Rosa Balfour / Mar 2022
Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian far right populist party Lega, was humiliated by the mayor of Przemys, a town on the border of Poland and Ukraine, for his volte-face on his friendship with Vladimir Putin. (https://twitter.com/marcobreso/status/1501201298762485761). Salvini was trying to express solidarity with the Ukrainian refugees and condemn the Russian invasion. But his track record of admiration for Putin as a strong man and closeness with Putin’s United Russia party, as well as of demonizing refugees and migrants and instigating xenophobia, made his U-turn hard to stomach.
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, populists around Europe are having to eat their words and retract positions of being Putin- or Russia-friendly. Like Salvini, three of the five French presidential candidates—Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Eric Zemmour, and Marine Le Pen—have had to distance themselves from their pasts, making it all the more likely that Emmanuel Macron will win the elections. Elsewhere, populists are scrambling to revise their positions, trying to stay out of the limelight, or mumbling confused thoughts about peace. A few remain ambivalent.
Until recently, such pro-Russia stances were widespread in Europe, with the exception of in Poland and the Baltic states. They cut across the left-right divide, with the left viewing Russia through the lens of anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments, and the right through admiration for Putin’s strongman politics and public persona. In 2019, of the 36 populist parties standing for the European Parliament elections, 18 had positive views of relations with Russia/Putin. This has contributed to the spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, as well as the strengthening of the Kremlin’s influence in public debates in Europe.
But these populist positions would not have percolated to mainstream media and politics in the larger member states had there not been a backdrop of longstanding, favourable perceptions of and relations with Russia. That Europe is dependent on Russian energy is now known to all;less acknowledged is that the most vocal critics of Russia—Poland and the Baltic states—are almost entirely dependent on Russian gas. Some companies that have influence on European governments have important business ties in Russia. Quite a number of politicians sat on boards of Russian companies;many of them have had to resign in the wake of the war against Ukraine. But the history of positive relations with Russia goes beyond vested interests. Germany’s attachment to Ostpolitik has outlived the policy’s original intent and philosophy. Throughout Europe, many meaningful ties were also built across the Iron Curtain.
An examination of how the EU built its foreign policy toward Ukraine, Eastern Europe, and the Southern Caucasus since the break-up of the Soviet Union reveals that the region has always been second to Russia. As the then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder put it, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution would not distract him from his main aim of establishing a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia.’
As such, the fact that Ukraine and the other countries between the EU and Russia managed to gain enough support to design the EaP back in 2009 was thanks to: their own assiduous knocking on the EU’s door; to the uprisings and revolutions that many of them underwent in the name of democracy and the values the EU promised to uphold; and to the entrepreneurship of countries such as Poland and Sweden. Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Madrid certainly never prioritised Eastern Europe over Russia. Russian military interventions and interference in some of these countries did not warrant a stronger pushback from the EU; quite the contrary, for fear of upsetting the Kremlin.
It comes as no surprise therefore that favourable views of Putin had a wider base than the populist parties that supported him. In 2021, 22% of Europeans thought that Putin would do ‘the right thing’ in world affairs, according to Pew Research. While that percentage had declined since the occupation of Crimea, it still represented one-fifth of the European public, with peaks of 55% in Greece, 36% in Italy, and 27 and 26% respectively in Germany and France (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/06/14/few-across-17-advanced-economies-have-confidence-in-putin/).
Putin squandered this more mainstream support that he had enjoyed for the past couple of decades overnight on 24 February. This will not come back, regardless of the outcome of the war against Ukraine, so long as he is in charge in Russia. His choice has triggered a strategic shift in Europe (https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/86587). Public opinion too has shifted, and mainstream media is bringing ambiguous or ambivalent narratives about Russia to an end.
But how it will play out with the populists is to be seen. More importantly, the populists-turned-authoritarians need to be closely observed. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary, has been pulling back some of his rhetoric and positions but government-controlled media are still pushing pro-Russian news.
Also, Orbán has been the populist-turned authoritarian leader who has most successfully turned the opportunism of populism into an ideology that sits well with Putin’s: authoritarian, conservative, religious, patriarchical, and anti-gender. This world view resonates with many Europeans too.
As a NATO and EU member, Orbán may not be able to continue his balancing act. With elections fast approaching—and a united opposition challenging for the first time—it is to be seen how the Russia story will play out in Hungary and the rest of Europe.
 Rosa Balfour et. al (2019), DIVIDE AND OBSTRUCT: POPULIST PARTIES AND EU FOREIGN POLICY, GMF Policy Paper No. 13, Divide and Obstruct: Populist Parties and EU Foreign Policy | Strengthening Transatlantic Cooperation (gmfus.org).
 Bertrand Benoit, ‘Schröder and Putin’s cosy “relationship under scrutiny’, Financial Times, 2 December 2004.