The Russia-Ukraine war put Europe’s far right on the back foot

But ‘mainstream’ politicians should also be pressured to explain why they supported Putin’s regime for so long.

Le Pen and Putin shake hands before a meeting in Moscow in 2017
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they pose for a photograph before their meeting in Moscow, Russia on March 24, 2017 [File: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images]

Today, Europe is experiencing its darkest hour since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine put the continent’s future in serious jeopardy. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s exclusionary nationalism and imperial designs are now posing an immediate threat to the safety and wellbeing of not only those living in ex-Soviet nations in Russia’s vicinity but all Europeans.

Since the beginning of Moscow’s so-called “special operation” in Ukraine on February 24, it feels like Europe has had nothing but bad news: thousands of desperate refugees rushing towards borders to find safety in neighbouring nations, indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, children sheltering in tube stations and basements, even an attack on a maternity hospital.

But amid all this doom and gloom, there has also been a development that gave democratic-minded Europeans some hope for the future: the continent’s many far-right politicians, who have long been publicly singing the praises of Putin and his nationalism, entered into a scramble to quickly distance themselves from the Russian leader.

French far-right leader and presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s party has reportedly destroyed more than a million campaign leaflets featuring a photograph of her with Putin. While Le Pen did not go as far as to publicly call Putin a dictator, she had to admit that his invasion of Ukraine was “a clear violation of international law and absolutely indefensible”.

And Le Pen’s past support for Putin – and alleged financial ties to the Kremlin – swiftly turned into a political Achilles heel as images of European misery and death caused by the Russian leader filled TV screens across the continent.

In early March, for example, the leader of Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party Enrico Letta scolded Le Pen at a televised debate saying, “Your friends were Trump and Putin, one attacked the Capitol, the other bombed Ukraine. Your foreign policy is a failure.” The rebuke swiftly went viral on social media, showing the difficult position Europe’s Putin-loving far-right politicians found themselves in after the invasion of Ukraine.

Le Pen, however, still managed to assume a contrarian stance on the European response to Putin’s aggression. While admitting that the invasion “partially changed her opinion of Putin”, she criticised the crippling sanctions the European Union imposed on Russia and claimed that they will “hurt French people’s spending power”.

“I don’t want gas prices to rise eightfold and oil prices to double. I don’t want the French to commit hara-kiri,” she said at a televised presidential debate, warning that the economic consequences of the war could be “a hundred times worse than the pandemic”.

This “economy above all else” stance resonated with her supporters, and allowed her to endure the massive wave of criticism she faced after the invasion of Ukraine.

The leader of Italy’s far-right League Party, Matteo Salvini, tried to approach his newfound “Putin problem” in a similar way. He spoke against Russia’s aggression, but refrained from labelling Putin – who he publicly supported for years – “a dictator”. When asked whether he would condemn the Russian leader, he merely said: “Certainly, it’s obvious, we condemn the war, anyone would condemn the war and the aggression.”

And like Le Pen, he also spoke against sanctions and said he believes any restrictions directed against Russia will also be harmful to Italian businesses.

Taking his damage control efforts much further than his French counterpart, Salvini also made a visit to the Polish city of Przemysl to demonstrate his support for Ukrainian refugees there. Of course, as someone who has at least twice worn a T-shirt with Putin’s face on it in public, Salvini’s stunt in Poland was not welcomed by the local population.

“I have a gift for you,” Przemysl’s Mayor Wojciech Bakun told Salvini in front of cameras. “We’d like to go with you to the border and to a refugee welcome centre to see what your friend Putin has done, what the person whom you describe as your friend, has done to these people, who are crossing the border to the tune of 50,000 per day.” He then pulled out a T-shirt printed with a black-and-white image of Putin on the front and the words “Army of Putin” underneath – a copy of a T-shirt Salvini was photographed wearing in 2014 in Moscow’s Red Square.

The Italian leader could do nothing other than walk away.

All in all, Putin’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine had the unintended consequence of putting Europe’s far-right superstars on the back foot. While it is not possible to say they abandoned Putin as a role model completely (another French far-right presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour, for example, still stubbornly defends Putin despite condemning the invasion), they had to accept his brand of exclusionary nationalism leads to nothing but misery and destruction.

Anyone longing for a democratic, inclusive and peaceful Europe should count this as a win at a time when even the smallest of such victories are few and far between.

But we should also never forget that Putin’s supporters and enablers in Europe were not only far-right agitators like Le Pen and Salvini. Many so-called “moderate” politicians also had strong ties and good relations with the Russian autocrat.

Countless former Western MPs and ministers have been sitting on the boards of and offering consultancy services to Russian firms – including former prime ministers of Finland, Italy and Austria. Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi expressed his admiration for Putin regularly over the years. Germany’s former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder too always had a close relationship with him. The former German leader, who is currently mediating to stop the war, has been widely criticised for refusing to abandon the seats he holds on the boards of Russian energy companies after the invasion of Ukraine.

In the United Kingdom and France, too many “mainstream” politicians have strong financial and political links to Putin’s Russia and as a result, have been soft on the Kremlin’s actions falling foul of local and international laws over the years.

Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who in the past few weeks emerged as one of Ukraine’s leading European allies in its war against Russia, is being criticised for his close relations with Moscow’s known operatives, and the donations his Conservative Party received from oligarchs with strong links to Putin.

Now, as far-right leaders across Europe are being forced to abandon their autocratic and nationalist role model, and being forced to explain why they supported him for so long, similar pressures should be put on “mainstream” politicians who also worked to whitewash Putin and his undemocratic regime for years.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.