JThis photo of Vladimir Putin, alone at the end of a long Kremlin table, is perhaps one of the most enduring images of this war, but it is misleading. For while every day brings new confirmation that the Russian dictator is drenched in blood, with the rocket attack on Kramatorsk being just the latest evidence, he is not without friends. Naturally, he has allies among his fellow brutal world leaders, whether in Minsk, Damascus or Beijing, but he also has cronies in less expected places. In a two-sided conflict like Putin against the west, the Russian leader has powerful friends behind enemy lines – and, even if his Western admirers have had to engage in deft footwork since invading Ukraine , they are gaining ground.
The most glaring example is Viktor Orbán, an apostle of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, who won a fourth term as head of Hungary last weekend. It would be wrong to say that he was “re-elected”, because that could imply a real election, which is not the case: Orbán controls the Hungarian media and the the whole state apparatus.
Granted, he must have toned down pro-Putinism during the campaign; he admitted Ukrainian refugees and accepted EU sanctions against Moscow. But now he can come back to type. He became the EU’s longest-serving leader, armed with an absolute majority in Budapest and a European Council seat in Brussels. As one seasoned European observer puts it, when it comes to doing Putin a favor and sabotaging future EU action, “Orbán can hold out.” Since the key to the Western response to the Russian invasion has been unity, and the EU and NATO work by consensus, one spoiler can thwart all the others.
Yet this weekend, Putin will be aiming for an even bigger prize. Sunday sees the first round of voting in the French presidential election, and polls show growing support for perennial far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. In a head-to-head against Emmanuel Macron, the second round likely 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 bold enough to rule out a shock in France.
Le Pen’s ties to Putin are more blatant than most. In October 2014, his party borrowed €9m (£7.5m) from a Russian bank to fund his local election campaign. Her promotional material for this current contest, admittedly printed before the invasion, features a smiling photo of her with the Butcher of Moscow.
Like Orbán, she was quick to distance herself from Putin. She condemned the invasion, while a key party ally took a bus to pick up Ukrainian refugees. She was lucky too, blessed by the presence in the race of Éric Zemmour, standard bearer of the even more distant right whose adulation of Putin and initial hostility towards Ukrainian refugees allowed Le Pen to appear subdued by comparison. This has allowed him to focus on the cost-of-living crisis and exploit Macron’s near-toxic unpopularity with millions of French voters who view the incumbent president as arrogant, elitist and dismissive.
Yet there is little doubt what a victory for Le Pen would mean. Until the recent about-face, his party’s MEPs opposed almost any European measure that might embarrass Putin. And even if Frexit is no longer a declared dream of Le Pen, his treaty-review program would actually dismantle French EU membership, 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 has practiced much more rhetoric against NATO and the United States than he does. was against Putin and Russia.
Of course, Orbán and Le Pen attract attention because they hold high office or are terribly close to it. But Putin’s Western friends on the right and left are also closer to home. Britain’s circle of devotees is not limited to figures like Nigel Farage, who once named Putin the world leader he most admired, or George Galloway, whose Twitter profile featured until this week not one but two broadcast gigs with Putin-controlled outlet RT, details hastily deleted after Twitter identified Galloway’s account as “Russian state-affiliated media”. No, the more troubling links are closer to the top. Many European observers have noted the Conservative party’s penchant for oligarchs’ money, as well as its recent slowness in tackling dirty money, suspecting that the latter is, as they say, “a throwback to the investment that Moscow has made in British politics”. Granted, Britain hasn’t been shy about arming Ukraine, but to some skeptical Europeans it sounds a bit like the maneuvers of Orbán or Le Pen: hasty efforts at belated detoxification.
This is all perhaps a small beer compared to the great, most powerful Western friend that Vladimir Putin has ever had: Donald Trump. He is no longer in the White House, although he could well be back in 2024, while the legacy of his admiration for Putin – whom he hailed as a “genius” – lives on in his party. A January poll found Republicans had a more favorable opinion of Putin than Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. Fox News’ top-rated anchor Tucker Carlson aired Kremlin talking points on his show, including the false claim that the US is funding bioweapons labs in Ukraine, and he likes to suggest that he has less beef with Poutine than him. with American liberals. After all, asks Carlson: “Has Putin ever called me a racist?”
This gets to the heart of the matter. For a certain right-wing, Putin has long embodied an alternative to Western cultural decline at the hands of liberals: a nationalist, conservative, white, Christian ideal uncorrupted by feminism or gay rights. This image has become muddled since the February 24 invasion, now that it is Putin who is slaughtering white Christian Europeans. But many still cling to it.
For now, this is a minority position. But the success of Orbán and Le Pen shows that Putinism has taken firm root in the West, which could weather the current storm. Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, worries about what will happen six months from now, when Westerners will be desensitized to images of violence in Ukraine and the cost of living will skyrocket. “Eventually the political space will open up for someone to say, ‘This conflict is too expensive – and maybe Putin isn’t so bad anyway’.”
This means that the fight against Putinism will not be done only with sanctions and weapons. Nor will it be conducted solely in Russia or Ukraine. The threat is not so far away. The call comes from inside the house.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his Politics Weekly America podcast, search “Politics Weekly America” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts