Ivaldi, Gilles & Zankina, Emilia. (2023). “Introduction to the report on the impact of the Russia–Ukraine War on right-wing populism in Europe.” In: The Impacts of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine on Right-wing Populism in Europe. (eds). Gilles Ivaldi and Emilia Zankina. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 8, 2023. Brussels. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0034
Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war.
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine boiled over on February 24, 2022, as Vladimir Putin launched what the Kremlin called a “special military operation” in Ukraine. This blatant attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty sent political shockwaves across the planet, upending international markets and triggering panic throughout Ukrainian society. In the year since, the war has claimed tens of thousands of lives and caused hundreds of thousands more to flee while devastating Ukrainian infrastructure and wrecking the country’s economy. However, the consequences of Russia’s aggression have been felt far beyond Ukraine’s borders. The financial sanctions on Russia, disruptions to supply chains, and general economic insecurity have destabilized global energy markets and supply chains, causing food prices to soar (Boungou & Yatié, 2022). Furthermore, the urgency of the Russia–Ukraine conflict has stalled critical international cooperation in addressing the climate crisis (Ali et al., 2022; Liadze et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Orhan, 2022; Pereira et al., 2022; Rawtani et al., 2022).
The fallout of the conflict has hit certain territories harder than others, depending on the region’s proximity to the competition and reliance on Russian and Ukrainian exports. In Europe, this has meant an asymmetric impact on domestic economies relative to their dependence on Russian gas and Ukrainian grain. This has triggered a significant slowdown in economic growth in the Eurozone and an energy crisis over the winter (Celi et al., 2022; International Monetary Fund, 2022; Smit et al., 2022). Furthermore, European countries have used considerable resources to provide welfare assistance, temporary housing, and organizations to welcome refugees fleeing the conflict (Liadze et al., 2022). The economic repercussions of the war have resulted in a looming recession due to the interconnected nature of the global economy (Smit et al., 2022; Câmpeanu, 2022; Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 2022; Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, 2022).
Through its many economic, cultural and political ramifications, the war in Ukraine has dramatically impacted Europe both on the individual member states and at the European Union level, creating new constraints and opportunities for political actors in the different parts of the bloc. While parties across the political spectrum—both within and outside the mainstream—may have been affected by the war, this report focused closely on the pan-European populist Radical Right, which is a party family that has long enjoyed close ties with Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. With the Kremlin now an international pariah, questions arise about how the Ukraine war has affected such parties across Europe.
In this introduction, we briefly explain the rationale for this focus on the European populist Radical Right party family and the questions that all our national experts and contributors to the report have addressed. We then chart the topography of contemporary radical right-wing populism in Europe and briefly outline the cases included in the analysis. The findings of this cross-national examination and the main takeaways of the analysis are summarized and discussed in the conclusion.
A cross-national study of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war
Defined as a “thin ideology” (Mudde, 2004), populism in Europe has manifested across the political spectrum and can be found in a range of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist-technocratic variants (Ivaldi et al., 2017; Ivaldi, 2020). Its most dominant and persistent strain in the past decades has been the populist Radical Right, which is marked by a commitment to nativism and authoritarianism (Mudde, 2007; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
The contemporary wave of the populist Radical Right has been characterized by the mainstreaming and, increasingly, the political normalization of these parties (Mudde 2022), as more and more populist Radical Right parties are represented in parliaments, even forming governments. As a result, these parties have become a well-established political force in many European party systems. Moreover, they currently represent the most electorally successful “brand” of populism, enjoying substantial levels of popular support across Europe.
Moreover, these parties are widely considered the principal agents of illiberal politics, supporting discriminatory nativist and authoritarian policies, while rejecting the fundamental European liberal values of minority rights and the rule of law. Nativism has traditionally represented a core ideological feature of the European Radical Right. It includes a combination of nationalism and xenophobia, which “comes in a number of guises, from the mobilization of socioeconomic anxieties to the appeal to racial prejudices” (Betz, 2017, p. 347). Welfare chauvinism is another typical characteristic of this party family and follows logically from nativism, xenophobia, the rejection of minority rights, and support for excluding migrants and domestic minorities from accessing national welfare systems (Greve, 2019). Far Right parties frame immigration as a threat to the welfare and cultural fabric of Western societies (Mudde, 2022).
Most parties of the populist Radical Right are also strong opponents of European integration and supranationalism more generally (Vasilopoulou, 2011, 2018). They often manipulate Eurosceptic frames to mobilize voters (Gómez-Reino & Llamazares, 2013; Rohrschneider & Whitefield, 2016). However, many of those parties have recently toned down their Euroscepticism. Looking at the recent period, Taggart (2019) notes that most Eurosceptic parties have moderated their position vis-à-vis the European Union (EU), switching to a more reformist rhetoric, and arguing that they would change the EU from within. As suggested by Brack (2020), “against the background of the difficult and unclear Brexit negotiations, most parties softened their position, and few of them still openly advocate for their country’s exit from the EU” (p. 6). An empirical study by Braun et al. (2019) demonstrates that such changes in the tone of Far Right parties toward the EU are primarily determined by the EU-related evaluation – the polity mood – of the national citizenry and the level of public support for EU integration at the domestic level.
In contemporary Far Right politics, Eurosceptic stances are associated with the idea of protecting the nation, which is expressed in claims to preserve or regain national sovereignty (Basile & Mazzoleni, 2020; Heinisch et al., 2020). Populist Radical Right parties such as the Rassemblement National in France and Lega in Italy portray themselves as champions of national values and defenders of national interests against supranational institutions, and they all assume the primacy of the nation-state as a means of re-establishing the people’s sovereignty (Ivaldi & Mazzoleni, 2020).
Finally, most populist Radical Right parties have been admirers of Russia in general and Vladimir Putin’s regime in particular. The relationship between radical right-wing populist parties and Russia has been amply documented in the literature (Shekhovtsov, 2018). As early as the 1990s, there were some attempts at cooperation between populist right-wing parties in Europe and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed at the time by Far Right politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky (Futàk-Campbell, 2020). More recently, there have been growing links between Russian actors and Radical Right activists, publicists, ideologues, and politicians in the West. Such ties between the Kremlin and the European populist Radical Right have grown stronger over the last decade, reflecting what has been deemed a “marriage of convenience” based on converging interests (Makarychev, 2018). As Shekhovtsov (2018) suggests, Moscow has begun to support particular populist radical right political forces to gain leverage on European politics and undermine the liberal democratic consensus in the West.
Overall, then, European radical right-wing populists are generally “admirers” of Putin’s regime based on their shared nativism, authoritarianism, and, increasingly, illiberal politics, as well as, for some of those parties, their rejection of NATO and what is deemed American imperialism. Additionally, Moscow and radical right-wing populist actors converge on their shared opposition to the EU (Makarychev & Terry, 2020). Many European populist Radical Right parties have also established formal links with Russia, and some of these parties, such as the French Rassemblement and Italian Lega, have even received funding from the Kremlin (Futàk-Campbell, 2020).
In 2014, most European populist radical right-wing parties justified the annexation of Crimea by Russia by adopting the Kremlin’s rhetoric and strong criticism of the Ukrainian state. In so doing, they parroted Kremlin talking points about the so-called “reunification” of Crimea with Russia through the supposed self-determination of the “people of Crimea”, as expressed in the Crimean referendum of March 16, 2014.
The war in Ukraine has cast into sharp relief Russia’s hybrid war for control and influence over Europe and the so-called “fifth column”, the network of Far Right political parties and movements in Europe that Russia has been cultivating and explicitly supporting. These Far Right parties, Guide (2017) argues, “are capitalizing on economic and security crises in Europe to build popular support and now operate as a fifth column that is undermining the Western liberal order from within” (pp. 1–2). Russia’s objective in this “war” is ultimately to establish a new world order that, in the words of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “is multipolar, just, and democratic” (France24, 2022).
At a more practical level, Russia aims to undermine the unity of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and within the EU and establish bilateral relations with individual countries (the same strategy China has been using with its Belt and Road Initiative). Doing so would give Russia much more leverage in bilateral negotiations but also in dealing with the EU, where individual countries (such as Hungary) could be creating obstacles to any decisions not favourable to Russia.
In its hybrid war, Russia has utilized several tactics: 1) gas dependencies (over 40% for the EU, but over 60% for some EU member states such as Italy, and over 90% of countries such as Bulgaria and North Macedonia); 2) investments and oligarchs (the UK has been the prime destination for Russian oligarchs and investments and those seeking “golden passports”, but other European countries have also been welcoming); 3) disinformation (through social media and paid trolls); 4) intelligence and spies (poisoning cases), and, last but not least; 5) the funding of nationalist parties. These tactics can be traced in many European countries, from France and Britain to Bulgaria.
Russia has long been accused of funding populist Radical Right parties in Europe, from the Front National and Lega to Austria’s FPÖ and Hungary’s Jobbik (Pabst, 2014; Rettman, 2017; Weiss, 2020). Russia has also created some open ties with anti-EU parties, inviting their leaders to various conferences and symposia organized by Kremlin’s close associates (Futàk-Campbell, 2020; Rettman, 2017). One such forum in 2015 proved the biggest gathering of Europe’s Far Right parties, with representatives of Radical Right parties from several European countries, including Golden Dawn (Greece), the National Democratic Party (Germany), Ataka (Bulgaria), the Lombardy League (Italy), the Alliance for Peace and Freedom (EU-wide), New Force (Italy), the British National Party (United Kingdom), National Democracy (Spain), the Party of the Swedes (Sweden), and the Danish Party (Denmark). Indeed, Far Right parties have been good allies to the Kremlin, voting in ways favourable to Russia both at home and in the European Parliament on issues such as Ukraine, human rights in Russia, Association Agreements with post-Soviet states, and more (Wesslau, 2016).
The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has, on the other hand, presented new challenges for Kremlin-backed radical right-wing populist parties, putting many of them under strain for their association with Russia and admiration of Putin’s regime and forcing them to adapt to the new context produced by the war in Ukraine, thus raising specific concerns about how such parties have navigated this new context and the impact that the war may have had on them, both nationally and at the EU level.
Questions addressed in the report
This report examines the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the state of the populist Radical Right in Europe. Country experts were asked to tackle different questions in relation to radical right-wing populist parties and the Ukrainian crisis. More specifically, special attention was paid to the reactions of right-wing populist parties to this war and the political and electoral consequences of the conflict for such parties.
Let us note here that while the report focuses primarily on right-wing populism, national experts were also invited to look at other populist parties in their country where deemed relevant. The scholarship on populism and foreign policy suggests that populist parties and leaders generally adopt anti-American and pro-Russian positions (Chryssogelos, 2010, 2011; Balfour et al., 2016). This makes such analysis of the broader group of non-Radical Right populist actors also relevant to this report, most notably in countries such as Italy and France, where populists of both the Left and Right have competed with one another in recent elections, as well as countries such as Bulgaria and Slovakia where mainstream parties have had traditionally strong pro-Russian views and positions.
By looking at both the “supply” and “demand” side of radical right-wing populism in the context of the Ukraine war across over 20 European countries, this reports provides an in-depth examination of the diversity of such actors concerning their positions vis-à-vis Russia, NATO, and the EU before the war, and the different ways in which these parties have “performed” the war in Ukraine, the type of arguments and rhetoric they used, and how they may have exploited war-related issues (e.g., energy, prices, climate, and defence). As Moffit (2015) suggests, crises such as the Ukraine war are never “neutral” phenomena but are mediated and “performed” by populist parties. In return, while many of these parties have sought to evade accusations of sympathy for Russia since the outbreak of the war, their political opponents have used their previous ties with Moscow, which is another significant aspect of the analysis in this report.
Turning to the “demand” side, we ask how the invasion may have affected the public perception of radical right-wing populist parties and leaders in the mass public, the impact the war may have had on the popularity or electoral support for those parties, and how that support fits with the public opinion at large on the war. The association with Russia was used to delegitimize the democratic viability of these Far Right populist parties, but only for a relatively short while, as none of the parties achieved worse results in the elections which took place in 2022. Far from the heralded end of the “Age of Populism” (Douthat, 2022), some radical right-wing populist parties have succeeded more than ever in Europe.
Recent elections in France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, and Sweden have attested to the electoral vitality of the Far Right parties. In the 2022 French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally, won 41.5% of the second-round runoff against incumbent president Emmanuel Macron, which marked a new culmination of the Far Right in France. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán reasserted the dominance of Fidesz and his ever-more authoritarian rule, gaining even more seats in parliament. In Latvia, two new populist Radical Right parties gained 20 seats in the 100-seat parliament. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy have topped the 2022 general election, making Meloni the country’s new (and first female) prime minister. In Sweden, a former extreme right party with links with neo-Nazi movements, the Sweden Democrats, won over 20% of the vote in the 2022 elections, and the party has officially become part of the right-wing governing coalition.
Finally, each country chapter assesses the invasion’s temporary and potentially permanent effects on right-wing populist politics, allowing for the broader conclusions discussed in this report’s final section.
The topography of European radical right-wing populist parties
According to Pirro (2022), the Far Right refers to “all those ultranationalist collective actors sharing a common exclusionary and authoritarian worldview—predominantly determined on sociocultural criteria—yet varying allegiances to democracy” (p. 3). The “populist Radical Right” refers to a specific subset of parties within the wider “Far Right” party family, in which typical Far Right features are associated with a populist ideology and illiberal rather than anti-democratic tendencies (Mudde, 2019; Pirro, 2022). Pirro notes that populism is primarily associated with the Radical Right. Through their anti-establishment profile, such parties “glorify ‘the people’ and consider it the linchpin of any rightful political goal and decision, at the same time criticizing ‘the elite’ as responsible for all the ills of the world” (Pirro, 2022, p. 6).
While any taxonomy of political parties may be the subject of disagreement among scholars, there is a relatively sizeable academic consensus about which parties may be included in the broad European ‘Far Right’ party family and, more specifically, in the populist Radical Right cluster of parties (Mudde, 2022; Halikiopoulou & Vlandas, 2022).
In this report, the relevant cases of populist Radical Right parties were identified by the national experts based on their extensive knowledge of radical right-wing populism in their country, including the more recent developments in a somewhat fluid and rapidly evolving political phenomenon – see for instance the recent rise of new Far Right actors in Bulgaria, France, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland, and not necessarily yet considered in the comparative literature on the topic.
Table 1 below shows the main parties included in the analysis. As already noted, experts have sometimes included populist parties that may not strictly fall within the Radical Right category, but whose reactions to the war are relevant to the focus of this research.
Table 1. A summary of populist Radical Right parties included in the report
|Country||Party||% of votes last general election||Date of last general election|
|Austria||Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ)||16.2||Sep 2019|
|Belgium||Vlaams Belang (VB)||11.9||May 2019|
|Denmark||Danish People’s Party (DF)New Right (NB)||2.63.7||Nov 2022|
|Finland||Finns PartyBlue Reform||17.51.0||Apr 2019|
|France||Rassemblement National (RN)Reconquête!||18.74.2||Jun 2022|
|Germany||Alternative for Germany (AfD)||10.3||Sep 2021|
|Italy||Brothers of Italy (FdI)LegaForza Italia (FI)||26.08.88.1||Sep 2022|
|Norway||Progress Party (FrP)||11.6||Sep 2021|
|Sweden||Sweden Democrats (SD)||20.5||Sep 2022|
|The Netherlands||Freedom Party (PVV)Forum for Democracy (FvD)Juist Alternative 2021 (JA21)||10.85.02.4||Mar 2021|
|Bulgaria||AtakaInternal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO)National Front for Salvation of Bulgaria (NFSB)Revival (Vazrazhdane)||0.30
|Croatia||The Croatian Party of Rights (HSF) The Croatian Pure Party of Rights (HČSP)The Authentic Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP)The Croatian Party of Rights 1861 (HSP 1861)||0.44
|Czech Republic||Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD)||10.64||Oct 2021|
|Estonia||Estonia Conservative People’s Party (EKRE)||17.76||Mar 2019|
|Latvia||For Each and Everyone (KuK)For Stability (S!)Latvia First (LPV)National Alliance (NA)||3.676.806.429.40||Oct 2022|
|Lithuania||Lithuanian Family Movement (LŠS)The National Alliance (NA)Union for Nation and Justice (TTS)||
|Romania||Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR)||9.17||Dec 2020|
|Serbia||DSSDveriSovereignistsSerbian Progressive Party (SNS)SRSZavetnici||5.543.922.3444.272.223.82||Apr 2022|
|Turkey||Justice and Development Party (AKP)||42.56||Jun 2018|
Overall, the analysis in this report concerns a total of 37 populist Radical Right parties across 12 West European and 10 East European countries, plus Turkey. This report is divided into 23 country chapters. Their principal findings are discussed comparatively in the conclusion.
Our findings suggest substantial variability in the international agenda of populist Radical Right parties in Europe. Such heterogeneity is found in their foreign policy positions towards NATO, the EU, and Russia before the war, but we also find variation in those parties’ performances during the Ukraine crisis after the outbreak of the war. Moreover, the cross-national analysis shows that radical right-wing populist parties have varied in the set of arguments and rhetoric that they have used since the beginning of the Russian invasion to try and sustain their electoral appeal and maintain credibility with voters by evading accusations of sympathy for Russia or, in some cases, by showcasing their support for Russia. Such variability is observed across countries but also within them (Carlotti, 2023) and, in some cases, within the populist Radical Right parties themselves, which suggests that they should not necessarily be considered unitary actors despite what is often deemed a highly centralized organization and strong leadership.
Both external and internal factors may account for different responses by populist Radical Right parties to the Ukraine war. Externally, we find country-specific factors related to different histories, foreign policy traditions, and economic factors. Among these, we can count each particular country’s level of dependence on Russian oil and gas, as well as trade relations. We also see some factors relating to party system dynamics and party competition in our countries of interest, particularly regarding the strategy of “normalization” that some populist Radical Right parties have pursued over time to become more acceptable to voters and to broaden their electoral appeal.
Internally, the different responses to the war by radical right-wing populist parties in Europe may be accounted for by those parties’ ideologies and policy positions across the socioeconomic and cultural dimensions of competition. Our findings suggest a possible line of division between the more welfare chauvinist of those parties, which have essentially focused on the domestic and socioeconomic impact of the war, emphasizing the interests of their “people”, and those which, on the other hand, have adopted a broader cultural and civilizational approach in their performance and interpretation of the current Ukraine crisis. Finally, the changes that we observe in attitudes of radical right-wing populist parties towards Russia illustrate the malleability of populism and its “chameleon-like” characteristics, suggesting a good deal of adaptability and the capacity of these parties to “read the room” and quickly adapt to shifts in public opinion (Albertazzi, 2022; Carlotti, 2023).
(*) The Editors would like to thank Azize Sargin, Ivan Escobar Fernández and Martin Galland at the ECPS for their support and assistance in preparing this report.
(**) Gilles Ivaldi is researcher in politics at CEVIPOF and professor at Sciences Po Paris. His research interests include French politics, parties and elections, and the comparative study of populism and the radical right in Europe and the United States. Gilles Ivaldi is the author of De Le Pen à Trump : le défi populiste (Bruxelles : Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2019), The 2017 French Presidential Elections. A political Reformation?, 2018, Palgrave MacMillan, with Jocelyn Evans. His research has appeared in journals such as Electoral Studies, the International Journal of Forecasting, Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales, French Politics, Revue Française de Science Politique or Political Research Quarterly.
(***) Emilia Zankina is an Associate Professor in Political Science, interim Vice Provost for Global Engagement of Temple University and Dean of Temple University Rome campus. She holds a Ph.D. in International Affairs and a Certificate in Advanced East European Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines East European politics, populism, civil service reform, and gender political representation. She has published in reputable journals and presses such as West European Politics, Politics and Gender, East European Politics, Problems of Post-communism, Representation, ECPR Press, Indiana Press, and more. She frequently serves as an expert for Freedom House, V-Democracy, and EU commission projects. In the past, Zankina has served as Provost of the American University in Bulgaria, Associate Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Managing Editor of East European Politics and Societies.
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