Despite the signing of a ceasefire in Minsk on February 12th, Russian-backed rebels continued their attack on the loyalist town of Debaltseve. Debaltseve’s rail hub is a strategic point in the Donetsk region, and as of February 18th Ukrainian troops have received orders to retreat in the face of the heavy assault by rebel forces. Twenty-two Ukrainian soldiers are reported to have died in the past few days. Despite the obvious defeat by the loss of the town, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko mentioned that the pro-Russian separatists had shown “their true face” by continuing the battle after the truce was signed. Eduard Basurin, a commander of the separatist forces, stated that the Ukrainian troops did not mount a counter offensive and were completely demoralized. The rebels also deny that the cease-fire applied to Debaltseve, which links the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. President Poroshenko also claimed that the rebels attacking Debaltseve were aided by Russian military forces. Moscow denies any involvement, but British government sources reveal the sighting of SA-22 “Pancir-S1” anti-aircraft weapons used by the Russian Armed Forces in eastern Ukraine. President Putin had called for the Ukrainian troops in Debaltseve to surrender during a speech in Budapest yesterday.
Putin’s presence in Budapest was not just to encourage a Ukrainian surrender, however. The statement was made during a meeting with Hungarian PM Viktor Orban over a deal to supply Hungary with Russian fuel. Vikor Orban has been criticized in the past over his antipathy to classical liberal values, and many of his opponents claim that he sees Putin’s Russia as a model for Hungary, some going so far as to call him a neo-fascist. This also comes in the wake of accusations last fall that Béla Kovács, a representative of the radical Hungarian nationalist Jobbik party, along with his Russian wife Svetlana Istoshina, have been working for the KGB and its successor organization the FSB since the 1980s. Indeed, as of late Putin has extended olive branches to various fringe European political figures and parties, both on the right and left.
Recently, a protest group calling itself PEGADA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Americanization of the Occident) has sprung up in Germany, being staunchly anti-American and opposed to any conflict with Russia. Unlike Cold War era German anti-US movements, however, PEGADA’s support comes mainly from the far-right. Anti-Americanism is of course still part and parcel of extreme left wing politics in Germany.
Marine le Pen of the National Front party has also openly supported Putin’s economic model and has expressed preference for working with Russia over the United States.
“We should not continue anymore to impose our own ideas and our judgement on the situation in Russia…There is a cold war now against Russia that France is involved in. We should work with Russia.”
Le Pen also notably denies that her party received a 10 million euro loan from a Kremlin tied bank.
Far-left parties Syriza and Podemos have also expressed a willingness to align with Russian policies. Greek party Syriza has openly opposed EU economic sanctions on Russia, and their leader and current Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with Russian officials in Moscow last May,where he was received as an honored guest. Tsipras spent much of the trip denouncing sanctions on Russia and Western opposition to the separatist movement in eastern Ukraine. Syriza’s affinity towards Russia unsurprisingly stems from its roots as a pro-communist party, but Syriza’s unusual ally, the right wing Independent Greeks party, also shares Syriza’s pro-Russian sympathies due to the Putin government’s socially conservative policies in line with Eastern Orthodox religious teachings. After Syriza’s victory in Greek elections last month, the Kremlin’s website posted a congratulations to Alexis Tsipras and Syriza, stating that President Putin:
“is confident that Russia and Greece will continue to develop their traditionally constructive cooperation in all areas and will work together effectively to resolve current European and global problems.”
Spanish far-left party Podemos has also expressed some pro-Russian sentiment lately in addition to anti-American rhetoric. Podemos head Pablo Iglesias has proposed that Spain leave NATO and withdraw agreements with the United States, in addition to criticizing a “double-standard” towards Israel’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza when compared to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Clearly Russia is seeking to foster contacts with both all sides of the political spectrum in opposition to the European status quo, as part of its larger global strategy. This plan is not a recent development either, as Russia has been pursuing a global alliance to counter American influence in Europe for the past decade.