While U.S. intelligence agencies investigate claims that Russia secretly hacked emails to help tip last year’s elections in favor of Donald Trump, Russia’s push to bolster far-right populist politicians in Europe has been far more blatant. Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia is working to empower Europe’s far-right and Eurosceptic parties with offers of cooperation, loans, political cover and propaganda. Such love has not gone unrequited: European populists are answering back with fulsome praise for Russia, its foreign policy and its strongman leader. The love affair comes as euroskeptic candidates prepare to face mainstream politicians in crucial elections looming on the horizon: Dutch elections next month, French elections in spring, German elections sometime in autumn and Italian elections at a still undetermined date.
From the Russian side, empowering anti-European Union populists has the obvious benefit of helping erode the strength of European institutions that Moscow has long considered enemies.
For Europe’s extreme right, the benefits of embracing Putin are more abstract and ideological, said Markus Wagner, a political science professor at the University of Vienna. They see Putin as the kind of patriotic hero who prizes national traditions and realpolitik over the internationalism and openness that have long characterized Western liberalism.