BERLIN – In early August, Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, called for an end to European sanctions on Russia, imposed in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. “I want these sanctions to end… [they] are simply useless. All they do is make Europeans suffer,” Le Pen said, adding that “[Europeans] are suffering far more from these sanctions than the Russians are”.
It was a return to form for Le Pen, who throughout her political career has espoused pro-Russian positions. In calling for sanctions to be lifted, she has positioned herself at the vanguard of an increasingly emboldened pro-Russia movement in European politics, which had for a time been silenced as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February nakedly exposed the brutality of the Vladimir Putin regime.
On 24 February, Le Pen “unambiguously condemned” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which “broke the equilibrium of peace in Europe”. On the same day, Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right Lega Nord party, who once wore a T-shirt with Putin’s face on it in the European Parliament, laid a wreath at the Ukrainian embassy in Rome. Perhaps most saliently, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right leader known for his closeness with Putin, “condemn[ed] Russia’s military attack”.
Yet almost six months into the war, the shock that temporarily banished pro-Russian views from European politics is wearing off. Orbán was the first to break the new consensus, arguing as early as March – just one month after the invasion – that Hungary needed to be granted an exception to EU energy sanctions on Russia. “Hungarian families cannot be made to pay the price of war,” Orbán said. (The exemption was granted when the EU agreed sanctions on imports of Russian oil.)
“Orbán from the beginning of the war was positioning himself as the wise guy who did not go with the sheep and surrender to this liberal, Anglo-Saxon [British and American] pressure on sanctions… which he claims undermine the European economy more than the Russian economy, though this is factually incorrect,” said Peter Kreko, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Policy Analysis.
Over the following months, as inflation and rocketing energy prices have contributed to the erosion of Europeans’ living standards, an increasing number of historically pro-Kremlin parties began aligning themselves with the line first taken by Orbán, arguing with varying degrees of emphasis that easing sanctions could help with the cost-of-living crisis.
In June, Salvini, whose party is a prominent member of a right-wing alliance viewed as the favourite to win national elections scheduled for September, claimed “sanctions against Russia are creating serious problems for the Italian economy”. The following month, the head of the eastern German state of Saxony, the long-standing Russophile Michael Kretschmer, expressed scepticism about sanctions on Russia, arguing that Germany is in danger of becoming “deindustrialised” if Moscow cuts gas deliveries to Europe. (Kretschmer is a member of the mainstream centre-right Christian Democrats.) Tino Chrupalla, the parliamentary leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party called for an end to sanctions on Russia that same month, an appeal later echoed by Le Pen.
Susi Dennison, director of the European Power programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said: “European governments have kind of gifted this argument to nationalist parties, in the sense that the sanctions packages have been framed too much in terms of solidarity with Ukraine and doing the right thing. What we’re seeing now is that as Europeans are feeling the impact on them in terms of prices, it’s quite easy for nationalist parties to present those price rises as a result of the sanctions and question the need for them.”
The argument that sanctions are contributing to lower living standards – and thus should be removed in the interest of Europeans – is seductive and easily understood. Before the war, Europe traded a lot with Russia: it was the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner. Crucially, the vast majority of imports from Russia were in oil and gas, which cannot easily be replaced with energy from other sources. As Moscow has cut deliveries of gas to Europe, the continent faces energy shortages this winter. Lift the sanctions and resume trade, the reasoning goes, and the immediate threat of energy shortages recedes – with a further boost for the economy as business with Russia resumes.
The reasoning is appealing, but it is wrong. Even if all sanctions were lifted tomorrow, trade relations with Russia would not revert to the levels they were on 23 February, the day before the invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions are decided by governments but implemented by thousands of individuals and businesses, who must all choose whether to continue or cease operations in Russia, risking fines and asset seizures if they are found to be in non-compliance. Many have already gone further than legally required, judging that the reputational and operational risks of continuing to do business in Russia are too high even if they are legally permitted to do so, said Timothy Ash, an economist.
If sanctions were lifted, some companies would decide to restart their operations in Russia – but many would not. They might fear sanctions being reimposed, or perceive any new investments in Russia as being at undue risk (the Russian government has flirted with nationalising the assets of companies from “unfriendly countries”). “Regardless of sanctions, we are not going back to business as usual without significant political change in Russia,” I was told by an executive working on sanctions compliance at a large European energy company.
Even so, calls for sanctions to be eased are likely to ramp up as the winter approaches and Europe faces a energy crisis largely engineered by Russia. What began with Orbán and Le Pen may not end with them.