Putin will love the ‘hot autumn’ of populist protests in Europe

After launching a war of aggression and failing to win it, Russian President Vladimir Putin has little to celebrate these days. What will please him is to see many Western Europeans taking to the streets this autumn. He will use every prod and prod in his arsenal of disinformation to incite protesters to divide their own societies – thus weakening the international front against him.

This fall, civil unrest is expected to intensify in 101 countries (out of 198 monitored), according to an index developed by Verisk Maplecroft, a research firm. Hotspots range from Sri Lanka and Algeria to relatively affluent Europe. The main driver is of course inflation, especially the spike in food and energy prices (caused in large part by Putin). But other factors come into play. The Czechs and Germans have provided early glimpses of a particularly worrying pattern.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Prague the other day. They demanded that the European Union lift its sanctions against Russia, conclude a new gas agreement with Putin and stop arming Ukraine. Many blamed the EU and NATO, rather than Putin, for everything that was wrong with the world. Notable speakers included far-right and far-left agitators.

Last Monday, the Czechs passed the baton north to the region that was once East Germany, where thousands gathered in Leipzig and Magdeburg. Again, the apparent bugbears of the protesters were inflation, energy prices and a supposedly callous and inept political elite. But the protesters seemed at least as eager to express their sympathy for Putin, their indifference towards Ukraine and their vitriol towards the American-led West. As in Prague, they come disproportionately from the populist far right and the post-communist left.

The party mobilizing far-right Germans is the Alternative for Germany (AfD); representing those on the other extreme is The Left, a party descended from the communist regime that ruled East Germany. Both are largely irrelevant in the former West Germany, but are mainstream in the alienated eastern regions. In the state assembly of Thuringia, the AfD and the left would together (if they collaborated) have the majority of the seats.

For the fall, the two parties are promising a “Warm Fall against Cold Feet”, as one slogan goes, with rallies scheduled every Monday. Officially, however, they are doing everything possible to distance themselves from each other. On the conventional political spectrum, after all, they are meant to be diametrically opposed.

In reality, there is a suspicious overlap in their worldviews. Their supporters come from the same backgrounds (mainly East Germany) who also protested against refugees in 2015-2016 and against Covid rules more recently. They seem disproportionately eager to recycle conspiracy theories.

It’s no news that the far left and the right share a lot of psychological DNA – Benito Mussolini was a socialist before he championed fascism. The mindset on both sides is authoritarian, populist and collectivist as opposed to individualist – the main difference being the targets of their resentment (the rich for the left, the tribal outsiders for the right). And they are all oddly pro-Russian.

These inclinations make those on the fringes of politics across Europe an ideal audience of “useful idiots” – the terminology is attributed to Lenin – for Kremlin propaganda in the West. This applies to populists from France to Italy and beyond. But Putin – who plied his trade as a KGB agent in East Germany in the 1980s – knows his useful idiots best in central Europe.

In places once held hostage by the Kremlin behind the Iron Curtain, this resurgent Russophilia is bitterly ironic – a case of collective Stockholm Syndrome. Hungary is perhaps the worst example, but East Germany is also shocking. As if to underscore their cynicism, the AfD and the left have even chosen Mondays for rallies this fall, in a nod to the East German “Monday protests” in 1989 that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This cocktail of credulity and bad faith is understandably hard to bear for other Europeans who were behind the iron curtain and who were victims of the tsars even before the Soviets. In addition to Ukrainians, these include Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. They regard Putin as an existential threat and, by extension, the perceived instability of their Western allies, notably Germany, a form of betrayal – hardly the first in their history.

In its protracted standoff against Putin and the brutal neo-imperialism he represents, the West can only win if it remains united. This is why Putin will do everything possible to continue spreading lies and disinformation in the West, hoping to build a “fifth column” fighting for him behind enemy lines. Western leaders – and not just those in political office – must do all they can to expose these lies and counter them with the truth. The biggest test yet will come during this warm fall.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Putin would not back down from starting Chernobyl 2.0 in Ukraine: Andreas Kluth

Ukraine counter-offensive shows time is not on Putin’s side: Tara Lachappelle

Putin may be pressured to withdraw troops from Ukrainian nuclear plant: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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