Eleven Friends of Putin
In reality, the number of "friends" of the Russian dictator is much greater. And why not? Oil dollars. Gas dollars. Grain dollars. Diamond dollars. Timber dollars. Plus, he went through a decent training at the KGB, where they taught recruitment, blackmail, and making comradeship through money.
What prompts Eastern European, and even Western European, politicians to seek favor with Putin and look him in the eye? Their own imperial resentments? The search for sponsorship for their not-so-powerful political forces? Former shared historical roots? A desire to atone for historical guilt over World War II? It varies. But the consequences are similar.
And suddenly, Europe realized that Putin is much closer than Europeans would have liked. It happened last year. This year, it became clear that friendship with Putin is an extremely toxic affair. However, many are still among the "Putinversteher" ("Putin understanders"). Who are these people? Among them are current leaders of countries, former leaders, and perhaps even future leaders. Let's meet at least the first eleven European friends of Putin!
#1 Viktor Orban, currently the Prime Minister of Hungary. He is famous for blocking the 11th package of EU sanctions against the Russian Federation for several months, demanding the exclusion of provisions that affect Budapest's interests. And this is not the first time. Prime Minister Orban has nominally criticized the war but has not uttered a single critical word about Putin. Hungary is reluctant to agree to anti-Russian sanctions, and the government even refused to allow arms shipments to Ukraine through Hungarian territory. There are also plenty of unfriendly steps towards neighbors, including the distribution of Hungarian passports to citizens of neighboring Ukraine. And Orban has plenty of reservations about press freedom, the rule of law, and other democratic principles from Brussels. But he is incredibly popular within the country.
#2 Alexander Vucic, the President of Serbia, plays on the familiar field of the "younger brother." Although lately he has been looking more towards Brussels, in his most daring antics, he still glances towards Moscow. "Don't you plan on reconciling? Are you all waiting for defeat? Do you really think you can defeat Russia in three months, six months, or a year?" Vucic asked the world powers that fail to understand Putin's natural desire to turn Ukraine into scorched earth. And beneath it all lies resentment. Memories of Greater Serbia, carefully nurtured by Russian money for at least the past thirty years.
Photo: Le Pen and Putin. Source: Sputnik
#3 Marine Le Pen, a member of the French National Assembly, belonging to the National Rally (RN; formerly National Front, FN), ran for the French presidency three times (2012, 2017, and 2022). She is the younger daughter of the former party leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, also a radical right-wing politician. She has been elected to the European Parliament several times, and in 2016, Politico even named her the second most influential Member of the European Parliament. In the presidential elections of 2017 and 2022, she reached the second round but suffered defeat both times, losing to Emmanuel Macron. During her 2022 campaign, Le Pen promised to loosen France's ties with the 27 EU countries, NATO, and Germany. In other words, she proposed steps that could undermine the security architecture of Europe. She has repeatedly expressed admiration for Putin's defiance against Washington and Brussels. In 2014, amid the sanctions imposed on Russia, her party, the National Front, borrowed 9 million euros from the First Czech-Russian Bank in Moscow. What's more? What's else?
with Vladimir Putin in Moscow on May 23, 2023. They discussed the supply of gas to Bosnia, which it receives through Serbia and Bulgaria. These contacts understandably provoke irritation within the EU, considering that the Serbian nationalist Dodik maintains close ties with Putin and publicly claims that Russia had to intervene in Ukraine to preserve own security. After the devastating ethnic war in the 1990s, Bosnia was divided into two autonomous regions: the Federation, consisting of Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republic of Srpska. This state is characterized by a weak central government and lacks a unified foreign policy.#4 Milorad Dodik, the President of the Republic of Srpska (Since November 2022. Republic of Srpska is a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina), held talks
#5 Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian far-right party "Lega," has repeatedly advocated for the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia. He is Italy's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Infrastructure and Transport since 2022. Salvini was also a Member of the European Parliament from 2004 to 2018. He is a Eurosceptic, an opponent of the euro, and a staunch opponent of accepting refugees. He was extremely enthusiastic about Putin until February 2022, even posing for photos on Red Square wearing a t-shirt with the image of the Russian dictator in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea and Russia's invasion of Donbas. However, it is worth noting that since February 2022, he no personally accuses Putin of the invasion but proclaims who invaded where. It is also worth mentioning that Giorgia Meloni, the Prime Minister of Italy, whose government includes Salvini, strongly supports military and other aid to Ukraine.
#6 Robert Fico - a member of the National Council of the Slovak Republic, also served as the country's Prime Minister from 2012 to 2018 but resigned amid a political crisis triggered by the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak. In late May 2023, former Slovak Defense Minister Jaroslav Nadí revealed in a televised interview that the intelligence services had uncovered Russia's attempt to manipulate the upcoming parliamentary elections in Slovakia in favor of the Smer-SD party, one of whose leaders is Fico. These elections are scheduled for September of this year. Currently, this party is leading in the polls, advocating for the cessation of arms supplies to Ukraine. In August 2016, Robert Fico, then the Prime Minister of Slovakia, after a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, once again called on the European Union to lift sanctions against Russia.
But what about now? Slovakia may become a problematic child of the EU following in the footsteps of Hungary, warned the country's president, Zuzana Čaputová, in an interview with POLITICO, expressing her concern about the spread of disinformation in her country and the potential weakening of Slovakia's support for Ukraine in the upcoming parliamentary elections. If populist parties take the lead in the government this autumn, Čaputová said, "it may resemble more of Viktor Orbán's foreign policy." Although representatives of the Smer-SD party dismiss these concerns, and Fico himself is under investigation, there are still risks of pro-Moscow influence.
#7 Zoran Milanović, the President of Croatia since 2020, during a powerful coordinated paneuropean campaign in support of Ukraine, criticized Western countries in January 2023 for supplying heavy tanks and other weapons to Ukraine. He stated at the time that these weapon deliveries would only prolong the war. Milanović told journalists in the Croatian capital that it is "insane" to believe that Russia can be defeated in a conventional war. "I am against sending any lethal weapons there," Milanović said. "It prolongs the war." In May of the same year, he reiterated that Ukraine should not join NATO, stating that the military alliance should be an "exclusive club that invites only the best."
His overall rhetoric is based on calls to distance oneself from the pan-European problems that have arisen as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. However, it seems to be a reproduction of Kremlin narratives that this is "not your war." Fortunately for Croatia, the country is a parliamentary republic, with the Prime Minister serving as the head of the executive branch. Currently, that is Andrej Plenković, who has visited Kyiv twice since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and strongly supports the Ukrainian people in their fight against Russian aggression.
#8 Manuela Schwesig, the Minister-President of the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is known as one of the most active lobbyists for the "Nord Stream" project. Previously, she held the position of Federal Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women, and Youth in Angela Merkel's third cabinet from 2013 to 2017. It's worth noting that Merkel herself had a strong presence among the "Putinversteher" ("Putin understanders"). However, the former Chancellor has stepped away from high politics. It's more likely that Ms. Schwesig would compete for a spot on our list of Putin's friends alongside Michael Kretschmer, the Prime Minister of Saxony, who called for the resumption of the Nord Stream pipeline in January 2023. Kretschmer, a Christian Democrat from Saxony, is an interesting personality in his own right. In June 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin demonstratively met him for a photo session and casual conversation at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Why? Because Kretschmer has long been advocating to "put an end to sanctions" against Russia.
However, Mrs. Schwesig is no exception. In May 2022, Politico included her in the dishonorable list of "12 Germans played by Putin." Although the publication acknowledged that "no German bears greater responsibility for the crisis in Ukraine than Merkel," it also mentioned Schwesig. Specifically, it highlighted how she established a non-profit fund with funds from Gazprom to complete the project Nord Stream if it comes under US sanctions. In the interest of fairness, it should be noted that Schwesig seems to have changed her stance and stated that Putin should be held accountable for the attack on Ukraine. However, what about the Reuters investigation into her warm contacts with Oleg Yeryomenko, a former employee of the Russian GRU (as shown in the photo)? Although, of course, former members of Russian intelligence agencies don't exist.
#9 Bidzina Ivanishvili is a Georgian politician and billionaire businessman who served as the Prime Minister of Georgia from October 2012 to November 2013. He is also the current real leader of the Georgian Dream party and is widely considered the "gray cardinal" who holds strong power in Georgia. According to Transparency International (TI) Georgia, Ivanishvili is the beneficial owner of at least one company in Russia, and his inner circle continues to do business with a former KGB general who is under US sanctions. Despite promising to divest his Russian assets after entering politics in 2011, the Georgian billionaire remained the beneficial owner of at least 10 companies in Russia through offshore firms between 2012 and 2019. However, it's not just about business. In 2022-2023, Georgia has become one of the few trade hubs through which Russia bypasses sanctions on the import of sensitive goods and dual-use items. Is the most influential leader of the country involved in these dealings? An intriguing question. After the start of the war in Ukraine, Tbilisi did not support Western sanctions against Russia. Prime Minister Garibashvili stated that it would not be in Georgia's interests. In response, in spring 2023, Russia restored aviation connections with Tbilisi and opened its market to Georgian goods.
Photo: Lukashenko and Putin
#10 The longstanding President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is a longtime and deep ally of the Kremlin. So deep that in recent weeks, Russia has started deploying tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of this supposedly independent country. It is also known that Russian military forces invaded Ukraine from Belarus in February-March 2022. Belarusian enterprises supply weapons to Russia, and the armed forces of the republic have handed over their stocks of weapons and ammunition. In other words, Lukashenko is not just Putin's ally; he should be sitting next to him on the same bench during the future trial.
#11 Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media magnate, politician, and billionaire, is known not only for having served as the Prime Minister of Italy in four governments from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011 but also as a sympathizer of Putin, playing a significant role as a powerful icebreaker in European politics. Berlusconi is one of the few who approvingly witnessed Putin's rise from short political pants to his current state of enfant terrible. In particular, when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, Berlusconi was still in power kept a straight face. After Berlusconi's death on June 12, 2023, Putin referred to him as a close and wise friend, saying, "Silvio was a dear person to me, a true friend. I always admired his wisdom, his ability to make balanced, far-sighted decisions even in the most difficult situations." What a gratitude for Berlusconi's support, who publicly stated that Kyiv was responsible for the invasion initiated by Russia in February 2022. And not just for that. It is known that in 2007, the Italian parliament blocked the Eni-Gazprom contract and accused Berlusconi of personal interest in this deal. Later on, he demonstrated strange political somersaults. For example, Berlusconi initially condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a conference of his party, Forza Italia, in Rome in April 2022. He expressed deep disappointment with President Putin's behavior. But somewhat later, on the eve of the general elections in Italy in September of the same year, he stated that "troops should have entered, reached Kyiv in a week, replaced Zelensky's government with decent people, and returned within a week." As they say, the man diligently spoiled his own obituary.