Tom Arms’ World Review

Trump and Orban

It was the Trump-Orban love fest in Mar-a-lago last weekend. The Hungarian Prime Minister praised the ex-president as “the president of peace.” Trump went several steps further:  “There is nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orban,” he enthused.

President Joe Biden failed to agree with Trump’s assessment. He referred to Orban as a wannabe dictator, and attacked Trump for meeting him, let alone praising him.

Biden’s man in Hungary, Ambassador David Pressman, was even more undiplomatic in his language, which could herald a looming clash between the Biden Administration and Europe’s darling of the right-wing populists.

In a speech on Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of Hungary’s joining NATO, Ambassador Pressman  warned the  Hungarian prime minister  that the US has lost patience with his embrace of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, attacks on the Biden Administration, his undermining of support for Ukraine, and his open advocacy of Trump’s return to the White House.

He said: “We cannot ignore it when the Speaker of Hungary’s National Assembly asserts that Putin’s war in Ukraine is actually led by the United States. We cannot ignore a sitting minister referring to the United States as a corpse whose nails continue to grow. We can neither understand nor accept the Prime Minister identifying the United States as a ‘top adversary’ …or his assertion that the United States government is trying to overthrow the Hungarian government—literally, to ‘defeat’ him.”

The ambassador called out Orbán’s “systematic takeover of independent media,” the use of government power to “provide favourable treatment for companies owned by party leaders or their families, in-laws, or old friends,” and laws defending “a single party’s effort to monopolize public discourse.”

Pressman added: “Hungary’s allies are warning Hungary of the dangers of its close and expanding relationship with Russia. If this is Hungary’s policy choice—and it has become increasingly clear that it is with the Foreign Minister’s sixth trip to Russia since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and with his next trip to Russia scheduled in two weeks, following his engagement with Russia’s Foreign Minister earlier this month, and the Prime Minister’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in China—we will have to decide how best to protect our security interests, which, as Allies, should be our collective security interests.”

Russia

It is presidential election weekend in Russia. The bookies favourite – surprise, surprise – is Vladimir Putin.

It is also just over two years since Russia invaded Ukraine, so the two combined events provide an excellent opportunity to assess how events and political thought processes have changed over the past two years.

The Putin regime has rebuilt every element of itself to adapt to a permanent state of war: in propaganda and everyday life, in the political model of unifying the behaviour of the elites and ordinary people, in the education and justice systems, and—crucially—in the economy.

Russia is no longer an authoritarian regime that requires only silence from the people. It is a totalitarian regime that demands complicity. People must pay their dues to the state by sacrificing their loved ones in the trenches, attending mass rallies in support of the war, and performing socially approved activities. These include reporting a colleague, a student, teacher, or neighbour for expressing opposition to the war. Attending an anti-war demonstration will land you in prison. Putin faces three opponents at the ballot box. But none of them have been allowed to oppose the war in Ukraine.

The all-pervasive totality of the state has saturated the media, movies, and theatre. It has permeated the book market, changing the rules of the Russian language by abolishing feminine gender-specific job titles as a sign of sympathy for LGBTQ rights. Books by best-selling authors are banned and the authors are branded “foreign agents.”

Putin needs enemies to win supporters. NATO, the West, the LGBTQ community. They are not only a threat to him. They are a threat to Russia. And Russia is special. It is exceptionalism and greatness on steroids. In Putin’s view of the world, Russia and the West are locked in a battle to destroy the superior Russian identity.

To preserve Russia’s identity, Putin believes he has to reconstruct the world order to eliminate post-war American dominance. The “special operation” began with the logic of protecting ethnic Russians in Ukraine. It has morphed into a war with the West. And In Putin’s Alice in Wonderland world, it is the West – through Ukraine – who has attacked Russia.

To those who remember the Cold War years, Putin’s revolutionary language sounds very similar to that of the Soviet leaders. The difference is that the communist revolution was rooted in internationalism while Putin’s world revolution is embedded in Russian nationalism.

Portugal and Netherlands

It was a good news bad news week for Europe’s populist right. The really good news came out of Portugal where the far-right Chega Party quadrupled its share of the vote to come in third in the country’s general election.

The Socialists – who have been in government for the past eight years – are now out on their ear. They came in second to the centre-right Democratic Alliance led by Luis Montenegro who just squeaked into first place with 79 seats.

Montenegro now faces the unpalatable choice of trying to navigate the choppy waters of a minority government or forming a coalition with the outgoing socialists or the upcoming Chegas.

The Leader of the Democratic Alliance has repeatedly refused to work with Chega, which he described as “xenophobic, racist, populist and excessively demagogic.” Chega leader Andre Ventura denies that his party is xenophobic or racist, he insists that they just want to limit immigration and have a Portugal – and Europe – based on “Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian values.”

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, far-right populist Geert Wilders appears to have given up trying to form a government and secure the job of prime minister. He has basically come up against a political brick wall. Nobody wants to work with him. He is regarded as politically toxic.

Wilders shocked the European political establishment when his far-right Freedom Party (PVV) came out top of the list in a general election late last year. He won 37 seats. Unfortunately, for Wilders ambitions, this was about half of what he needed to form a government.

The PVV’s policies were just too extreme for the rest of the Dutch political establishment. Wilders wanted the Netherlands out of the EU. He said the Koran was worse than Mein Kampf and wanted it banned. Muslim immigration to the Netherlands must stop immediately and Muslims already in the country would be paid to leave.

Four of the smaller parties did enter into negotiations. They were attacked for doing so. Wilders watered down some of his more extreme policies, but it was too little too late. At one stage, the potential partners considered an arm’s length coalition.  None of the party leaders would take a cabinet position. Instead ministerial posts would be held by “technical experts” and “experienced politicians.” This was eventually rejected as unworkable. Wilders gave up and the Dutch have returned to the coalition-building drawing board.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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11 Comments

  • Mary Fulton 17th Mar '24 - 4:34pm

    Tom Arms is absolutely correct that the war between Russia and Ukraine has morphed into a war between Russia and the West. This was inevitable when the West decided to support Ukraine with advanced weapons and ammunition that are being used to kill Russian soldiers. The dangers of a further escalation are very real with President Macron determined to gain support for sending military personnel into Ukraine to help prevent further Russian advances – basing French forces in Odesa is apparently under discussion. My fear is that a number of significant figures in the West appear willing to see the situation escalate to World War 3 if the alternative is to accept a Russian victory over Ukraine. Frightening times.

  • Chris Moore 17th Mar '24 - 4:48pm

    Good to know, John, that Russia’s aggression was “reckless and ULTIMATELY indefensible”.

    Be clearer. It was one country launching an unprovoked attack on another.

    There is nothing “ultimately” about it. it’s wrong from start to finish.

    Any peace treaty that rewards Russia for its aggression will simply encourage and embolden further aggression.

  • Nom de Plume 18th Mar '24 - 10:33pm

    NATO’s expansion eastwards was too slow. They should have included Ukraine earlier and worried less about upsetting Russia. Putin does not worry about upsetting other people or military escalation.

  • Question, is there any politician, diplomat or ambassador in the West with whom Putin would be willing to have a no holds barred discussion with re what exactly he / Russia wants in order to feel safe and secure? If not, how has the West and Russia allowed this to happen? We do not have to like or agree with those with whom we are diametrically opposed, but, if we can’t even have an honest and if necessary secret discussion as to how both sides of a dispute can maintain their security then we are headed to hell in a hand cart.
    Time was we had people who could do this, the fact that we may no longer have that ability, is not entirely all on Putin.

  • @John Waller: Iraq and Ukraine are hardly comparable, in that the UK was directly involved in the illegal war in Iraq (as an agressor), while no UK troops have been deployed to Ukraine. The Iraq war was a US-led military intervention aimed at regime change in Iraq; one of the many problems with that was they couldn’t decide what to replace the old regime with. Ukraine is a bilateral war in which Russia is clearly the agressor. The only way to achieve a just peace is for Russia to be driven out of Ukraine and Ukraine restored to its pre-2014 borders.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 20th Mar '24 - 8:57pm

    “We LibDems campaigned against the Iraq War. We must NOW try and stop the Ukraine War.”

    An absurd and unhelpful comparison.

    Liberalism stands on the side of a rules based order, therefore we should be strongly on the side of Ukraine defending itself and liberating it’s territory.

  • @Zachary Adam Barker; how?

  • Peter Hirst 25th Mar '24 - 4:24pm

    What is wrong with being centrist? If done well it combines fair social support with sustainable economic growth. To deal with the myriad of other issues such as migration it might be necessary to loosen the control Parties have over parliament and allow more free votes and perhaps a less overbearing governance with more deliberative processes.

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