The biggest shot in the arm to self-doubting liberal democracies has been Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. His February 24 aggression reminded westerners there was something worth defending. Such galvanising moments do not come often, however. As Europe and the US head into probable recessions this winter, another populist resurgence looks possible. Though Putin’s influence is nosediving — even among European far-right voters — Russia misses no chance to stoke western divisions.
It is pure coincidence that Italy’s first postwar far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is set to take office almost exactly a century after Benito Mussolini, fascism’s creator, marched on Rome. Meloni’s triumph took place soon after the Sweden Democrats, a rightwing nationalist grouping, became the second largest party with a fifth of the votes. In the US, Joe Biden’s Democrats are in better shape than before. But they are still likely to lose the House of Representatives in November. That would deliver Biden into investigative hell as Republicans enact revenge for Donald Trump’s double impeachments. Two years of hostile Washington paralysis combined with recession could result in anything.
On no sane reading is the west’s democratic crisis past its peak. The debate over whether to define today’s right as fascist, or “post-fascist”, is swallowing a lot of air time. Semantics are a red herring. What these parties share is revulsion for liberal democracy. Trump’s Republicans did not disguise their pleasure at Meloni’s victory. Italy’s new leader, along with Hungary’s equally gleeful Viktor Orbán, is a recent star of the Conservative political Action Conference, the most influential gathering of America’s right. Steve Bannon, the American right’s most assiduous cultivator of transatlantic links, befriended Meloni years ago when few had heard of her Brothers of Italy party. “You put a reasonable face on rightwing populism, you get elected,” Bannon told her. She took his advice.
Though Putin thrives on the west’s divisions, its difficulties are largely self-made. The American left’s belief that Putin was key to Trump’s 2016 election is exaggerated. It follows that a Russian defeat in Ukraine would not put an end to the west’s problems. But Ukraine’s fate does not work equally the other way. A Russian victory would send a chilling message on the ability of autocrats to snuff out democracies on the west’s doorstep. Since Russia’s partial or total defeat now seems likelier, Putin’s best hope lies in sapping the west’s resolve.
Russia’s main chance will come this winter. Its most lethal weapon is in higher energy prices boosting inflation, which would mean more rapid monetary tightening on both sides of the Atlantic, and deeper recessions. Neither Putin nor Europe can affect how cold this winter will be. Energy rationing in Europe would make every voter more bad-tempered. Even higher petrol prices can trigger a populist reaction, as France’s Emmanuel Macron discovered with the yellow vest protests in 2018. Putin could also expand the war laterally to other non-Nato parts of Europe, such as Moldova, and via cyber attacks on critical European infrastructure, including energy grids. The ultimate dread is that Putin will use nuclear weapons. It is likelier he will go for these other kinds of escalation.
Will the west hold the line? Whatever happens in November, Biden will still be in charge of US foreign policy. He has won less credit than he merits for sustaining western unity and supplying the bulk of military hardware to Ukraine. Other than wishing that Putin would go, Biden has been uncharacteristically disciplined in his war comments. He is as calm in his rhetoric as Putin has been heated in his. Among the main western allies, only Italy now looks wavering, though that is more because of the pro-Putin leanings of Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini — the two other coalition partners — than of Meloni herself.
If Russia’s partial mobilisation, and the west’s economic slowdown, fail to weaken Ukraine, Putin would be left with one silver bullet — Trump’s return to power in 2024. That is likelier today than it was a few months ago, chiefly because of the attention Trump gets from painting himself as the victim of a vendetta. His odds of winning a Republican primary look solid. He polls higher than the other Republican names combined. Most Democrats, on the other hand, want to ditch Biden.
For an autocrat like Putin, who has staked everything on a rash war, rooting for western democracy’s self-harm has two advantages over going nuclear. First, it is not suicidal. Second, the return of Trump, who described Putin’s decision to move troops to Donbas in late February as a “genius” move, would upend everyone’s assumptions. As the west thinks of what could go wrong, it should not forget to look in the obvious places.
Source: Financial Times