Many people are familiar with the alleged efforts of the Russian government to hack computer systems belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. What is now becoming clear is that these apparent efforts are actually part of a much larger strategy to subvert advocates of liberal democracy around the world.
While the efforts to subvert Clinton’s campaign took place in secret, Russia’s other attempts to undermine American unity aren’t secret at all. They’re just not widely known. Among them are the nascent campaigns for both California and Texas to secede from the United States.
"Texas nationalists" largely reflect a far-right or neo-Confederate worldview. California secessionists are almost uniformly leftists disgusted by conservative hegemony in the heartland. They don’t have much in common when it comes to their views of governance, but they do have a powerful shared ally — the Russian Federation.
Salon's investigation suggests that for nearly a decade, Vladimir Putin’s government has promoted and funded the efforts of such separatists as part of a larger campaign to promote dissenters from the broader Western world order.
The net effect of these efforts, when you include the successful Brexit campaign for British withdrawal from the European Union -- which Russia also supported -- has been to elevate the idea of American states going their own way from a laughable fringe movement into something discussed as an actual possibility by politicians and elite journalists alike.
Of course, breaking away from the U.S. has been dear to neo-Confederates ever since the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War. More recently, the secessionist cause got a strange boost after John Kerry was narrowly defeated by George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.
Bush’s victory stunned many of Kerry’s supporters and, for the first time, many progressives began to openly consider the prospect of breaking up the union. Some of the more embittered began posting images of themselves holding up handwritten notes apologizing to the rest of the world. Kerry backers also widely circulated a meme image depicting the states that voted for Bush as “Jesusland” and those who voted against him as the “United States of Canada.” Visits to the website of Canada’s immigration service increased by nearly 600 percent on the Wednesday following Election Day, more than double the previous record, according to the agency.
Future MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell was an advocate of secession, telling the Washington Times a week after Bush's re-election that “New York and California, Connecticut — the states that are blue — are all the states that are paying for the bulk of everything this government does.” He and many others saw no reason for these higher-income states to continue subsidizing policies they didn’t support.
For all the public venting and aspirational web surfing, however, nothing really came of that left-wing angst. Barack Obama’s 2008 wipeout of John McCain certainly was a factor. McCain's defeat — which most observers saw coming a mile away — came as a shock to many conservatives, however. Some of them began wondering if there was something to the secession idea after all. America had become a nation of "takers" instead of "makers," to use Paul Ryan's phrase.
Around the time of the 2008 election, the prospect of breaking up the United States became a hot topic in Russia’s tightly controlled state media as well. Government-owned outlets began hyping the work of political scientist Igor Panarin and his 1998 prediction that America would break up into six separate countries by the middle of 2010. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Russian state news organizations, including its English-language TV network RT, interviewed Panarin as often as twice a day during 2008.
RT and its fellow government-run press outlets have also been remarkably interested in “Calexit,” an invented term referring to California’s hypothetical secession from the United States. A Google search within RT’s site yields nearly 5,700 results for the word; one restricted to Sputnik News, another Russian state property, comes up with more than 6,200.
But the Russian bear has done more for secessionist movements than dole out copious amounts of flattering news coverage. It has also provided money to help their causes through an international nonprofit called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia. According to the group’s president, Alexander Ionov, direct governmental funds amount to 30 percent of its general budget. The organization also works “on many issues” with Rodina, the political party formerly headed by Russia’s deputy prime minister, Ionov said via email.
These Russian subsidies are typically used to pay for travel costs and conferences designed to bring disparate secessionist movements together. One of these was AGM’s recent “Dialogue of Nations” event that took place in September at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, mere blocks away from the Kremlin, power center of the Russian government. At the conference, separatists from American states and territories mingled with representatives from breakaway movements based in Spain, Morocco, Ireland and Somalia. Notably, there were no attendees advocating secession from Russia. It is a crime to do so in the Federation, one that can yield up to a five-year prison sentence.
In an interview, Texas Nationalist Movement president Daniel Miller rejected the idea that his organization was beholden in any way to the Russian government. While he admitted that the group received some assistance from the AGM to attend the Dialogue of Nations conference, Miller said the funds constituted a tiny portion of his organization’s revenues.
“This idea that there are strings tied to us that are from places outside, not just of Texas but outside of the United States is, frankly, very insulting to us,” he told Salon via telephone. “This idea that, somehow, Vladimir Putin is flying over our office in a helicopter dumping cash out is just garbage.”
Louis Marinelli, president of the most prominent Calexit group, Yes California, takes a more open attitude toward seeking assistance from the Russian government, even as he insists that he disagrees with some of its policies. The group has done more than just attend the Dialogue of Nations conference. It has also partnered with AGM to create an “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California” inside Russia. A conference unveiling the initiative featured posters of foreign leaders representing a spectrum of anti-American opposition, including late Cuban leader Fidel Castro; former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro; Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and, of course, Vladimir Putin.
Yes California intends to open facilities in five other countries as well. In an interview, Marinelli said that his group will be opening one in Germany next.
Marinelli has lived off and on in Russia since 2006 and resides there now, thanks in part to assistance from AGM. In a Skype interview, he defended Yes California’s relationship with Russia and likened it to the collaboration that American revolutionaries received from France via the Marquis de Lafayette. He also said separation from the United States was the best way for progressive Californians to preserve and expand the policies that they prefer.
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump called the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage “shocking” and said he would overturn it. Since being elected, however, Trump has seemingly reversed course by calling the matter “settled.”
According to Marinelli, the majority of Californians who support marriage rights for lesbians and gays should support secession as the best way to protect their values. Intriguingly, the Yes California chief once worked worked for the National Organization for Marriage, an anti-LGBT group, to organize a nationwide bus tour to rally opponents of same-sex marriage. Marinelli said he changed his views in 2011 after coming into contact with LGBT advocates and soon began divulging internal NOM documents. Before joining forces with NOM, Marinelli had volunteered for the 2004 presidential campaign of Democrat John Edwards.
Marinelli said he saw no contradiction between indirectly receiving support from the Russian government, which has become internationally infamous for its persecution of LGBT citizens, and advocating for gay rights in California.
“We have to understand that there are going to be differences of opinions between nations, and we are going to have to maintain a dialogue with those with whom we disagree on issues,” Marinelli said.
“Part of California culture are the values of tolerance, diversity and equality. So what better way to promote those values abroad in a place that perhaps needs those values more than Russia?” he said. “We can do a lot more work in supporting the values of equality if we set up an embassy in a country where they perhaps lack equality, rather than setting up an embassy where they have it.”
Marinelli also said that Russia's veto power in the United Nations Security Council would be essential in getting international recognition for an independent California. “We want to focus in those five countries in the council who have the veto,” he said, referring to China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the U.S.
Russia’s support for separatists in California, Texas, Hawaii and Puerto Rico is a fairly recent development during Putin’s lengthy rule over the Federation. But they fit within a larger context of Russian efforts to bolster an anti-liberal consensus (most American conservatives, in this context, are perceived in Russia as another species of "liberal").
Quite often, the good feelings are reciprocal. Many figures on the Christian right in America have praised the Putin government for its anti-LGBT policies, particularly its law prohibiting non-negative literature about homosexuality from being given to minors. Pastor Franklin Graham, son of the legendary evangelist Billy Graham, has repeatedly praised Putin and has even met him in person. Fundamentalist radio host Bryan Fischer has called the Russian leader a “lion of Christianity.”
Religious-right organizations in America and elsewhere have been the beneficiaries of official and unofficial Russian monies. The World Congress on Families, an influential but little-known social conservative group that places a strong emphasis on opposing homosexuality, scheduled its 2014 annual conference in Moscow, thanks to the efforts of well-connected Russian financiers and clergy. The organization removed its name from the proceedings, however, after Russia invaded Ukraine and WCF came under criticism. The event went on mostly as scheduled, with most of the invitees attending in their personal capacities rather than as representatives of any group.
The admiration of Putin on the part of Christian nationalists appears to be centered around the mutually shared belief in “demographic winter” -- the idea that Western countries are being overrun by nonwhite Christians. According to this hypothesis, white people of Christian descent are using birth control methods to lower their birthrates, while also allowing large numbers of immigrants into their countries.
The racial aspect of this theory also explains why Putin is widely admired by the alt-right, a political movement mostly centered in the United States that has sought to put a new, tech-savvy face on traditional racist viewpoints.
Richard Spencer, the man who co-created the term and is widely seen as the leader of the movement by mainstream journalists, is married to the English translator of Aleksandr Dugin, the man who is perhaps Putin’s favorite political philosopher. White nationalist icon David Duke once rented an apartment in Russia which he then sublet to another alt-right figure, Preston Wiginton, an associate of Dugin’s. Wiginton is also the man who brought Spencer to address the campus of Texas A&M University recently.
As much as the far right appears to believe in Putin, however, there are strong indications he does not really believe in them. In July, the Russian president signed a law prohibiting proselytizing outside of formal religious facilities. Russia's interest in Crimea have placed the Putin regime in direct opposition to the Ukrainian Svoboda party which has been called racist and anti-Semitic and is widely perceived as allied with the European far right.
The Russian government has also been involved in promoting left-wing dissent. Veteran British leftist George Galloway, a former member of Parliament who was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003, currently hosts a program on the state-owned RT channel. Current left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has encouraged party members to watch the network, and Corbyn’s top lieutenant has reportedly traveled to Russia on the Kremlin’s dime.
Elsewhere in Europe, the radical Greek party Syriza has been strongly supportive of various Russian initiatives. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, called for an end to sanctions against the Federation for its invasion of Ukraine the day after he was elected as Greece’s prime minister. The Spanish left-wing party Podemos has repeatedly condemned the international community's alleged double standard in its dealings with Russia compared to the United States.
These conflicting signals strongly suggest that ideology is not what lies behind Russia's apparent interest in promoting dissenters of all stripes. Putin clearly prefers Donald Trump over Barack Obama, and is no doubt delighted that Hillary Clinton will not become president. But it’s worth remembering that in 2008 Obama promised to improve relations with the Russian leader. Clinton, who served as Obama's first secretary of state, went so far as offering a stage-prop “reset button” to Russia’s foreign minister. (Comically, the button's Russian label meant "overcharged" instead of "reset.")
Obama and Clinton’s efforts were reminiscent of former president George W. Bush’s 2001 remarks about hoping to get “a sense of [Putin's] soul.” Bush and Obama could hardly be more different in terms of leadership and personal style, but both wound up feeling cold toward a man they initially hoped they could do business with.
It’s dangerous to make predictions in the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign. But chances are that today’s Putin-Trump bromance is just as likely to end in acrimony as the last two presidents’ attempts to work with the Russian premier. It will be interesting to see who gets hacked after that happens.
A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter. MORE FROM Matthew Sheffield
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