The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Right-wing nationalists backpedal as Putin’s Ukraine war worsens

Marine Le Pen in Saint-Denis, near Paris, on March 3. (Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images)

For years, right-wing nationalist politicians pronounced a dewy-eyed admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, a strongman they couldn’t resist. It wasn’t only Donald Trump who rhapsodized about Mr. Putin’s supposed “strength” and “traditional” values. It was also the leaders of similarly inclined movements in France, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.

Many of those leaders have now been knocked off balance by Mr. Putin’s scorched-earth campaign in Ukraine. Heedless of the Russian leader’s previous acts of murderous brutality — against Ukraine, Georgia and various Russian dissidents who crossed him — the current carnage has triggered a backpedaling stampede. For many Europeans in particular, the unfolding barbarity in Ukraine, alarmingly nearby, has placed nationalist parties and politicians in an unflattering and clarifying new light.

In France, ahead of national elections next month, right-wing politician Marine Le Pen has been embarrassed by a photograph of her shaking hands with Mr. Putin, featured in more than 1 million pamphlets recently printed by her National Rally party. Ms. Le Pen, who previously supported Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea, part of Ukraine, after her party took a 9 million-euro loan from a Russian bank to finance her 2017 presidential campaign, could plausibly have been regarded as a Russian asset by Moscow. As recently as last month, she parroted the Kremlin’s denials that Mr. Putin planned to invade Ukraine, saying she didn’t believe a bit of it. “I don’t see what … would be their interest there,” she declared.

Her eyes having been opened, she now asserts the invasion is “unjustifiable.” Another French right-winger, Éric Zemmour, who also scoffed at the odds of a Russian attack, and made no secret of his admiration for Mr. Putin, has undergone a similar awakening.

By contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron took seriously the threat posed by Mr. Putin’s sword-rattling and made intensive diplomatic efforts to avert a war as Russian troops massed at Ukraine’s borders. His standing in the polls has jumped, and Thursday he announced he would run for a second term. The elections will determine whether French voters reward his perspicacity and punish his right-wing opponents’ witlessness.

Hungarians, too, have been subjected to rhetorical acrobatics by their nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, who never hid his admiration for Mr. Putin despite his country’s membership in NATO. Mr. Orban, also blind to Mr. Putin’s intentions, said the Russian president’s demands on Ukraine leading up to the invasion were perfectly reasonable.

Now, Mr. Orban, who faces a tough fight ahead of Hungary’s April 3 elections, has changed his tune. Hungarians would be within their rights to question his coziness with a predatory strongman whose naked aggression has now caused more than 100,000 Ukrainian refugees to flee into Hungary, a number very likely to rise.

In the United States, Mr. Putin’s invasion has prompted some Republicans to distance themselves, uncharacteristically, from Mr. Trump, who termed the Russian leader a “genius.” Some will have their own explaining to do when confronted by their previous remarks. And Americans will have the chance to judge who did, and did not, try to delude them about the Russian leader.

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Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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