Even as Russia annexed territory, interfered in elections and dropped bombs in Syria, western sympathy for Vladimir Putin remained a remarkably persistent current. Driven by naivete, wishful thinking or simple political expedience, many turned a blind eye, excusing Putin's behaviour or portraying him as a victim of western provocation.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought a reckoning of sorts. Individuals and parties have been forced to repudiate long-held accommodationist positions. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has had to play down her close links to Moscow. In Britain, the Conservative Party's tolerance of Russian influence became untenable. In Germany, a two-decade cross-party effort to engage with the Russian autocrat is now seen as a catastrophic error. "I was wrong, we were all wrong," said the longtime finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. In Ireland, Sinn Féin, which long equivocated over Putin's brutal regime, has made no such admissions but has felt compelled to abandon previous positions and embrace new ones.
Yet it would be an error to think Putin has run out of allies in the West. MEPs Mick Wallace and Clare Daly continue to play both sides, condemning the invasion but denouncing sanctions and developing celebrity status in Russian state-controlled media for their criticism of western actions – all the while shamelessly attacking anyone who points this out. Although they are relatively marginal figures, their talking points are shared by more influential politicians elsewhere. Le Pen will contest the runoff for the French presidency on Sunday. Viktor Orban, flag-carrier for "illiberal democracy", recently won a fourth term as Hungary's prime minister. The Kremlin has powerful friends in London and in the US, where Donald Trump retains control of the Republican Party.
Western apologia for Putin is a discredited position. It should not survive the images of dead civilians in Bucha. But as the Ukraine war enters a drawn-out, attritional phase and the world's focus wanes, the work of exposing Putin's western enablers will be more important than ever.