An update from last week: Ketanji Brown Jackson has become the first Black woman and third African American confirmed to the Supreme Court. For now, there is nothing new to report on the inexcusable actions of Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Ginni Thomas.
Now to the international. Since President Vladimir Putin authorized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, he has become a pariah on the global stage. Crippling sanctions have wreaked havoc on both the Russian economy and people, while Putin’s military has been plagued by limited supplies and low morale. By contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won international praise as the hero of his country’s resistance movement, which finished repelling the initial invaders from Kyiv on Saturday, April 2.
Ukraine’s resilience in this conflict has defied conventional wisdom, but it serves only Putin’s interests to get comfortable with the current situation. The Pentagon might have acknowledged Russia’s failures in Ukraine, but American leaders seem to be ignoring the increased threat posed by other European leaders who sympathize with Putin. Though Russia’s credibility has significantly weakened on the global stage, Putin’s sympathizers could come to his rescue if the West fails to deliver a diplomatic knockout blow.
Who are these “sympathizers?” First, there is Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a man whose mustache and penchant for appearing in brown military jackets are so obviously authoritarian that even Putin once distanced himself. But when the Russian war machine needed a base to launch its “special military operation” toward Kyiv from the north, Lukashenko answered the call and opened his country to Putin’s invading forces.
This move allowed the Russian army to cross Belarus’ southern border into Ukraine and set up camp within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Russia’s subsequent Chernobyl offensive didn’t amount to much, as the last Russian troops were moved elsewhere within Ukraine by the end of March. But of course, this was not before thousands of them became exposed to the dangerous radiation levels near Pripyat — the site of the world’s worst nuclear meltdown in 1986.
Lukashenko’s passive support did not yield a Russian victory, but the most recent developments suggest that the Belarusian dictator will not be satisfied acting solely as a stepping stone for Putin. The two leaders met Tuesday in eastern Russia, with many anxious to see if Lukashenko would continue to demand Belarus’ inclusion in any Russia-Ukraine negotiations.
Instead, Lukashenko seemed content to tow the Kremlin line by claiming British operatives were responsible for a “psychological special operation” in Bucha — which much of the West considers Russian war crimes. This is a step above Putin’s outright characterization of the events as “fake,” but you would think such a close Russian ally would play his cards a bit smarter on the world stage. Not only did Lukashenko show his true colors, but his nonsensical assertion could hurt Belarus’ economy by tempting America and other countries to amp up their sanctions against him personally.
Moving toward the (slightly) more democratic sphere of Europe, you’ll find the second Putin sympathizer: President Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Included in Orbán’s authoritarian history is a 2020 law that banned non-government “misinformation” about COVID-19. Violators — and by violators, I mean independent journalists reporting on the pandemic — faced up to five years in prison if they were arbitrarily convicted of contradicting Budapest’s narrative.
Though he had cozied up to Putin in the past, Orbán remained relatively quiet during the first month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this all changed when he was re-elected on Sunday, April 3. In his victory speech, Orbán took a shot at Zelenskyy by likening him to “enemies” like “the international left” and the “[George] Soros empire,” among other opponents. Orbán has also claimed he requested for Putin to sign a ceasefire in Ukraine, apparently to no avail.
Translation: Telling Putin to stop waging war doesn’t work. Who would’ve guessed?
Beyond his tyrannic tendencies, Orbán’s refusal to participate in the European Union’s embargo on Russian energy has frustrated his peers, particularly Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński. As Poland has been one of the embargo’s largest proponents and worked closely with the U.S. during the conflict (3,000 American troops landed there in February), Kaczyński publicly criticized Orbán last Friday, April 8. Of his Hungarian counterpart’s stances on Russian energy and the Bucha atrocities, Kaczyński said, “We cannot cooperate as we had in the past if this continues.”
The other unfortunate truth about Hungary is that it shares an 85-mile border with Ukraine. While I seriously doubt Orbán would pull a Lukashenko and allow Putin to launch another offensive into Ukraine from the southwest, it is an area certainly worth watching.
The presence of Lukashenko and Orbán seems scary enough for the West, but there is another potential leader who many fear could further upset the balance of power in Europe: French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
After finishing second in France’s April 10 election with 23.1% of the vote, Le Pen is currently waiting to face incumbent President Emmauel Macron in next week’s runoff. She has campaigned on a right-wing platform of leaving NATO and adopting a warmer diplomatic approach to Putin. Most recently, Le Pen discouraged sending weapons to Ukraine and suggested France and Russia should become closer allies after the war.
Numerous analysts — including The Washington Post’s editorial board — believe a Le Pen administration would give a massive boost to Putin. While this is a fair point, she must first defeat Macron in the runoff. While Le Pen could become a concerning asset for Putin in years to come, she simply won’t have a strong enough mandate to defy France’s foreign policy establishment during this war.
Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to go poorly for Putin, the lure of support — or at least the apathy — from leaders like Lukashenko, Orbán and Le Pen could empower Putin just enough to continue the fight. If he does, how long can Zelenskyy hold out without significant and meaningful NATO support? These are questions only time can answer.