Written by Ángela Cano and Horacio Cabrera.
Vladimir Putin’s strategy with respect to the European Union is pretty clear. Not only because of the military conflict with Ukraine but also because of his statements about the EU and his connections with politicians and other relevant members of certain countries within the Union, his main objective is to destabilise and weaken his western neighbour with all the tools at his disposal.
Several analysts have previously commented on the possible interference that Vladimir Putin could have committed with respect to Brexit, for example, or the resurgence of movements and political parties related to the extreme right in Italy (just remember about that famous photo of Mateo Salvini, leader of the League party in Italy, in the red square in Moscow wearing a Vladimir Putin T-shirt) (La Razón Internacional, 2022), Spain, France, and Hungary. From the Russian prime minister’s perspective, a strong and united European Union is probably a dangerous neighbour or even rival for hegemony on the international geopolitical stage, and any domestic actor willing to stand in the way of the Union can be of great use to the Russian leader’s interests. (Pérez, 2022)
In this article, we will focus on France and Hungary as examples of tools of destabilisation and disparity used by Vladimir Putin in order to divide and weaken the European Union in particular, and the West in general.
Several newspapers have already commented on Marine Le Pen’s supposed ties to Putin and to Russia. The truth is that starting in October 2011 Le Pen commented on her admiration for Vladimir Putin and on the fact that Europe must start to think about the many interests that they have in common with Moscow (Geoffroy & Vaudano, 2022). This support that she made publicly continued throughout Russia’s intervention in the Syrian case in October 2015; where she mentioned that investigations on Russia’s strikes and the doubts that were being raised against them were not only ridiculous, but that France should be doing the contrary, and following Russia’s example (Geoffroy & Vaudano, 2022). Following this, in January 2017, she claimed that there was no illegal annexation of Crimea as such, but that a referendum took place and the citizens wanted to rejoin Russia (Geoffroy & Vaudano, 2022). On March 24th, 2017 Marine Le Pen was invited to the Kremlin for the first time, something which did not seem that suspicious for the west at that time (Sandford, 2022). She defended Putin and Russia to the extent that in February 2022 when suppositions started to appear about Russia’s possible desire for Ukraine, she defended them and claimed that Russia did not have this desire (Sandford, 2022). However, in February 2022 she had to turn her public opinion and statements slightly, claiming that Putin’s actions were “highly reprehensible”; and tried to defend herself and her support for Putin by claiming that “everyone has a form of admiration for Vladimir Putin” (Rahman, 2022). Finally, in March 2022 Marine Le Pen appeared publicly stating that “I don’t have a bond of friendship with Vladimir Putin, whom I met once in my life, I don’t even have financial ties with him”(Geoffroy & Vaudano, 2022).
The reality is that Le Pen’s support ranged from public statements in favor of Putin to voting against European parliament resolutions that condemned the Kremlin’s actions or violations of international law, and to visiting Moscow and Crimea four times in total. Why would she do that? It has been discovered that in April 2014 Le Pen’s party received financial support (9 million euros) for their 2017 presidential campaign, from a company that seemed to come from Russian funds (Geoffroy & Vaudano, 2022). Some say this was the way the Kremlin was thanking Le Pen for her support in the annexation of Crimea. Again recently Marine Le Pen appeared to change her stake and stated that she had no other option but to receive the money since it is difficult for right-wing parties to receive loans from French banks (Cohen, 2022). But, she did say that while she would support sanctions against Russia, she would not cut imports of Russian oil and gas or protect “unjust” sanctions, in this way protecting France’s economic interests but in consequence not condemning Russia as thoroughly and roughly as the rest of the states (Cohen, 2022). Some reporters asked whether these financial ties would suggest a dependence on Russia and a liability with their president, but Le Pen confidently replied that she was “independent of any link to any power” (Cohen, 2022).
French-Russian relationship ranges back many years, especially with Le Pen’s family, since her father Jean-Marie Le Pen already had connections (Laruelle, 2022). In 1968 he welcomed the Soviet Russian nationalist and antisemitic painter Ilya Glazunoc (Laruelle, 2022).. We should also add that at the ideological level, the French right Catholics, monarchists, and collaborationists are close to czarist, Russian orthodox. The key to understanding the connection between FN and Russia is the concept of sovereignty (Laruelle, 2022).:
- Political and geopolitical, claiming that the nation-state must be above international legislation and organizations.
- Economic, claiming that economic protectionism is a tool against globalization.
- Cultural, homogenous citizens who accept immigrants only if they agree to fully integrate.
Russia’s intentions with regards to their relationship with Marine Le Pen were clear, they knew that if she won the presidential election the ally coordinated by Biden to stop president Putin would be fractured and weakened (Cohen, 2022). This idea could come easily because many international relations analysts had already claimed the “complete ideological alignment between Putin and Le Pen”, and also because, as mentioned before, Le Pen had already emphasized her support of Putin (Cohen, 2022). While Marine Le Pen did appear in the news claiming that Putin had crossed a red line which she could no longer support is something which makes us doubt, the fact is that she still has financial ties that unite these two politicians, so to what exchange and in what form would she go against Putin is something which is yet to be known.
Since regaining power in 2010, Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban (recently re-elected prime minister with a large majority (Ramiro, 2022)) has sought to transform his country into an image resembling Vladimir Putin’s Russia, gradually taking control of the country’s mainstream media and building a loyal group of oligarchs to protect his extremely nationalist and conservative Fidesz party.
At the international level, Orban has openly and insistently criticised EU sanctions against Russia in the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, although he has ultimately stopped short of vetoing them in Brussels. This clearly demonstrates Orban’s strategy, in which he plays both sides with Russia and the European Union, while his words condemn the extreme measures he believes the EU has taken against Russia, his actions do not match those condemnations. Thus he maintains allies on both sides and does not guarantee enemies on either side, at least in his view. (Iriarte, 2017)
To the further and mostly unpleasant surprise of EU diplomats, Orban repeatedly broke the diplomatic isolation imposed by the EU on Russia when he decided to receive Vladimir Putin in Budapest after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. This represents a clearly provocative gesture in European foreign policy. (Euronews, 2019)
However, despite these constant signals and gestures of friendship towards Moscow, Hungary has remained a committed member of NATO and even joined a UK-led diplomatic mission by expelling Russian embassy officials following the poisoning of Sergei Skripal. (BBC News, 2018)
Although Orban has finally accepted NATO and EU sanctions on Russia given the current circumstances in Ukraine, the messages from Budapest and the attitude demonstrated by the Hungarian prime minister suggest that he does so at the very least half-heartedly. Fundamentally, there are three reasons for this reluctance to sanctions:
- As is almost always the case, the first and probably the most decisive reason is economic: Throughout his administration, Orban has consistently sought to strengthen Hungary’s ties with Russia, advocating pragmatism in foreign trade and business to justify this relationship with Putin to the rest of Europe. The ruling Fidesz party has invested heavily in its bilateral relationship with Russia, including numerous business ties.
- The second reason – and given the political precedents of both Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban it is curious, to say the least – is ideological. Although he justified the development of his close relationship with Russia on the grounds of national interests and values, the ideological similarities between Orban’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia have become increasingly striking. Since 2014, when the Hungarian prime minister first mentioned Russia as an example to follow in both domestic and international politics, Orban has been known to attack Western liberal democracies for their alleged softness, weakness, diversity, and lack of the ‘traditional values’ on which he bases his governmental structure and which he admires so much in Putin’s Russia. Many of his measures were directly inspired by Putin. He has centralised the media, the same way Putin did, using the Kremlin’s road map through the buyout of oligarchs close to and loyal to Fidesz, and has made tremendous attempts to destroy independent media critical of his government. He has tried to emulate the Russian model to create a “Hungarian fortress” based on anti-Western conspiracy theories that close the siege around his country against the rest of the European Union. He has passed laws singling out and demonising foreign-funded non-governmental organisations, over which European courts have intervened, and criminalised the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ under the banner of fighting paedophilia. Of course, Orbán has not gone as far as Putin: while Putin’s Russia is increasingly totalitarian, Orbán’s Hungary remains something of a hybrid regime, in which he has exploited the structures of the democratic system to strengthen his position from authoritarian leadership.
- The third motive is geostrategic: Orbán expected his policies of the past 12 years to fit into a supposed new global order, marked by Western collapse and the rise of the authoritarian Eastern systems of Russia and China. This thinking has led to the total failure of his strategic foresight: Orbán’s close relationship with Putin has conditioned his vision of what Russia might actually represent not only for Ukraine but for Europe and prevented him from seeing the obvious threats that Russia posed not only to Ukraine but to Western democracy, and the ways in which the West would respond to that threat. (Coakley, 2022)
These are just two of the examples of destabilization and disparity tools that Vladimir Putin is trying to use to undermine and divide the will of the European Union.
The ultimate goal is not to allow Europe to be a strong and independent neighbor that could question Russian hegemony on the international geopolitical plane and harm Western values and political structures in every possible way. On the contrary, Europe must be more united than ever. This may be the opportunity to show that the European Union is more than a group of countries, that we share a series of values and ideals that unite us all in a common cultural framework and that we will not hesitate to defend against external aggression.