Italy’s next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leads a party that can trace it roots to the fascist followers of Benito Mussolini and a coalition that features the parties of both the corrupt Putin apologist former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and of the influential ultra-nationalist politician Matteo Salvini (who is perhaps the most far-right of the bunch and also a big Putin fan).
Following elections on Sunday, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia party, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, and Salvini’s Lega Nord party will be able to form a coalition that will give them control of the upper and lower houses of Italy’s parliament—and presumably enable them to advance an agenda that will be anti-immigrant and hyper-nationalist.
How their euroskeptic biases and pro-Putin leanings will ultimately affext the function of the EU, and the West’s efforts to support Ukraine, are both big question marks. They also underscore the fact that maintaining trans-Atlantic unity is going to be an increasingly difficult diplomatic challenge for the Biden administration and our like-minded allies.
Meloni has promised to support Ukraine, but last week Berlusconi offered an ugly and rather pathetic defense of what Putin is doing to Ukraine—going so far as to say Putin only wanted to get rid of the elected Zelensky government in order to install a government of “decent people” in Kyiv. Meanwhile, Salvini has regularly been accused of being a beneficiary of Putin’s support.
In this, Salvini’s Lega Nord is like the French right-wing party of Marine Le Pen, which has also benefited from the support of Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban—the anti-democracy racist who is a favorite of Fox News and the American right wing. Both hailed the right’s victory in Italy, as did other right-wing parties across Europe.
Those parties were already feeling they had some wind at their back thanks to the strong performance of Le Pen in recent French elections and the recent win by Sweden’s right-wing party in parliamentary elections there.
Combine those developments and the lurch rightward of Britain’s conservative party—led by new Prime Minister Liz Truss—and the right in Europe is feeling pretty good about itself.
If there’s a fly in the far-right’s ointment, it’s the fact that Truss’ first weeks in office have been a disaster—with the announcement of ill-timed, ill-considered tax cuts for the rich as the centerpiece of an economic agenda that has since cratered the British pound, which is now flirting with dollar parity for the first time ever.
Of course, economic performance has seldom been a strong suit of the right (see Putin, Vladimir or Berlusconi, Silvio or, for that matter, Trump, Donald), except to the degree that it meant better returns for the elites surrounding far-right leaders. (These “anti-elite” parties are almost invariably actively pro-elite.) Instead, they focus on providing voters with scapegoats on whom to blame their problems, notably foreigners, different races, Jews, and anyone who threatens their “national identity.”
While the achievements of the leaders and parties of the new right-wing movement are hard to identify, their destructive capacity is substantial. Brexit comes to mind, a Russian-supported joint venture with Britain’s hard right. They have also done great damage to democracy, as in the case of Hungary’s Russophile prime minister, Orban.
Concern about how these new right governments might weaken European unity and push for ever more draconian immigration policies is great, as are worries about how the more-empowered right might push for policies that weaken support for Ukraine or for sanctions against Russia.
For this reason, the response to Meloni’s victory from the U.S. and other key allies in the Ukraine coalition has been focused on maintaining a constructive relationship and critical policies. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, “We are eager to work with Italy's government on our shared goals: supporting a free and independent Ukraine, respecting human rights, and building a sustainable economic future.” France’s Emanuel Macron tried to maintain a similar tone but sounded more grudging—perhaps given his near political death experience running against Le Pen. He said, “As neighbors and friends, we must continue to work together. It is within Europe that we will overcome our common challenges."
Putin, who has been a financier, friend, and north star to many leaders in the ethno-nationalist right worldwide, must be looking at these successes with both gratification and, should he ever have a moment of honesty with himself, chagrin. His efforts to weaken Western alliances and global institutions via politically active measures across Europe and in the U.S. have been exceptionally successful by any measure. This could be a moment of real advantage for him in achieving his greater goals. But his decision to expand his invasion of Ukraine and his serial failures in managing that act of aggression have cost him the ability to capitalize on it as he might have.
Still, he will, no doubt, use his ties to governments in places like Italy, France, Hungary, and to the GOP in the U.S., to mitigate the consequences of his Ukraine catastrophe. Blocking or diluting sanctions and new aid efforts for Ukraine, seeking opposition to the strengthening of NATO, or deepening engagement of Ukraine in European institutions all are likely ways Putin will seek to influence these groups with which he has close ties.
Next up for the global right are two elections of consequence. First, in October, Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro (who has also cozied up to Putin) faces former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Then, in the U.S., the MAGA-dominated GOP is seeking to regain control of the U.S. Congress.
Bolsonaro is expected to lose, but whether he goes quietly or strikes yet another right-wing blow against democracy is something observers are watching closely. Bolsonaro has openly modeled himself on Trump, and there is every reason to fear he will behave Trumpily, should he lose.
That said, the U.S. contest is what the Putinist right is watching most closely. GOP leader Donald Trump’s softness on Russia is well-documented. More power to his party, which might enable them to oppose Biden's initiatives in Ukraine, or help the GOP win the 2024 presidential election, would be the one real non-nuclear Hail Mary pass that Putin could hope for. The rise of Europe’s right can also help him in his current crisis. It gives him the first good news he has had since he began the current operations in Ukraine in February. It could ultimately breed dissent in the EU and NATO in ways that can only benefit Putin.
That said, Trump’s reelection would be a true godsend for the Kremlin, a chance to re-sign up the most powerful nation on earth as a member of Team Putin at just the moment it might actually save the Russian dictator from reaping the full consequences of his signature strategic blunder, the military, humanitarian, economic and diplomatic catastrophe for Moscow that is the war in Ukraine.