Amid a slow Ukrainian counteroffensive and upcoming national elections in Europe, there is a surge in populist rhetoric that demands that the European Union forego support for Ukraine.
Previously, most pro-Russian populists came from a bloc known as the “Putin understanders,” or Putin-Versteher. These voices until now have had little influence over EU policy with regards to the war.
However, there is a rising fear that some European countries could become less willing to support Ukraine, causing a fracture in the traditional pro-Ukraine EU stance. Hence, as the general center shifts to the right, Vladimir Putin’s long wager on European disunity may soon come to fruition.
Ukraine’s counteroffensive appears to be stalling. Part of this derives from Western expectations that Ukraine would continue to make significant gains. The other main reason is Russian adaptation and the digging of massive trenches while Ukraine was preparing for their counteroffensive. These trenches are well-defended and difficult to penetrate.
In light of this news from the battlefield, European populists remain split on whether to support Ukraine. Given the rise of European far-right populism in the past decade, Vladimir Putin’s calculus for invading Ukraine likely included the assumption that European unity could not outlast Russia’s will and ability to fight. European unity until now has been steadfast in making sure that Putin is wrong. In order to analyze how a change in populist sentiment may reshape European support for Ukraine, it will be imperative to understand which populists already have a favorable stance towards Russia, which populists currently do not, and how they can influence other politicians in the center.
On the issue of Ukraine, the two factions that split the European far-right populists consist of the “anti-Putin” faction and the “Putin understanders,” or Putin-Versteher. Parties in the anti-Putin faction of the European far-right form the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), a supranational party in the European Parliament that generally aligns itself with the European Union on Russia. ECR is led by Brothers of Italy, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, VOX in Spain, and the Sweden Democrats. On the other side of the coin, the Putin understanders are linked together in the Identity and Democracy (ID) party, which has a more favorable lens towards Russia and is quick to criticize the West for provoking the war. The parties that lead ID are Rassamblent National (RN) in France, Germany’s AfD, and Lega in Italy. While Hungary’s Fidesz party may be part of the Putin understanders, it is independent from ID.
Currently, both the populist supranational parties combined only hold 135 out of the 705 seats in European Parliament. However, due to the far-right’s surge in popularity, a recent Politico poll predicted that ECR and ID would increase their seat share to 157, which does not include additional support from Fidesz. Even still, it is very likely that next year’s election will not change the grand coalition that established, pro-Europe parties currently hold in parliament. Nevertheless, anti-Ukraine protests this year demonstrate that even a small increase in the populist share in power in Brussels is bad news for Ukraine. As populist leaders gain influence, their ability to disseminate antagonism exponentially strengthens. Unlike Ukraine, which needs all of the Western support it can get, Putin only needs a few voices to advocate for concessions to splinter the pro-Ukraine Western coalition.
Before the war, the Putin understanders were clear in professing their loyalty and affiliation with Russia. Marine Le Pen’s RN has received eleven million euros in campaign funds from Russian banks and Le Pen has openly expressed her admiration for Putin. Matteo Salvini’s Lega party has also drawn campaign support from Russia by diverting profits from a Russian oil company. Salvini has praised Putin as “the greatest statesman currently on earth.”
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Le Pen and Salvini condemned Moscow. For Le Pen, her connection with Russia played a large role in costing her the 2022 French presidential election, while Salvini has faced criticism for being a “friend” of Putin. In an interview I conducted with Héctor Sánchez Margalef, a researcher at the Barcelona Center for International Affairs who specializes in European integration and Southern European politics, he worded it perfectly, “Nadie quiere ser amigo de Putin.” Nobody wants to be a friend of Putin.
Yet, the political environment is always subject to change. Le Pen, Salvini, and Hungary’s Victor Orbán could seek to gain more political capital by speaking out in favor of Russia. In my interview with Sánchez, he remarked that before the war, many leaders in the extreme right saw Putin as an ideal role model: committed to traditional Orthodox Christian values, critical of the West, and a believer in using nationalism as a tool to rejuvenate his country. The sentiment of Putin as a “model” and partner still exists in some quarters even after the invasion of Ukraine, especially from those who derive their political standing from Russian finance and subversion.
Instead of speaking in complete favor of Putin, the Putin understanders now carefully choose words and policy decisions that run just beneath a visible endorsement of Russia. Orbán serves as an epitome of the strategy. In the 2023 Qatar Economic Forum, Orbán remarked that “it is obvious that there is no victory for the poor Ukrainians on the battlefield.” While most media attention is on Turkey opposing Sweden’s NATO membership, Hungary has delayed ratification of Sweden’s membership numerous times by boycotting parliament and delaying the process. Orbán has called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky an “opponent,” refused to vote in favor of sending EU military aid to Ukraine, and has openly asserted that Hungary “does not belong to the mainstream European approach.” Still, Hungary has condemned the war and acted in concert with the West in passing numerous sanctions against Russia.
If Orbán Fidesz’s party symbolizes the general balancing act of the anti-Putin populists, leaders of Germany’s AfD have “positioned [themselves] as Putin’s mouthpiece in German politics.” Such rhetoric would be of little significance if the AfD was a marginal party—but that is not the case. The AfD has surged in polls as Germany’s second-strongest party and will threaten Scholz’s Social Democrats in the 2025 German national election. The AfD prides itself as “peace-driven” against a “war-mongering” establishment and actively sends members onto Russian state news channels to act as a Western liaison to “legitimize” the Russian invasion. Documents obtained by European intelligence convey that the Kremlin has courted AfD members and organized plans to propagate antiwar sentiment in Germany. The AfD is a prime example of a Russian weapon in its “hybrid war” against the West.
Analysis of the pro-Putin bloc reveals the power of this group to fragment European views on the Ukraine question. Given the current state of Ukraine’s counteroffensive and the prospect of upcoming European elections, pro-Putin populists may call for a quick end to the war, territorial concessions to Russia, and pressure to weaken sanctions. Far-right voices who had previously faced stark criticism for being “friends” of Putin will finally be able to speak out with authority on the issue of ending the flow of weapons and aid to Ukraine. Putin’s bet on invading Ukraine was that the European Union, NATO, and the larger West would not be united enough to coordinate global action against him. In the long run, he may be correct.
In the past eighteen months, Europe’s anti-Putin populist faction has tacked much closer to the transatlantic mainstream and has demonstrated a consistent policy toward backing Ukraine. Rather, all the anti-Putin populists operate in some form of realpolitik where the material economic and security benefits of aligning with the major Western powers strongly outweigh the costs of pursuing a unilateral agenda.
Among the Southern European anti-Putin populists, considerations are mainly economic. In my interview with Sánchez, he assessed that no matter who governs Spain or Italy, Southern Europe will continue to support Ukraine as long as the United States, France, and Germany continue to do so. Until recently, Italy had been working to unlock the rest of its 200 billion euro COVID recovery loan from the European Union. Of the 200 billion euro, the European Commission had blocked nineteen billion euro due to the need for “clarification over Rome’s efforts to meet the conditions linked to the money.” Hence, Giorgia Meloni, who is head of a party with connections to Benito Mussolini, had to act on her “best behavior” given that the EU recovery loan was economically crucial. Therefore, Meloni has a powerful incentive to follow the EU consensus on key issues, even while only 34 percent of Italians are in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine.
For populists in Sweden and Poland, supporting Ukraine is seen through the prism of national security. Poland, which borders Ukraine and shares a history of being subdued to the communist bloc, has been one of the most vocal countries aiding Ukraine. Under the PiS, which usually takes an anti-immigration stance, “Poland has welcomed more Ukrainian refugees than any other European country,” along with providing a wide range of social services to the refugees. Poland’s per capita military aid to Ukraine is one of the highest in the world, putting it ahead of the United States. Now that the pro-EU Civic Platform party and its coalition partners have come out victorious in Poland’s recent election, Ukraine should continue to find a loyal ally from Poland in the coming months ahead. Meanwhile, the Sweden Democrats, who are extremely Eurosceptic, have made numerous concessions to Turkey in their efforts to join NATO and have acted among its Western allies to aid Ukraine. Both Poland and Sweden feel a genuine threat to their own survival if Russia defeats Ukraine, which is of far greater importance than any issues they may have with Brussels.
A Slow Counteroffensive and Upcoming European Elections
Western policymakers have largely maintained solidarity in supporting Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. However, two new variables may undo all of that: Ukraine’s slow counteroffensive and upcoming elections in Europe. Ukraine’s counteroffensive is now four months in and with an emerging war in the Middle East, some are starting to question whether Western countries have the capacity to sustain support to both of their allies. In February of 2022, 72 percent of Americans felt that the Ukraine issue was a threat to national security. Today, that number has dropped to 56 percent. If America decreases aid to Ukraine, the European center could shift to the right. Just recently, President Joe Biden had to assure allies of US support after Congress was forced to leave out aid for Ukraine in a recent budget that avoided a government shutdown.
Even Meloni may not be so inclined to keep up her support. Today, only 34 percent of Italians are in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine. In my interview with Sánchez, he told me that if America in particular were to halt aid to Ukraine, it is likely that Meloni-types would feel less backlash if she were to divert funds from Ukraine back to investing in her own country.
Finally, the pro-Putin bloc may become elevated by recent or upcoming European elections. The recent elections include the Slovakian national election and German state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, which both produced a win for far-right populists. Slovakia has garnered global attention as Robert Fico’s populist Smer party now looks to shake up Slovakia’s EU-relations after its victory in September. Fico has vehemently demonstrated a pro-Russia view and could transform “one of Ukraine’s most stalwart backers” into an adversary. Meanwhile, the 2024 European Parliamentary election is expected to be a pivotal moment for European unity and for Ukraine. Just like next year’s US presidential election, Europeans will also have a referendum on whether they want to keep the status quo.
For nearly two years, Europe has demonstrated remarkable resilience and unity in supporting Ukraine. Russian sanctions have been costly for the continent and have contributed to a brutal energy crisis. However, this unity cannot be taken for granted. Pro-Putin voices on the far right have been toned down, not eliminated. Given Ukraine’s slow counteroffensive and upcoming European elections, populist voices may gain authority and shift the European center to the right, resulting in a divided Europe. Even the more moderate, anti-Putin populists may reevaluate their current geopolitical calculations. Yet, the most worrisome scenario is that new political configurations in places like Slovakia and Germany may transform the European geopolitical landscape towards one that is alienated with respect to Ukraine. In that instance, Putin’s bet on the disunity of the West may have been correct.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.