June 7, 2018 – Russian president in contact with two capitals that share belief in nation-first politics and mistrust of alliances. Suddenly, Vladimir Putin has some useful friends in the west.
As he looks to improve relations with Europe, at a new low since the March nerve-agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, the Russian president knows he can count on the backing of at least two capitals.
Both Austria and Italy’s new governments, formed late last year and last month, include populist, far-right parties that make little secret of their sympathy for Moscow – and have even signed cooperation agreements with Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, used his maiden speech in Rome on Tuesday to promise his government would be “advocates of an opening towards Russia – a Russia that has consolidated its international role in recent years”.
Conte heads a populist coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) and the far-right League that, according to its programme, sees Russia not as “a military threat” or “enemy” of Europe but as a “potential partner”.
He promised his administration would “promote a revising of the sanctions” imposed by the EU on Russia after it annexed Crimea and destabilised Ukraine.
A few hours earlier, Putin got much the same message in Vienna, on the first state visit of his fourth term. Russia was “a part of Europe”, said Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen, denying Moscow faced “a crisis of trust” with the west.
Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who heads a coalition of his conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), told a press conference he hoped the sanctions could be “relaxed step by step”.
The FPÖ leader, Heinz-Christian Strache – now also Austrian vice-chancellor – went further, telling local media that Europe must “end these sanctions … and normalise political and economic relations with Russia”.
EU–Russian relations have been badly strained by Russia’s role in conflicts in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, as well as by accusations of interference in several European elections and, most recently, the Skripal affair.
But Putin, apparently now eager to build bridges, has recently begun signalling a clear desire to re-engage with Europe. Russia “does not aim to divide the EU”, he assured Austrian broadcaster ORF ahead of his Vienna visit.
“We want to see a united and prosperous EU, because the EU is our biggest trade and economic partner. The more problems there are within the EU, the greater the risks and uncertainties for us.”
Those words may ring hollow in many European capitals, which – unlike both Vienna and Rome – responded favourably to Britain’s request to expel Russian diplomats in the wake of the Salisbury attack.
But not in Italy and Austria, where the FPÖ and the League, both now junior coalition partners, signed ill-defined “cooperation accords” with Putin’s party last year based on a shared belief in nation-first politics and a mistrust of international alliances.
Matteo Salvini, the League leader, has denied borrowing Russian money to fund his election campaigns, as Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right Front National has had no qualms doing. But Salvini has often expressed his admiration for Putin and said last month he wanted “to work for peace, not war”.
Austria’s Strache, meanwhile, besides calling frequently for EU sanctions to be lifted, has forcefully criticised Nato’s expansion eastwards, arguing it “wasn’t Russia who, in recent decades, has been the aggressor”.
It is too early to say what the consequences – if any – of this isolated outbreak of goodwill towards Moscow might be, for the sanctions or Russia-EU relations in general.
Kurz was at pains to reassure his EU partners that Austria’s loyalty is of course to Brussels, not Moscow. But Putin will not be unhappy.