Republican voters see Russia more favorably today than they did before the election of Donald Trump. The so-called “Trump effect” (named after the President-elect’s sunny disposition toward Russia and President Vladimir Putin in particular) dominated at least one news cycle a few weeks back, but it obscures a more interesting emerging dynamic.
The reality is that the majority of Trump voters (56 percent) still see Russia as an enemy of the United States, and yet these same voters supported a candidate who they believe sees Russia as a friend. In Europe, supporters of populist parties also tend to be rather anti-Russian, yet they too support self-proclaimed allies of Putin. Just as Trump won the presidential election in the U.S. despite his warm views on Russia, European pro-Russian political parties are rising at the same time that voters’ opinions of Russia are falling. Indeed, the great irony of the populist wave sweeping across the Atlantic—represented by the likes of Marine Le Pen in France, UKIP in Great Britain—is that populist leaders’ pro-Russian views do not reflect public opinion or even the attitudes of their supporters.
This contradiction between voters’ attitudes and behavior is easy to wave away: Candidates’ foreign policy positions rarely make or break a campaign, since voters are traditionally motivated by domestic, pocketbook concerns above all else. But it is less immediately obvious why candidates would take any risk at all to go against their constituencies’ foreign policy preferences, however weakly held, by taking pro-Russian stances.
Russian Meddling in Europe
hile the Kremlin’s brazen meddling in the U.S. elections may be shocking to those just tuning in, the fact is that Russia has been actively interfering in decisive votes across Europe for quite some time now.
During the Brexit campaign, David Cameron repeatedly warned that Brexit would increase Russian influence and aggression in Europe by weakening European unity. The Embassy of Russia in the UK and Russia’s English language media outlet, RT (formerly Russia Today), were unabashedly supportive of Brexit. Nigel Farage, then the head of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the chief architect of Brexit, and a frequent guest on RT, on several occasions spoke warmly of Putin, at one point calling the Russian President the world leader he admired most.
But British voters, who are overwhelmingly critical of the Kremlin (66 percent hold unfavorable views of Russia) didn’t seem to mind that they were voting for a pro-Russian agenda. Rather, concerns over immigration and the EU’s perceived encroachment on national decision making drove the pro-Brexit votes.
In France, 70 percent of voters have unfavorable views of Russia, but Marine Le Pen, whose National Front party has openly accepted funding from a Russian-backed bank, is leading the public opinion polls before the presidential elections next year, and his center-right rival, Francois Fillon, won the primaries despite his rival, Alain Juppé, attacking him during the debates for being too close to the Kremlin.
Following Italy’s failed referendum on December 4, early elections, if held, would bring big gains for the populist Five Star Movement and for the far-right Lega Nord. Both parties have been vocal supporters of the Kremlin. Lega Nord leaders make frequent visits to Moscow, and the party makes strong efforts for international recognition of the annexation of Crimea. The Five Star Movement (M5S), led by comedian Beppe Grillo and currently the most popular political party in Italy, has ties to Putin’s close allies and has built a complex media network that spreads pro-Russian propaganda in the form of fake news and conspiracy theories.
In Eastern Europe, Jobbik, Hungary’s far-right party, is second in the polls despite suspected financial links to the Russian government. Jobbik’s member in the European Parliament, Bela Kovacs, has been stripped of diplomatic immunity following allegations that he was spying for the Russians. Jobbik’s pro-Kremlin foreign policy agenda has been taken up by Fidesz, Hungary’s ruling party. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has praised Putin’s model of the “illiberal state,” and Hungary has been a loud voice against imposing EU sanctions on Russia. There are also several suspicious business ties between Russia and Hungary under strong public scrutiny. Hungarian voters, however, have a rather negative opinion toward Russia, and even Jobbik voters would choose to have closer relations with Washington rather than Moscow. Still, these pro-Russian right wing parties remain the most (Fidesz) and second-most (Jobbik) popular in the polls.
What’s in It for the Populists?
ro-Russian populist leaders seem to have made the calculation that the benefits of a pro-Russian foreign policy outweigh the potential risks of alienating some voters. But why take the risk at all? There are three possible and not mutually exclusive explanations.
First, populist politicians may view a pro-Russian stance as part of their anti-establishment platform. If any one issue unites the European populists, it is their ardent critique of the European Union’s perceived incursion on national sovereignty and the political establishment’s support for EU expansion. The EU’s sanctions policy, while formally supported by all EU member states, is not equally supported by all member states, most notably Greece, Italy, and Hungary. Anti-establishment forces thus interpret the sanctions policy as another example of the EU overextending its mandate and overriding the demands of member states. In this narrative, an anti-EU policy goes hand in glove with a pro-Russian one.
Along the same lines, one should not underestimate the attraction of contrarian stances at a time of unprecedented voter dissatisfaction. Late last week, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted approvingly of Putin’s decision to not retaliate against President Obama’s sanctioning Russia in retaliation for meddling in U.S. elections. Trump has capitalized handsomely from trolling the establishment all campaign long. The paroxysms of outrage that his every move seems to elicit in the commentariat delights his followers, who may not even care that much about the substance of what he is espousing.
Second, the most obvious, but also most difficult to prove, explanation is that there exists some kind of quid pro quo relationship between populist parties or leaders and the Kremlin. While the National Front is the only clear-cut case of a political party accepting Russian money, most experts believe that the Kremlin has been actively funding opposition parties and movements, or their members on both the Left and the Right in Europe: Jobbik in Hungary, Ataka in Bulgaria, or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Die Linke in Germany. While the financial links between Moscow and populist politicians are non-transparent by design, the political links are stunningly and deliberately visible: Russia wants to be seen as having many friends in Europe, and Putin’s European supporters are touted on Russian media as validating Putin’s view of the world.
Third, the pro-Russian populists like Le Pen, Farage, and others, could be true believers in Putin’s strongman governance model, a model grounded in nationalism, authoritarianism, ultraconservatism, and anti-Westernism. Putin has become the leader of what could be called the “Populist International”—an alliance of political forces that see an alternative to Western liberal order as the best way forward for their societies. The European Union, as the embodiment of the Western political consensus, is enemy number one. But while the populists and Putin may unite in a common “anti-vision,” few, if any, supporters of Europe’s anti-establishment parties would want to live in the unfree society Putin has established in Russia. Many Russians who have the means and skills do not want to live there either and have been leaving by the thousands.
Why Don’t Voters Care?
Campaigns may not be won on foreign policy, but not so long ago in U.S. history a politician’s career would have been undone at the mere suspicion of warm views toward the Soviet Union. And while Putin is certainly not Stalin or Khrushchev and McCarthyism is no way to win an ideological battle, the distance we have traveled in such a short time is astounding: Today, politicians who seek closer ties with Russia win elections rather than becoming political pariahs. Much of this shift has less to do with a real attitudinal change among voters and is rather the consequence of political leaders’ lack of clarity and strategy toward Russia.
During the Cold War, the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West was defined by two competing and clearly elaborated worldviews: democratic liberalism versus state socialism. The line between good and evil was self-evident to most on both sides. But Western leaders in the post-Cold War period have sent mixed messages to the electorate. Two U.S. administrations—those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama—have sought better relations with Russia. Both failed: Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 as Bush was leaving office, and then invaded Ukraine in 2014 following the Obama administration’s “reset.” The Kremlin went on to prop up Assad in a brutal military campaign in Syria as Secretary of State John Kerry was tirelessly negotiating futile ceasefire agreements. U.S. administrations for the past 16 years have simultaneously sought Russian cooperation while criticizing Russian behavior, so it should not be surprising that U.S. voters are ambivalent. U.S. leaders have not been able to decide since the end of the Cold War whether Russia is an ally, enemy, or an occasional partner. Voters who only pay passing attention to foreign policy questions have concluded that, whatever the real issues are, the stakes are low.
In addition, voters no longer rely on the mainstream media as the lens through which to interpret the world. Trust in mainstream media is declining as individuals seek (and are bombarded with) alternative information on various social media platforms. Much of this information is manipulated by Russian-sponsored media outlets or is simply made up by opportunistic individuals. And the Russian government, for its part, has used the cacophonous new information environment to its advantage to create an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt. While “fake news” may be the term du jour, it used to simply be called “active measures.”
Furthermore, populists’ supporters hate their own “establishment” leaders far more than Putin. While 35 percent of Trump voters have favorable views of Putin (compared to the 51 who do not), only 9 percent of them have favorable views of Obama. This stark contrast shows that anti-establishment rhetoric, honed by populist leaders around the world, is far more effective at mobilizing voters than the threat of Putin’s Russia.
Relatedly, it’s important to remember that, on balance, Western voters appear to be most concerned with the threat of Islamic terrorism. In 2016, France, Germany, and Belgium were hit by terrifying attacks in public spaces, raising profound concerns about the European Union’s ability to secure its borders and prevent future attacks. In the United States, 80 percent of Americans see ISIS as the top threat to U.S. security, while less than 50 percent said the same for Russia. The key point is that terrorist attacks carried out by relatively weak groups like ISIS nonetheless strike at the heart of Western societies and leave a lasting impression on voters. Average voters do not see Russia invading Ukraine as a threat to world order (unlike most U.S. and European military commanders) but rather as a localized conflict far from their everyday concerns. Russia’s information war, and its efforts to erode support for the norms that keep our Western democratic societies free, are largely invisible and thus easy to write off as hand-wringing distractions being pushed by politically correct elites unwilling to face up to the more pressing threat of Islamic fundamentalism.
Why We Should Care
The fact that populists have been ascendant across the West is a testament to their ability to speak to voters’ most pressing concerns. Conflating immigrants and terrorists has proven to be an effective way of justifying strict immigration restrictions while at the same time gesturing at a policy of economic protectionism without spelling out how something like that would work.
Focusing on these issues in this way has put the populists’ mainstream political opponents at a distinct disadvantage. By trying to simply dismiss these initiatives out of hand as “illiberal,” mainstream politicians have given populists further ammunition. If trying to address the legitimate concerns of my people is illiberal, politicians like Hungary’s Viktor Orban are saying, then I am guilty as charged of illiberalism.
Vladimir Putin, the consummate opportunist, has stepped up to exploit this fissure. Though he too has availed himself of populism in maintaining his grip on power in Russia, his rule is more accurately characterized as kleptocratic authoritarianism: a centralized, mafia-like system that has allowed those close to the seat of power to systematically strip-mine the state of assets for personal gain. Putin’s illiberalism is an organic outgrowth of the system itself. Any kind of properly functioning rule of law, after all, is directly threatening to the system’s survival. By tapping into the more ideological struggle in the West, Putin has managed to dress up his thievery as something more principled. I am the original illiberal, he is saying.
The message is resonating. Voters, already conditioned to ambivalence by 16 years of hot-and-cold policy on Russia, are receptive to the narratives being floated by the Kremlin in the new social media-driven information space. And populist politicians in the West are capitalizing on it. Republican voters’ improving attitudes about Russia (67 percent of Republicans saw Russia as an enemy before Trump’s election) is evidence for how a political leader can change seemingly durable beliefs in a short period of time. In Hungary, voters are also starting to change their minds about Putin, with Jobbik’s and Orbán’s voters increasingly admiring the authoritarian leader.
But just because voter frustration with mainstream politicians’ bungled responses to terrorism is legitimate does not mean that the embrace of Putinism is wise or farsighted. While terrorism very visibly exploits the open nature of Western liberal societies to harm them, the insidiously corrosive nature of Russia’s kleptocracy-spawned illiberalism is arguably a graver long-term threat.
Securing the West from the threat of terrorism will not be easy, but the broad contours of the solution have been discernible for some time. They involve finding difficult working compromises on how liberal states secure their borders, surveil their citizens, and manage immigrant flows and assimilation. No such parallel set of “fixes” exists for the threat from illiberalism, which especially in its Russian guise, is nothing more than the nihilistic negation of the norms that underpin the order of our democratic societies.
Contrarianism is easy and especially alluring in difficult times. Europeans now see Russia as more powerful than the European Union, and so it is no surprise that this lack of confidence in the West can engender a knee-jerk rejectionist worldview. Convincing voters to instead rehabilitate and rediscover the virtues of the Western liberal postwar world order is the critical long-term task ahead. In the immediate term, politicians need to clearly identify Putin’s Russia as a source of this toxic nihilism and start laying out a positive liberal narrative for voters to latch on to. The fight for hearts and minds is far from lost. It’s not really even been joined yet.