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Europe’s far-right in a pickle over Ukraine war, Putin links

Nationalist leaders denounce Russian invasion while echoing the Kremlin’s claim that NATO expansion to blame; in surprise, some parties say open to welcoming Ukrainian refugees

French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, left, gestures while speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, March 24, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, left, gestures while speaking to Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, March 24, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

BERLIN (AFP) — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has plunged far-right movements across Europe into an identity crisis, as they struggle to square their loyalty to Vladimir Putin with the public’s overwhelming solidarity with Kyiv.

From Germany to France to Italy, extremist groups have condemned the assault, but some have in the same breath championed Russian President Putin’s line of blaming the West for triggering the conflict in the first place.

“When someone attacks, it is clear that we must be on the side of the one that was attacked,” said Matteo Salvini of Italy’s far-right Northern League, who has in the past openly declared his admiration for Putin.

France’s Marine Le Pen has also joined the chorus of condemnation of Russia violating international law.

Openly denouncing the violence in Ukraine is in sync with the rest of the political spectrum and, most important, in line with pro-Ukrainian public opinion, said Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin.

But that’s where the similarities end.

When it comes to an analysis of the responsibilities of the war, far-right parties appear to be singing from Putin’s hymn sheet.

NATO to blame?

Alice Weidel, head of Germany’s far-right AfD party, has denounced the “historical failure” of the West, accusing it of offering Ukraine a perspective of joining NATO rather than pushing for the country to be a neutral buffer nation between the alliance and Russia.

Likewise, Eric Zemmour, another far-right candidate in France’s presidential elections in April, charged that while “Putin is the guilty one, those responsible are in NATO which has not stopped expanding.”

Zemmour had in 2018 said he wished there could be a “French Putin” in France.

Parliamentary group co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, Alice Weidel, speaks during an extraordinary session of the Bundestag, on February 27, 2022, in Berlin. (Odd Andersen/AFP)

The parties are aligned with “the Russian position that the conflict should not be attributed exclusively to Vladimir Putin but rather to a great extent to the West,” Wolfgang Schroeder of the University of Kassel told AFP.

Kyriakos Velopoulos of the small nationalist Greek Solution party also rejects the West’s argument that Russia had sparked an unprovoked war as it was never under threat.

“Then what is NATO doing on [Russia’s] borders?” he retorted.

“The way I see it, Russia didn’t have much of a choice,” said Dutch extremist Thierry Baudet of the Forum for Democracy formation, drawing fire from other parties, which accused him of disseminating Russian propaganda.

At the same time, with public opinion overwhelmingly against Putin, far-right figures who over the years cultivated close links with the Kremlin chief are seeking to distance themselves.

Contradictions

Today’s Putin is “not the one” who received her in Moscow in 2017, Le Pen said, after she came under heavy fire over a photo immortalizing their meeting that features in election campaign leaflets printed ahead of the war.

“The European far-right is trapped between its own radical and neo-fascist ideology, which they share with Putin,” and the risk of losing its influence in public opinion, said Funke.

The stakes are particularly high for Le Pen and Zemmour in the run-up to France’s April elections, as opinion polls show they could scoop about a third of the votes.

French far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour attends a campaign rally in Lille, northern France, on February 5, 2022. (Julien De Rosa/AFP)

In another apparent contradiction, several deeply anti-migrant parties like Le Pen’s National Rally, Germany’s AfD, Spain’s Vox, and a splinter of FPOe in Austria have said they were open to welcoming Ukrainian refugees.

Yet the far-right parties could still find resonance with the public as the salvo of unprecedented economic sanctions imposed on Russia ricochets on Western allies.

Germany on Thursday acknowledged that it expects a “big impact” on its economy.

“In the long term, it is not impossible that the AfD benefits,” said Schroeder, noting that the party which has morphed from an anti-euro outfit to an anti-immigrant party could still re-position itself as the “protector of the common man.”

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