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A woman holds up a poster showing Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump.
EPA-EFE/Yuri Kochetkov

Ukraine: will Putin’s war alienate his many admirers on Europe’s far right?

A key moment in the final French presidential debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, before the recent election, was when Macron attacked his challenger on her links to Russia. “You cannot defend the interests of France,” he said, adding: “When you speak to Russia … you are talking to your banker.” He was referring to a 2014 campaign loan Le Pen took from a bank seemingly linked to Russia’s leadership.

Le Pen forcefully defended her independence and patriotism, but her link to Vladimir Putin’s Russia was clearly a vulnerability against the backdrop of the invasion of Ukraine. While Le Pen condemned Russia’s actions, she opposed energy sanctions. And there was no way she could hide from her campaign literature, which carried a smiling 2017 photograph of herself with Putin, or her manifesto commitment to end military dependency on the US and form “an alliance with Russia”.

It is not just Le Pen who has taken such a pro-Russian stance. Politicians across the European radical right have shown striking warmth for Putin’s Russia over the years. Will this change due to the war in Ukraine?

The attraction of Putin may seem puzzling. Why would radical right politicians that proudly claim to put their own nation first, be drawn to an aggressive geopolitical rival that threatens their nation’s sovereignty and security? The answer is not simply a desire for practical assistance like campaign financing, or online election interference of the kind that helped Donald Trump win the US presidency in 2016.

In 2020, I interviewed several elected representatives from Rassemblement National in France and Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany about international politics, including their attitudes towards Russia. They all called for a warmer approach towards Moscow. But they revealed a spectrum of ideological and practical reasons that varied according to personal world views and national contexts.

Some have a deeply ideological mindset, believing in a western liberal conspiracy to dissolve nations or mix races, threatening the very existence of the ethnocultural identities they hold dear. One AfD representative told me that Germany’s leaders had been “brainwashed” by too much time in the US, a country many saw as a source of lies and propaganda. For them, Putin’s Russia is seen as a like-minded ally against a corrupt global system. Russia is ideologically kin, being committed to the preservation of distinct ethnocultural nations. It is civilisationally kin, a European Christian nation that confronts both secular liberalism and Islamist extremism. And it’s a practical ally which challenges the EU and US vision of internationalism or “globalism”.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, shakes hands with Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in Budapest, 2019.
Likeminded leaders: Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, with Vladimir Putin in 2019. EPA-EFE/Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Putin also appeals as an archetype of strong leadership – apparently able to channel the will of the Russian people and act decisively and unashamedly in the national interest, unencumbered by commitments to multilateral institutions or internationalist values.

Historical visions

Some draw on historical national icons to bolster their stance. In the French case, they may recall De Gaulle’s quest for a more balanced posture between the US and the Soviet Union, and his vision of a Europe “from the Atlantic to the Urals”.

In Germany, there is also a strong foreign-policy tradition rooted in the cold war that seeks to overcome division in Europe through better relations with Russia. But AfD representatives I interviewed reach back further. For them, Bismarck – the architect of a mighty German nation state – is an icon. The very first AfD foreign policy platform in 2013 called repeatedly for reviving Bismarck’s 19th-century alliance with Russia.

But these politicians are not identical in their thinking. Some were closer to the mainstream right, feeling there is still some relevance in a sense of kinship with western democracies, including the US. Their attitudes towards Russia were framed more in terms of a “national interest” agenda to reduce tensions and be more realist, independent and balanced in relations with the great powers.

Some AfD representatives expressed open incredulity at the extent of their own colleagues’ loyalty to Russia’s agenda, particularly those who grew up in the former Soviet bloc member, East Germany. One expressed bemusement that “the people from Eastern Germany, who suffered 40 years from communism … have the best view of Russia. It’s like Stockholm syndrome.”

French presidential candidate and far-right Front National political party leader Marine Le Pen (L) speaks during a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow,  March 2017.
Common ground: Marine Le Pen visits Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin before her presidential run in 2017. EPA/Michael Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

What none would acknowledge is the potential motivation of practical support that Putin or his allies provides to his western sympathisers.

The Ukraine factor

Will recent events force radical right parties to reevaluate their attitudes towards Putin’s Russia? Since there is a range of world views within and between these parties, there is unlikely to be one answer. In the AfD, for example, a party riven with internal division through its short history, the conflict is reportedly a source of internal discord.

Certainly, there will be those focused on their election prospects who will, as Le Pen did, seek to distance themselves from Putin’s military aggression. It’s one thing to justify Russia’s actions when its air force is flattening Syrian cities in the name of a war against Islamist extremism. It’s another when the victims are Christian Europeans. But Le Pen made no attempt in her campaign to reverse her general approach, calling for strategic rapprochement with Russia once the war in Ukraine is over.

The electoral liability seems, in any case, limited. Foreign policy does not tend to determine voting choices. The grievances that have drawn voters to the radical right relate to domestic cultural and economic effects of globalisation. In opposing energy sanctions, Le Pen used the international crisis to pivot to a more opportune domestic issue: the cost of living. Le Pen’s 41.5% was well short of victory, but a major advance on her performance in 2017. Nor did the warmth shown towards Putin by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, prevent him being reelected with an outright majority at the beginning of April.

It seems that Russia and its regime are likely to retain its attraction as an irreplaceable pole for those in the west resistant to the dominant liberal internationalist agenda and US dependency, longing for a world of bordered and ethnically uniform nation states.

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