Just as Vladimir Putin does not conceal his contempt for western liberalism, so his far-right European friends make no secret of their admiration for the Russian president and his policies. Each side vigorously denies that these connections extend beyond the merely political and into the realm of covert Russian financing of the far-right. However, EU governments, security services and judicial investigators are not convinced.
It emerged last week that magistrates in Milan are conducting an inquiry into possible international corruption after BuzzFeed News reported that Italy's ruling hard-right Lega party sought tens of millions of euros from a clandestine Russian oil deal, the Financial Times' editorial board recalls.
Matteo Salvini, the League's leader, who is the strongman in Italy's unconventional, populist government, denies any wrongdoing.
There are disturbing similarities between the Italian case and the sordid affair in which leaders of Austria's far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) were trapped in a video sting operation discussing the exchange of government contracts for Russian financial support. This scandal brought down the coalition government in Vienna of which the FPÖ formed part.
"The mutual backslapping of the Kremlin and the European far-right should not obscure the fact that Russian meddling in EU politics is ideologically fluid, not to say amoral," the publication says.
Unlike in Soviet times, Russia under Putin engages with the far-right, the radical left and anti-establishment movements. Moscow cultivates ties with and gathers compromising material on mainstream politicians, too. Waves of propaganda and fake news pour out of Russia toward EU countries.
The objectives are transparent: to sow divisions in European societies, to demoralize the public's faith in liberal political systems and values, to promote Russophile tendencies and to undermine the united front that the EU has adopted toward Moscow, especially since the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and intervention in eastern Ukraine.
The troubles of democracies are mainly homegrown. Russia did not create them; it exploits them. Moreover, in countries such as Italy, the desire for a close relationship with Moscow extends across the entire political spectrum and commands support from the Italian business world.
"Nonetheless the axis of illiberalism that unites Russia, Europe's far-right, President Donald Trump and the U.S. alt-right represents a pernicious threat to the moderate European political order and the wellbeing of European societies," FT reports. "EU governments, institutions and legal systems can and must do a better job of repelling these assaults."
In the first place, FT says, they should not hesitate to bring to book far-right politicians and parties if they are discovered to have broken the law. Second, they should make a more systematic effort to counter disinformation from Russia and the domestic far-right, and to educate citizens so that they recognize fake news. Lastly, EU sanctions on Russia should stay in place until Moscow stops destabilizing Ukraine. The protection of Europe's freedom, prosperity and way of life require a firm pushback against both the far-right and Russian interference.