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Ukraine war poses a challenge for Europe’s right-wing populists — and ours

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has strengthened the resolve of Europe’s liberal democracies and given pause to its illiberal populists.

The Equality Parade, the largest gay pride parade in central and eastern Europe, in Warsaw, June 19, 2021.Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press

When a country realizes it could be invaded at almost any time, that possibility focuses its mind wonderfully. That’s certainly been the case for Poland, where the country’s right-wing government — which until recently was obsessed with gay rights and other culture-wars divides —suddenly seems to have decided that gay pride may not actually be so bad compared with, say, nuclear war.

The cause of that shift, of course, has been the unprovoked Russian invasion of Poland’s neighbor, Ukraine, and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin about expanding the war to Poland, the Baltics, and elsewhere. Across Europe, the outbreak of war has been an abrupt, overdue reality check for populist politicians like Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda. As much as those leaders may love taking cheap shots at the European Union and other liberal institutions, the peace, security, and prosperity those collective democratic institutions have provided since the end of the Cold War is suddenly nothing to take for granted.


Or, as one former US ambassador to Poland put it, “They’re starting to say, ‘If we’re going to fight Putin’s influence in the name of Europe and democracy, then we have to start to embrace Europe and democracy.’ ”

Indeed, the Ukraine war could prove a watershed moment for European politics, reminding governments and voters why past generations built those multilateral institutions and reviving what used to be widespread political support for European integration. For the United States, which has increasingly carried the burden of paying for NATO, that would be a welcome change.

European elections this spring provide a first chance to turn the tide against the populists. Hungary’s voters go to the polls next week to decide whether to keep Viktor Orban, the country’s EU-bashing leader. In France, the presidential election later in April will probably pit incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron against nationalist Marine Le Pen, who opposes French membership in NATO and previously has called for France to leave the EU as well.


In the years before the invasion, Putin shrewdly helped anti-EU, anti-NATO politicians; a Russian bank even loaned money to Le Pen’s party, and Russian hackers helped Donald Trump’s 2016 election bid in the United States. The Russians tried to inflame social divisions — over gay rights, race, and other hot-button topics — to sow division in the West. Now the invasion has put the continent’s right-wing parties on the defensive. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s Lega party, and President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic have both denounced Putin after earlier praising him.

The most powerful reminder of the value of the EU and NATO, though, has come from Ukraine itself. One of the reasons Russia invaded the former Soviet republic was to stop Ukraine’s westward drift and to prevent it from joining European “blocs” — code for the EU and NATO. As much as Europeans themselves may treat the EU like a political punching bag, the multinational body retains its stature as a powerful enough symbol of freedom and prosperity to inspire Ukrainians to fight and die for their “European future.” The horrible sacrifices Ukraine is making to align itself with Europe’s institutions ought to be the best rejoinders to the small-minded politicians who would tear them apart.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.