A Mixed Bag: Putin’s Ukraine War and the Fight Against Europe’s Authoritarians
Now freighted with evidence of mass atrocities and war crimes, the Russo-Ukrainian war is the strongest geopolitical and moral earthquake in Europe since the Cold War. The effects will thus be of a similar magnitude. Of course Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is first and foremost catastrophic for Ukrainians, but the war is setting in motion far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world as well, particularly the European Union. Many of those consequences — social, economic, (geo)political — are currently obscure. Some — refugee flows, financial disruption, looming grain shortages — are distressing. Still others — greater European solidarity, NATO cohesion, strategic focus by Germany — augur well.
Putin’s Ukraine war will also entail some ambiguous consequences for Europe. One of those mixed-bag consequences will likely be the position of right-wing, populist, illiberal politicians and political parties in Europe. It would be nice to think that Putin’s foolish war of aggression — which has been plagued by unrealistic strategy and inept tactics — would cause Europe’s black-sheep illiberals and aspiring authoritarians to see the light (or at least to feel pressure) and thus undertake reform. In reality, the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, as well as the international community’s response, is likely to have differential effects on Europe’s corrupt, populist illiberals. The fault line is probably going to be whether those illiberal politicians and parties are already in power or striving to grasp it. The former should fare better than the latter, and how this situation plays out could be significant both for the European Union and its member states, and for the continuation of pressure against Moscow.
The two main populist, illiberal headaches for the European Union are Poland, led by President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Hungary, led by newly re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both states are facing infringement procedures — and stiff financial penalties — for violations of their obligations to uphold foundational E.U. values, such as the rule of law and an independent judiciary. Both states have also greatly undermined media independence and academic freedom, and targeted the operation of non-governmental organizations. Both of these countries have seen significant democratic backsliding over the last decade, to the point that today they would not meet parts of the European Union’s acquis communautaire (the rules for accession).
Only recently has the European Union finally gotten tough on Warsaw and Budapest, after years of feckless attempts at persuading them to pull back from democratic regression. It has frozen more than 40 billion euros of COVID-19 recovery funds, and a recent decision by the E.U. Court of Justice has paved the way for tens of billions of additional funds from the E.U. general budget to be withheld from Poland and Hungary. Both Poland and Hungary are also subject to a Lisbon Treaty Article 7 procedure, which could in principle lead to the suspension of their voting rights in the E.U. Council of Ministers.
This hardened approach is jeopardized by Russia’s war on Ukraine, as Poland and Hungary — both on Europe’s “eastern flank”— now have enhanced positions in the European Union (and NATO, many of whose members are also in the European Union). European eastern flank states are on the front line of the effort to push back against Russian revanchist revisionism, and thus their cooperation will be necessary for both the European Union and NATO to present a united diplomatic and political front against Russia, collect signals intelligence, station missile defense assets, serve as logistics hubs, defend European territory, manage refugee flows, blunt Russian hybrid warfare tactics, and impose sanctions and other costs on Moscow.
To be sure, eastern flank states are unnerved by the threat that Putin’s Russia represents, so they have an interest in these activities anyway, and Poland has indeed enthusiastically supported sanctions against Russia. But Warsaw and Budapest will not engage in European efforts to counter Russia automatically or for free, as such action does entail risks and the two now have some leverage. For example, Poland — which has fraught, distrustful relations with Russia — balked at supplying Ukraine with fighter jets (despite initial E.U. announcements to the contrary). At first Warsaw claimed to want to avoid escalating the conflict with Russia to the level of NATO, then argued that the United States needed to back-fill any fighter jets that Poland would send to Ukraine. Finally, Poland settled on an obvious non-starter: offering the jets to U.S. military custody in Germany for eventual transfer (through unspecified means) to Ukraine via a third-party state. From a realist theoretical perspective, this buck-passing is an easily understandable attempt to advance Poland’s interests while shifting the costs and risks to other states. Poland’s willingness to buck-pass indicates that its leaders do not see the Russian threat as so dire that Warsaw will reflexively serve as a frontline pressure point for countering Russia. This further implies that Poland’s leaders know they have some space to use leverage — if necessary — to persuade the European Union (and NATO) to accommodate Polish needs as part of discussions about the contributions that Poland will make to countering Russian aggression.
Unsurprisingly given Orban’s close relationship with Putin, Hungary’s response to the Russo-Ukrainian war has been tepid. Orban at first refused increased NATO troop deployments on Hungarian territory, before finally accepting the inevitable during U.S. president Joe Biden’s March visit to Europe to bolster transatlantic unity. Hungary still refuses lethal matériel shipments or NATO personnel flowing across its border into Ukraine, and Budapest has declined to provide bilateral military support to Kyiv. Although outwardly Hungary has condemned the Russian invasion, domestic media connected to Orban’s ruling Fidesz party have equivocated, sometimes blaming the United States for provoking Russia into attack and comparing Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s government to Nazis. As for sanctions, Budapest has not blocked what national media call the “Brussels sanctions” on Russia, but Orban was slow to sign on to the new, harsh sanctions that the European Union and United States levied, and his overall support for them is weak. Hungary has rejected expanding them to cover energy imports (some other European Union members are also reticent to do so, but are accelerating moving away from Russian gas and oil).
Indeed, it is particularly sanctions — a critical tool for countering Putin’s assault on Ukraine — that provide Warsaw and Budapest with leverage in an E.U. context. E.U. sanctions generally require unanimity of member states, and this incentivizes behavior that could undermine Europe’s dedication to the rule of law. One scenario is that the European Union goes wobbly — privileging wartime geopolitics and not wanting to risk unity on sanctions by angering member states with veto power — and reduces or suspends its financial penalties and Article 7 procedures against Poland and/or Hungary. This possibility is already coursing through the E.U. rumor mill, at least with respect to Poland. Another scenario involves the aforementioned veto threats. If the European Union remains doctrinaire regarding the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, the incumbent governments in Warsaw and Budapest could be inclined to condition their continued support for sanctions on the European Union’s withdrawal or suspension of financial punishment and/or the potential Article 7 procedures. The bigger worry in this regard is Hungary — E.U. officials have privately conceded this — but Poland could do so as well. It has the track record: in 2020 it blocked the entire (1.1 trillion euros) 2021-2027 E.U. budget and accompanying stimulus package (750 billion euros) to protest and wring concessions from the European Union for its sanctioning of Warsaw’s violations of democratic principles.
The situation is more fraught for Europe’s aspiring populist illiberals, of which there are several with high profiles who are attracting significant negative attention for their years of flirtation with Putin. Perhaps the most well-known is France’s Marine Le Pen, who has in the past frequently highlighted her relationship with Putin and is in the middle of a presidential campaign (voting starts April 10). Her party — the National Rally, formerly the National Front — also has a history of financing some of its campaign activities with Russian money. Although Le Pen has condemned the Russian invasion, she has also underscored the West’s responsibility for the crisis, and her party has distributed leaflets featuring an image of Le Pen and Putin warmly shaking hands. More substantively, Le Pen is on the record as a NATO-skeptic, a risky policy position in the current environment. Clearly on the wrong side of history, Le Pen and her party have thus opened up an attack surface for French president Emmanuel Macron if Le Pen manages to make it into the second stage of France’s two-round presidential election, where Macron is sure to be on the ballot in a tight race.
In fact Le Pen faces a battle to make it through to the second round, as she is challenged by populist illiberal Eric Zemmour, who is splitting the radical right-wing vote. Zemmour, a political upstart with an openly xenophobic platform, has made a troubling list of laudatory comments about Putin, whom Zemmour “admires” as a “patriot” and defends for his “completely justified” concerns about NATO eastward expansion. Zemmour — who predicted that Putin would not invade Ukraine — has criticized Russia for starting the war, but also heaped opprobrium on the European Union and NATO for provoking Russia in the post-Cold War period. Like Le Pen, Zemmour will likely find his prior history of support for the Kremlin — even expressing hope in 2018 for a “French Putin” — to be a millstone around his neck going forward.
Italy’s Matteo Salvini is another prominent right-wing populist illiberal with close ties to Putin. The former deputy prime minister and head of the Lega party is a well-known admirer of Putin. Moreover his party has supposedly profited financially from its good relations with Moscow — including a 2017 cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. To wit, several party officials have been probed regarding suspicious oil deals with Russia that could have netted the Lega party millions of euros. Like his right-wing ilk in France, however, Salvini has been obliged in extremis to offer unconvincing condemnations of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist illiberal party that has gained a foothold in the German Bundestag (holding 81 out of 736 seats, on 10.3 percent of the popular vote in 2021), also has a checkered relationship with Putin, and is now facing considerable criticism domestically. Both the party and its founder Alexander Gauland have taken Russia’s side on numerous occasions in diplomatic disagreements between Germany and Russia. The AfD has also had questionable financial links with Russia, and has acted as an “election observer” (along with right-wing parties from Austria and Hungary) at Russia-organized referenda, including in Crimea. Current party leaders Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel have a history of close contact with the Kremlin and have argued against sanctions for Russia’s actions in Crimea and Donbas. Recently Chrupalla has sowed discord within the AfD with a post-invasion speech in March that openly relativized Russia’s culpability for the Ukraine invasion.
Why does all this matter? First, as adumbrated above, Europe is on the frontline of countering Russian revanchist revisionism. Continuing to do so effectively will require unity, which means that the European Union needs to manage internal political tensions, including finding ways to keep its rebarbative members onside both strategically and in terms of foundational principles. After all, it is less valuable — and less coherent — for Europe to defend vestiges of the liberal, rules-based order if European states are themselves illiberal.
Moreover, a significant part of the European Union’s foreign policy toolbox is normative power, including a strong and globally attractive commitment to democracy and the rule of law. This normative power actually becomes more important — not less — in the context of burgeoning long-term conflict with an authoritarian major power. Thus it is of interest — purely from a diplomatic and international political power perspective — how Europe fares in preserving this asymmetric normative power advantage, which raises the costs for other states to side with Russia. This is valid both institutionally for the European Union and on the level of the member states, whose voting publics will (or will not) hold accountable Putin-adjacent parties and politicians. This is important even for parties and candidates who are unlikely to win elections and form governments: Popular opprobrium or approbation for illiberal parties and politicians — even second-tier ones — pushes Europe’s political Overton Window toward or away from democracy, thus making Europe more or less attractive.
Beyond instrumental reasons, the European Union is in theory a liberal construct — as such, maintaining its liberal values is a question of political identity. We may be learning how the European Union’s identity as a liberal construction in theory holds up in practice. That is, in modern memory the European Union has not had to uphold liberal values in the face of systemic adversity, but that is no longer the case with Russia ravaging a democratic neighbor and re-drawing European borders by force, even as a rising China challenges the international system on a more global scale. Maintaining and advocating principles when it is cost-free is one thing — doing so when it requires fortitude, trade-offs, sacrifices, and hard decisions is something else.
Of Resilience and Redlines
If history is any guide, the European Union will muddle through with a casuistic approach to resolving a dilemma: how both to act according to the amoral logic of realpolitik in order to maintain political unity in the face of Russian aggression, and also uphold the values of the rule of law and democracy. As mentioned, one strategy may be to pick its fights selectively. Perhaps Poland gets a pass — released frozen funds and a suspended Article 7 procedure — in recognition of its less (compared to Hungary) egregious democracy and rule-of-law violations, as well as its greater support for Russia sanctions, frontline role in matériel support for Ukraine, and large number of Ukrainian refugees on its territory. Meanwhile Hungary could remain in the European Union’s crosshairs — especially given Fidesz’s questionable election victory on April 3 — as a signal of its continued insistence on member states embodying Europe’s fundamental political values. There is some evidence that this dual-track outcome is in play.
Alternately, the European Union may engage its classic response to internal conflict: face-saving rhetorical gestures coupled with delays on tough decisions. For instance, high-level negotiations could wring promises of reform from Warsaw and Budapest in exchange for temporary relief from E.U. financial penalties and Article 7 threats, with the whole issue to be revisited later when the crisis is less acute. There is also some evidence that this option has support in Brussels.
It is ironic that Europe finds itself in the current situation. This irony neatly displays how foreign and domestic policy can cross-pollinate: the way in which a polity treats other polities often boomerangs into the character of domestic governance. The European Union’s updated 2016 Global Strategy (in)famously replaces democracy promotion abroad — outlined in the 2003 European Security Strategy — with support for the creation of “resilient” states in the European Union’s neighborhood. Pragmatic realists see this as recognition of an increasingly dangerous world and the failure of democracy promotion in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe’s eastern flank (including Ukraine). Cynics see this as European support for corrupt, illiberal “buffer” states. Regardless of nomenclature, the question was always the trade-off between resilience and redlines: how much illiberalism and authoritarianism would the European Union tolerate to support “resilient” states in its neighborhood in the name of geopolitical stability? The European Union now faces the same choice internally with respect to Poland and Hungary: how much democratic backsliding can Brussels tolerate in order to assure the resilience and stability of two important eastern flank states on the front lines of the return of great-power politics?
Dr. Mason Richey is professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (Seoul, South Korea), and a senior contributor at Asia Society Korea. Richey has also held positions as a POSCO Visiting Research Fellow at the East-West Center (Honolulu, HI) and a DAAD Scholar at the University of Potsdam. His research focuses on European foreign and security policy, as well as U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. Recent scholarly articles have appeared (inter alia) in Political Science, Pacific Review, Asia-Europe Journal, Asian Security, Global Governance, and Foreign Policy Analysis. Shorter analyses and opinion pieces have been published in War on the Rocks, Le Monde, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and Forbes, among other venues.