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Russia’s Manifest Destiny

By Yashovardhan Chaturvedi


The Ukraine-Russia war has brought the immigration issue to the forefront of European Union (EU) politics. What has followed is a right-wing populist resurgence in European countries that has threatened the progress made in the last couple of years. It becomes necessary for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to seek alliances from these nations but at the expense of giving concessions on populist agendas. This article looks into the recent shifts in the political alignment and what problems it presents to NATO and its western allies. 

When the Russian forces decided to launch their offensive on Ukrainian territory back in early 2022, the reasons given by Russian President Vladimir Putin to undertake such measures was to achieve “demilitarization” and “denazification” in the region. While the immediate reaction to the offensive was that of condemnation, the comments by Putin particularly drew the ire of world leaders and historians alike. As pointed out by the scholars, this verbiage aims to distort the horrors experienced by marginalized groups, and removes any weight or context from history. While these claims may themselves be blown out of proportion, how the political atmosphere has evolved in Europe since the invasion points to a gentler embrace to right-wing politics, threatening the foundations of liberal democracy in the region. This paper explores the evolving political dynamics in the region, and the possibilities it presents to NATO.

One of the oft-cited reasons for the invasion was the perceived threat of NATO and its western Allies’ encroachment into former Soviet territories. The expected outcome before the escalation was bringing Ukraine into the fold through its integration into NATO. However, the invasion foiled any such plans. As the war dragged on with Ukraine’s resistance and Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv, hopes were rekindled for a Russian defeat. Commentary on this issue called for a condemnation of Russia and authoritarian states in general,  with writers like Fukuyama calling the war to be damaging to the right-wing populist movements and blossoming a new ‘birth of freedom’. The subsequent year, however, has shown to be anything but a decline in the favorability of the movement.  

European Entanglement

One does not need to look too far back in time to see the seeds of the populist movement’s emergence in Europe. In fact, the brewing discontent with liberal democracy can be attributed to another series of wars in 2015- namely the Libyan war, Syrian civil war and war in Iraq. When the Syrian civil war broke out, it led to displacement of swaths of people from the destabilized region. These refugees looked towards the west to provide relief and started moving into Europe. While certain countries like Germany welcomed these migrants, there were anti-immigrant sentiments being evoked within many of the EU countries, who felt threatened by this large influx of Muslim population. Many of the populist movements sprung up in eastern Europe, who sought to minimize the intake of these refugees by tightening border security and vilifying the refugees as well as western European nations supporting their intake. Viktor Orban famously blamed the EU for flooding Hungary with invaders, with the Hungarian government refusing to participate in the EU’s resettlement program of the Muslim refugees. 

The mismanagement of the refugee crisis and the xenophobic feelings it brought about in the native population was the perfect breeding ground for populist movements. Hungary and Poland saw this crisis becoming an electoral issue, which led to a greater anti-immigrant rhetoric being pushed by the governments in power. The refugee question was also one of the major issues in defining the Brexit referendum, where the Vote Leave groups campaigned on the EU’s inability to control its borders. Violence against the refugee community was also observed in large parts of Europe, and their integration was severely restricted in countries where the far-right gained electoral victories. And while these issues became subdued during the pandemic, the Ukraine-Russian war has rekindled the sentiments.

Post-War Dynamic

Since the invasion began, the resurgence of radical right-wing parties has been observed all across Europe. Even within NATO countries like Germany and France, parties like Alternative for Germany and National Rally, have amassed popular support on their anti-immigration policies, with the latter winning a record number of seats in the National Assembly elections in 2022. The shift in the French politics has been so pronounced that even the elected government of Macron has resorted to usage of the anti-Muslim propaganda

The initial unconditional support being offered to Ukraine by the member nations has also waned over time, especially with a shift in mood being observed in Eastern European countries.  The nativist policies in Hungary has seen the Fidesz government aligning its interests with Russia, blaming the EU for prolonging the conflict. Recently, Orban has even soured on the idea of accepting Ukraine as a NATO ally. Hungary, along with Serbia and Czech Republic, have even sought to deepen their economic dependence on Russia with an announcement of building of an oil pipeline last year. The Law and Justice(LiS) party in Poland, who hold strong anti-Russian sentiments, were at the forefront in welcoming Ukrainian refugees and served as a strategic partner with the NATO allies. However the party has seen their polling dip far below what is required  to form a government in the elections this year, due to the increase in the influx of refugees and a cost of living crisis. Commensurately, the far right party Konfederacja has seen its polling double over the past six months to 10%. 

Other nations, who have exhibited anti-Russian sentiments, are also seeing a shift to far-right frameworks being adopted in the political discourse. The Brothers in Italy(FdI), who formed the government last year, has been vocally in support of NATO and Ukraine, but has seen their coalition partners in the government still upholding their pro-Russian stance. The government for its part has sought help from NATO to restrict the movement of immigrants, with blame being levied on Russia’s Wagner group for causing boatloads of migrants traveling from Africa to the Italian shores. 

Up north, the Nordic countries are also experiencing their own courting with right wing sentiments. In recent history, these countries were considered to be bastions of social democracy done right. However, as with most countries discussed above, the immigration issue has become the hotbed of policy. Denmark and Sweden, who had severely curtailed the intake of migrants between 2015 and 2018, took in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine, often at the expense of the Muslim refugees. The recent electoral gains by the Sweden Democrats (SD), who forms a minority government, shows that the right-wing is making headway into mainstream politics. 

The Way Forward

Finland’s accession to NATO was one day after the progressive government of the incumbent Sanna Marin was defeated in favor of center-right National Coalition Party (NCP). While not winning an outright majority, the expected conservative coalition will include The Finns, a populist party running on anti-immigration agenda. Meanwhile the upcoming elections in Spain shows the waning popularity of the left government in favor of the right wing Popular Front and far-right Vox parties. 

This resurgence of right wing populism does not fare well for NATO. Many of the nations mentioned above are either already part of NATO or are seeking its membership. Despite their vocal support for Ukraine, there are the economic considerations that these countries have to take care of, with the cost of living crisis still hurting the masses. The immigration issue with which these parties are receiving their electoral mandate also puts the pressure on NATO to build allegiances with these governments who are considering their options as well with the Russian counterparts. It gives the alliance very little room to maneuver. While wanting to preserve the liberal traditions that NATO wants to propound, it finds itself making concessions for the populist policies in order to keep their allies happy. Russia for its part appears to have destabilized the political dynamic of the region and has brought in a new wave of right wing resurgence. Either by accident or design, the Russian predictions of a far-right threat has come true. However, now it finds itself fighting for favors from these governments as the divergence in the East-West relations emerges.

About the Author

Yashovardhan Chaturvedi is a master’s student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, pursuing his degree in Economics. His interests lie in the field of political economy, technology and economic crises.

Image Source: Associated Press (AP) Photo

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