The far-right European pawns in Putin’s game

Dr Oliver Hartwich
4 April, 2023

It was a sight to behold. Last week, members of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) interrupted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech at the Austrian Parliament.

As Zelensky spoke about the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, members of the FPÖ stood up and left the chamber, leaving behind only placards with the slogan “Place for Peace”.

The incident is just the latest example of the support that far-right parties across Europe have shown towards Putin and his policies. While most mainstream parties and governments in Europe stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, on the fringes of the political spectrum it is an entirely different story.

Given the daily pictures of Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, its bombing of civilian targets and its documented war crimes in places like Bucha, it is hard to understand how anyone could side with Russia in this war.

But there is a congruence in the strange world-views of the European populist right and Putin’s. And there are signs that the relationship between Putin and the far right extends beyond ideology and may include financial links.

To understand why some European politicians and parties are drawn to Putin, one must consider the image Putin has created of himself. It is the image of a traditional strongman, displaying an extreme macho-version of masculinity. Nothing encapsulated this better than the propaganda pictures from about a decade ago, of Putin riding shirtless on a horse.

To his admirers, the Russian dictator is a decisive figure who champions traditional conservative family values. He also stands up to the populist right’s own enemies: the liberal, allegedly globalist, agenda of the European Union, NATO, and the World Economic Forum.

Putin’s authoritarian model consequently appeals to those disillusioned with the status quo of modern liberal democracies. They see in Putin someone who could lead the world back to a perceived “golden age” of stability and national pride.

No wonder, then, that for many years – and despite all the evidence of his evil – the European far right has been attracted to Putin like moths to a flame. Perhaps the only surprising thing is that this right-wing Putin fascination has been able to survive even the atrocities Putin’s troops are committing in Ukraine.

The FPÖ’s dedication to Putinism is particularly strong and has a long history. Its former leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, signed a “cooperation pact” with Russia’s ruling party in 2016, United Russia.

The Austrian right has been accused of receiving financial support from Russia. In 2018, a video was released showing Strache offering government contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece in exchange for campaign support. Strache resigned as vice-chancellor of Austria and party leader after the video was released.

Strache’s successor, Herbert Kickl, a former interior minister, continued the pro-Russian agenda. Regarding Crimea, Kickl stated that “Crimea has always been Russian” and that “the people there have decided to be part of Russia.”

The relationship between the FPÖ and Putin is so strong that Putin attended the wedding of Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl as a guest of honour in 2018. As a gift, he brought with him a Cossack choir, which performed a wedding song for the newly-weds. Putin also gifted €50,000 sapphire earrings to Kneissl, which Kneissl then tried to keep as a personal gift – until the Foreign Ministry claimed them for the state.

The relationship between the FPÖ and Putin is far from the normal kind of dealings between political parties across borders. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement by which the Kremlin exerts influence over one of the Austria’s largest parties. In return the FPÖ has an ideological ally prepared to help out with favours at times. Friends with benefits, so to speak.

With its support for Putin, the FPÖ is far from alone in Europe. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has gained significant popular support in recent years. Several of its members have expressed admiration for Putin, advocating for closer ties between Germany and Russia. Just as in the FPÖ’s case, the AfD’s political platform includes anti-immigrant policies and radical scepticism towards the European Union, echoing the rhetoric espoused by Putin himself.

In the Netherlands, it is the same story. There it is Thierry Baudet who leads Putin’s Dutch foot soldiers, the misleadingly named ‘Forum for Democracy.’ And, once again, there have been repeated rumours of financial links to the Kremlin. No wonder, then, that Baudet once called Putin “a friendly head of state” and expressed his hope that Russia would win the war against Ukraine. 

We could go around Europe and find the same pattern in most countries: far-right parties who share Putin’s disdain for the West, admire his leadership style, and are more than happy to be used as pawns in Putin’s game.

The rise of Putin sympathisers in European politics could have severe implications for Western democracies. These pro-Putin right-wing parties are remarkably successful. According to the latest opinion polls, the FPÖ’s is Austria’s strongest party, sitting on almost 30 percent. Germany’s AfD stands at about 15 percent. Only Thierry Baudet’s party has recently suffered in regional polls – but only because it was outperformed by yet another populist party.

The constant and loud presence of Putin sympathisers raises concerns about Europe’s resolve in supporting Ukraine, especially as the conflict could last many years to come. But for its security and stability, Europe needs a united front against Putin’s aggression. This resolve weakens with political disunity on the matter within Western Europe itself.

With their support for Putin’s authoritarian model, these parties erode the liberal democratic order on which European societies rest. This is exacerbated by Moscow’s active dissemination of anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiment through channels like Sputnik Radio and RT News, and also in less visible ways.

All these efforts aim to sow discord, weaken Western unity, and facilitate Russia’s geopolitical pursuits. And Putin’s influence on European politics only seems to have grown over the year since the invasion of Ukraine.

When the strongest party in a central European country walks out on a speech by the Ukrainian President and instead sides with the authoritarian aggressor, Europe has a problem.

And Putin will be wondering just how stupid some Europeans must be to follow such demagogues and charlatans.

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