"Your friend Putin": The shaming of Matteo Salvini

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Meet Matteo Salvini.


He’s a right-wing Italian politician, formerly the country’s interior minister. At present he’s a senator and the head of the Northern League party. He’s a nationalist who strongly opposes immigration — from Muslim regions, at least.

But he’s also the particular type of nationalist found in countries like France and unfortunately the United States who seeks inspiration abroad from fascist strongmen, and one fascist strongman in particular.

Even by the standards of European right-wingers, Salvini is a Putin bootlicker par excellence. He supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and called on the EU to lift sanctions it imposed on Russia in the aftermath. Five years ago he went as far as to sign a formal cooperation agreement between his Italian party and Putin’s United Russia party. Whether that was ideological kinship at work or something more remunerative (“League officials were probed for allegations that they sought to sign a secretive oil deal with the Kremlin in 2018 worth millions of euros”) is unclear.

Either way, for western aficionados of authoritarianism, apologizing for Putin is something like a brand. They’ve swallowed his propaganda about defending white Christian civilization from the menace of … the Ukrainian hordes, I guess. And, given the bottomless graft involved in Russian politics, there are worse patrons a fledgling western nationalist party could have. Putin is happy to support political groups whom he suspects might weaken western support for NATO if they come to power. It’s not a coincidence that he favored Trump, the most NATO-skeptical major U.S. politician in modern history, in 2016.


Still, Trump hasn’t gone as far as to wear a Putin t-shirt in Red Square, as Salvini did. The pic below from 2015 reminds me of a kid wearing the shirt of his favorite punk band, which isn’t a bad analogy for nationalists’ hero-worship of Putin. They consider western liberalism an ideology of weaklings and have seized on the Russian leader as an icon of rebellion against it. It’s the right-wing equivalent of a Che t-shirt:

“The best statesmen currently on earth,” Salvini called Putin in 2019. Two weeks ago, he woke up to news that the best statesman on earth had just invaded Ukraine and appears to be the only statesman on earth who thought doing so would be a good idea for Russia.

His political hero and patron is now less popular in Europe than COVID. Which means it’s time for Salvini to pivot. Hard.

Two weeks ago, he laid flowers at the Ukrainian embassy in Rome and denounced “military aggression” against the country, although he reportedly continues to have trouble criticizing Putin directly:


He’s also turned over a new leaf on immigration, sort of. He still opposes immigration from Muslim countries but he’s prepared to throw open the doors of Italy to Ukrainian refugees, calling them “culturally and morally close to us.” Today his image rehabilitation tour took him all the way to the Polish border with Ukraine for a photo op to show him assisting with the refugee efforts.

It was his misfortune that the mayor there knew all about him, to the point of greeting him with a copy of one of his favorite t-shirts. What a scene:

No subtitles, unfortunately, but do you really need them? The AP has a partial transcript:

The mayor pulled a T-shirt from his jacket showing Putin’s face and the words: “Army of Russia.” The T-shirt was similar to one that Salvini had worn publicly in the past.

Bakun said he wanted to personally escort Salvini wearing the T-shirt to a refugee center “to see what your friend Putin has done.”

Salvini interrupted Bakun as he spoke, saying: “We are helping refugees, children, moms, dads, from Ukraine.” He then walked away…

Salvini was heckled by some people who called him a “buffoon.”


Tough times for European nationalists. France is set to vote on its next president in April, an election that had looked iffy previously for Macron given the share of the vote divided between Putin-friendly nationalists Marine Le Pen and Trump-esque Eric Zemmour. With European rage towards Putin and his proxies spiking, though, I doubt the incumbent has anything to worry about now. Maybe he should bring a Putin t-shirt to the first post-runoff debate and hand it to Le Pen as a gift.

Speaking of shaming bad people, read this disgraceful account of Russian-identified business owners being harassed and their properties vandalized in New York City. I say “Russian-identified” because in some cases the owners aren’t actually Russian; one Manhattan restaurant that’s received threatening emails is owned by … Ukrainians. Some places are seeing reservations canceled in droves regardless of whether the owners oppose the war or not. The global cancellation campaign against all things Russian has metastasized from an effort to pressure the Russian government into raw prejudice against people of Russian ethnicity who have nothing to do with the conflict. For God’s sake, enough.

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