Putin doesn’t need to defeat Ukraine to destroy Europe. The far right is doing that for him.
Emmanuel Macron may have defeated far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential election, but Le Pen’s party’s dominance is far from gone. Despite her disturbing, hate-fueled politics, and worrying dealings with Moscow, she still won 41.2% of voters.
Months after the full brutality of the Ukraine war became clear, the lesson could not be starker: The far-right is increasingly being tied to Russia and rewarded for it. And if the West does not respond substantively to the ugly alliance growing between Moscow and Western radicals, we could win the battle for Ukraine, yet still lose the war for the free world.
Indeed, Putin’s influence on Western far-right leaders is coming under intense scrutiny. A dense web of ultraconservative Russian sympathizers extends as far afield as Hungary, Germany, Italy, and the US.
This is exemplified by members of Italy’s Lega party or Austria’s Freedom Party, who hail him as “a true patriot” and “defender of European values”, one who embodies their overarching combination of Euroscepticism, moral conservatism, and military might.
And with this love affair comes a cash mill.
Marine Le Pen’s National Rally took a multimillion-euro loan from a Russian-affiliated bank (with deeply problematic relationships). Meanwhile, in Germany and Austria, Russia has recruited high-profile former politicians “to work for major Russian companies.”
These companies are not independent actors, either: They owe their prosperity to Putin.
More extreme than even these instances, Austria’s sitting government collapsed after a leaked tape revealed “shady deals” with Russian oligarchs. A similar scandal erupted after a leaked tape proved Italian Lega officials sought tens of millions in funding from Moscow as well.
If such malfeasance can happen in Italy, Germany, and Austria, how much more of it occurs elsewhere in the West, which media cannot or has not yet uncovered?
While the West’s appropriately forceful response to the war on Ukraine has rightly targeted Russia’s economy, undermining Russia’s immediate capabilities while also preventing Moscow from engaging in further criminal military adventures, there are more directions we must move in.
First, our sanctions must grow to obstruct direct and indirect forms of Russian support for anti-democratic forces in the West. Such support is inseparable from the war in Ukraine—and should be treated as such.
This would mean blocking all financial forms of interference in our democracies, as well as the rampant coordinated online misinformation campaigns Russia repeatedly launches alongside more traditional forms of political interference.
Last year, for example, a network of elite Russian oligarchs, political theorists, and their allies discussed sponsoring a network of elected European officials sympathetic to Moscow, including dozens of members of the European Parliament.
Their model appeared to be the Soviet Comintern, which the USSR used to “recruit foreigners” and “foment coups abroad.” Such blatant interference is not hypothetical or potential: It builds on serious meddling in Western elections, from the United States to Bosnia and Poland.
Indeed, Russia has also provoked discord in North Macedonia, appears to have instigated a (failed) coup in Montenegro, and most recently taken to threatening Finland and Sweden.
But beyond the financial and political strings Moscow pulls, the Kremlin has a long history of meddling with Western society through the powering of alt and far right narratives. Something even more evident since the invasion of Ukraine.
In the United States, various high-profile pundits, like wildly-popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, are reiterating increasingly popular sentiments that Putin is only invading its neighbor to ‘protect Russia’s borders,’ echoing long-held narratives of xenophobia central to far-right ideology.
Russia’s notorious online influence, which has long radicalized fringe demographics against minority communities, is now targeting a new generation of far-right Kremlin sympathizers, creating dangerous snowball effects throughout Western society.
One famous example is of course what happened to Muslim communities in the lead up to Brexit, when Russian state actors fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment through fake tweets and posts successfully stoking division throughout the UK. The same also happened with the election of Donald Trump, which disenfranchised black voters while stoking anti-immigrant rhetoric amongst conservatives.
There are two ways we can respond in the short term. The first is to support brave journalists who risk their lives to support the truth, both in Ukraine and elsewhere. This week, a special Pulitzer Prize was given to journalists in Ukraine in recognition of this, though other Pulitzers were given for coverage of the Capitol Hill attacks, election disinformation, and more.
The close elections in France and Germany are proof that Russia’s far-right backing is already influencing seismic change throughout the European political landscape. And as the steep, consistent trajectory of the far-right grows, so too does the narratives of Russian apologists and Moscow’s influence on Western stability.
So long as democratic politicians have to contend with swathes of their population which remain tempted by the far-right agenda, Russia’s expansionist agenda will continue to play out through growing social and political unrest.
Ultimately, war between the West and Moscow has already seeped into our cities. And it is this internal struggle – between fascism and democracy, between hate and unity – that lies at the heart of deepening fault lines in the West.
About the author: Manuel Matos dos Santos was recently a civil society delegate at the annual NATO Summit in Brussels as the Secretary General of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association (YATA) International, which educates and promotes cooperation amongst youth (a high at-risk group for far-right radicalization) across 30 NATO member and partner states. He promotes NATO’s values reflected on the primacy of Freedom, Democracy, Pluralism and Collective Defense. He is also serves as a Board Member for the Portuguese Atlantic Council.
In 2019, Manuel was also nominated to the Presidency of YATA Portugal under the commitment of “Promoting Diplomacy through Transatlantic Values”. Manuel also has professional career as a Community Manager at Closer Consulting, a Data Science company specialized in Business Intelligence, Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence, approaching technological themes related to many of NATO’s security topics.