Siding with the underdog: Explaining the populist radical right’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

by Prof. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Surrey), Dr. Adrian Favero (University of Groningen), Dr. Niko Hatakka (University of Helsinki), Dr. Judith Sijstermans (University of Edinburgh)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced a dramatic shift in the positions of several of Europe’s populist radical right parties. Daniele Albertazzi, Adrian Favero, Niko Hatakka and Judith Sijstermans explain why parties that previously opposed refugees and voiced support for Vladimir Putin have been quick to change their approach in response to the war.

When Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s populist radical right League, visited the Polish town of Przemysl on 8 March, nobody had prepared him for the welcome party organised for him by the town mayor, Wojciech Bakun. Hoping to be thanked for bringing aid to Ukrainian refugees in the area, Salvini was instead reminded of the warm words he had said in the past about Russian President Vladimir Putin and gifted a T-shirt emblazoned with Putin’s own image. Salvini had posted pictures of himself wearing the very same T-shirt in Moscow, and had repeatedly visited Putin and representatives of his party in 2015 and 2017, while criticising the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

We have been studying populist radical right parties in Western Europe for several years, including the language used by Italy’s League, the Finns party, Flemish Interest and the Swiss People’s Party on the issue of refugees and Russia. As parties within this family soften their tough image on asylum seeking in light of the conflict in Ukraine, and also reconsider their position on Russia, it is important to understand how far they are willing to go, and why.

As for attitudes towards Putin’s Presidency, the evidence shows that the radical right has shifted its positions quite rapidly. In Flanders, Flemish Interest had shown understanding for Vladimir Putin’s politics in the past, although it never embraced Salvini’s openly pro-Putin positions. Hence the party’s leader, Tom van Grieken, said of Putin on 13 December 2016: “He does a good job for Russian interests. But I’m not sure he is good for the rest of the world”, adding that “Putin is not black or white, but 50 shades of grey.” Moreover, three of the party’s MPs agreed to act as “international observers” for the referendum on the state of Crimea held in March 2014. While the party distanced itself from this visit, its MPs clearly contributed to legitimising the vote, one that had taken place after the region was invaded by Russian forces.

The attitude of the Swiss People’s Party has also arguably been less hostile to Russia than many other parties in Europe. For instance, it rejected calls to sanction the country in 2014, highlighting the need for Switzerland to remain neutral, despite Crimea having been annexed by force. As for the Finns Party, it has never been pro-Russian (unlike some far-right fringe parties in Finland), and yet its representatives criticised the EU’s decision to impose sanctions, in line with the pronounced Euroscepticism characterising the party in 2014.

Among the many consequences of the war in Ukraine, there has also been a reframing by many of these parties of their stance concerning both Russia and asylum seekers. Hence Salvini and van Grieken have expressed unequivocal support for Ukraine, with the latter tweeting about the difference between what he sees as “real” refugees fleeing Ukraine and the “fake” variety travelling to Europe from Syria and Afghanistan. His party has also attacked the Belgian government for what it perceives to be small and tardy investments in the defence sector. As such, Ukraine has served as a tool for Flemish Interest to bolster its own credentials as the party that cares about the country’s military strength.

Interestingly, the Russian invasion has completely changed the military policy of the Finns Party. In mid-February, the party’s parliamentary group leader had described the idea that Finland could join NATO as “somewhat unnecessary” and as “a factor that would undermine Finnish sovereignty”, reflecting the party’s long-standing support for retaining Finland’s non-allied status. Yet, after Ukraine was invaded, the leaders of the party’s parliamentary group and a majority of the party’s supporters accepted the need for NATO membership.

Therefore, of the parties that we have studied in our research project, the only one that does not appear to have shifted position because of Ukraine is the Swiss People’s Party. While Switzerland’s executive (of which the Swiss People’s Party is a member) decided on 28 February to adopt EU sanctions against Russia, the party insisted that Switzerland should remain committed to impartiality. The former minister (and high profile charismatic leader), Christoph Blocher, even stated that “by accepting to apply sanctions, Switzerland is now at war”.

How can we explain these shifts in the positions of most populist radical right parties? Firstly, it is important to stress the centrality that nationalism maintains for these parties’ identities. Hence the abandonment of Switzerland’s pluri-secular stance based on armed neutrality and independence from its larger European neighbours is unacceptable to the Swiss People’s Party, while the memory of Finland’s recent conflict with Russia makes the Finns party’s rapprochement with EU positions less costly in political terms.

In addition to this, one has to consider the huge wave of sympathy for the Ukrainians that the Russian invasion appears to have generated. Although populist radical right parties are often depicted as outsiders by the media – a definition they are happy to embrace, as it helps them distinguish themselves from established parties that they regard as corrupt – these are in fact parties often well rooted in their respective political systems and that have served in government in the past (with the exception of Flemish Interest). Naturally, considering the roots of these parties’ nationalist platforms, the fact that Ukrainian refugees are Europeans coming from a mostly Christian country makes the change of policy easier to sell to party members and sympathisers.

Radical right leaders are not extreme mavericks unable to read political events, despite being portrayed as such by many in the media. On this occasion, their willingness to set aside their unashamedly anti-refugee stance and avoid wasting political capital trying to turn the tide of sympathy for Ukraine is testimony to their ability to read the room and quickly adapt in the face of shifts in public opinion – even at the occasional risk of being called out for their past actions and statements. Indeed, adaptability and flexibility are apparent strengths of parties on the European radical right today and their opponents should not underestimate them.

This article originally appeared on the LSE Europe Blog and is reproduced with full attribution.

Daniele Albertazzi is Professor of Politics at the University of Surrey. He is the principal investigator of “The survival of the mass party: Evaluating activism and participation among populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe”, funded by the ESRC (project reference: ES/R011540/1).

Adrian Favero is Assistant Professor in European Politics & Society at the University of Groningen. His research focuses on European integration, party organisation and intra-European migration. He previously held a postdoctoral position at the University of Birmingham.

Niko Hatakka is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Politics and Communication at the University of Helsinki. Currently he works in the Academy of Finland funded project ‘Media platforms and social accountability’. His previous postdoctoral affiliations include the University of Birmingham and the Centre for Parliamentary Studies at the University of Turku.

Judith Sijstermans is a Research Fellow on the ESRC funded project “A Family of Nations? Brexit, Devolution and the Union” at the University of Edinburgh, where she is affiliated with the Centre on Constitutional Change. She is also a Teaching Fellow at the University of Dundee and was previously a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

Discussing “Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation Across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?”

Populism in Action’s Prof. Daniele Albertazzi and Dr. Stijn van Kessel recently discussed the research findings presented in “Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation Across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?” the Project’s Open Access Special Issue of Politics and Governance journal with Prof. Scott Lucas of EA Worldview

Their recorded discussion covered research published in the Special Issue, as well as what the project has uncovered about the organisation of populist radical right political parties in contemporary Europe generally.

You can watch their discussion here

Stijn van Kessel Interviewed by the Illiberalism Studies Programme

Dr. Stijn van Kessel the Populism in Action Project’s Co-Investigator was recently interviewed by the Illiberalism Studies Programme at George Washington University.

In a wide ranging discussion Dr. van Kessel shared his insight into how the reality of Brexit has shaped the attitude of populist radical right parties on the European mainland, some of the reasons for the complexities and nuances in such parties attitudes towards the EU, how parties of the populist radical right have managed to relatively successfully negotiate taking on governing responsibilities, and much more.

You can read the interview in full on the Illiberalism Studies Programme website. 

Video Recording of “Right-Wing Populist Party Organisations in Europe: Of and For the People?”

On Tuesday 18th January 2022, the COGITATIO Press hosted an online webinar exploring the main findings of the issue “Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation Across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?”, published in their open access journal Politics and Governance.

Stijn van Kessel (Queen Mary University of London, UK)
Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham, UK)
Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham, UK)

Paul Taggart (University of Sussex, UK)

The event was recorded and can now be watched here on Youtube.

Daniele Albertazzi Interviewed by the Iliberalism Studies Programme

Prof. Daniele Albertazzi the Principal Investigator leading the Populism in Action Project was recently interviewed by the Iliberalism Studies Programme at George Washington University.

In a wide ranging discussion Prof. Albertazzi discussed the origins and orientation of diffrent strains of the populist radical right in Italy, how the populist radical right Swiss people’s Party has been quite successful at utilising the dynamics of the political system in Switzerland, how the COVID-19 pandemic has (for now) hindered the populist radical right in Europe, and much more.

You can read the interview in full on the Iliberalism Studies Programme website. 

Webinar: Right-Wing Populist Party Organisations in Europe: Of and For the People?

This free to attend webinar will analyse the main findings of the issue “Right-Wing Populist Party Organisation Across Europe: The Survival of the Mass-Party?”, published in the open access journal Politics and Governance.

Stijn van Kessel (Queen Mary University of London, UK)
Judith Sijstermans (University of Birmingham, UK)
Niko Hatakka (University of Birmingham, UK)

Paul Taggart (University of Sussex, UK)

Register here

If you do not receive a confirmation email with the link to access the event after the registration please contact

Event organised by the Politics and Governance journal.

Populism in Action in Researchers Quoted in Foreign Policy Magazine

Populism in Action’s Co-Investigator Dr. Stijn van Kessel and former Italy focused Research Fellow Dr. Mattia Zulianello were quoted in “For Europe’s Far Right, Vaccine Skepticism Is a Trap” an article published online by Foreign Policy magazine written by Michele Barbero.

Dr. van Kessel explained that political discussion around COVID-19:

“is not really playing to their strengths,”… “They reduce the salience of typical radical right issues such as immigration and cultural change. Generally speaking, this isn’t good news for them.”

Dr. Zulianello outlined how measures to tackle COVID-19 exacerbate tensions in Italy’s League. He said that Matteo Salvini:

“has the problem of holding together two different Leagues”

While for the German AfD:

“[vaccine scepticism has proven] a way to close ranks,”

The article can be read in full here.

Right Wing Populism in Europe: The New Normal – Ideas on Europe

On 19th November 2021 our Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi took part in an interview with EU!Radio – as part of a UACES initiative called “Ideas of Europe” – in which he discussed the idea of populism as a “new normal” in European politics. A transcript of the interview can be read below, whilst the recording can be accessed here.

Interviewer: Daniele, you say that right-wing populism in Europe is “the new normal”. Can I ask you why you have picked such a provocative title?

Prof. Albertazzi: Mainly because the world has changed around us. Many media outlets – and some academics – keep defining European right wing populist parties as ‘challengers’ or ‘outsiders’. They appear to have taken no notice of what has happened in the last two decades in Europe – well before one Donald Trump even started campaigning ….

Interviewer: However, if we consider the language that populists use to communicate with voters, you will agree that they do not sound necessarily ‘mainstream’…

Prof. Albertazzi: Let’s leave aside for a moment whether you and I are convinced by their proposals and their communication.

Let’s rather start with the facts: right wing populists have been very successful in electoral terms in many contexts, and it is now common for them to be invited to join government coalitions (see the Swiss, Italian, Austrian, Dutch, Norwegian and Finnish cases, to cite just a few). Not only that, but they are increasingly managing to capture the government on their own, like in Hungary and Poland.

And if this were not enough, in many countries they have had a substantial media presence for some time now and very much influence the public agenda. This has contributed to triggering processes of co-optation of their ideas by their non-populist competitors (just think of the current primaries in France!).

In other words, it is apparent that many right-wing populist parties should now be considered part of the mainstream, too. They are indeed “the new normal”.

Interviewer: Isn’t it risky, though, to “normalise” parties that many people see as racist, or incompatible with liberal democracy, and certainly contributing to the increasing polarisation of politics?

Prof. Albertazzi: We are not advocating this or that outcome, we are simply taking stock of what has happened in the last two decades. And, of course, as I have argued in a book co-edited with Davide Vampa, Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europeright-wing populists are still evolving at great speed, and it is important to recognise the many differences that there are between them, too.

This is also true when we think of the “normalisation” of these parties.

The Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Italian Lega were already ‘established populists’ taking part in government coalitions before the financial crisis of 2007.

The Finns party moved from the status of ‘challenger’ to that of ‘established’ by entering governments after the crisis.

The Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Danish People’s party moved towards being ‘established’, thanks to their backing of minority governments

At the same time, UKIP, the German AfD, Flemish Interest in Belgium and the RN in France have all gone on being ostracised by other parties at the national level. So, I am not saying that right wing populists are the ‘new normal’ everywhere, in this sense the title was a little provocative. But this is the direction of travel, and it is important to analyse what is happening, like it or not.

Interviewer: Perhaps the most important aspect of all this is the extent to which the public debate co-opts their proposals, and even their language, as you mentioned earlier on?

Prof. Albertazzi: You have hit the nail on the head. How do we assess the impact of a political party?

In some contexts, electoral success may be paramount, but we can also simply focus on their policies.

In this sense, one could argue that UKIP has been the most successful right wing populist party in Western Europe, since it contributed to getting the UK out of the EU.

Equally, we see policies on immigration and asylum being tightened across the continent, not just by the populist right but also by the so-called “mainstream” parties, left and right, that are trying to prevent their populist competitors from accessing government. I always mention the case of the supposedly centre-left Italian Democratic Party, whose minister Minniti was the first to sign agreements with the Libyan authorities to stop potential asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean sea. It led to thousands of them being incarcerated and tortured in Libyan prisons after being “captured”, thanks to Italian money and support.

Right-wing populists may not be the “new normal” everywhere, but their impact on others changes what is perceived as “normal”.

Interviewer: Thank you very much, Daniele, for sharing with us the big picture produced by your research. We hope to hear you soon again with other “Ideas on Europe”.







Populism in Action Special Issue of Politics and Governance Published

Featuring articles analysing populist radical right party organisation in 12 European countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland), the Populism in Action Project’s Special Issue of Politics and Governance has been published.

You can read it here (Open Access).

Edited by Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Prof. Daniele Albertazzi and its Co-Investigator Dr. Stijn van Kessel.

How do populists respond to growing insecurities?

by Donatella Bonansinga (University of Birmingham)

Academic and media debates usually portray right-wing populists as distinctively relying on narratives of insecurity and the construction of popular fear. We tend to hear about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions as one of manipulation. For many, populists (but what is meant here is usually: ‘right-wing populists’) ‘distort’ reality by representing ‘outsiders’ as existential threats to the people, hence fuelling fears and hostility against them.

In my recent research, I argue that thinking about the relationship between populism, insecurity and emotions in this one-dimensional way is not sufficient to understand the complex socio-political phenomena underlying the appeal of populism. Indeed, this line of reasoning often relies on incorrect assumptions.

Firstly, we tend to equate populists ‘speaking security’ with discourses around crime or law and order, however this is arguably an oversimplification. The risk is that — despite acknowledging that insecurities and grievances play a role in the success of different populisms – we end up overlooking how the populist left also engages in this kind of discourse, while not necessarily focusing on law and order per se. Secondly, we tend to think of populism as a negative phenomenon, ‘exploiting’ people’s deepest fears and clouding ‘rational thinking’. On the contrary – and just like any other political phenomenon – populism can elicit an array of emotional reactions, including positive ones.

To analyse this topic, I examined speeches by Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon during the last French presidential election campaign in 2017. Marine Le Pen is the leader of Rassemblement National (formerly, Front National), a prototypical example of a European populist radical right party. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, by contrast, is the founder and leader of La France Insoumise, a prototypical example of a populist radical left party. France represents an insightful laboratory for populism research because of these two competing populisms.

What is insecurity?

Le Pen and Mélenchon both conceive of insecurity in numerous ways linked to notions of danger, uncertainty, anxiety and the need to ‘protect the people’ from various harms. Crucially however, their ideology informs their identification of insecurity sources. For Marine Le Pen, ideas of physical violence (like crime and terrorism) or cultural threats (like multiculturalism and immigration) are the most salient. However, for Mélenchon it is climate change, international security and neoliberalism that matter as ‘threats’. Both actors overlap in identifying the EU as an ‘accelerator’, or the actor, ‘ultimately responsible’ for this ‘exploding insecurity’.

Insecurity beyond fear

In my work I captured the latent emotional fabric of contemporary French populism’s insecurity discourse by mapping implicit emotional appeals. This means capturing the extent to which a political message taps into the ‘cues’ that research has shown can arouse specific emotional reactions. These are also known as core relational themes. I have found that both Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s insecurity narratives weave a ‘story of insecurity’ centred on the fact that some threats should be feared, some enemies deserve getting angry at, in-groups should make us proud and there are solutions we can hope for.

Populist emotional governance

Through appeals to fear, anger, pride and hope, Le Pen and Mélenchon arguably perform ‘emotional governance’, meaning that they help guide and regulate public emotions on a number of issues.

Fear appeals appeared right at the start of Le Pen’s and Mélenchon’s narratives, setting the stage for what should be understood as a source of insecurity. Contemporary insecurity is a complex and blurry phenomenon, hence fear appeals constitute important interpretative cues guiding what citizens come to see as threats and dangers.

After introducing the source of insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon immediately shift attention to a key element of the insecurity story: the unfair character of this danger and the dismissive, negligent or even irresponsible behaviour of the elites in power, causing insecurities. These themes are central elicitors of anger and provide an interpretation of insecurity as the product of intentional and malevolent elites’ behaviour.

The narration of an unfair insecure existence is then juxtaposed to positive, celebratory remarks praising ‘the people’. Acknowledging positive qualities, strengths and achievements lies at the core of pride arousal. By highlighting the people’s positive traits and worth, both Le Pen and Mélenchon are likely to elicit pride in their audiences, re-energising them, in a call to avoid resignation.

Finally, these actors seize the ‘insecure present’ by proposing actions to address insecurity in the ‘future’. In emotional terms, this means grounding insecurity narratives in appeals to hope. After telling their audience what is wrong with society and who is responsible for generating pervasive insecurity, Le Pen and Mélenchon offer a positive outlook towards the future grounded in the reassurance of security attainment (for Mélenchon) and restoration (for Le Pen).

Where do we go from here?

Contemporary insecurity is a complex phenomenon that is not necessarily immediately intelligible. As I argue in my research, identifying the emotional content of populist insecurity communication is vital. It helps us understand how populists can shape people’s understanding of this complexity, by focusing on specific interpretative cues. It also allows us to explore how populists address and respond to the wide range of insecurities usually linked to their appeal.

Donatella Bonansinga is the Populism in Action Project’s Research Assistant and a PhD student in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter here.