The invasion of Ukraine is making life difficult for right-wing populists

I T WAS THE sort of crowd you might expect on Amsterdam’s Leidseplein, around the corner from the Bulldog Palace marijuana café. Several dozen demonstrators—awkward young men, middle-aged couples and ageing hippies—turned out on March 13th to support Forum for Democracy ( FvD ), a far-right populist party that thinks covid is a hoax and blames Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the West. A DJ played electronic dance music atop a trailer festooned with posters of Thierry Baudet, the FvD’ s leader, a dandyish Eurosceptic with a P h D in legal philosophy. The party has five seats in the Netherlands’ 150-seat parliament.

Soon Mr Baudet’s ally, Willem Engel, a dreadlocked salsa-dance instructor and covid-sceptic internet influencer, took the stage. “We cannot let ourselves get dragged into a war,” said Mr Engel, denouncing Dutch shipments of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine’s defenders. The media, he said, was whipping up hatred towards Russians just as the Nazis had towards Jews. (“Ach, the media”, tutted a woman in the crowd.)

Almost every Western country has groups like the FvD : nationalist-populist outfits that oppose immigration, Islam, multiculturalism, the EU and UN , gay or transgender rights and liberalism in general, and that warn of an elite globalist conspiracy. In America they are often known as the alt-right, in Europe as the identitarian right. Many have cultivated Vladimir Putin, seeing him as a Christian conservative or at least a fellow opponent of globalism. (In mid-February Mr Baudet called Mr Putin “a terrific guy who was so right about NATO aggression, the war-hungry EU , the World Economic Forum and so on”.) They often have ties to Russian-sponsored think-tanks and get help from Russian state-backed media and internet trolls.

In 2016, the year of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, history seemed to be going their way. But their fortunes since have been mixed, and the invasion of Ukraine looks like a turning-point. Outrage against Russian aggression puts those who have defended Mr Putin on the back foot. The war has energised the centrist parties with which they compete, and revived enthusiasm for liberal internationalism and the EU . Russian subsidies for think-tanks are drying up. Russian propaganda outlets such as RT and Sputnik have been expelled from some countries and kicked off platforms like YouTube. And nationalist-populist politicians have been forced to choose: find some way to excuse Mr Putin’s invasion, or condemn it and admit that they were wrong about him.

In Europe the dilemma has been most embarrassing for France’s Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, and for Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Mr Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League party, praised Mr Putin in 2019 as “one of the best men in government in the world”. He has tried to redeem himself by supporting Ukrainian refugees, but has failed to condemn the Russian invasion explicitly. On a visit to the Polish border town of Przemysl on March 8th he was humiliated by the mayor, who presented him with a T -shirt featuring Mr Putin—similar to one Mr Salvini wore smilingly in a photo on Red Square in 2014 (see picture: Mr Salvini is on the right).

Ms Le Pen, who argued that the West should acquiesce to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and took a €9m ($12m) campaign loan from a Russian bank in 2014, contests a presidential election on April 10th and 24th. The press has grilled her over a campaign pamphlet which features a photo of her shaking hands with Mr Putin. She has condemned Russia’s invasion, and admits it changed her view of the Russian president, whom she now calls an “authoritarian”. That seems to have been, electorally, the right move: Ms Le Pen has remained steady in the polls at about 17%. Mr Zemmour, her farther-right rival, blames the war partly on NATO . His support has dropped abruptly since the invasion, from 15% to 12%. The invasion has bolstered the chances of the incumbent, President Emmanuel Macron. (He is overwhelmingly likely to win, according to The Economist’s forecasting model.)

Germany’s Alternative for Germany ( AfD ) party faces an even thornier problem. Its base is in the former East Germany, where voters are more sympathetic to Russia than in the country’s west. It also draws votes from ethnic Germans who lived in the Soviet Union and came to Germany after its collapse. Most speak Russian and watch Russian state media. Alice Weidel, the leader of the A f D ’s mp s, has tried to equivocate, blaming Russia for invading but also the West for suggesting Ukraine could join NATO . She has looked miserably uncomfortable making the argument.

For Mr Putin’s right-wing friends in western Europe the war is mainly a political problem. For those in central and eastern Europe it is often a practical one: Russia does economic favours for them. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s president, is a nationalist-populist who, like Mr Putin, claims to defend Christian Europe against a global liberal conspiracy. His takeover of Hungary’s courts and media is sometimes described as a soft version of Putinism, and he tried to restrain EU sanctions after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014. Mr Orban’s friendliness towards Mr Putin has secured Hungary discounts on Russian gas and billions of dollars’ worth of loans in a deal to upgrade its Soviet-built nuclear power plant. This, not ideology, is the main reason Mr Orban now opposes EU sanctions on Russian energy, thinks Anton Bendarzsevszkij of the Danube Institute, a government-linked think-tank in Budapest.

In the Balkans, too, Russia’s ties are deep. Serbia has received Russian backing since the Kosovo war of 1999. It has a hard-right populist government that resembles Mr Putin’s and signed a deal last year for cheap Russian gas. It has refused to implement sanctions, and its state media repeat baseless Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of genocide against Russian-speakers. This is a matter of old grudges, says Nermina Kuloglija, a journalist in Sarajevo: nationalists who never accepted that Serbs committed genocide against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s embrace Russian claims in order to “accuse the West of double standards”. But choosing the Russian side in the conflict could wreck Serbia’s dormant application for EU membership.

As for Mr Putin’s apologists across the ocean, the war in Ukraine has been a political mess. Mr Trump, who was bizarrely deferential towards the Russian leader during his presidency, at first called his recognition of the independence of the Donbas on February 22nd “genius”. That was not well received even by Mr Trump’s fans. He has gradually altered his tone since the invasion, but still praises Mr Putin as “smart”.

In parts of America’s populist right this still plays well. At a meeting of the far-right America First Political Action Committee on February 26th the crowd chanted Mr Putin’s name. Alt-right influencers such as Tucker Carlson, a TV host, Candace Owens, a podcaster, and Madison Cawthorn, a freshman Republican congressman, have deflected blame for the war away from Mr Putin and questioned America’s arms deliveries to Ukraine. Some use Twitter to celebrate the prowess of Russian military technology, or amplify Kremlin propaganda about rising anti-Russian “racism” in the West.

But that pits them against most of the right. Republican voters blame the war on Russia just as much as Democrats do, according to several polls this month; they criticise Joe Biden mainly for not giving Ukraine enough weapons. Conservative Republicans are more likely than moderate ones to want to do more for Ukraine. By equivocating over the war, the populists are lending confidence to Republican politicians who have cautiously begun to challenge Mr Trump’s dominance.

End of an era

For some nationalist-populists, the war in Ukraine is merely a manageable headache. Mr Orban has stopped boasting of his good relations with Mr Putin and reluctantly accepted EU sanctions. With an election coming up on April 3rd, he is campaigning on keeping Hungary out of the war, saying the country must resist being used as a “piece on a chessboard” by the great powers. He has near-total control of Hungary’s media, so his message seems to be working. Spain’s Vox party quickly condemned Russia’s invasion, proclaimed it was eager to welcome Ukrainian refugees (as opposed to Muslim ones) and attacked the governing left-wing coalition as the real friends of Mr Putin.

For others the war is far afield. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s populist president, has not suffered much from the odd decision to make his first-ever visit to Moscow in mid-February. He now wants to use sanctions on Russia as an excuse to relax rules on mining. Populists who were adamantly anti-Russian from the start, such as Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, have done fine, too. Indeed, they may benefit from wartime solidarity: the EU is expected to relax its punishment of Poland over the government’s attempt to take over the courts.

But Mr Putin’s invasion has probably put an end to the vision of a global alt-right, with himself among its leaders. Half a decade ago, Americans were worrying that the online propaganda that won Mr Trump the election had been hatched in troll factories in St Petersburg. Western conservative Christians were staging conferences with groups from the state-backed Russian Orthodox Church to fume against “gender ideology”. The idea of a unified nationalist-populist movement against Western liberalism, stretching from Moscow via Budapest to Washington, seemed worryingly plausible.

Now it looks fanciful and out-of date. The great majority of American and European conservatives have been horrified by the invasion. Crippled by sanctions, Russia lacks the means to continue its support for the international identitarian right. It had already cut back before the war: Russian-backed think-tanks have been dormant for years. “There were so many meetings and congresses, but they never came up with anything that would unite them,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on Russia and the far right at the Free Russia Foundation.

As for Mr Baudet’s FvD , it is isolated. The Netherlands’ other nationalist-populist parties have all condemned Russia’s invasion. Curiously, the FvD was founded, in the far-right’s banner year of 2016, to promote a Dutch referendum against Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU . It had already begun to splinter in late 2020: three MPs defected over suspicions that Mr Baudet was becoming a fascist. Of course, the FvD ’s adherents have an explanation for that split, too. “There was a coup in the party,” says Mr Engel, directed by agents of the Dutch secret service. It is, he says, part of the military-industrial complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned of. It’s all part of the script. ■

Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis