Egg on Face
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Populist Italian politician Matteo Salvini had egg on his face recently after a press conference in the Polish town of Przemysl, a destination for many refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Recalling that Salvini had praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a great statesman, right-wing Mayor Wojciech Bakun angrily unfurled a T-shirt featuring Putin’s face and the slogan “Army of Russia” – a shirt Salvini had once worn – and invited the Italian lawmaker to accompany him to the border to “See what your friend Putin has done.”
The Italian, taken aback and visibly affronted, made a hasty retreat.
Similar stories are cropping up throughout Europe and beyond as leaders who were once chummy with – or admiring of – Putin, are now distancing themselves from the leader who started a brutal war and has threatened the use of nuclear weapons.
Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, and her political party, the National Rally, has praised Putin in Moscow and received money from Russia, Politico reported. She visited the Kremlin during her recent presidential campaign and supported the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Before late February, she dismissed the idea of an invasion as she released a campaign brochure showing herself shaking hands with Putin. In recent weeks, though, Le Pen issued a statement that condemned Russia’s attack, calling it “unjustifiable without reservations,” and pleaded for its “immediate end.”
Russian money has played a large role in the country garnering the favor of Western elites. “There is a very clear financial benefit in dealing with Putin, especially at the time European money comes with questions about freedoms of media, human rights and corruption, which Putin doesn’t care about,” Hungarian member of the European Parliament Katalin Cseh told CNN.
But even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has likely been the most pro-Putin leader in the European Union and whose country has benefited from Russian and Chinese investment, has turned negative about Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Hungary condemned Russia’s armed offense and has allowed NATO responses on its territory, though it has stopped arms from entering into Ukraine through Hungary, noted CNN.
Hungarian elections in April likely play a role in the about-face, added Cseh, who says Orban will have to “walk the tightrope of his traditional voters, after having told them for years that ‘the EU is the enemy and Putin is a great guy.'”
Unlike his European counterparts, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another conservative populist, has been reluctant to denounce Russia. Other Brazilian politicians and especially the Brazilian delegate to the United Nations have done it for him, Reuters wrote.
And while Putin uses the terminology of the far-right politicians outside Russia’s borders – or vice-versa – when he “defends conservative values” or says “Russia is being cancelled,” it’s also the left beating a retreat in the wake of the war: Many far-left politicians in Europe had also praised or defended Putin, often in reaction to American dominance on the world stage, for example, German lawmaker Sahra Wagenknecht from The Left party or France’s far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In Germany, before the war, a significant portion of the public believed the Ukraine crisis was caused by NATO because members of the left often spoke publicly about the Western alliance’s so-called aggression. “NATO has expanded, not Russia,” Sevim Dağdelen, a leading member of the Left said in mid-February. A few days later, Wagenknecht said on national television that the US is attempting to “conjure up” an invasion with “aggressive rhetoric.”
Still, in terms of impact, it’s France that has seen the most political fallout from the war as it heads to presidential elections on April 10. Since the invasion, incumbent Emmanuel Macron, who has positioned himself as “Europe’s wartime leader,” has surged in the polls, the Washington Post wrote. Meanwhile, Mélenchon, Le Pen and also far-right candidate Éric Zemmour have all faced blowback from their obsequiousness toward Putin. French media, meanwhile, has been relentless in airing videos of Zemmour, already a deeply controversial figure, highlighting his leanings toward Putin even as he denounces the invasion and praises the Ukrainian leader.
While many of Putin’s foreign friends step away for the moment, one stands stalwartly by – China – a country likely also to respond to Russia’s appeal for help, as the Financial Times detailed. The US has warned China to not enter the fray. China has made clear that it does not want to lose out due to American sanctions against Russia. According to the Guardian, expectations are that Chinese aid will start flowing. The repercussions from that are yet unclear but they will probably be a lot more consequential than an egg on a face.