The right-wing surge in Europe: What does it mean for Ukraine?

3 mins read

It is no secret that populist radical right parties have always held a welcoming stance towards Russia. While some radical right parties have taken a more critical stance towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, some are still reluctant to take a harsh stance. For example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary is still among the most notorious Russophiles in Europe. Therefore, the Hungarian right-wing government’s affection towards Russia raises suspicion that the right-wing surge in recent European elections could lead to a possible foreign policy shift in Europe’s support for Ukraine. 

Populist radical right parties are usually known for their hostile stances towards immigration. However, they also tend to have a different foreign policy view than most centrist parties, usually criticising the EU, and NATO. Populist radical right parties and their supporters have historically held a positive outlook on Russia, and praise for its leader Vladimir Putin. Thus, the recent right-wing surge in Europe might be good news for Putin, and bad news for Ukraine. 

Although recent research says that favorability towards Russia has dropped among supporters of populist radical right parties, these parties still are among the most pro-Russian in Europe. The anti-establishment attitude of Europe’s populist radical right and the Euroscepticism of Putin’s Russia make them the perfect friends.

The radical right has seen electoral success in multiple European countries since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most recently, the Sweden Democrats (SD) have become the second largest party in the Swedish parliament and the Brothers of Italy (Fdl) have won the Italian general election. Discussions relating to the right-wing surge in recent European elections have mostly focused on their domestic policies. But what does it mean for Ukraine?

Brothers of Italy, the winners of the Italian general election, have only recently adopted a pro-Ukraine stance. The party’s leader and the new Prime Minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, used to be friendly with the Kremlin until the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ignoring the political repression of the Russian opposition, Meloni praised Putin’s 2018 ‘reelection’ as the ‘will of the people’. Furthermore, she demanded EU sanctions against Russia that were introduced in wake of the annexation of Crimea to be revoked

While Meloni has pledged to support Ukraine with arms, and has proven her party’s solidarity with Ukraine, the same cannot be said about the centre-right coalition partners (as misleading as it gets, the coalition is more right-wing than centre on the spectrum). The other two coalition parties, Forza Italia and Lega, have long had a love affair with Russia, with some politicians still upholding their pro-Russian stance even after the war in Ukraine. During his term as the PM, Forza Italia’s leader Silvio Berlusconi had a close friendship with Vladimir Putin. Berlusconi has remained a friend to Putin and Russia, boasting that he got  20 bottles of vodka “and a very kind letter” from Putin for his birthday and blaming Ukraine’s President Zelensky for provoking Putin to invade Ukraine. Despite the pro-Russia ties of Meloni’s coalition partners, she has managed to keep the government’s support for Ukraine. 

Sweden Democrats (SD) stands out in the group of other populist radical right parties, since SD is not openly pro-Russia and has supported Sweden joining NATO. While SD, alongside some other radical right parties in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. National Alliance in Latvia) is strongly anti-Russian and supports Ukraine, the same cannot be said about the majority of Western European radical right parties.

In the 2022 election, France barely avoided having a President who used to openly praise Russia until the invasion of Ukraine. That is, of course, Marine Le Pen. Once the war in Ukraine started, Marine Le Pen was in an awkward position to justify her former praise for Russia and its dictator Vladimir Putin. Before the war, she had regularly travelled to Russia and met with Putin. Le Pen never condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea, and even said that it had “never been Ukrainian”. While Le Pen has shifted away from her praise of Russia, she still wants to keep buying Russian gas, and disagrees with the EU’s attempts to put through harsher sanctions. Because of this, it is safe to say that Le Pen is definitely not Ukraine’s ally. 

This year also saw elections in Hungary, where the incumbent PM Orban and his radical right Fidesz party won the election. Orban and Putin go a long way – they have held annual meetings when other EU leaders were not so keen on having such warm relations with the Russian President. While it is true that Orban agreed to EU sanctions against Russia, he afterwards blamed the sanctions for the rise in energy costs and has hinted at repealing them. While Orban is not eager to publicly praise Putin anymore, he is still Putin’s best and only friend in the European Union. Under Orban, Hungary has taken a ‘neutral’ stance in the war, not supporting Ukraine as much as other EU countries do, even banning the transfer of arms to Ukraine within its territory. 

So, what does the recent right-wing surge mean for Europe’s support for Ukraine? In 2015, researcher Antonis Klapsis went as far as to say that “in reality a sort of an unofficial alliance has been established between the Kremlin and far-right parties”. In 2022, it would be hard to agree with his statement given that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made radical right parties reluctant to support Russia. However, the recent electoral success of populist right-wing parties and its impact on Europe’s foreign policy should not be underestimated. The recent elections will not steer Europe into Putin’s hands but it is worth remembering that the radical right tend to be “flexible” on their foreign policy stances.

By: Davis Stepanovs

Image: Sheraz Sheikh

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