HomeEuropePutin’s European pals have to eat their words

Putin’s European pals have to eat their words

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As Russia’s war machine batters Ukraine in the largest invasion Europe has seen since World War II, one group of Europeans is feeling particularly uncomfortable: Vladimir Putin’s defenders and cheerleaders.

From National Rally leader Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini from Italy’s right-wing League, these politicians have spent years touting their affinity for the Russian president, accepting Russian loans and corporate board memberships and acting as mouthpieces for Kremlin talking points.

As Russia massed troops around Ukraine’s borders, some of these Putin pals downplayed the threat or accused the West of ramping up tensions. But as Putin declared war on Kyiv and ballistic missiles rained down on Ukrainian targets, that pose became harder to hold for this group, prompting many to backtrack from their crush on the Kremlin and rush out statements condemning the attack.

Who are Putin’s faithful friends in Europe? What did they say then — and what are they saying now?

Here’s a breakdown:

Marine Le Pen

The far-right leader of the National Rally party and French presidential candidate has long enjoyed a close relationship with — and financing from — Russia. In 2017, Le Pen visited the Kremlin as her part of her presidential campaign and backed Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

As recently as this month, Le Pen said she did not believe “at all” that Russia would invade Ukraine, and condemned “a misunderstanding of the issues and thinking” in Russia. “I don’t see what the Russians would do in Ukraine and what would be their interest there,” she told reporters. “If I were president right now I wouldn’t have the glacial relations that exist between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron,” she added.

But Le Pen about-turned Thursday, publishing a statement on her website stating there was “no reason to justify” the invasion of Ukraine, condemning it as “unjustifiable without reservations,” and called for its “immediate end.”

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Eric Zemmour

The French far-right pundit, currently polling third in the 2022 presidential race, has previously said he “admired” Vladimir as a “patriot” and called his concerns around NATO expansionism in Ukraine and Georgia “completely legitimate” — adding that it was “France’s role to say this.” He also said in December he was happy to “bet that Russia will not invade Ukraine.”

It was a bad bet. On Thursday, Zemmour changed tack dramatically, saying he “condemned” Russia’s invasion “without reservations,” and slammed it as “unjustifiable.”

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Matteo Salvini

A former Italian deputy prime minister and leader of Italian far-right League party, Matteo Salvini has been described as Putin’s man in Europe.

Salvini has long declared his admiration for the Russian president — which extended to him wearing a T-shirt of Putin on Red Square — and his party enjoys warm relations with Moscow. In 2017, he signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party, while party officials were probed for signing a secretive oil deal with the Kremlin in 2018 worth millions of euros.

But the far-right leader took to Twitter on Thursday to “condemn any military aggression” in Ukraine after Putin’s attack, and called for a “common response from allies,” later posting a video on him bringing flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in Rome.

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Miloš Zeman

Miloš Zeman, president of the Czech Republic and well-known for his provocative and incendiary remarks, has enjoyed notoriously warm ties with Moscow. Zeman, who ascended to the largely ceremonial role back in 2013, has described the post-2014 war in Donbass as a “civil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizens” and spurred widespread protests over remarks he made in support of Russia last year.

Zeman was amongst the only leaders to to pay a state visit to Moscow in 2015 after the annexation of Crimea in 2015, saying the visit marked an “expression of thankfulness that we in this country don’t have to speak German if we were obedient collaborators of Aryan descent.”

But amid the invasion Thursday, he turned on Russia and called for EU countries to cut it off from the SWIFT payment system, saying the attack was a “crime against peace” and calling Putin a “madman.”

Alex Salmond

The former leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond has enjoyed unusually friendly ties with the Kremlin. Following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Salmond said he admired “certain aspects” of Putin’s politics and said his patriotism was “entirely reasonable.” In 2017, the Scottish politician was slammed for agreeing to launch a new weekly program with Russian state-owned broadcaster RT called ‘The Alex Salmond Show.’

But Salmond buckled on Thursday, suspending the show amid the assault on Ukraine, insisting that though there had never been “a single piece of editorial interference” in his program, he could not carry on with the broadcast “until peace is re-established.”

Gerhard Schröder

Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, is considered to be close to Putin and has a place on the boards of Russia’s two biggest state-owned energy companies, Rosneft and Gazprom. Schröder once called the Russian president a “flawless democrat” and in 2018, the Wall Street Journal called him “a luxury-loving, paid-up, swaggering instrument of Vladimir Putin.”

Schröder told his LinkedIn followers Thursday “there have been many mistakes on both sides,” but nonetheless condemned the invasion, arguing “Russia’s security interests do not justify the use of military means either.”

“The war and the suffering it causes for the people of Ukraine must end as soon as possible,” he said. “That is the responsibility of the Russian government.”

Boris Johnson

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson came out in full-throated condemnation of Putin almost immediately after the Russian president recognized the two breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine as independent Monday. The British leader has since slapped sanctions on Moscow and suggested the Russian President should face war crime charges as a “blood-stained aggressor.”

But Johnson was not always so critical of Russia, once praising the leader’s “ruthless clarity” in backing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in eliminating Islamic State militia. Johnson has long been friends with prominent Russian oligarchs and opposition parties in the U.K. estimate that his Conservative Party has received almost £2 million from Russian elites since he became prime minister.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon

Mélenchon, the far-left politician also running for France’s highest office this year, has previously said French politicians “have a duty to ensure that Ukraine does not enter NATO in the East” and has argued Russia “is not an enemy but a partner.”

But the leader of La France Insoumise tentatively performed a volte-face on Thursday, publishing a statement saying that Russia “takes responsibility for a terrible setback in history” by attacking Ukraine, which he argued “creates the immediate danger of a generalized conflict that threatens all of humanity.”

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François Fillon

Former French Prime Minister and disgraced presidential candidate François Fillon joined the board of Russian petrochemical company Sibur in 2021, following his nomination by the Kremlin to the board of state-owned company Zaroubezhneft earlier that year. Sibur is chaired by Russian oligarchs Leonid Mikhelson and Gennady Timchenko, both of whom were placed under sanctions by the U.K. this week.

But on Thursday the right-wing politician wrote on Twitter that he “regretted” the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and now “condemns the use of force in Ukraine.” Fillon announced Friday he was planning to step down from both roles, arguing Putin “is the only one guilty of having triggered a conflict that could have been, that should have been, avoided.”

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Viktor Orbán

The long-time prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán has maintained a close relationship with Putin, which is not just down to them being ideological kindred spirits. Orbán negotiates long-term gas contracts with Russia, in return for which Hungary gets lower prices than its European partners. 

Orbán has boasted about meeting the Russian president 12 times during his tenure, most recently at the start of this month when he asked Putin to boost the volume of gas exports to his country. “Difficult times, but we are in very good company,” the Hungarian premier said.

Orbán was forced to adopt a different posture Thursday, however, slamming Moscow’s actions in a Facebook video, while saying Hungary would not send weapons to Ukraine. “Together with our European Union and NATO allies, we condemn Russia’s military attack,” he said. He also joined EU leaders later that evening in signing off on a large-scale sanctions package targeting multiple sectors of the Russian economy.



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