During the Cold War (1947-1989), American foreign policy was dominated by fears of Soviet expansionism. These fears were heightened by the possibility that Communist regimes would come to power in various parts of the world. These worries were not imaginary. China went through a red revolution in 1949. Pro-Soviet regimes came to power in Cuba, with its Castroite revolution in 1959, the transformation of what was then called South Yemen into a “people’s republic” occurred in the 1960s; and, of course there was the case of Vietnam along with the rest of South East Asia. “Democratic republics”, meaning pro-Soviet governments came to power in Egypt, Syria, Indonesia and a handful of other places in what came to be included under the moniker of the “Third World”. All this was in addition to the countries of Eastern Europe which had fallen under Soviet control as the result of the Red Army’s defeat of Nazi Germany in the last two years of World War II. American concerns about Communist successes extended to Western Europe. The NATO alliance of 1949 was intended to contain the military threat posed by Stalin and his successors to the freedom and independence of Western European nations. In Washington, the Soviet threat was widely seen as having a dangerous domestic element as well.
For much of the Cold War, Communist parties in France and Italy especially were sufficiently popular among voters to scare Washington decision-makers into believing that these parties might come to power by perfectly fair elections. Further, in both France and Italy major labor unions were linked to the countries’ Communist parties. In Italy, for many years, the country’s Socialist party maintained close ties to the larger Communist one. Similar forces appeared to have been at work in Greece as well before the colonels’ seizure of power in 1967.
Spain and Portugal were late-comers to democracy. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain went through a surprisingly peaceful transition to parliamentary democracy, a transition that included the acceptance of a Communist party as a legitimate political contenders. Portugal’s transition to democracy was not so peaceful. It was the result of a revolutionary upheaval sparked in 1974 by army officers fed up with the country’s long-lasting colonial struggles in Sub-Saharan Africa. In both the Spanish and Portuguese cases, however, the dawn of democracy meant the appearance of the Communists as legitimate political contenders.
The United States reacted to these developments by doing what it could to prevent the ascent of the European Communists’, even those associated with the idea of ‘euro-communism’. In practical terms, this meant providing cash subsidies to centrist and right-wing parties, along with various newspapers and unions opposed to the Communists.
In the Italian case this meant extending financial support for the long-ruling Christian Democrats and parties to its right including the Liberals and, at least for a while, the Italian Social Movement (Italy’s neo-Fascist organization). It also meant sponsoring the creation of ‘Operation Gladio’. The latter involved the formation of ‘stay-behind’ teams of armed fighters to act in the event the Communists came to power. Such teams were formed not only in Italy but also in other NATO countries where such a threat existed.
The Soviet Union came to an end in 1991 (as did the American subsidies to its opponents). One of its successor states is of course the Russian Federation. Its current leader Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, is an ardent nationalist and populist who has committed himself to the restoration of Russia as a great power with expansionary designs on (now independent) old Soviet Union states. He has also sought to weaken American influence in Western and Central Europe, particularly in light of NATO’s expansion into states that used to be part of the old Warsaw Pact countries.
Among the repertoire of tactics Putin has employed in pursuit of his objectives has been the promotion of nationalist populism in European states that had been America’s allies and NATO partners. The recent scandal involving a liaison between a leader of the Austrian Freedom Party and a Russian figure, apparently bearing gifts, is suggestive. Kind words have been exchanged between Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Rally (formerly Front National), and Putin is illustrative. In Italy Matteo Salvini head of the country’s new generation of right-wing nationalist parties, the League, has also expressed sympathy for Putin’s objectives. Without saying so directly, Putin cannot help but be pleased by Britain’s Brexit pursuit.
In short, Russia’s national interest, as defined by President Putin, involves the support of European political parties committed to playing on the nationalist sentiments of those voters who feel themselves left behind by and fearful of the trends towards globalism and world-wide economic integration. Oftentimes these fears are closely linked to strong opposition to the recent wave of immigration, particularly by Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa. Party political positions that promote the weakening of NATO and European Union (EU) disintegration represent gains for the Russian cause.
It remains to be seen whether or not Moscow’s support goes beyond expressions of sympathy to include cash subsidies along the lines of earlier Cold War era American policy. But we are certainly left with a remarkable irony. Once-upon-a-time, the United States provided support for right-wing political parties in Europe who were committed to containing or rolling back Russian influence in the region. These days, thanks to Putin, Russian policy is to support a newer generation of the European rightists whose aim is to reduce American influence. The same horse but different jockeys.
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Foundation Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Nevada. His profile can be found here:
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