The Plot Against Europe
The West’s nightmare scenario starts with Donald Trump’s election — and ends with Russian tanks rolling into Estonia while NATO looks the other way.
The outer edges of Europe were beset with their own crises. The secessionist flame lit by the successful Scottish independence campaign spread like wildfire: Catalonia finally voted to split from Spain, and the Veneto region seceded from Italy. In Northern Europe, meanwhile, right-wing populists were on the march. Angry reaction to years of untrammeled immigration saw to it that the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party with neo-Nazi roots, formed a minority government in 2019 after all the other parties announced their refusal to join a coalition. A country that was once the most welcoming to refugees eliminated asylum altogether, a clear violation of EU regulations; similarly, right-wing nationalist governments had also come to power in the Netherlands, Norway, and Finland.
In Greece, the ouster of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras by his own Syriza party’s radical wing brought an end to negotiations between Athens and its creditors. Were Syriza to win the next election, Tspiras’s replacement announced, Greece would prepare to leave the eurozone. On election night, when results indicated a Syriza defeat, the new prime minister delivered a live address to the nation declaring that “fascist conspirators” under orders from “northern European bankster hooligans” had stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated voters, and perpetrated numerous other electoral violations. Declaring that the police — heavily penetrated by sympathizers of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party — could no longer be trusted to keep order, the prime minister called in the army, which promptly arrested parliamentarians from the center-right New Democracy and social democratic PASOK parties, shut down the presses of anti-government newspapers, and cut the transmissions of independent television stations. Italian Prime Minister Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, applauded the coup, as did Prime Minister Corbyn, who praised “our Greek comrades’ valiant resistance against the neoliberal elite and their triumphant defense of people’s democracy in the birthplace of democracy itself.” Alexander Dugin, the Russian fascist ideologist, also issued a supportive statement. Over five decades after the “colonels’ coup” brought a military junta to power in Greece, tanks once again rolled along the streets of Athens.
The breakup of the EU was proceeding apace. After years of centralizing power, stuffing public media institutions with partisan allies, and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban finally fulfilled his 2014 vow to render Hungary an “illiberal state.” After the 2018 election, Fidesz stunned Europe by entering into coalition with the neo-fascist Jobbik party. Headed by a suave former KPMG accountant, Marton Gyongyosi, Jobbik had toned down its bloodcurdling rhetoric against Roma and thinly veiled anti-Semitic incitement, making it more palatable to Hungarian voters wary of its reputation as a gang of brown-shirted ruffians who terrorized Gypsy villages for fun. Gyongyosi, who earned international infamy in 2012 when he demanded that the Hungarian government draw up a list of Jews posing a “national security risk,” convinced a third of the electorate to cast a vote for his party.
Brussels was confounded by the emergence of the Fidesz-Jobbik coalition. Outraged speeches were delivered in the well of the EU parliament, “action” was called for, chin-stroking editorials were published in newspapers across the continent, but nothing was done. Hungary’s new government would eventually save Europe the trouble of having to punish it, however, by becoming the third country, after Britain and France, to leave the EU and NATO. Upon signing the formal renunciation documents in Brussels, where he delivered a fiery farewell speech condemning “Europe’s betrayal of fundamental Christian values and the sanctity of sovereign nationhood,” Orban returned to Hungary a conquering hero. After receiving a congratulatory phone call from President Trump (arranged by Bannon), Orban announced to a cheering crowd at Freedom Square — the same spot, incidentally, where he had called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops as a young law student in 1989 — that Hungary would enter the other “EU,” the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, a collection of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes.
Hungary’s flip was long in the making. One of Fidesz’s first acts upon returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, (enough to rewrite the constitution, which it did), was to designate a “day of national belonging” in commemoration of the post-World War I Treaty of Trainon that broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and forced Hungary to surrender two-thirds of its territory. Though the declaration of an irredentist holiday went against the most fundamental precepts of the European Union, Brussels gave Orban a pass. (In nodding appreciation to her Hungarian counterpart, President Le Pen instituted a “day of national sorrow” marking France’s withdrawal from Algeria).
But Orban’s appeal to nationhood beyond borders was more than sentimental. Granting citizenship to the millions of ethnic Hungarians dispersed among Hungary’s neighbors, as the Fidesz government did in 2011, instantly created a new political constituency for the ruling party. It also roiled the region. In Slovakia, once part of the Hungarian Kingdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and latterly disparaged as “Upper Hungary” by Magyar nationalists, a law regulating the use of languages other than Slovak in government offices, on official signs, and within a vaguely defined “public” sphere elicited the ire of ethnic Hungarians and their newfound protectors in Budapest. Hungary and Slovaki’s joint membership in the EU, however, had largely smothered nationalist passions under a supranational embrace, so that such disputes never rose beyond the rhetorical level. But once Budapest left the union, relations rapidly deteriorated.
The Hungarian Guard, a Jobbik-linked paramilitary organization whose ban had been upheld by the European Court of Justice, immediately regrouped after Hungary left the EU as Budapest was no longer subject to ECJ jurisdiction. In the summer of 2020, a Hungarian diaspora group held a rally in the majority-Hungarian Slovak border town of Dunjaska Streda, attracting a 15,000-strong crowd with speeches denouncing the “Bratislava bandits” and demanding Slovakia’s “return” to Hungary. When the organizers unfurled a giant flag of “Greater Hungary” displaying the country’s imperial borders, Slovak police entered the stadium and declared the event cancelled on grounds that display of such maps had been deemed illegal by Slovakia’s highest court.
Unfortunately for the police, a 1,500-strong Hungarian Guard regiment had traveled to Dunjaska Streda from the deindustrialized provinces of eastern Hungary. They did not take kindly to the dispersal order and attacked the police, who fired live rounds into the crowd. Orban had to restrain his Jobbik coalition partners, who were publicly demanding that the Hungarian army “march to Pozsony,” Bratislava’s Habsburg-era Hungarian name. The role of peacemaker was left to Putin, who called Orban and explained that military conflict between Budapest and Bratislava had the potential to disrupt construction of the Russian-financed South Stream pipeline, whose planned route snaked its way to Central Europe through Hungary via the Black Sea.
Hungary’s democratic regression had ripple effects across the region. That a European political party could abuse the instruments of democracy to entrench itself in perpetuity — and get away with it — proved attractive to many in post-communist lands where liberalism’s roots did not run so deep. Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party had long admired Orbanism from afar and went about mimicking the concentration of power, weakening of checks and balances, bullying of independent media, and other illiberal measures that were its hallmark. Eurosceptic to begin with, Law and Justice’s antipathy to the EU grew stronger following the U.K.’s departure from the union, which forced many young Polish workers to come home. Under the influence of returning Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who regained the job in 2019, Warsaw buried much of the goodwill it had fostered with Germany during the Merkel era. A particularly embarrassing moment came at a joint press conference in Berlin with the new German Social Democratic Chancellor, whom Kaczynski accused of harboring secret plans to annex parts of western Poland, a charge he had leveled at Merkel a decade earlier in a book entitled “The Poland of Our Dreams.” Roundly lampooned at the time, Kaczynski was now cheered on by like-minded nationalist-populist leaders in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Breitbart’s Polish language website.
Even still, despite the now near-complete decimation of the EU, the invasion of Estonia would have been nothing more than a gleam in Russian war planners’ eyes had they not brought down the Ukrainian government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2020. A year after the Maidan uprising, the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government recruited the brash former president of Georgia to serve as governor of the corruption-riddled Odessa region. In 2019, Saakashvili launched a surprise campaign for the presidency and became, after Simon Bolivar, the second person ever to become president of more than one country.
The lifting of sanctions by the United States and EU the year prior had emboldened Moscow, which launched a new offensive shortly after Saakashvili’s election. As Russian tanks rolled toward Kiev, Putin directed his generals to capture the Georgian, who had earned himself a top spot on the Russian president’s enemies list after the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Putin had long contemplated the punishment he would mete out to his Georgian nemesis should this day come, and remanding Saakashvili to the pro-Russian regime in Georgia, from where he had been exiled for nearly a decade, seemed the most humiliating form of retribution. There would of course first be a detour to Moscow, where Saakashvili could be subjected to the tender mercies of the FSB’s finest “interrogators” at the notorious Lefortovo Prison and then paraded on international television to confess his manifold crimes.
At a press conference the following day, Putin joked that he would finally have the opportunity to “hang Saakashvili by the balls,” as he once privately confided he would do to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When forces loyal to the Ukrainian government decamped to the western city of Lviv, longtime home of Ukrainian nationalism and now capital of a new, pro-European rump state, they were joined by millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the prospect of renewed Russian rule. Awoken from a drunken stupor at his dacha in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the self-exiled ex-president Viktor Yanukovych was deposited onto a Russian jet bound for Kiev, where he “reclaimed” his position as Ukraine’s duly elected leader. The “EU coup” — as it had been labeled by diverse voices ranging from UKIP to the National Front to Die Linke — was finally reversed.