I’m writing this guide to help American leftists understand the nature of Putin’s Russia and more specifically its attempts to influence politics in other countries. Just a few years ago this wasn’t much of an issue- now it is, however, and we must adapt to this new reality not with panic and fear-mongering, but with sober analysis.
While the actual abilities of Russia to shape politics in countries like the United States are in fact quite limited, their activities can have a profound impact on the theory and praxis of leftists, and specifically a very negative impact. Put simply, working with Russia or its allies on anything is like talking to the police- you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. More importantly, leftist ignorance about Russia makes them more vulnerable to manipulation, and worst of all, it makes one morally inconsistent, either by putting them in a de facto alliance with the global far right, or just by contradicting our stated values in ways which can be easily exploited by right wing hacks.
This is intended to be a very rough guide, for people not too familiar with the subject. I encourage readers who want to know more to ask questions in the comments section.
Q. Why should I care about Russia?
Maybe you shouldn’t, especially if you’re engaged in productive activism or organization in your community. If that’s the case- good for you. But there are certain people in Russia who care about you, specifically they want to use and manipulate you to further their foreign policy goals. Lacking the soft power infrastructure of the United States or even the Soviet Union, they have resorted to asymmetrical, if not terribly effective, methods. The general aim of these methods can be seen in the recommendations of a book called Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexander Dugin. Here’s a relevant passage from a summary of the book:
“Within the United States itself, there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists)” (248). “It is especially important,” Dugin adds, “to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements– extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It
would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics” (367)”
Dugin, arguably a fascist by the most accepted definition, is often overrated by the Western media; he is not as some claim, “Putin’s ideologue.” But Foundations of Geopolitics was and is taken seriously in powerful circles in Moscow, particularly in the military. More importantly, this strategy is apparent in many of Moscow’s foreign policy activities, such as fake “election observations” in Donbas or Crimea, the sponsoring or assistance of far right and far left organizations in the West, and internet trolling operations that have tried (and to some degree succeed) to stir up real life conflict within the US and other countries.
In terms of concrete support, Russia has almost exclusively helped the far right, as far right ideas the closest thing Russia has to an official ideology. However, they still maintain contacts with the left and use symbolism, often Soviet or “Communist,” to dupe leftists into identifying with Russia. Accepting anything they offer gains you nothing. Your right-wing opponents will seize on any opportunity to attack you as a “useful idiot” and dismiss you. It’s not fair, but politics is war by other means, and all’s fair in love and war.
Q. But isn’t my government the worst threat to world peace?
Possibly, but how does regurgitating Russian propaganda help alleviate that? If Russia seems like less of a threat than the US, it is only because it is far weaker economically and militarily. We have seen since 2014 that to the extent Russia has the ability to project military force, it has done so, and with far less restraint or even candor than the US. More over, its media and politicians continually threaten nuclear war against nations which object to its activities. The Russian government promotes the idea that Russia is a “natural empire” and that it has the right to have a “sphere of influence” around it. Would you tolerate the US or any of its allies doing something like this? I’d hope not. So don’t tolerate it from Russia.
Q. Okay I get that, but for me, my own government is my main problem. I don’t think I’ll ever go to Russia or Ukraine anyway.
This is a totally acceptable position- just don’t adopt Russian talking points on those issues if they don’t concern you enough. If you don’t know, say so and move on- nothing wrong with that. It’s a lot better than becoming a shill for a regime that not only doesn’t care about your cause, but by all counts probably hates you and hopes you experience more political and economic strife because from their point of view, destabilization in your country is good for them.
Q. But my country’s leaders and our mainstream media are criticizing Putin and Russia all the time. Doesn’t that mean he stands in the way of their imperial machinations?
To some degree yes, but that doesn’t make Putin’s motives pure or positive. Putin doesn’t want to “oppose imperialism” or something of the sort. If anything it’s just the opposite- he wants to basically codify imperialism, divide the world among self-appointed “great powers,” one of which should be Russia. All the smaller and weaker nations of the world can be nothing more than vassals of one regional empire or another. This belief can often be gleaned from statements by Russia’s Foreign Ministry directed at other countries such as Ukraine and EU member states.
In reality, Putin was for some time an admirer of George W. Bush and tried diligently to come to some kind of partnership with the US and UK. Even to this day Russia keeps offering “cooperation” with the West, so long as the West unilaterally concedes to all of Russia’s demands. How would that fare, for example, for the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (formerly known as Rojava)? Russia’s all in for Assad’s government, while the US, though supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces now, is still in an alliance with NATO member Turkey. An agreement between Russia, Turkey, and the US, could sweep one of the world’s most progressive projects in decades away in a bloodbath.
Bottom line is- leftists are supposed to think more critically. Our epistemology needs to be a bit more sophisticated than “Let’s support whoever our government seems to hate!”
Q. But won’t I run the risk of regurgitating American government propaganda?
Not if you think critically and check your sources. You don’t need to oppose something just because the US government seems to be supporting it. They have their reasons, and you can have yours.
The reverse is also true- you shouldn’t necessarily shy away from speaking the truth (key word: truth) just because Russia or someone pro-Kremlin appears to be supporting the same side. For one thing, we’ve already established that part of Russia’s influence operations entails supporting both sides of polarizing issues. But for a case study, take the recent attempt at Catalonian independence. Personally I didn’t support the move based on some background information I read, but that didn’t stop me from condemning the violence that was used against the referendum. I couldn’t care less which side Russia supposedly supported (they actually changed their position on this). Every case needs to be considered on its own merit. Movements and initiatives cannot decide who endorses them, be they Russia or the US government.
Q. What’s something I can do to protect my cause or organization from Russian manipulation?
One former Occupy Leader came up with a good strategy for deterring this sort of manipulation- international solidarity for protest movements. Basically by linking protests, it makes it harder for foreign governments on both sides to hijack any one movement. For example, if there’s a big protest in the US, find ways to link it to global protests in countries like Russia. If protesters used signs and slogans comparing American wealth inequality with that of Russia, it is unlikely that Russian state media would want to give it much coverage. This can be done on other topics as well, from separation of church and state issues to militarism and war. Just like the US government, Putin spends vast amounts of wealth on military modernization and war to the detriment of his own people. When protesters make this a part of their rhetoric, it makes it harder for Russian soft power organizations to capitalize on their movement. And of course, expressing solidarity with Russian opposition figures is another major turn off for Kremlin media.
Q. How can I tell if I’m being approached by someone working for the Kremlin in some way?
In the previous answer I link to a post (here it is again if you hate scrolling) that has a rough guide for determining whether or not you’re dealing with a pro-Kremlin agent. I use the word “agent” very loosely here; I do not mean a spy or government operative. They could very well be an independent individual who just has a pro-Kremlin POV and rather informal links. But remember- if they get you to regurgitate the Kremlin’s foreign policy talking points in public, they’ve basically subordinated you to their cause.
Also realize you should relax and not become too paranoid about this kind of thing. Unfortunately, many American leftists subscribe to out-of-date, naive ideas about imperialism and how to oppose it. As such, they are prone to knee-jerk reactions to world events and end up regurgitating Kremlin talking points totally independently of any exposure to Russian-produced propaganda. The best you can do in this case is to point out the moral inconsistency of their positions and how such out of date views of the world are not only counter-productive, but they often actually aid the forces of reaction and are condescending to boot. So-called “anti-imperialists,” often with zero experience or background knowledge on the country in question, are typically more than happy to make loud pronouncements about which peoples deserve self-determination, and which do not, which protests are authentic, and which are nothing but paid dupes of the CIA or State Department. And yet how many of these same people would bristle with anger when the right says they’re “paid by George Soros?”
Some Final Advice
There is no such thing as a “socialist camp” in the modern world today. There is no “anti-imperialist camp” either. The world is, with few exceptions (and not necessarily positive ones by any stretch), entirely capitalist and integrated. Foreign propaganda projects try to entice you with leftish symbolism or by talking about the issues you care about, which are often underreported by our own major media outlets. But this is just a scam. It’s not about actually doing anything to address those issues- it’s about you to identify with a regime and hopefully echo its talking points. In the end, your credibility gets destroyed and they get another butt-ton of funding from their government. Who wins? American leftists need to be aware of Russian and other foreign soft power in the same way that Ukrainians and Russians need to be aware of Western soft power attempts to co-opt their grassroots movements. This is the world we are living in.
Maintain your principles. Maintain your independence. Maintain your moral consistency and integrity. Act locally, think globally, and don’t become a pawn.