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The Russian leader has found allies among the continent’s radical nationalists.
LISBON, Portugal — Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine may relentlessly denounce Ukraine's authorities as fascists and xenophobes, but elsewhere in Europe the Russian leader is energetically courting far-right politicians as allies in his confrontation with Western governments.
"You can see that the National Front is viewed very favorably in Russia,” says Ludovic de Danne, foreign affairs spokesman for radical-right French party. “We are more than tolerated, we are seen as a friend."
He reels off a list of top Russian officials — headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, now under US sanctions for his role in the annexation of Crimea — who lined up to receive National Front leader Marine Le Pen when she visited Moscow last year.
"We have a balanced position. We don't want to be part of any game that pulls us into a new Cold War with Russia," de Danne said in a telephone interview from the European Parliament in Brussels. "Our independent stance is appreciated by those in power in Russia, that's why we have good contacts with them."
The National Front is just one of several radical right parties across Europe providing vocal support for Putin's position in Ukraine, even as Western governments accuse the Russian leader of dragging the continent into its worst crisis since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
"Viva the referendum in Crimea! Viva the free choice of the people!" Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's Northern League told a conference last month as the vote in Ukraine's southern province sealed Russia's annexation. "They resisted the international dictates and didn't let [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel or [US President Barack] Obama or [European Commission President Jose Manuel] Barroso choose for them."
Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders has echoed the Kremlin's line, saying Ukraine's pro-Western government is run by "National-Socialists, Jew-haters and other anti-democrats." In a speech last month to parliament, he blamed "shameless Europhiles with their dreams of empire" for prompting the crisis.
"We have always been told the EU stands for peace," Wilders said. "Now... we know better, the EU stands for war-mongering."
He condemned the Dutch government for supporting an EU financial package for the cash-strapped Ukrainian government, saying the money would be taken from Dutch nursing homes and sent to a "bottomless pit of corruption."
Putin has a clear interest in encouraging such opinion as he seeks to counter pressure from European governments that have joined the United States in condemning his land grab in Crimea and military build up across the border from eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia agitators this week seized government buildings in several cities.
"During the Cold War, the Soviet Union sponsored communist parties, far-left parties around Europe which basically did the bidding of Moscow and tried to spread certain types of propaganda," says Mitchell Orenstein, political science department chair at Boston's Northeastern University. "Russia today is using a lot of the old Soviet techniques, but this time is finding the far right a better partner than the far left."
Many on Europe's radical right admire Putin's strongman image. Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, last week said Putin was the world leader he most admired. "Compared with the kids who run foreign policy in this country, I've more respect for him than our lot."
Russian media have widely reported his comment that the EU has "blood on its hands" by meddling in Ukraine.
Although Farage has sought to distance his party from some far-right counterparts in continental Europe, UKIP shares their views on rolling back European integration, halting immigration and opposing gay marriage.
Putin's line on such issues strikes a cord with many European rightists.
Last September, the Italian National Front plastered posters around Rome bearing the slogan "I'm with Putin" over a portrait of the Russian leader in military cap.
"Putin," the party's leader Adriano Tilgher posted on Facebook, "has said ‘no’ to the European Union... taken a courageous position against the gay lobby and the world financial centers who wanted a war in Syria."
Putin's United Russia Party sent a representative to a meeting of European nationalists last December in Turin, Italy, that was attended by Wilders, Salvini and Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, among others. Addressing the conference, United Russia lawmaker Viktor Zubarev reportedly stressed shared ideas on the family, nation and role of religion.