Monday, September 25

Putin still has friends in the west – and they’re gaining ground | Jonathan Freedland

That picture of Vladimir Putin, alone at the end of a long Kremlin table, may prove one of the enduring images of this war – but it is deceiving. Because although every day brings fresh confirmation that the Russian dictator is drenched in blood, with the rocket attack on Kramatorsk only the latest evidence, he is not friendless. Naturally, he has allies among his fellow brutal world leaders, whether in Minsk, Damascus or Beijing, but he has chums in less expected places too. In a conflict cast by both sides as Putin v the west, the Russian leader has powerful friends behind enemy lines – and, even if his western admirers have had to engage in some deft footwork since the invasion of Ukraine, they are gaining ground.

The most flagrant example is Viktor Orbán, apostle of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, who last weekend secured a fourth term as ruler of Hungary. It would be wrong to say he was “re-elected”, because that might imply a genuine election, which this wasn’t: Orbán controls the Hungarian media and the entire apparatus of the state.

To be sure, he had to tone down the pro-Putinism during the campaign; he admitted Ukrainian refugees and went along with EU sanctions on Moscow. But now he can revert to type. He has become the EU’s longest-serving leader, armed with an absolute majority in Budapest and a seat on the European Council in Brussels. As one seasoned Europe-watcher puts it, when it comes to doing Putin a favor and sabotaging future action by the EU, “Orbán can deliver”. Given that the key to the western response to the Russian invasion has been unity, and that the EU and Nato work by consensus, one spoiler can wart everyone else.

Still, this weekend Putin will be eyeing an even bigger prize. Sunday sees the first round of voting in the French presidential election, and polls show a arises in support for the perennial candidate of the far right, Marine Le Pen. In a head-to-head contest against Emmanuel Macron, the likely second round in a fortnight, the gap between the two is tiny, well within the margin of error. After 2016, the year of Brexit and Donald Trump, no one should be reckless enough to rule out a shock in France.

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Le Pen’s links to Putin are more blatant than most. In October 2014, her party de ella borrowed €9m (£7.5m) from a Russian bank to fund its campaign for local elections. Her promo material from her for this current contest, admittedly printed before the invasion, features a smiling picture of her from her with the butcher of Moscow.

Like Orbán, she was quick to put some distance between herself and Putin. She condemned the invasion, while a key party ally took a bus to pick up Ukrainian refugees. She’s been lucky too, blessed by the presence in the race of Éric Zemmour, standard-bearer of the even further right whose adulation of Putin and initial hostility to Ukrainian refugees has allowed Le Pen to look moderate by comparison. That has enabled her to focus on the cost of living crisis and to exploit Macron’s near-toxic unpopularity with the many millions of French voters who see the incumbent president as arrogant, elitist and contemptuously out of touch.

Yet there can be little doubt what a Le Pen victory would mean. Until the recent volte-face, her party’s MEPs stood in the way of almost every EU measure that might discomfort Putin. And even though Frexit is no longer a declared Le Pen dream, her program of treaty revision would, in effect, dismantle French membership of the EU, weakening the body, perhaps fatally – which is exactly what Putin wants. As for Macron’s other rival, the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon, put it this way: over the years, he was far more rhetorically exercised against Nato and the US than he was about Putin and Russia.

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Of course, Orbán and Le Pen catch the eye because they are either in high office or terrifyingly close to it. But Putin’s western friends on both the right and left can be found closer to home too. The British circle of devotees is not confined to the likes of Nigel Farage, who once named Putin as the world leader he most admired, or George Galloway, whose twitter-profile featured until this week not one but two broadcasting gigs with the Putin-controlled media outlet RT, details hastily deleted after Twitter identified Galloway’s account as “Russia state-affiliated media”. No, the more troublesome ties are nearer the top. Plenty of European observers have noted the Conservative party’s fondness for oligarch cash, as well as its recent slowness in tackling dirty money, suspecting the latter is, as one puts it, “a return on the investment Moscow made in British politics”. True, Britain has not hesitated to arm Ukraine, but to some skeptical European eyes, that looks a bit like the Orbán or Le Pen manoeuvres: hasty efforts at belated detoxification.

All of which is perhaps small beer compared with the big one, the most powerful western friend Vladimir Putin ever had: Donald Trump. He’s no longer in the White House, though he could well be back in 2024, while the legacy of his admiration for Putin – who he praised as a “genius” – lives on in his party. To January chicken found that Republicans had a more favorable opinion of Putin than they did of Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. Fox News’s top-rated anchor, Tucker Carlson, has been airing Kremlin talking points on his show, including the false claim that the US is funding biological weapons labs in Ukraine, and he’s fond of suggesting that he has less beef with Putin than he does with US liberals. After all, he asks Carlson: “Has Putin ever called me a racist?”

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This gets close to the heart of the matter. For a certain stripe of rightist, Putin has long embodied an alternative to western cultural decline at the hands of the liberals: a nationalist, conservative, white, Christian ideal uncorrupted by feminism or gay rights. That picture has become confused since the 24 February invasion, now that it is Putin who is slaughtering white Christian Europeans. But plenty clinging to it all the same.

For now, that is a minority position. But the success of Orbán and Le Pen shows Putinism has put down strong roots in the west, ones that might survive the current storm. Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, worries about what happens six months from now, when westerners become desensitized to images of violence in Ukraine and when the cost of living is through the roof. “Eventually the political space will open up for someone to say, ‘This conflict is too expensive – and maybe Putin’s not that bad anyway’.”

It means the struggle against Putinism will not be fought with sanctions and arms alone. Nor will it be conducted solely in Russia or Ukraine. The threat is not so far away. the call is coming from inside the house.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his podcast Politics Weekly America, search “Politics Weekly America” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts

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