Across Europe, apologists for Russia and Russian policy have coalesced into what amounts to a fifth column. The emergence in Western capitals of what might be called the "Party of Putin" is an exceptionally dangerous development, precisely because those who comprise it are not only the usual far-left and far-right suspects. So who are its "members"?
They are, for starters, those who, regardless of party, have had nothing critical to say about the full state reception that Russian President Vladimir Putin just staged at the Kremlin for that multi-recidivist enemy of the West, and more importantly, butcher of his own people, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They are those whose craven relief that a "strongman" has appeared to impose order (his own) on the Syrian mess prevents them from seeing that the primary effect of Russia's massive, indiscriminate bombardments has been to accelerate the flow of refugees toward Europe.
And they are the great many who simply ignore what motivates Putin's armed diplomacy (and not just in Syria): the desire to exact revenge on those who, in his eyes, were responsible for the Soviet Union's downfall. Putin famously declared that the Soviet collapse was the "biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century," and he has never stopped blaming it on the United States, the Catholic Church (and its Polish pope), and Europe.
Yet the Party of Putin prefers not to see how seemingly discrete events are components of a Kremlin strategy of revenge, humiliation and, at the very least, destabilization aimed at Europe. But you need to be almost willfully blind to miss this big picture, because Putin's tactics -- to pounce on the slightest breach or sign of weakness in Europe in order to sow division -- have been remarkably consistent.
Thus, for example, Putin reportedly told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in September 2014, "If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest." That November, he wondered "what was so bad about" the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Nazi-Soviet agreement that opened the way to Stalin's invasion of eastern Europe, and annexation of the Baltic states, and parts of Poland and Romania. Given this, it is perhaps not very surprising that, at the end of June, Russian prosecutors announced the opening of an investigation into the legality of the Baltic States' independence.
Beyond the revisionist rhetoric, there is Putin's rapprochement with Hungary, initiated at his February 17 meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (a meeting lamented in the streets of Budapest by demonstrators opposed to becoming a "Russian colony" again). There are also his repeated contacts with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who went to Moscow at the height of Greece's showdown with the European Union to ask for $10 billion to print a new drachma.
Then there are the Russian military's repeated violations of the airspace of Europe's border countries. And there is the Kremlin's systematic support of the populist, nationalist, and outright fascist parties that, in every EU country, are most eager to dismantle Europe.
Wherever Putin goes, his party in Europe is sure to follow. When Ukrainian civil society proclaimed its love for the EU and Putin interpreted that as a hostile gesture directed at Russia, its members took Putin's side against Europe. When Putin justifies his claims to Crimea and Donbas by dredging up linguistic nationalism (Russians are all those who speak Russian), his apologists in Europe -- where the Nazis used the same strategy in the Sudetenland (Germans are all those who speak German) -- consider it a matter of simple common sense.
One hesitates to call the Party of Putin suicidal, masochistic or driven by self-hatred or a taste for treason; yet its members say nothing when, for the first time since the Cold War, the Kremlin alters by force frontiers upon which the continent's collective security depends. They do not know, or pretend not to know, that Putin is an empire builder surrounded by ideologues whose vision of the world, though complex and robust, is in all key respects opposed to that of the West. They place right and law in the service of strength and force, rather than vice versa, prioritize order over liberty and treat gay people and other "deviants" as the quintessence of a decadent West emasculated by the poison of cosmopolitanism.
Determined to embody a "manly" Eurasian alternative to democratic civilization, Putin is now on the offensive and testing his neighbors' resistance. And the tools at his disposal are no longer those of the antiquated, corrupt, decomposing military that he inherited 15 years ago. Russia's new Kalibr cruise missiles, fired from ships in the Caspian Sea, recently surprised the world with their fearsome precision.
The blindness demonstrated by the Party of Putin is obviously not without precedent. The present dangers have led me to read Thierry Wolton on the history of Communism and the voluntary surrenders that it engendered over the decades.
But what is confounding is the degree to which, to quote Jean-François Revel (who was a friend of mine as well as of Wolton), knowledge of the past can go tragically unused, and how the same mistakes, the same willful ignorance, can be repeated -- and not always, pace Marx, as farce.