Putin’s Cheerleaders: Why the Russian leader’s growing support in Europe makes a worrying amount of sense

Rising support among populists for Russian President Vladimir Putin has been met with shock and consternation on the international stage. But Lauren Kahn argues their support is consistent with their ideology, and should be taken seriously as a counter-point to the liberal world order that characterised global politics in the 20th century.

In a 2014 interview, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) surprised observers by identifying Vladimir Putin as the world leader he most admired. This was a shocking confession at the time. Russia was involved in the ongoing Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea, and European leaders were generally apprehensive towards the country and its leader.

But, more politicians have joined Farage’s ranks in showing affinity for the Russian president in the intervening years. Across Europe, populist parties from the left and right have espoused defiantly pro-Russian rhetoric. Their embrace of his ideologies and tactics was admonished by Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal grouping in the European parliament and Brexit chief for Eruope’s side: “I call them the cheerleaders of Putin: Le Pen, Wilders, Farage. They’re doing only one thing: they take Kremlin money, they take Kremlin intelligence”, he said, “together with government leaders like Orbàn, Kaczynski, Salvini: these people have only one goal and that is to destroy Europe, to kill our liberal democracy”.

Some have attributed Putin’s popularity among Europe’s insurgent parties to an ideological affinity, since they are thought to share such values as social conservatism, nationalism, homophobia, a veneration of “strong leaders”, and—in particular—anti-Americanism. Others have attributed his popularity to a cynical concern for financial gain through Russian loans, airtime on Russia Today, and business dealings with Russian leaders.

While intuitively appealing, these traditional explanations are overly simplistic. They fail to explain why populist parties across the political spectrum and from different national contexts have all pushed for a more understanding approach towards Russia. Nor can it account for the complexities of the support given to Putin, which is often carefully caveated, and is certainly more nuanced than critics portend.

The hypothesis that financial incentives are the main draw for populist parties to side with Russia is unrealistic. The closest case of a direct monetary contribution from Putin to a populist leader in exchange for support was in the case of a 9 million Euro loan to France’s Front National in 2015, but leaked texts between Kremlin leaders suggested the 9 million euro loan was as a sort of “thank you”, rather than a direct quid pro quo, and many believe the party’s leader Marine Le Pen would have expressed such approval with or without the loan.

Arguments that pro-Putin sentiment is merely a function of anti-Americanism also fail to stick, especially in light of Donald Trump’s favour among populist leaders. The idea that it must be a choice between the US and Russia, that engaging with Russia is inherently a rejection of the United States, is a faulty one. In fact, developing a relationship with both leaders has proven to be the optimum route for these parties. As Le Pen argued, “you can’t be isolated when you’ve got both Putin and Trump on your side”.

While liberal EU politicians worry about what Trump’s cool attitude towards Europe means for the country’s traditional role as the “guarantor of democratic values”, populists are thrilled by it. They desire less direct interference, and therefore do not wish America to be the sole provider of the collective good, but rather a more cooperative partner. It is not a matter of replacing America with Russia as the key partner of Europe, but engaging both as equals.

The alternative to these hypotheses, however unpalatable it may sound, is that underneath all the bombastic tweeting, is a coherent anti-centrist philosophy of international relations at play, one that is distinct from the more traditional, liberal understanding of foreign policy, but which is nonetheless a commonly held alternative. Indeed, it is surprising how systematically and coherently the populist position on Putin re-states the traditional ‘realist’ line on superpower conflict. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has himself referred to the likes of Le Pen and Trump as “realists, if you want, or anti-globalists”. Their understanding of power and the international system centres around balancing, the recognition of ‘spheres of influence’, and the pragmatic pursuit of the national interest above all else. Insurgent parties have no perceived need to ‘democratise’ Russia, nor do they offer cautious support for American preponderance and the liberal order. Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Alexander Gauland clarified this, explaining, “Donald Trump does it just right: he has recognized the value of Putin’s realpolitik…Ms. Merkel must finally refrain from her ideology-blinded policy towards Russia. Russia is not an enemy but an opportunity”.

It therefore makes sense that populist parties would be less sensitive to regime type or state ideology when it comes to promoting their self-interest. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, leader of the right-wing populist Fidesz party, exemplified this position best when asked in an interview if it he was uncomfortable having a “cozy relationship” with Putin. His response oozed realpolitik: “It’s strange, but politics is full of strange things so it’s not uncomfortable. That’s part of the job…Putin is someone you can cooperate with. He’s not an easy man. He has no personal feelings [for] you. He’s representing the power, the interests of Russia, so he’s a very tough negotiating power…[it is] unreasonable–and particularly unreasonable in Europe–to ignore the power and the opportunity that Russia represents”. Beppe Grillo of Italy’s Five Star Movement has similarly elaborated, “[Putin is] certainly a person who has clear ideas. I’m not afraid of Putin at all. Russia wants to do business, not war. Anti-Putinism costs us billions”. Farage emphasized that he admired Putin as “an operator, but not as a human being”, warning that, “if you poke the Russian bear with a stick he will respond”.

Populist support for Putin is better understood as one manifestation of the re-politicisation of international politics in the wake of the populist upsurge, rather than an ad hoc modus vivendi between two equally corrupt and parties. Populist sympathy for Putin represents a distinct and coherent view of foreign affairs. It is just not a ‘liberal’ one, since it departs from the assumptions of the liberal internationalism that has under-girded the political consensus on European foreign policymaking since the 1940s.

We need to take seriously this re-politicisation of security and engage with the people making these arguments, rather than regarding them as mere surrogates of Russian aggression. Political scientists are well placed to understand and (should they wish) contest them, an impossible task if they are dismissed out of hand. For another, we risk missing the wood for the trees, failing to understand the fundamental changes to the foreign policy consensus occasioned by the rise of populist parties across the continent.

Lauren Kahn is an intern at LSE IDEAS and a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School of Governance and London School of Economics and Political Science or its funder Stiftung Mercator.