In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said triumphantly that ‘if Putin was seeking to divide the EU, to weaken Nato, and to break the international community, he has achieved the exact opposite.’
A month later, Vladimir Putin may be struggling on Ukraine’s battlefields but he has been on a winning streak in European politics. In both Serbia and Hungary, Kremlin-favoured incumbents were re-elected last weekend. If the tight polls are any indication, Putin may get lucky in the upcoming presidential election in France as well, providing an ample pay-off to Russia’s long-term investment in Europe’s far right and proving von der Leyen’s jubilation premature.
Both Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán owe their political success primarily to their own prowess as political actors and manipulators than to Moscow’s interference. Both, however, exploit their countries’ own versions of the post-imperial nostalgia that is currently fuelling Russia’s killing spree in Ukraine – using grievances about lost territories and prestige to get ahead.
Orbán does not hide his ambition to reverse the 1920 treaty of Trianon and restore Great Hungary to its ‘thousand-year-old borders.’ The Serbian government has called for the creation of the ‘Serbian World’ – a Balkan parallel to Putin’s ‘Russian World’ where all Serbs live and are united under a common cultural framework. After the world had seen Slobodan Milošević’s genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s first hand, a young Vučić thought it a good idea to join Milošević’s government. ‘For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims,’ Vučić vowed to Serbia’s parliament.
Over time, Vučić toned down his rhetoric and pledged to move Serbia towards the EU. But Serbia has simultaneously been doing Moscow’s bidding. Russian arms supplies have made it a regional power that remains threatening to its Nato neighbours. Belgrade’s destabilisation of the western Balkans is testing the alliance and the EU’s cohesion – which is exactly what Putin wants. To reciprocate Putin’s loyalty, Vučić has refused to impose sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.
In an ominous gesture of foreign policy alignment shortly before Russia’s invasion, Belgrade and Moscow pledged to combat western influence and ‘colour revolutions’ together. In Bosnia, the region Republika Srpska, a client of Belgrade and Moscow, threatens to secede, while keeping the country’s complex federal politics paralysed.
Orbán’s revisionist goals and his alignment with Moscow look similar. His government has been giving away Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries; buying soccer clubs in formerly Hungarian areas; and channelling funds into Hungarian parties.
The fever dreams of restoring Great Hungary have long put Hungary at odds with Ukraine, undercutting Kyiv’s efforts to forge a closer relationship with Nato and the EU. Hungary has not only ruled out providing any military assistance to Ukraine, it has also prohibited any such shipments from other Nato countries to move through its own territory. Orbán’s government, touting its own 15-year contract with Gazprom, has also pledged to veto any energy sanctions and breached western unity by offering to pay for Russian natural gas in roubles, as requested by the Kremlin. ‘We will by no means allow Hungarians to be made to pay the price of war,’ the foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said last week.
On the night of his re-election, Orbán namechecked Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky as one of his ‘opponents’ who have been defeated in the Hungarian polls. Later, he rejected the idea of expelling any Russian diplomats and even personally invited Putin to peace talks in Budapest.
Even as they cause a headache in Brussels and Washington, elections in Serbia and Hungary can be dismissed as largely inconsequential affirmations of the status quo in both countries. The same cannot be said of the increasingly less remote possibility of Marine Le Pen’s victory in the French presidential election. While polls vary, Le Pen is on track to outperform her 2017 results. Unlike in 2017, she appears to have successfully shed much of the stigma that once mobilised the French voting public to support her (and her father’s) opponents in the second round, no matter how lacklustre they appeared.
While her ‘dédiabolisation’ (dedemonisation) as the French terms goes, appears successful, her long-standing loyalties are clear. Only a few weeks ago, amid Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, she said of Zelensky: ‘I have no particular admiration for [him].’ In contrast she has praised Putin on many occasions, including for helping to usher ‘a new world [that] has emerged in these past years,’ adding that ‘it’s the world of Vladimir Putin, it’s the world of Donald Trump in the US. I share with these great nations a vision of cooperation, not of submission.’
Even as she painstakingly navigates the minefield created for her by Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, she has long been on the record as endorsing the annexation of Crimea. Given the political liabilities created by the generous Russian loan to her campaign in 2017, she is currently receiving funding from a bank linked to Orbán.
As in the case of Vučić and Orbán, Le Pen’s strength is drawn not primarily from Russian interference but from domestic factors, including President Emmanuel Macron’s mixed record as a domestic reformer and as a leader of the European project. But that does not make the prospect of her victory any less catastrophic for Ukraine, for European security, and for the future of the transatlantic alliance. Very soon, the western self-congratulation that has surrounded Putin’s strategic blunder in Ukraine might end up looking very foolish indeed.
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Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.
Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.