Putin’s aggression rattles his right-wing fan club

ROME — For years, a global choir of right-wing politicians has sung the praises of Vladimir V. Putin. They saw the Russian strongman as an advocate of closed borders, Christian conservatism and shirtless machismo in an age of liberal identity politics and Western globalization. Flattering him was a central part of the populist playbook.

But Mr Putin’s massacre of Ukraine, which many of his right-wing supporters had said he would never do, has more clearly redefined the Russian president as a global threat and bogeyman with empire ambitions who threatens to nuclear war and European instability.

For many of his longtime admirers – from France to Germany and from the United States to Brazil – it’s an embarrassing place. The stain of Mr. Putin’s new reputation also threatens to taint his fellow travelers.

“It will be a decisive blow for them,” said Lucio Caracciolo, editor of the Italian geopolitical magazine Limes, which considered Mr Putin’s invasion an irrational and potentially politically suicidal decision. He said members of the international far-right who enjoyed a special relationship and financial support from Mr Putin were “in serious trouble”.

“They put all their eggs in one basket,” Mr. Caracciolo said. “And the basket collapses.”

Perhaps no one demonstrates the dilemma better than Matteo Salvini, Italy’s leading right-wing politician, who has been an unabashed Putin fanboy.

He wore shirts with Mr Putin’s face on them in Moscow’s Red Square and at the European Parliament. He said he preferred the Russian president to the Italian. He has repeatedly echoed Mr. Putin’s calls to end the sanctions already imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea. He mocked those who claimed he was in Mr Putin’s pocket, saying: “I value him for free, not for money.

Like some other right-wing leaders, he now seeks to thread the narrowest needles in condemning violence, or even condemning Russia, but not Mr. Putin by name, or condemning violence but apologizing to him with dots. of anti-NATO discussion. .

While some members of his cohort admitted they may have misjudged Mr Putin, Mr Salvini was not ready to make such a concession.

On Thursday, he wrote on Twitter that he strongly condemned “any military aggressionand then left flowers at the Ukrainian embassy. He eventually acknowledged that Russia was the military aggressor, but still seems to struggle to bring himself to criticize and name Mr Putin in the same sentence.

“I am disappointed in the human being who, in 2022, tries to solve economic and political problems through war,” Salvini said in a radio interview. (Mr Salvini’s spokesman, Matteo Pandini, insisted he also said ‘Putin started a war and therefore Putin is wrong’, but could not indicate where he said it. .)

The Italian finds himself in familiar company when it comes to European leaders who are now struggling to come to terms with their past support for Mr Putin with the war of choice he is waging on their continent. The cast of former Putin apologists struggling with excuses reads like a Who’s Who of 2018’s populist ascendancy.

In France, Mr. Putin’s war has prompted a politically painful, and possibly costly, about-face ahead of April’s presidential elections. Far-right candidates who have spent years praising the Russian leader and weeks downplaying the risk of invasion have reassessed Mr Putin and the electoral advantage of being in his corner.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party — which received a loan from a Russian bank — said Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not illegal and visited Mr. Putin in Moscow before the last presidential elections of 2017. While she opposes NATO, Ms Le Pen denounced on Friday the military aggression of Mr. Putin, saying“I think what he did is totally reprehensible. It changes, in part, the opinion I had of him.

His far-right rival in the presidential campaign, Eric Zemmour, has in the past called the prospect of a French equivalent of Mr Putin a “dream” and admired the Russian’s efforts to restore “an empire in decline”. Like many other Putin enthusiasts, he doubted an invasion was in sight and blamed the United States for spreading what he called “propaganda”.

But Thursday, too, denounced the invasionstating that ‘Russia has not been attacked or directly threatened by Ukraine’ in a speech from a lectern which, to make things clearer, displayed a sign reading ‘I totally condemn Russian military intervention in Ukraine “.

In Britain, Nigel Farage, a leading Brexit supporter, had not believed Mr Putin would invade Ukraine. “Well I was wronghe wrote on Twitter on Thursday, while claiming that the European Union and NATO had unnecessarily provoked the expansion of Russia. “Putin has gone much further than I thought he would.”

Other right-wing forces across Europe have sought to square the circle in condemning the violence, but blaming Mr Putin.

Alexander Gauland, a key figure in Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials AfD, told the Neuer Osnabrücker Zeitung daily on Thursday that the invasion was the “result of past failures” and blamed the responsibility for NATO’s eastward expansion. after the Cold War for violating “Russia’s legitimate security interests”. Mr Putin has been more popular in the formerly communist-ruled eastern part of Germany, where the AfD has its political base.

Petr Bystron, a foreign affairs spokesman for the party, visited Moscow with a delegation of its lawmakers last year. He issued a statement in which he “regretted” the current developments but added: “We must not now make the mistake of attributing sole responsibility for this development to Russia.”

“It’s a sign of their ideological closeness to Putin’s aggressive nationalism,” said Hajo Funke, a prominent far-right German scholar in the country.

Mr. Putin’s supporters are by no means limited to Europe.

In the United States, former President Donald J. Trump, whose tenure has been marked by a solicitude for the Russian leader that has baffled his Western allies, said on Wednesday that Mr Putin was “very shrewd” and had made a “brilliant” gesture of declaring parts of Ukraine as independent states as a predicate to move the Russian army.

The remarks made Mr Trump an outlier within the Republican Party of which he is the de facto leader. But he was not totally isolated.

Mr Trump’s media cheerleader, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, has urged Americans to ask themselves what they have against Mr Putin and echoed the Kremlin as he bashed Ukraine not as a democracy but as a puppet of the West and the United States that was “essentially run by the State Department. After the invasion, he too moderated himself, warning of “a world war and saying ‘Vladimir Putin started this war, so whatever the context of the decision he made, he did it’.

The last major leader to visit Mr. Putin before the war, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whom Mr. Putin once said expressed “the best masculine qualities”, decided instead to keep quiet. But he may have shown his hand when he slammed his vice president for saying Brazil opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But it was perhaps Mr Putin’s former friends who seemed most stunned by the attack.

Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who wore fur hats with the Russian at his dacha in Sochi and received a ‘big bed’ from Mr Putin as a gift, condemned the violence but had said nothing publicly about about his old friend. It is unclear whether he had reached out to Mr Putin, but he reportedly told members of his party in a phone call that he was putting his international relations at the service of peace and the defense of the Europe.

“I spoke to Berlusconi last night – he is very worried and almost terrified by what is happening,” Giorgio Mulè, undersecretary of defense for Mr Berlusconi’s party, told Italian radio on Friday. He added: “He just doesn’t see Vladimir Putin as the person he once knew.”

Constant Meheut contributed to the report from Paris, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin and Gaia Pianigiani from Siena, Italy.