How Putin is turning Europe’s populists into his henchmen

In early May, the Russian ambassador to Germany held an event in honor of the Soviet victory in World War II. Guests at the embassy, ​​a Stalin-era building that occupies more space than the nearby parliament building, included numerous dignitaries. The last leader of communist East Germany, Egon Krenz, now 86, chatted under the chandeliers with Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor of reunified Germany from 1998 to 2005 (and more recently a lobbyist for Russian energy companies). Tino Chrupalla, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a part-right far-right party, wore a tie in the colors of the Russian Federation.

The event was a little mocked in the German press, but otherwise hardly noticed. Seventeen months after Russia’s war on Ukraine, public opinion here, as across Europe, overwhelmingly sees Russia as an aggressor to be avoided and Ukraine as a defender who deserves help. Regardless of their influence in the past, the various promoters of Russian influence have weakened today.

Schröder was banned from many places in Moscow because of his connections

Schroeder, for example, was chairman of the board of directors of the now-defunct Nord Stream pipelines, which connected Germany to Russian gas. Last summer, Russia blocked the pipelines, which were then blown up by mysterious saboteurs.

The ex-chancellor has been banned from associations, banned from events organized by his social democratic party (although he remains a party member) and no longer given office space by the government. As for Chrupalla, the AfD leader’s sympathy with Russia hasn’t just angered the German tabloids. Leaked news revealed the dismay among MPs from his own party.

But while Russia’s attempt at influencing Europe hasn’t entirely succeeded, it hasn’t entirely failed either. Away from the mainstream lives a subculture of “Putinverstehern”—sympathizers who “understand” Russian President Vladimir Putin—as Germans call them. Across Europe, their rant runs like a thread through laments about seemingly unrelated problems such as inflation, crumbling public services, over-regulation and fears of immigration.

Large spectrum of useful idiots of Europe

Warners have only just begun to question the extent of their governments’ generosity to Ukraine, which by February this year amounted to more than 60 billion euros ($65 billion) in economic and military aid from Brussels and each EU -members (and 70 billion euros if the UK is included, a sum roughly equal to the American contribution). But if the fight in Ukraine drags on too long or goes awry, many are ready to blame.

The spectrum of Europe’s useful idiots, a Cold War term for unsuspecting communist allies, is wide. In politics, the far-right and far-left parties are at odds on many issues, but in Ukraine these extremes have often converged in demands for an immediate “peace” that would effectively reward the Russian offensive with land.

Intellectuals in the media and academia still seem willing to ignore the evidence of Russia’s imperial intentions and drift into crime, instead lamenting European involvement in what they call a proxy war between America and Russia or, perhaps even more grandiosely speculated, between America and China. And in the business world, despite the numerous rounds of Western sanctions, Russia still has many “friends”.

European governments are among Putin’s henchmen

Putin’s henchmen include several European governments. Viktor Orban, who has been Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, is the best known. The populist strongman has repeatedly criticized Western support for Ukraine and continued Hungary’s imports of Russian gas. His government also refuses to allow transit of arms provided by Hungary’s NATO and EU members to Ukraine. Neighboring Austria has also largely stayed out of the fray. Citing its non-NATO membership and its self-proclaimed role as a bridge between East and West, it offers little aid to Ukraine while its trade with Russia has surged.

Greece, another EU member, is abiding by EU sanctions but has refused to further tighten sanctions on shipments of Russian oil, perhaps because Greek companies happen to make so much money from the trade. Only recently, under intense American pressure, Cyprus, an offshore financial haven, closed some 4,000 local Russian bank accounts. Non-EU countries like Turkey and Serbia, which are under less pressure, don’t even bother to disguise the lucrative services they offer to Russia through the back door.

Putin-friendly laws

Some countries have turned seemingly lofty intentions into policies that make Putin’s heart beat faster. Citing its vaunted neutrality, Switzerland has used obscure local laws to block arms shipments to Ukraine, including 96 mothballed Leopard tanks stored in Italy that happen to belong to a private Swiss company.

The Swedish police have authorized the public burning of the Koran. This has not only greatly angered Muslim-majority Turkey, which has vetoed Sweden’s bid to join NATO. Putin himself taunted the Swedes. On a trip to Dagestan ahead of the Sugar Festival at the end of June, Putin was filmed tenderly holding a Koran while declaring that desecrating sacred objects is a crime under Russian law.

Support for Ukraine begins to crumble

But even solid-looking building blocks in the supposed European wall of support for Ukraine appear to be crumbling. Slovakia, for example, has been a key partner for Western aid and recently pledged its fleet of 13 Soviet-era Mig-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force. But polls show that the party of Robert Fico, a pro-Russian leftist who has blamed the “Ukrainian fascists” for provoking Putin, is likely to win national elections scheduled for September.

France is an important partner of NATO and the EU. But a French parliamentary body recently criticized Marine Le Pen, President Emmanuel Macron’s closest challenger in last year’s election, for repeating Russian propaganda following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Le Pen vehemently denies that her defense of Putin has anything to do with the €9 million loan her party received from Russian-controlled banks that year. She has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but last October, seven months into the war, she declared that sanctions against Russia are not working.

In Italy, while right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is a staunch supporter of Ukraine, Matteo Salvini, who leads the second-largest party in her coalition, is another sanctions opponent and was an outspoken supporter of Putin, at least until the invasion.

Germany, like France, seems to be a strong support. But the AfD, which has been bluntly described by the head of the domestic intelligence service as an advocate of Russian narratives, has risen sharply in voter favor polls. It is now tied with the ruling Social Democrats in second place. At the other end of the political scale is Sahra Wagenknecht, a telegenic leftist and peace activist who, according to polling institutes, could win over 19-30% of German voters. Although public support for aid to Ukraine remains high, the trend is downward.

Comparison of the Russian invasion with the western past

The theses of the useful idiots are amazingly persistent. Their main arguments – that NATO “provoked” Russia’s repeated attacks on and subsequent invasions of Ukraine, that Ukraine is an artificial entity built on land rightfully owned by Russia, and that America is happily drinking oil pour into that fire to sell arms and maintain its global hegemony – are echoed in various ways.

One is what the Italians call “benaltrismo” or “whataboutery”: NATO attacked Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, and America invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, so what’s wrong with Russia misbehaving? Another variant is “dietrismo”, the idea that there must be an “insider” story behind the events: the German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck writes in the “New Left Review” that the hidden purpose of the crisis is to create the conditions for it to manage to place a fearful EU under the rule of a pumped-up NATO.

Anti-Americanism connects Putin henchmen

However, what seems to unite the extreme right, the extreme left and the “intellectual” opposition to Western politics in Europe is something simpler. It’s an age-old Cold War-style anti-Americanism. East German-born Chrupalla, for example, claims that Americans benefited from the war in Ukraine by forcing Germany to switch from pipelined Russian natural gas to more expensive American-made liquid gas. However, this is a trap because imported American energy is so much more expensive that German manufacturers have to shift their production to America. Sahra Wagenknecht, his left-wing rival, believes America forced the war on Russia by trying to draw Ukraine into its “sphere of influence.”

At a recent political rally near Berlin, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, was insulted by a chorus of forceful pacifists, calling them “warmongers.” Scholz, otherwise so polite, taciturn and imperturbable, yelled back into the microphone that it was Putin who wanted to destroy and conquer Ukraine. “If you loudmouths had any brains, you would recognize the true warmonger!”

Hank Peter

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