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As Russiaâ€™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 Putinâ€™s defenders and cheerleaders.
From National Rally leader Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini from Italyâ€™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 Ukraineâ€™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 Putinâ€™s faithful friends in Europe? What did they say then â€” and what are they saying now?
Hereâ€™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 â€” and financing from â€” Russia. In 2017, Le Pen visited the Kremlin as her part of her presidential campaign and backed Moscowâ€™s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
As recently as this month, Le Pen said she did not believe â€œat allâ€ that Russia would invade Ukraine, and condemned â€œa misunderstanding of the issues and thinkingâ€ in Russia. â€œI donâ€™t see what the Russians would do in Ukraine and what would be their interest there,â€ she told reporters. â€œIf I were president right now I wouldnâ€™t have the glacial relations that exist between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron,â€ she added.
But Le Pen about-turned Thursday, publishing a statement on her website stating there was â€œno reason to justifyâ€ the invasion of Ukraine, condemning it as â€œunjustifiable without reservations,â€ and called for its â€œimmediate end.â€
📹 Je pense que la #Russie est un pays europÃ©en, et qu’il aurait fallu rapprocher la Russie de l’Europe plutÃ´t que de la jeter dans les bras de la #Chine. Quand on des bonnes relations, on peut avoir une influence. #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/mgEzxq5ub1
â€” Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) February 8, 2022
â€” Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) February 24, 2022
The French far-right pundit, currently polling third in the 2022 presidential race, has previously said he â€œadmiredâ€ Vladimir as a â€œpatriotâ€ and called his concerns around NATO expansionism in Ukraine and Georgia â€œcompletely legitimateâ€ â€” adding that it was â€œFranceâ€™s role to say this.â€ He also said in December he was happy to â€œbet that Russia will not invade Ukraine.â€
It was a bad bet. On Thursday, Zemmour changed tack dramatically, saying he â€œcondemnedâ€ Russiaâ€™s invasion â€œwithout reservations,â€ and slammed it as â€œunjustifiable.â€
â€” Eric Zemmour (@ZemmourEric) February 20, 2022
Je condamne sans rÃ©serve lâ€™intervention militaire russe en Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/SbTsF98feN
â€” Eric Zemmour (@ZemmourEric) February 24, 2022
A former Italian deputy prime minister and leader of Italian far-right League party, Matteo Salvini has been described as Putinâ€™s man in Europe.
Salvini has long declared his admiration for the Russian president â€” which extended to him wearing a T-shirt of Putin on Red Square â€” and his party enjoys warm relations with Moscow. In 2017, he signed a cooperation agreement with Putinâ€™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 â€œcondemn any military aggressionâ€ in Ukraine after Putinâ€™s attack, and called for a â€œcommon response from allies,â€ later posting a video on him bringing flowers to the Ukrainian embassy in Rome.
Italian LEGA leader Matteo Salvini has just removed or restricted access to an old Facebook post of his in which he wore a Putin t-shirt and wrote “I’m in Strasbourg. I’d swap two Presidents Mattarella for half Putin” https://t.co/06tVzpwRkU#Ukraine #Russia #Italy pic.twitter.com/rlzO4AE5FA
â€” Antonello Guerrera (@antoguerrera) February 24, 2022
Roma, ambasciata dellâ€™Ucraina🇺🇦, una preghiera per la Pace. pic.twitter.com/SRazB3kI1h
â€” Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) February 24, 2022
MiloÅ¡ 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 â€œcivil war between two groups of Ukrainian citizensâ€ 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 â€œexpression of thankfulness that we in this country donâ€™t have to speak German if we were obedient collaborators of Aryan descent.â€
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 â€œcrime against peaceâ€ and calling Putin a â€œmadman.â€
The former leader of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond has enjoyed unusually friendly ties with the Kremlin. Following Moscowâ€™s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Salmond said he admired â€œcertain aspectsâ€ of Putinâ€™s politics and said his patriotism was â€œentirely reasonable.â€ In 2017, the Scottish politician was slammed for agreeing to launch a new weekly program with Russian state-owned broadcaster RT called â€˜The Alex Salmond Show.â€™
But Salmond buckled on Thursday, suspending the show amid the assault on Ukraine, insisting that though there had never been â€œa single piece of editorial interferenceâ€ in his program, he could not carry on with the broadcast â€œuntil peace is re-established.â€
Gerhard SchrÃ¶der, Germanyâ€™s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, is considered to be close to Putin and has a place on the boards of Russiaâ€™s two biggest state-owned energy companies, Rosneft and Gazprom. SchrÃ¶der once called the Russian president a â€œflawless democratâ€ and in 2018, theÂ Wall Street JournalÂ called him â€œa luxury-loving, paid-up, swaggering instrument of Vladimir Putin.â€
SchrÃ¶der told his LinkedIn followers Thursday â€œthere have been many mistakes on both sides,â€ but nonetheless condemned the invasion, arguing â€œRussiaâ€™s security interests do not justify the use of military means either.â€
â€œThe war and the suffering it causes for the people of Ukraine must end as soon as possible,â€ he said. â€œThat is the responsibility of the Russian government.â€
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 â€œblood-stained aggressor.â€
But Johnson was not always so critical of Russia, once praising the leaderâ€™s â€œruthless clarityâ€ 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 Â£2 million from Russian elites since he became prime minister.
MÃ©lenchon, the far-left politician also running for Franceâ€™s highest office this year, has previously said French politicians â€œhave a duty to ensure that Ukraine does not enter NATO in the Eastâ€ and has argued Russia â€œis not an enemy but a partner.â€
But the leader of La France Insoumise tentatively performed a volte-face on Thursday, publishing a statement saying that Russia â€œtakes responsibility for a terrible setback in historyâ€ by attacking Ukraine, which he argued â€œcreates the immediate danger of a generalized conflict that threatens all of humanity.â€
Sur l’#Ukraine, on doit tenir bon sur les principes. Je suis pour une France non-alignÃ©e. Ni la Russie ne doit entrer en Ukraine, ni les USA ne doivent annexer l’Ukraine dans l’OTAN. #UnionPopulaire https://t.co/nGTSQb6GLF pic.twitter.com/DBWHTOhJPQ
â€” Jean-Luc MÃ©lenchon (@JLMelenchon) February 20, 2022
🔴 Je condamne la guerre de la Russie en Ukraine
â€” Jean-Luc MÃ©lenchon (@JLMelenchon) February 24, 2022
Former French Prime Minister and disgraced presidential candidate FranÃ§ois 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 â€œregrettedâ€ the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and now â€œcondemns the use of force in Ukraine.â€ Fillon announced Friday he was planning to step down from both roles, arguing Putin â€œis the only one guilty of having triggered a conflict that could have been, that should have been, avoided.â€
â€” Government of Russia (@GovernmentRF) February 16, 2022
â€” FranÃ§ois Fillon (@FrancoisFillon) February 24, 2022
The long-time prime minister of Hungary, Viktor OrbÃ¡n has maintained a close relationship with Putin, which is not just down to them being ideological kindred spirits. OrbÃ¡nÂ negotiatesÂ long-term gas contracts with Russia, inÂ return for which Hungary gets lower prices than its European partners.Â
OrbÃ¡nÂ hasÂ boastedÂ about meeting the Russian president 12 times during his tenure, most recently at the start of this month when heÂ askedÂ Putin to boost the volume of gas exports to his country. â€œDifficult times, but we are in very good company,â€ the Hungarian premier said.
OrbÃ¡n was forced to adopt a different posture Thursday, however,Â slammingÂ Moscowâ€™s actions in a Facebook video, while saying Hungary would not send weapons to Ukraine. â€œTogether with our European Union and NATO allies, we condemn Russiaâ€™s military attack,â€Â 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.