Putin’s master plan for Europe is bearing fruit


For the next seven days The Telegraph is running a series of exclusive essays from international commentators imagining the consequences if Russia were successful in its war. The first, by former Ukrainian MP Aliona Hlivco, considered the devastating impact for the Nato alliance. Today, historian Dr Thomas Clausen assesses the fallout such a victory would have on European politics.

“Ruscism” is the term often used to describe the sinister ideology underpinning Russia’s genocidal campaign. As Putin’s talking points have penetrated Germany’s AfD, Austria’s FPÖ and fringes of the US Republican party, it is clear the Kremlin’s special blend of “Russia” and “fascism” is becoming an export hit in the West.

Therefore, if Putin wins in Ukraine, expect this toxic ideology to spread.

A look back at the history of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s offers a valuable lesson in understanding the threat posed to liberal democracies by the spread of fascist-style parties. In contrast to Woodrow Wilson’s hope that the First World War had made the “world safe for democracy”, we forget most European democracies had died by 1940. We are not immune.

At present, the West displays a degree of complacency that is reminiscent of the early months of the Second World War. In a speech at Westminster on April 3 1940, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain confidently declared that Hitler had “missed the bus”. Less than three months later, the Nazis held their victory parade in Paris.

The French historian Marc Bloch, who witnessed the collapse of the French army at first hand and was executed for his role in the Résistance in 1944, offered a compelling analysis of the reasons for defeat: “Our leaders, or those who acted for them, were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war.”

More than ten years since Putin’s soldiers first invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea, Western politicians still struggle to understand the fact that the Russian leader, too, has forced a new type of war on the West. “The very ‘rules of war’ have changed”, observed the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov, in 2016: “The role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness.”

Nato economic and technological superiority, let alone the nuclear umbrella, have made Western leaders complacent about the prospect of a Russian victory – not just in Ukraine, but in Europe as a whole. Putin’s key to victory lies not in an all-out war against Nato, but in the use of non-military weapons and the subversion of democratic polities. In short, Putin wins once liberal democracies lose the will to fight – and that day might be catastrophically close.

If it comes, it is only the beginning of the spread of a dangerous new ideology the type of which has been unseen for decades.

Putin has already succeeded in muddying public discourse in the West. While Russian state TV prepares its domestic audience for war and genocide, pro-Putin voices in the West denounce as “warmongers” those who want to support Ukraine with the means for self-defence.

Ruscism has also been injected into the culture wars. False promises of “national rebirth” and “traditional values” appeal to disenchanted conservatives in the West, while the Left is happily feeding on anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. As the recent Ivy League protests have shown, there is even a willingness to embrace terrorist groups such as Hamas, a close ally of Iran – which, in turn, supplies Russia with the Shahed drones used for murdering Ukrainian civilians.

Another success for Putin is the enlistment of key figures in the West. In Germany, where I live, this is evident in some infamous cases. It is less important whether they are “useful idiots”, paid-up lobbyists (such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder) or (alleged) recipients of bribes. What matters is that the democratic discourse has been compromised by agents willing to do the bidding of “ruscism”.

The “fascistisation” of populist movements is likely one of the most significant developments in recent years. For over a decade, scholars have debated whether nativist, illiberal, and anti-elitist positions could be termed fascist – and all too often, the term has been abused to denigrate opinions outside the political mainstream. Russian influence, however, has changed everything – and the fact that Putin has infiltrated opposition voices across Europe and the United States might turn out to be his most clever investment.

The German AfD is a case in point. Founded in 2013, the party was led by liberal and conservative economists who argued that the euro was incompatible with notions of national sovereignty and, in addition, economically harmful to both Greeks and Germans. Having missed the electoral threshold by a narrow margin in the same year, the party benefitted from Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis in 2015. In 2017, the AfD entered the Federal parliament for the first time and has since become a fixture in German politics.

At the beginning, the AfD’s positions appeared to be not that dissimilar to those of conservative parties outside Germany: hostile to overreach from Brussels, critical of unrestricted immigration, and fiscally conservative, the AfD professed to merely occupy Right-of-centre positions vacated by Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Quickly, however, it became clear that the AfD was anything but conservative. In 2018, its chairman Alexander Gauland declared that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of birds*** in over 1,000 years of glorious German history”. As most moderate voices left over the years, the influence of the extreme right and the Thuringian party leader Björn Höcke, who wants to fuse the national and the social, grew stronger. “The most important book published in 2018”, according to Höcke, was aptly entitled “solidarity patriotism”.

More recently, he has told Elon Musk on Twitter that provisions in the German criminal code, which ban Nazi slogans, “aim to prevent Germany from finding itself again.” His usage of the Nazi stormtrooper catchphrase “Everything for Germany” has since earned him a hefty fine by a German court.

'Great Frankfurt Carnival Parade' through the city center in Frankfurt, Germany
'Great Frankfurt Carnival Parade' through the city center in Frankfurt, Germany

At the same time, “ruscism” has entered the party. In 2014, the AfD firmly rallied behind Nato, declaring that the party was “firmly committed” to binding Germany to the West. But only a few months after these “guiding principles” were accepted by the party congress, very different voices became louder, defending Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In the following years, pro-Putin positions became dominant.

In 2016 and 2018, the young MP Markus Frohnmaier visited occupied Crimea while some of his colleagues even made it to Donetsk and Luhansk. His former aide, Manuel Ochsenreiter, was even suspected of having committed arson in Ukraine as part of a false-flag operation (he died – mysteriously – in Moscow in 2021).

In 2023, one year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the party chairman Tino Chrupalla attended a reception at the Russian embassy in Berlin while another MP, Steffen Kotré, was a guest in Vladimir Solovyov’s propaganda show on Russian prime time TV. The fact that Solovyov routinely threatens Berlin with nuclear annihilation seems to be of little concern to the self-avowed “patriots”.

The question of how far Right-wing (and Left-wing) populist parties in Germany have been subverted by Russian influence will remain a key question for years to come. What is clear, however, is that allegiance to Putin has transformed parties that were critical of mainstream positions into something much more sinister.

Already in August 2022, merely six months after Putin’s full-scale invasion, the AfD was not ashamed to ask the German government about “Ukraine’s rapprochement to Nato”. Since then, they have become one of Putin’s most reliable voices in German politics – much to the chagrin of minority voices within the party, including General Rüdiger Lucassen, who accused his own party members of “treason against the people” in 2023. More recently, he backtracked, lauding the “pluralism” in his party.

Putin’s success in influencing and, perhaps, taking over populist parties in the West has been one of his biggest achievements, because his grand prize and the openly stated goal of his war is the dismantlement of Nato and the European Union.

Such a scenario is anything but far-fetched. Earlier this year, Donald Trump even encouraged Russia to attack Nato countries if they failed to “pay their bills”. Meanwhile, Marine le Pen might well win the French presidential election in 2027. While she has recently adjusted her message, her long-held admiration for Putin and her party’s links to a Russian bank are well documented.

Moldovan army recruits enter their camp on May 16, 2024 in Bulboaca, Moldova. The country is strengthening its military in the wake of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine
Moldovan army recruits enter their camp on May 16, 2024 in Bulboaca, Moldova. The country is strengthening its military in the wake of Russia's invasion of neighboring Ukraine

The democratic doomsday scenario involves of a number of unlikely – but far from impossible – steps: Putin overwhelms Ukraine and pushes to Moldova and the Suwałki gap, Trump removes the United States from Nato, and Europe’s only nuclear deterrent, the Force de frappe, is controlled by Le Pen. This would leave Europe’s eastern flank dangerously exposed – while extremists from the Left and Right might play the role of the Ephialtes, who betrayed the Spartan position at Thermopylae.

“Every time you sacrifice one of your potential allies to this pathetic desire to appease the tyrants you merely bring nearer and make more inevitable that war which you pretend you are trying to avoid”, the Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood presciently told Neville Chamberlain in 1938. Hitler’s (temporary) victory in 1940 was only made possible due to the inaction of the West after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the dismantlement of Czechoslovakia, and the “phoney war” following the attack on Poland.

The same holds true for Putin’s war of expansion. With impunity, Putin has been allowed to level cities, murder opponents (even on Nato territory), and slaughter civilians. Neither the war against Georgia in 2008 nor the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the killing of 298 passengers of flight MH17 has kept the West from guzzling up Russian gas, courting Russian money and enjoying the 2018 World Cup.

So far, the price for this moral and strategic failure of the West has mostly been paid by Ukrainians. Should Putin be allowed to succeed, it will likely embolden him to test the limits of Article 5 and to intensify the hybrid war that he has already been waging for decades. Finally, it will strengthen the ruscist acolytes who have already made their way into Western parliaments and who eagerly proclaim the end of the “multipolar world order” (a shorthand for denying most states their right to self-determination).

It is therefore high time to enable liberal democracies to robustly defend themselves from their internal and external enemies. If Putin wins, Europe’s fascist future awaits.

Dr Thomas Clausen is a historian and former policy advisor.

He has contributed to The Telegraph’s daily podcast ‘Ukraine: The Latest’, your go-to source for all the latest analysis, live reaction and correspondents reporting on the ground. With over 85 million downloads, it is considered the most trusted daily source of war news on both sides of the Atlantic.

You can listen to one extended interview with him on German attitudes to the war here.

The first essay in this series, by former Ukrainian MP Aliona Hlivco, considered the devastating impact for the Nato alliance. It can be found here.