Do not mess with Ukraine. That seems to be the lesson so far of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country. Nato estimates that up to 15,000 Russian troops (including seven generals) were killed in the first six weeks of the war. Putin reportedly reckoned on taking Kyiv within two days, the drawn-out failure of which ambition was confirmed last week when his forces withdrew from areas around the Ukrainian capital to refocus on the south and east. Extensive evidence points to poor discipline, morale and logistics in their ranks. As Lawrence Freedman writes, if Putin’s next offensive fails “then perhaps he can do no more than look at the mess his forces have made of Ukraine by 9 May [Russia’s annual Victory Day] and call it a day”.
Meanwhile the invasion has given the West new resolve and — in some areas — inspired new unity. Nato is greatly reinforcing its eastern flank. European security has risen up America’s strategic agenda. Finland and Sweden may be on the verge of joining Nato. Any lingering notion of Putin as some sort of strategic mastermind (never credible even before the invasion, to be honest) is now conclusively dead. It is tempting to look at the international picture and see wall-to-wall ignominy and failure for the Russian president.
Yet to do so would be wishful thinking. Look farther afield and elsewhere events are moving in Putin’s direction. The most obvious example is France, where despite a clear first place for Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the presidential election on 10 April there remains a non-trivial chance that Marine Le Pen will secure the presidency in the second round on 24 April. Two polls published on Sunday night suggested Macron was on track for an uncomfortably close win (by 54 per cent to 46 per cent and 51-49). The Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy not prone to exaggerating Le Pen’s appeal, puts the chance of her winning at 30 per cent.
Given what a President Le Pen would mean for Europe this probability is horrifyingly high. The doyenne of the French far-right may no longer pledge a referendum on France’s euro membership, but her 2022 manifesto proposes that France essentially pick and choose which elements of European law it wants to apply and that it defy at will EU agreements on issues such as agriculture, migration, climate and justice. “The consequences for the EU would be political chaos,” conclude Ian Bond and John Springford of the Centre for European Reform. Le Pen also wants to withdraw from Nato’s integrated military structure. Her recent attempts to distance herself from Putin belie long standing links and mutual admiration. “The policies I represent are the policies represented […] by Mr Putin,” she told Emily Maitlis frankly in a 2017 BBC interview.
Something of a preview of a Le Pen-led France, and where it would stand on the war in Ukraine, has come in recent days from Hungary. There the authoritarian Viktor Orbán won his fourth consecutive term as prime minister on 3 April. Like Le Pen he had played down his close links to Putin during the campaign. Since his victory, however, he has been posing once more as the Russian president’s primary ally in the EU: breaking ranks with European allies to offer to pay for gas imports in roubles and leading the opposition to an oil embargo. It can be assumed that a Le Pen emboldened and liberated by an election victory would pivot back towards the Kremlin too. But where Hungary is relatively small and peripheral within the EU, France is one of its two anchor states. A turn against sanctions and military support for Ukraine in Paris would be much more severe than such policies emanating from Budapest.
The EU’s other anchor state — Germany — also offers Putin reasons for cheer. The federal republic’s new centre-left government produced an impressive response to Russia’s initial invasion with Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, declaring a “Zeitenwende” (historic turning point), hugely increasing defence spending, effectively killing the Russia-Germany Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and ending a self-imposed ban on weapons exports to war zones. Yet while the defence dimension of the Zeitenwende does indeed mark a substantial shift, Berlin has in recent weeks dragged its feet on an energy embargo and heavy arms transfers to Ukraine. The federal government has dithered over sending Kyiv tanks while daily pumping many millions of euros into the Kremlin’s coffers by purchasing gas, coal and oil.
This makes the scenario of a Le Pen victory in two weeks yet more concerning. If the Putin-admirers come to power in France later this month it will fall to a trio of moderate governments of big EU states to hold the union together: Germany, Italy and Spain. Berlin’s grit and resolve are both clearly questionable. And in both Rome and Madrid, Le Pen-style rightists are waiting in the wings. Italy’s next general election, due by summer 2023, could produce a coalition led by the far-right and Kremlin-friendly Brothers of Italy and League parties. In Spain the far-right Vox party has recently soared in support, passing 20 per cent in some recent polls, while the mainstream conservative Popular Party seems ever more willing to govern with it. There too an election is due next year. And all of this is a mere prelude, in global terms, to the most concerning election of all: America’s next presidential vote in November 2024, at which Donald Trump could conceivably realise a more extremist second term.
And that is just the West. In the wider world Putin has no need to wait for elections to find explicit or implicit assent for his barbarous war. Most countries have not joined Nato and its closest allies in imposing sanctions on Russia. In successive UN votes countries representing majorities of the world’s population have avoided confronting Moscow. At the most recent, a vote on 7 April on expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, the states backing expulsion represented just 24 per cent of global population; those opposed represented 28 per cent and those abstaining represented 46 per cent. Particularly heartening to Putin will be India’s reaction. Supposedly an increasingly close US ally in the Indo-Pacific, New Delhi has resisted extensive pressure from Washington to condemn Moscow. The depressing truth is that, as horrified as the world is by massacres in places such as Bucha, most countries are choosing to accept that horror rather than act against it.
In Russia itself the very reality of such horror is widely doubted. State propaganda has blanketed the population with a hallucinatory narrative in which Ukraine is a Nazi state threatening ordinary Russians and the savagery of Russian troops is pure fabrication. “Citizens are denouncing one another in an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror,” reports The New York Times, “spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state and enabled by far-reaching new laws that criminalise dissent.” Meanwhile Western sanctions have not bitten hard enough. The rouble has recovered its value. “Restaurants in Moscow are full now as they were before,” writes the veteran Russia-watcher Michael Thumann in Germany’s Die Zeit. “In the face of the war in Ukraine, an eerie normality is playing out in the Russian capital, the theatres are open, people are going to gyms and manicurists, the streets are full of pedestrians and cars, petrol is cheap. Is something going on in Ukraine? It feels far away.”
Many of Putin’s subjects do not need coercion to toe the line. Last week I met an anti-war Russian journalist who had come to Berlin. On posting to social media about the massacre in Bucha she had been inundated with messages from friends back in Moscow (few of them natural fans of Putin) chiding her for believing Western propaganda. Polling by the independent Levada Centre shows Putin’s approval rating rose to 71 per cent in February, its highest level since 2018. The centre’s director has attributed this to a heightened sense that the West is conspiring against Russia and that Putin is really protecting the country. While the full knock-on effects of thousands of military deaths in Ukraine and of the sanctions are yet to be seen, this strongly suggests that the regime is succeeding in convincing ordinary Russians of a fantasy version of events and that early Western optimism that Putin might fall from power was misplaced.
Do not mess with Ukraine, then. But it seems that one can very much mess with the West, the rest and their collective stated values — and get away with it to a remarkable degree — even if you are as corrupt, incompetent and delusional as Putin. As Russian soldiers commit butchery on the battlefield and in Ukrainian cities, suburbs, towns and villages, the political allies of their masters back in Moscow are advancing in Western politics. Meanwhile even those meant to be manning the barricades on the wider international front, whether in Berlin or Brussels or London or Washington, are to varying degrees putting up only patchy solidarity. Yeats captured it just over a century ago: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
[See also: The evolution of Marine Le Pen]