Why Europe Is Right to Fear Putin’s Useful Idiots

Why Europe Is Right to Fear Putin’s Useful Idiots

Scholar Scott Radnitz recently authored an article with a provocative title: “Europe’s Extremists Are Not Putin’s Fault.” In this well-thought-out piece, Radnitz argues that the “elite rhetoric focused on Russia’s alleged efforts to infiltrate western politics” by supporting Europe’s far-right parties verges on hysteria. Vladimir Putin is not a “puppet master,” the author writes; the Russian president is simply taking advantage of Europe’s political and economic problems to stir a pot of brewing nationalist sentiment that is not of his making. According to Radnitz, the U.S. Congress’s recent call to investigate Russian funding of extremist groups and pro-Russian NGOs is an overreaction to what is, at its core, a domestic European phenomenon.

Radnitz is correct that the far-right surge in Europe is, in many ways, a response to European Union policies. But his overall conclusion — that policymakers’ overreaction to the threat posed by the Kremlin is distracting them from addressing Europe’s problems — is based on a false logic that confuses correlation with causation and greatly underestimates the extent to which Moscow uses its band of “useful idiots” to pursue its foreign policy interests.

First, though, here’s where the article gets it right. As I write in my book, The Dark Side of European Integration, the rise of the far right is first and foremost a cultural backlash against the rapid economic and political integration of the E.U. over the last 25 years. The core founding principle of the European project was that economic interdependence among nations would lead to a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Indeed, in establishing a common market, eliminating tariffs, and instituting a common currency, European elites ushered in an unprecedented era of peace on the war-torn continent.

Yet European policymakers didn’t stop with economic integration. Over the years, the E.U. has begun to act more and more like a state. Legislative and executive bodies — the European Parliament and the European Commission — were founded to centralize decision-making on fiscal and trade policies; border controls were removed; and a whole set of state-like symbols (a flag, a capital, and passports) emerged. While most European citizens supported integration and the E.U.’s eastward expansion and enjoyed the perks of visa-free travel, this support, it turns out, was contingent on the E.U.’s ability to deliver economic prosperity. This is a promise that the E.U. is now having trouble keeping.

In this context, the far right’s narrative — that Brussels has castrated national governments’ ability to make decisions, homogenized national cultures and traditions, and opened the borders to “external threats” (i.e. Muslim immigrants) — is gaining momentum. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, public opinion turned decidedly against the E.U., signaling that euroskepticism was no longer the niche purview of the “crazies” on the political fringe. The most electorally successful far-right parties, such as the French National Front and even the more openly racist Jobbik in Hungary, have strategically picked up on growing anti-EU grievances and softened their anti-minority, racist rhetoric to appeal to broader swaths of the population (see for example the struggle between Marine Le Pen and her father). This strategy, many years in the making, is proving to be the far right’s winning formula. As a result, the far right has been on a slow but steady rise across Europe for the last decade.

And now we come to the article’s logical gap, disguised as a clever argument. Radnitz’s thesis rests on the assertion that, in their overreaction, policymakers and experts have confused cause and effect. Russia’s propping up of European extremists, goes the argument, is the effect, not the cause, of these parties’ success. The rest of the article aims to correct this alleged fallacy. But, as observers of European politics know well, the far right has been on a steady, if slow, rise for some time, and Putin’s support is clearly not the cause of their success. This argument understates Russia’s role in shaping Europe’s political discourse to serve its own purpose — because while far-right parties are nothing new in Europe, their explicit pro-Russian turn is.

Prior to 2010, one would be hard-pressed to find public statements in praise of Putin by far-right leaders. Today, they are commonplace. UKIP’s Nigel Farage is a self-proclaimed fan of the Russian president. Jobbik’s head, Gabor Vona, is a frequent invited guest in Moscow. And, of course, Madame Le Pen, whose party was the beneficiary of a 9.4 million euro loan from a Russian-owned bank, is a consistent voice of support for Russian foreign policy in Ukraine and the Middle East. Even Germany, where the far right has failed to gain a foothold, is not immune to Moscow’s narrative. Supporters of PEGIDA, the increasingly popular xenophobic group whose acronym stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” often carry Russian flags and anti-government posters begging for Putin’s help.

As European far-right leaders openly voice their support for Moscow, it would be wise to remember that Putin’s Russia is not just another “meddling power” lobbying for its interests. It is a government hostile to the West and the value system — democracy, freedom of expression, political accountability — that it represents. For proof, one must look no further than Russia’s national security strategy, in which the Russian government explicitly names NATO as a threat and accuses the U.S. and its allies of operating “military-biological” labs on Russia’s border.

Calling the West’s response to the love affair between Putin and the far right an overreaction greatly underestimates the extent to which the Kremlin and its state-controlled media use support of European politicians to legitimize Moscow’s explicitly anti-western foreign policy agenda: far-right politicians not only vote for pro-Kremlin policies in the EU parliament, they also take part in election observation missions — most notably the referendum for the annexation of Crimea and the “elections” in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled “people’s republics.” The Russian media uses these events and far-right leaders’ visits to Moscow to tout European support for Putin. Even Le Pen was an unknown in Russia until the Ukraine crisis and her outspoken public support for Putin. Now she is paraded as proof that there is some support for Putin’s policies in Europe.

In addition, Radnitz assumes that mainstream politicians, U.S. officials, and other experts who have pointed out the pro-Russian turn of Europe’s far right aim to discredit such parties through “guilt by association.” But there is no evidence that these parties’ pro-Putin stance is hurting them at the polls or that it has discredited them in the eyes of voters. If anything, their pro-Russian turn has coincided with their rise in the polls.

Correlation, however, does not equal causation. The far right’s pro-Putin rhetoric is a relatively small part of their overall political platform. In fact, rather than rejecting the far right, the mainstream right in countries like France and Hungary is increasingly taking up their rivals’ pro-Putin stance. This is not a strategy of discrediting such parties through guilt by association; it is simple acquiescence. Instead of “trumpeting possible Kremlin influence” to take the wind out of the far right’s sails, the more likely (and terrifying) outcome is that the center right will follow its lead.

In its efforts to respond to the economic and refugee crises and to Russian aggression, the E.U. has forced unpopular policies, such as austerity and refugee quotas, down its members’ throats. So far, national governments have, for the most part, fallen in line. But as Moscow builds its army of useful idiots, European and U.S. policymakers would be well advised to invest significant resources in research to uncover Moscow’s methods of influence in Europe. Doing otherwise leaves the E.U. wide open to Russia’s brand of unconventional warfare — a vulnerability that Europe, caught in a moment of crisis, can ill afford to overlook.

In the photo, Marine Le Pen, president of France’s far-right National Front party, visits Moscow’s Red Square before a meeting with Russia’s State Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin on May 26, 2015.

Photo credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images