Russian President Vladimir Putin came in Austria on Tuesday sensing an opportunity almost unimaginable just months ago: to overhaul frosty relations with a European Union infuriated by President Donald Trump on a host of issues from climate and Iran to, most recently, tariffs and trade.
Never mind that Putin was until recently virtually a pariah in Europe after his military interventions in Ukraine, Crimea and Syria; after meddling in European elections and working hard to foment right-wing populist uprisings throughout the continent; after polluting the political environment with fake news; and after allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, charges Russia denies.
Putin was now gaining considerable traction by casting himself as a reliable friend and trading partner to Europe even as the Trump administration was treating its closest allies there as strategic and economic competitors.
“It is not our aim to divide anything or anybody in Europe,” Putin said in a television interview before he came to Vienna. “On the contrary, we want to see a united and prosperous European Union because the European Union is our biggest trade and economic partner. The more issue there are within the European Union, the greater the risks and uncertainties for us.”
Although careful not to gloat, Putin had to take great satisfaction in the recent turn of events. Often dismissed as a tactician and opportunist, he was looking more like a grand strategist as Trump bluntly rejected European demands for an exemption from what Brussels considers illegal and unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminum.
Populist, Russophile parties are in power in Greece, Hungary, Italy and Austria. The prospect of attaining Putin’s immediate goal of throwing off economic sanctions imposed by the European Union over the last several years suddenly seemed within reach, even without compromise in Ukraine.
Indeed, in recent days, with the Group of Seven meeting of the world’s largest advanced economies looming, Trump has had unusually bad-tempered telephone calls on the tariff issue with both French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The Germans and Canadians are furious about the tariffs, too. Washington justifies them even to its NATO allies on what they dismiss as the specious grounds of “national security.”
These tensions will be on display this weekend at the G-7 meeting in Canada. That normally U.S.-dominated meeting is likely to see Trump isolated on the issue of trade, six against one.
Such internal divisions likely amuse Putin, who saw Russia “suspended” from what was the G-8 after the annexation of Crimea but who now sees a far more welcoming landscape in Europe.
Austria, officially neutral, has always had close ties to Moscow and takes over the revolving EU presidency next month. Austria’s young chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, refused to expel any Russian diplomats following the poisoning of the ex-spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia.
In contrast, most other European allies and the United States readily lined up behind Britain and were quick to isolate Russia diplomatically. More than two dozen countries ejected more than 150 Russians, including people listed by their embassies and consulates as diplomats, and military and cultural attachés.
And Kurz is in a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which in 2016 signed a partnership agreement with Putin’s own United Russia Party and has called for economic sanctions to be lifted.
Italy’s far-right populist League party — now also in government — last year signed a similar deal with United Russia. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, now deputy prime minister and interior minister, has spoken about his admiration for Putin and his desire to end sanctions against Russia. He famously wore a T-shirt with Putin’s face in Red Square.
The new Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, told the Italian Senate on Tuesday that it was time for “an opening toward Russia,” which he said had “strengthened its position” in various international crises. He called for lifting sanctions against Russia that he said harm “Russian civil society.”
The admiration of Putin is real from France’s far-right National Front, too, as well as from the leftist populist government in Greece and the far-right opposition party in Germany, Alternative for Germany. And there are strong suspicions that all these parties benefit from Russian funding, according to Western intelligence agencies.
In the interview with the Austrian state channel ORF, Putin said that Russia’s ties to such parties were merely fraternal, with no strategic motive. Russia, he said, wanted to cooperate with those who want to cooperate with Moscow.
“This alone is the reason why our political parties, groups and movements have contacts at the political and party level with certain European ones, and not the wish to ‘rock’ or impede something within the European Union,” he said.
But Austria is clearly a friendly gateway for Moscow. Putin said that the two countries had maintained “very good and close relations,” adding that Austria has traditionally been Russia’s “trusted partner in Europe.”
Kurz harks back to Austria’s self-styled Cold War role as a mediator.
“We want to be a bridge between East and West, and keep the lines of communication with Russia open,” he has said. That has traditionally translated into a belief that dialogue is the answer to every confrontation, from the Georgian war and the annexation of Crimea to the poisoning in Britain and Russia’s support for the Syrian regime.
Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat, said that the Austrian sympathy for Russia is decades-long, based on the history of neutrality, economic interests, pragmatism and an “element of anti-Americanism,” the view that “all big powers behave similarly.” He noted that Putin had been invited to Austria within months of the annexation of Crimea. But so far, he said, Austria had gone along with the European consensus on sanctions.
But with Italy and Greece pushing to end them, that may not continue.
Putin would clearly like to end his isolation. In his current term as president, Putin has two clear goals, said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a research institution.
“First, to keep Russia together, and that’s a hell of a job, and second, to make Russia a great power again and seen to be one,” Trenin said last weekend at a conference in Estonia.
To accomplish those goals, however, “you need economic success.” And for that, Putin needs European financing, energy markets and technology, Trenin said. Putin also wants good relations with Europe, he said, to concentrate on his real priority, which is China. a rising neighboring power with resource needs and ambitions.
But it is not only Europe’s populists who are looking for warmer ties with Russia. Last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, called for an end to the demonization of Russia.
“I do think we have to reconnect with Russia,” Juncker said.
Both Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Macron visited Russia at the end of May to discuss salvaging the Iran deal. And Macron complained at a conference in St. Petersburg about the damage being done to world trade — clearly alluding to Trump.
Macron, the guest of honor, was particularly effusive in evoking the cultural and historic links that tie Russia to the rest of Europe.
Merkel, who has few illusions about Putin and has been vital to maintaining economic sanctions against Russia, also finds herself and her country a particular target of Trump. In addition to the tariffs on steel and aluminum, which Germany can live with, he is now threatening unilateral tariffs on imported cars, which it cannot.
He has also raised the prospect of tariffs on those companies involved with building Nordstream II, an energy pipeline from Russia to Germany that entirely bypasses Ukraine.
Austria was the first country to import Russian energy 50 years ago, another reason for Putin’s visit, and Europe now gets a third of its gas supply from Russia, a figure likely to increase.
At the same time, both Merkel and Macron noted the nagging sores that continue to infect relations with Moscow, including the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. Merkel underscored that both were impediments to better ties, and there seems little movement possible from Moscow on either front.
Many European governments remain deeply concerned about Russian meddling in their internal politics, ranging from spreading false information on social media to fostering far-right opposition to trying to widen divisions among European states themselves over Russia.
Still, Russia is cognizant of the fact that Trump has created a sudden opportunity for them.
“A battle for Russia has begun in international politics!” Vladimir R. Solovyov, the host of a prime-time talk show on Russian state-run television that often reflects the government line, said Sunday. “Europe is compelled to change its policies on the fly since Trump has declared a trade war.”
Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the European Union, said Tuesday: “I am closely watching how the situation evolves and when the necessary volume of political will is there — and I see this tendency — then the EU perhaps will take the necessary decision to change its course.”