How Long before Russia’s Risky Toying with Europe’s Far Right Really Backfires?
Engaging with the European far right is an unpredictable, risky business because you never what kinds of monsters it might produce.
Russia’s government or other factors are perceived as having been backing far-right populists throughout the European Union member states for quite some time now.
That backing has ranged from public rhetorical or demonstrative support going as high as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s meeting with France’s Marine Le Pen in Moscow before the 2017 French Presidential Elections, or Le Pen’s National Rally party (formerly National Front) receiving a loan from a Russian bank, to allegations of backstage dealings and secret funding deals.
Most recently, major public scandals erupted in two key Western European member states of the EU – Italy and Austria – in which media investigations or leaked tapes implicated top-level far-right Italian and Austrian politicians in at least attempted backstage dealings with alleged, real, or pretend factors from Russia.
In Austria, the scandal involving then Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the Strache Scandal, led to downfall of the government of the ruling coalition of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s mainstream rightist party Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), and of Strache’s far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe).
In Italy’s so called “Russiagate”, Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister, and leader of the far-right League Party Matteo Salvini has also come under fire for his party’s alleged secret discussion of a Russian funding mechanism involving oil sales, although for the time being the Cabinet of the far right and the leftist populist Five Stars Movement remains in place.
Brexiteer nationalists in the UK, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Germany, and many other far-right formations all the way to EU Balkan members Greece and Bulgaria have been enjoying rhetorical support from Russian politicians, officials, or pundits.
Moscow’s rationale for backing the European far right is simple – in a time of highly strained relations with the West, the anti-establishment far right could stir some major domestic public upheavals in its respective home countries, and, if the far right ever comes to power, it would be either friendly to Russia overall, or at least ideologically close to the rule personified by Vladimir Putin.
Such a strategy of seeking to use domestic factors to further its political goals makes perfect sense from the point of view of top-level geopolitical gaming – the non-postmodern ever-lasting struggle of great powers in which Russia has been a key participant since at least the 18th century.
Not to mention that the member states of the European Union make perfect targets for Moscow, which, if the US intelligence is to be believed, managed to even meddle and influence the 2016 presidential elections in the United States of America just by using cyber methods and misinformation (the so called “hybrid war”).
Under Moscow’s perception, the EU countries seem like a bunch of weaklings whose subversion could nonetheless weaken tremendously what is known as the “West”.
These are democratic, peace-loving nations with open societies. Their militaries most likely stand little to no chance against Russia’s without the Americans’ involvement through NATO – even those of the French and the Brexiting Brits. Their societies are unwilling to see their democratically elected governments engage in any strong action or power overtures. They have embraced the inward-directed gaze of the Post-Modern Age, now to mention that they are straddled with all kinds of self-imposed limitations, ensuing internal divisions, and even pre-determined defeatism. Their “European Union” might have boosted their economies and their citizens’ freedoms, it might give them leverage in trade negotiations but in great power terms politics and hard power terms it is still a joke.
The leadership in Moscow has been fearing it might end up being a target of actual regime change attempts by the West – well, by the United States, really – especially since the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, and has accordingly concentrated its foreign policy on preempting any such attempts, real or imagined, with a wide arsenal of moves, especially since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine, starting with the seizing of the Crimean Peninsula.
At the same time, Moscow’s at least rhetorical support for the European far right suggests the Russian leadership isn’t impartial to a “regime change” doctrine of its one.
For example, if you help some far-right leader become the head of government in some Western country with a much touted “liberal democracy” that could be construed as a “regime change”. That is, if the “regime change” would be occurring in a Western democracy, perhaps it doesn’t need a 2003 Iraq War-type military invasion to materialize, just some nudges boosting a domestic bidder in the established electoral process. And even if that is not technically a “regime change”, it could have the effects of a “regime change” or at least of an incredible political paradigm shift change.
And even if Moscow does not genuinely want to see some far-right leader gain power in some EU member state, supporting the far right in those countries could still be useful as a nuisance for the respective governments, and thus a bargaining chip in high diplomacy.
All that’s not even getting into discussing Russia’s presumably cordial relations with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who could have been perceived as having started out as a classical mainstream rightist leader and then having moved further right towards what he calls “illiberal democracy”. (Post-communist Europe’s other main “illiberal democracy” leader, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, however, is outrightly hostile to Russia.)
So with all these arguments in mind then, from the geopolitical perspective of the Russian leadership, Moscow’s support for the European far right, even if it is purely rhetorical, makes perfect sense.
Or does it?
The fact of the matter is that dealing with such a questionable bunch as the far-right leaders throughout Europe is always a highly risky business, even for Moscow.
And it’s not like the Russian historical tradition doesn’t have experience and respective lessons learned in that regard.
On August 23, 2019, it will be 80 years since the signing of the Ribentrop – Molotov Pact, in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union partitioned Eastern Europe between themselves, and World War II started right away. Less than two years later, Hitler’s Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union.
The many similarities between the totalitarian regimes of the two powers led many at the time to believe that there was nothing more natural than an alliance between the two, and when you go to the two ends of the ideological spectrum, the far right and the far left would meet as you close the circle. Others, of course, could realize even back then that the Ribertrop – Molotov Pact was part of the great power game, in which Hitler and Stalin were trying to outsmart each other.
Yet, Stalin at least seems to have believed in their arrangement judging from the fact that Soviet exports of raw materials and deliveries of other products useful to Hitler were on their way even as the Germans were already attacking. (Interestingly, Stalin seems to have been inclined to honor agreements with other great power leaders – after World War II, in the late 1940s, for example, he seems to have decided to either not provide, or to cut off entirely massive aid to the domestic communist uprising in Greece. With more massive Soviet help at the time, it’s not unimaginable that the Greek communists would have prevailed despite the United States’ Truman Doctrine, or just in time before it began to kick in.)
Not to mention that the invasion of June 22, 1941, seems to have caught the Soviet military entirely by surprise, for example, by destroying enormous numbers of Soviet war planes as they were still on the ground.
Both historical experience and common sense indicate that it might not be wise to try to make deals with far-right leaders, even if at the time of those deals these individuals seem marginal and easy to be controlled. To put it bluntly, you never know what kind of a monster they might end up turning into if they somehow come to power.
So, theoretically, just for the sake of argument, imagine a somewhat radical political change in all or part of the European Union in favor of the far right. (It might seem unfathomable now but any decent student of world history should be able to look through the eyes of the people who lived at a certain moment in the past, and realize that the events that came later would have probably been deemed unfathomable at that point as well!)
Imagine that one or more far-right leaders seize – or get voted into power. (After all, Hitler did not exactly carry out a coup back in 1933, he came to power through a parliamentary mechanism, albeit with some backstage conspiracy-ing).
Or imagine what would be even more unfathomable and scary – some far-right leader grabbing control of the entire European Union!
That shouldn’t be deemed absolutely impossible, either. Much of the far right across Europe has smartened up in recent years – they no longer want to destroy or dissolve the European Union. They want to conquer it. (That makes a lot of sense for them, right? In their reasoning, there’s your gigantic, wealthy empire right there – why disband it to try to build another one? Just take this one from within. Especially when it seems so ripe for the taking with so many divisive issues and dividing lines.)
So imagine the far right coming to power in the European Union – somehow or to some extent, in some crucial member state, or in the entire EU.
Perhaps those far right leader or leaders would have been courted, supported, or cheered by Moscow in the process, with the Russian leadership deeming their rise would serve its geopolitical goals. Perhaps they might even have had funding from Russia, or some kind of a secret deal with some factors in Russia (as per the allegations based on the leaked tape scandals in Austria and Italy).
How long would it be before those far-right leaders turn against Russia?
In that highly hypothetical scenario, he or she or they would be in power of a country or a superstate that would be far richer, with far greater resources, probably with more people than Russia.
How long before such individual(s) decide they can now fully be self-sufficient and no longer need any backing, even if that backing has been only rhetorical?
The far right has a propensity for that. They have a propensity to want to be emperors, to militarize, to seek out outside enemies and to try to destroy them, conquer them, conquer the world. They want to be “fuhrers” and “duces”. It’s a syndrome they can never escape.
How long before they might style Russia a deadly enemy? Or before they might decide they need even more “Lebensraum” and therefore stage another “Drang nach Osten”? Even if it’s not a military one but uses some other, novel means.
In such a highly theoretical development, those leaders would not succumb to control even by some who might have aided them to the top.
There have been allegations that Moscow has compromising tapes on US President Donald Trump. That is probably not the case.
But even if it is the case and some compromising material could be used a leverage against a foreign leader by anybody from anywhere, that leverage would likely only work if that leader is the leader of a democratic country where public opinion and the voice of the people matter a lot.
If a far-right leader or leaders come to rule over the EU or parts of it, that could mean that it is no longer a full-fledged democracy. In that case, would they care if compromising material about them is leaked? Maybe a little, or not at all. Maybe just enough to get angered.
The bottom line is this: far-right leaders are unpredictable. Ask the 1920s German industrialists and senior military officers who thought Hitler’s spittle-emitting rise might not be such a bad idea.
Certain underlying issues plaguing the European Union don’t seem to be going away any time soon, and even though mainstream parties had a relatively stable showing in the 2019 EU elections, the far right did as well, and its popularity is likely to grow – albeit not as fast and as much as it would like, barring some kind of a major cataclysm.
Toying with Europe’s far right is just not advisable for anybody, even for Moscow with its long tradition of great power diplomacy – because one can never know when it might backfire.
Engaging with the European far right actually makes even less sense for Moscow when taking into account who it has had as its neighbor in Europe for nearly three decades now: a European Union of peace-loving near-perfect democracies with no interest whatsoever in encroachments against Russia or anybody else, virtually guaranteed to be pacifist for the foreseeable future.
It is indicative that China, another of the world’s few top great powers, during the debt crisis of the past few years, did not cheer for the EU’s possible demise but instead spoke of the need for its preservation, and even took part in backing the euro during Greek debt crisis. Why not seized the chance to take out a potential great power rival? Not just because it is a nice, giant market – for Chinese manufacturing goods, in China’s case – but because the post-modern EU in its perfect form can be no threat to anybody. It can only be an asset, especially in a time when humanity has to wage a desperate last-stand on global warming. (I.e. on itself).
The European far right and a European Union somehow taken over by it, on the other hand, can be a huge risk and huge threat to anybody.
(Banner image: Wikipedia)