BRUSSELS (Reuters) - If Russia has occupied and annexed Crimea, it's the European Union's fault for offering closer ties with Ukraine, according to Eurosceptical parties of the far left and nationalist right.
European governments and mainstream politicians may have united in condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin's seizure of the Black Sea peninsula against Ukraine's wishes. But the populist movements vying to make big gains in European Parliament elections in May reckon Brussels is mostly to blame.
Whether their sympathy for Russia will help or harm them at the polls is unclear. Elections rarely turn on foreign policy, and protest parties tend to score best on the kind of low turnout widely expected in this vote.
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, which opinion polls suggest may top the European poll in his country, has been most open in siding with Putin.
"The EU and United States should respect the result of the Crimea referendum," he said this week of the vote organised under Russian occupation. "The sanctions that have been announced in the meantime are a farce."
Strache said he had met Putin in Vienna and "found him to be a highly correct and interesting statesman".
Some of his political allies on the Eurosceptical far right are slightly more uneasy about associating themselves so openly with Russia's strongman.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France's resurgent National Front, acknowledged that Putin was "a bit rough" and called for a negotiated solution in Crimea. But she too was clear that the EU deserved most of the blame for provoking the crisis.
"We gave a promise to those Ukrainians aiming to join Europe that we can never keep," she told the Europresse association. "Of course we led them to believe they could join the EU. It's dishonest of the EU to have done that."
Seeking to bring the former Soviet republic closer to Europe was a red rag to the Russian bull, and was bound to lead to trouble, Le Pen contended, stressing that Russia was a historic friend and ally of France.
The far-right opposes further EU enlargement to the east as a bottomless pit for taxpayers' money and a source of uncontrolled immigration. The Eurosceptical Alternative for Germany said the EU must stop its "crazy rescue reflexes" in Ukraine and recognise it could not provide a solution to the country's problems.
Le Pen's Dutch political partner, Geert Wilders of the anti-EU Freedom Party, distanced himself from Russian military actions, while saying that the EU had made the first mistake and was wrong to engage in confrontation with Moscow.
"Russia must of course take its hands off Ukrainian territory including Crimea, but by awakening this the EU has shown its bankruptcy," Wilders said.
His party, which polls show may come first in the European election in the Netherlands, accused the EU of "pouring oil on the fire" by offering Ukraine an association agreement, increasing tension between its different population groups.
The far-right is united in opposing collective EU sanctions against Moscow, which could harm Europe's national economies.
The UK Independence Party, which wants to pull Britain out of the EU, has mostly been content to attack European diplomacy without supporting Putin.
"What the EU in particular has done is the reverse of what Theodore Roosevelt recommended as the key to effective diplomacy. It has spoken loudly while carrying a very small stick," said William Dartmouth, a UKIP member of the European Parliament.
"The result was eminently predictable: annexation of Crimea and a long Russian shadow cast over the rest of the Ukraine."
FAR-LEFT: EU AIDED "FASCISTS"
On the post-Communist hard left, some parties openly endorse part of Putin's justification for military intervention.
Greece's far-left Syriza party, expected to top the European poll, accused the EU of having legitimised the abolition of democracy in Ukraine and abetted "fascists", echoing its argument that Brussels has imposed austerity undemocratically on Athens in the euro zone debt crisis.
"The stance of the European Union and Washington encourages actions aimed at destabilising the country, while at the same time supporting, directly or indirectly, the most extreme neo-Nazi groups and extremists," Syriza said in a policy statement.
Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Germany's Left party, said it was outrageous that the EU was offering a political deal and financial support to an interim government in Kiev that "was not democratically elected and includes fascists".
Even though "a vast majority" of people in Crimea favoured annexation with Russia, Gysi said the manner in which Moscow had carried it out was not lawful.
"But in the end, sooner or later, all governments will somehow accept that Crimea belongs to Russia," he said.
Italy's Eurosceptical anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which burst to prominence in last year's general election, said Europe had set a dangerous precedent in Ukraine.
"In Ukraine, for whatever reasons, we have seen the principle affirmed that a government elected in free elections can be unseated not by new elections, as would be normal in a democracy, but by the armed streets," party leader Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comic, said on his blog.
"Today it's Ukraine but tomorrow? What other streets? What other springs?"