West’s anger at Russia’s behavior is sometimes “deeply hypocritical. ” and consider Putin an example of a leader defending his country’s position. “Heritage and values.”
In this sense, the kind words that flow from European populists to Moscow and back again fuel a particular political narrative that suits all parties.
For these eurosceptic Europeans, Putin’s Russia is a country that does not tolerate things that they believe erode the social and moral fiber of the country, such as LGBT rights and mass immigration. They see no cognitive dissonance in condemning Putin’s war while applauding his resistance to liberal and modern values.
For Putin, these European cheerleaders present an opportunity to sow disunity both in the EU and in 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,” he said. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola told CNN.
However, she feels that “the war changed everything” in a way that will “probably last for a very long time”.
“He underestimated the determination of Europe and the importance Europeans place on freedom and democracy, just as he underestimated the resilience and resilience of the Ukrainian people,” Metsola said.
It is likely that Putin’s actions made him such an outcast that Europe’s security map was changed forever. Senior European and NATO diplomats have previously told CNN that the invasion of Ukraine has moved security thinking light years ahead. Historically, it has been very difficult to get EU agreement on a foreign policy issue; now they are signing sanctions plans and increasing defense spending at a rate unthinkable just weeks ago.
Putin’s ruthless violence will also affect the domestic politics of those who previously stood by his side.
It is likely that Le Pen will be reluctant to highlight his ties to the Russian president before the French elections in April. Cseh notes that the Hungarian elections, also in April, will force Orban to walk a tightrope with his traditional voters, to whom, according to Cseh, he has been telling 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 complicated but ultimately beneficial relations with the rest of Europe.
And as war rages, it’s likely that in addition to economic pain and loss of personnel, he’ll live out the rest of his life as a persona non grata with some of the people who helped him develop his – and that of Russia – the wealth and status of a global player with which the rest of the world was willing to work.