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18 April 2017

Putin Woos the American Fringe

The fringe of American politics is rich with political groupings that have little in common with each other except their shared loathing of America’s political mainstream – and their curious fondness for Vladimir Putin’s Russia

For the past few months, much of the media coverage threading Moscow’s influence among American polities has focused on the Kremlin’s relationship with those close to U.S. President Donald Trump. This, of course, is understandable, in so far as investigators are continuing to unwind the links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors.

However, ties between Trump’s campaign, Moscow, and the fringe movements supporting the president’s election – from both sides of the political spectrum – aren’t the sole, curious case of American figures finding mutual support with the Kremlin. Indeed, a diffuse network, linking myriad movements on the American fringe with Kremlin-connected groups and higher-ups has taken shape over the past few years, bringing a strange unity among groups who normally strike a more discordant note.

Where the American far-right and hard-left carry distinct, disparate views on any range of subjects, there appears one area where they align: Russia’s apparent victimhood at the hands of a malignant West, and the righteousness of Moscow’s complaints about American encroachment.

These talking points – of Russia’s putative “encirclement,” or of the West’s supposed degeneracy in the face of Moscow’s moral rectitude – are close echoes of Russian state news channels, especially Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today). These channels are notable for mixing slanted reportage and misdirection with more creditworthy reporting, an effective propaganda technique designed to sow doubt and confusion.

These same figures of the American fringe — whether Green Party activists, white nationalists, or California secessionists — often subsequently show up on these channels. At times, this creates scenes of startling irony, such as when the state news channel from one of the least environmentally friendly countries in the world hosted the Green Party’s 2016 presidential debate. Green Party candidate Jill Stein, a trusty font of Russia-friendly talking points, even appeared next to both Putin and (now-disgraced) Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Dec. 2015 gala honoring RT.

Meanwhile, over the last few years, Russian political activists have struck up a friendship with another fringe movement: American Christian fundamentalists. Part of Moscow’s post-2012 efforts to stand as a center of global conservatism, this new friendship has been spearheaded by the Illinois-based World Congress of Families (WCF) – one of the foremost international anti-LGBT organizations. Not only have actors like ultra-Orthodox oligarch Konstantin Malofeev begun building their own ties with WCF, but ex-members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, highlighted by former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, remain some of WCF’s largest supporters.

American Christian fundamentalists have proven only too eager to reciprocate Russian support. To wit, as Bryan Fischer, recently the spokesman for the American Family Association, said, Putin remains a “lion of Christianity.”

Further, fundamentalists have worked with Russian lawmakers to lobby Russia’s Parliament for highly conservative legislation. For instance, as the WCF would later claim in its promotional material, the American group “helped pass the first Russian laws restricting abortion in modern history.”

Elsewhere, numerous prominent white nationalists have cultivated ties with notable Russian figures – and other European far-right actors — in venues provided by Russia. In 2015 St. Petersburg hosted one of the foremost enclaves of Western far-right figures in recent years, from skinheads to white ethno-state secessionists. The group included a pair of Americans, one of whom went out of his way to praise Putin’s domestic policies. Such effusive support mirrors that seen from other far-right actors, as well. U.S. white nationalists and white supremacists, including Richard Spencer and David Duke, have publicly hailed Moscow on multiple instances, with the former even describing Russia as the “sole white power in the world.” Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard, says he lived for five years in Russia – and sold his books in the Duma – and has further called for an “alliance” with Russia.

For good measure, Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, two of the preeminent – and youngest – white nationalists in the U.S., have each built their own linkage with, of all people, Alexander Dugin, the neo-fascist philosopher whose textbooks remain assigned to every member of Russia’s General Staff Academy.

While, like RT and Sputnik before him, Dugin’s influence on the Kremlin remains over-hyped – all the more now that he’s reportedly been fired from Tsargrad TV – Spencer attempted to host Dugin as a keynote speaker during a 2014 far-right conference in Budapest, while Heimbach hosted a video speech from Dugin during the 2015 launch of Heimbach’s Traditionalist Worker Party. For good measure, an American neo-Nazi, Preston Wiginton, has sub-leased a Moscow apartment from David Duke – and later hosted both Spencer and Dugin (via video) for lectures at Texas A&M University.  

In addition to the far-left, the Religious Right, and white nationalists, Moscow-tied actors have also helped build a network with those attempting to lead secession movements in assorted American states. The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a nominally independent Russian organization, received Kremlin funding in 2016 to help host a “Dialog of Nations” secession conference in Moscow.

Not only did the organization bring representatives from California and Texas, but it even helped pay for the Texas secessionists’ travel to Moscow. Likewise, the Kremlin-funded organization has provided rent-free space for secessionists from the nominally progressive YesCalifornia movement to open the first, and thus far only, “California Embassy” abroad – with the head of the YesCalifornia movement, Louis Marinelli, continuing to live in Russia. A one-time anti-LGBT advocate, Marinelli – a former supporter of Bernie Sanders who voted for Trump – has given at least three different reasons as to why he continues to live in Russia, ranging from the cost of rent in the U.S. to the fact that he couldn’t live “under a U.S.” flag.

Numerous Twitter bots have also recently pushed the cause of California secession, while Marinelli has compared his planned California referendum to the 2014 Crimean vote – the results of which were recognized by only a handful of dictators and Russian client-states.

Interestingly, one under-appreciated thread of such cultivation of white nationalists and American secessionists includes the reality that both contingents want to fracture the U.S. outright. For white nationalists, such fracture would come in pursuit of a whites-only homeland. (In addition to the praise from people like Spencer and Heimbach, Harold Covington, who seeks to carve the Pacific Northwest into a monoracial nation, has described Russia as the “last great White empire.”) For state-level secessionists, meanwhile, the U.S.’s fragmentation would come along state lines – all while removing their polities from international commitments. The California secessionists, for instance, announced via their platform that they would be leaving NATO upon independence – a position the secessionists announced in, of all places, Moscow. 

These movements – working the most prominent voices in the Green Party, the American white nationalist and Christian fundamentalist communities, and those who would fracture the U.S. wholesale – are, of course, varied, but nonetheless remain united in pushing Kremlin-friendly talking points. Like their European counterparts, they present, to Moscow, an area of potential partnership, both in stalling American efforts abroad as well as in providing myriad distractions domestically. They may have nowhere near the political clout the current White House can wield – but that doesn’t mean, as we’ve seen over the past year, that political realities within the U.S. can’t change drastically, especially if the Kremlin might be involved. 

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