Why Russia Cultivates Foreign Fringe Groups Like the California Secessionists
In late December, surrounded by a handful of reporters, an American named Louis Marinelli held the floor in a mid-size office in Moscow. Flanked by photos of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, Marinelli railed against American hegemony, listing complaints ranging from Washington’s foreign policy to the difficulties of the U.S. immigration system. These factors—as well as the fact, as he said elsewhere, that he could “no longer live under a U.S. flag”—had led him to move to the southern Urals.
On that day, nearing the end of 2016, Marinelli unveiled his primary project. With its logo emblazoned on a banner unfurled behind him, Marinelli welcomed visitors to the “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California.” Marinelli was the self-appointed “leader” of the California secession movement, known colloquially as #Calexit. His group, YesCalifornia—which Marinelli left in April, announcing amid a flurry of negative publicity that he’d be moving to Russia permanently—had gained certain steam following the November election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, pushing to place a question on California secession on the state’s 2018 ballot.
As strange as the notion of a “California Embassy” opening in Moscow might seem, Marinelli’s movement is not an isolated phenomenon. Backed by a Kremlin-funded group that had spent the prior two years helping secessionist groups in a number of Western countries organize and network, Calexit is just one example of an understudied, underappreciated relationship between Moscow, Kremlin-tied actors, and the American fringe—both far-right and far-left. Much like the types of relations Moscow has both pursued and encouraged among the European fringe, a parallel network of quixotic secessionists, religious fundamentalists, white nationalists, and far-left activists from the U.S. have flocked to Russia. And Moscow, via both funding and proxies, has been only too eager to return the support, looking to exacerbate American domestic divisions in order to distract and hamper Washington, sapping American energies that could have been spent elsewhere.
As with their European counterparts, the diffuse American groups and movements linked to Russia share little policy overlap. Nonetheless, they each pursue end goals that, unsurprisingly, match Moscow’s fractious policies. And while it’s the relationship between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign—as well as all that has followed—which has understandably generated substantial coverage, the relations between Russia and the Western fringe show little signs of slowing anytime soon.
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Moscow’s interest in these groups is, in a sense, understandable. There’s a widespread belief in Russia that it was the United States, despite its official policy to the contrary, that pried apart the USSR, stoking nationalist elements in Ukraine and elsewhere in pursuit of Soviet fracture. Kremlin higher-ups continue to state that the U.S. would prefer a world without Russia. (No matter that a Russian disintegration would present any number of tortuous problems.) As such, looking to deter the U.S. elsewhere, Moscow-tied actors have fanned domestic divides, forcing American officials to keep their gaze inward.
Likewise, and especially after Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency, Russia has attempted to morph into a conservative, illiberal bastion for all those opposing liberal American power. The transformation takes any number of forms: spearheading anti-LGBT and anti-abortion legislation; pushing nominal “traditional values;” dissolving the distance between church and state. (At least for those religions the Russian state approves of.) No longer able to rely on rising economic tides, Moscow has instead pushed a reactionary rubric, equating might with right in its attempt to spin itself into a great power once more—and building links to reactionary fellow-travelers all the while.
Unfortunately, the illiberal elements among America’s far-right have taken the bait. Look at the relationship and networks developing between Kremlin officials and America’s Christian fundamentalist contingent, for instance. Whereas the “Evil Empire” was maligned by the American religious right during the Soviet period, Putin’s post-2012 push to place Russia as something of a global center of Christian conservatism has already paid dividends. Not only has the nationally syndicated Christian radio host Bryan Fischer, one of the most vitriolic U.S. Christian fundamentalists, already tabbed Putin the “lion of Christianity,” but Moscow’s role in pioneering recent anti-LGBT and anti-abortion legislation—to say nothing of its ability to swipe Crimea wholesale—led American politico Pat Buchanan to say that “Putin is planting Russia’s flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity.” Even televangelist Franklin Graham recently lauded Putin for “protecting traditional Christianity.”
The relationship goes beyond kind words. The Illinois-based World Congress of Families—perhaps the most pernicious international anti-LGBT organization—not only arose as a joint project of American and Russian fundamentalists but has formalized ties between America’s religious right and Russian authorities, boasting close ties with former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin and well-known Duma member Yelena Mizulina. While public pressure forced the WCF to remove its official imprimatur from a WCF conference in Moscow in 2014, the event effectively went off without a change, and the slate of speakers remained largely identical.
Meanwhile, just as Russian support for Europe’s far-right nationalists has crested over the past few years, so too have Kremlin-tied actors begun building their own links with their trans-Atlantic counterparts. In 2015, for instance, St. Petersburg played host to one of Europe’s most notable far-right conclaves in years—which included a pair of Americans, one of whom took the dais to praise Putin’s policies outright. The main organizer behind the conference, whose follow-up was scheduled for this spring, was Rodina: a political party once headed by Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and described by the New York Times as “a kind of nationalistic branch of Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party.”
Elsewhere, the influential neo-fascist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin—whose writings on Russia’s supposedly eternal conflict with the liberal West are on reading lists assigned to Russian military universities, including its General Staff Academy—has spent the past few years cultivating a handful of the U.S.’s most prominent white nationalists. Richard Spencer, who married Dugin’s most prominent English-language translator, attempted to host him as a keynote speaker at a far-right confab in Budapest in 2014. (Dugin, as it is, was barred from participating due to his placement on the current EU sanctions list.)
Likewise, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, who is involved in a violence-related lawsuit stemming from a 2016 Trump rally, had Dugin speak (via video) at the 2015 launch of Heimbach’s white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party. Heimbach—who has said he believes Putin is the best leader yet produced in 21st-century Europe—intended on attending a 2016 far-right conference in Russia, although that conference was later postponed. As Heimbach told me last year, during the Soviet period, “there was the Comintern, the Communist International. And in the modern era, it’s almost like a nationalist version—or the Traditionalist International.”
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Moscow’s threads of support through the Western far-right—especially those in Europe—have been well-catalogued, ranging from overseeing aforementioned conferences, to hosting Hungary’s Jobbik in separatist-occupied eastern Ukraine, to funneling funds to France’s National Front. But much as Moscow has fanned far-right actors bent on unwinding a post–Cold War liberal order, the Kremlin has espied potential support from those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, who view Russia as both an ally of convenience and an innocent government supposedly wracked by American imperialism.
In Europe, such support has spread throughout those opposed to the centrism of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. There’s a reason, after all, that far-left French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon called for a conference with Russia to re-negotiate European borders, endorsed Moscow’s line on Ukraine, and echoed Marine Le Pen’s support for Putin. And in Italy, the insurgent Five Star Party regularly pushes sympathetic material from the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik.
This phenomenon is little different in the U.S. Take Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. While much of the focus on the 2015 gala celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Russian propaganda channel RT centered on the presence of Lt. Gen Michael Flynn—who was later forced to resign from the Trump administration for misleading claims about his conversations with the Russian ambassador—another American joined Flynn alongside Putin: Stein. (Stein called the celebration for RT “inspiring.”) With RT hosting the Green Party debates and later offering Stein outsized air-time to hammer “American corporate media,” it was perhaps little surprise that Stein hewed close to Kremlin talking points throughout the 2016 campaign. Not only did she claim NATO “has been surrounding Russia” and join Putin in describing Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan revolution as a “coup,” but for good measure, she selected a vice presidential candidate who said he believes the 2014 downing of Flight MH17 in Ukraine was a “false flag” designed to smear Russia.
Of course, RT was only too happy to plug Stein wherever they could—a move of a piece with RT’s continued attempts to appeal to the U.S.’ far-left. Unwilling to feature only neo-Nazis cloaked as “experts,” RT has also pushed a prominent far-left line, catering to those who thought Occupy Wall Street was too centrist. Anti-globalization advocates and hard-left socialists have gravitated toward an eager RT, which has been only happy to support another contingent opposed to the post–Cold War order.
Indeed, in tacking toward both fringes of the U.S. political spectrum, and in a not-too-subtle nod to the Soviet Union’s crack-up, the Kremlin recently began funding efforts to organize and encourage American secession movements outright. Last year, the Kremlin granted tens of thousands of dollars to the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a group that, over the past two years, has put together a pair of Moscow-based conferences to organize numerous American and European secessionists ranging from Venice and Northern Ireland to Hawaii and Texas. (AGMR’s allocation of Kremlin monies remains a mystery, but we do know that AGMR helped finance the Texans’ travel to Russia in 2016.)
American secessionists have proven keen for the support. Not only have these Westerners who advocate secession—which remains a criminal offense in Russia—criticized American “dictatorship” during such swings through Moscow, but the conferences have provided platforms for such movements to swap tactics, ideas, and methods of cooperation moving forward. For good measure, the California secessionists said they’d be leaving NATO upon independence—and unveiled such a platform in, of all places, Moscow. To the Kremlin, the conferences have been, on the one hand, a masterpiece of trolling. But on the other hand, given the clear support in large swaths for both California and Texas secession, to say nothing of the global push for independence—see: South Sudan, Scotland, Catalonia, etc.—the support can’t simply be dismissed as Moscow sticking its finger in Washington’s eye.
Unsurprisingly, with the ascension of Trump—himself a beneficiary of Kremlin-led efforts to meddle in American elections, according to 17 different U.S. intelligence agencies—Moscow not only gained an illiberal ally in Washington, but the California secession movement saw its largest surge in support to date. Backed by one-third of the state’s residents, #Calexit suddenly rose to prominence despite its eminent illegality. The Kremlin, meanwhile, can look to Trump, and the fallout that’s followed, and pat itself on the back for a strategy that has paid dividends—with little reason to change tactics anytime soon.
To be sure, these scattered American movements are not necessarily proactive agents working on behalf of Moscow’s direct interests. Rather they, like many within the Trump campaign before them, appear to be modern incarnations of the types of “useful idiots” popularized in Soviet jargon. They may not ascribe to the Kremlin’s platform wholesale, but they, alongside their European counterparts, appear ready to gain all the support, material and otherwise, that they can from Moscow. And the Kremlin, seeing domestic wedges it can exploit in both the U.S. and the EU, appears only too happy to prop these fringe movements on both sides of the political spectrum—and to play host to a “California Embassy” as long as the Golden State remains, as Marinelli said last month from Russia, “occupied.”