I made a bit of a mistake in my Thank You Comrade Putin post — a very American mistake — of believing that what happens in the U.S. is some kind of special history, when in fact, these days, everything must be taken in a global context. So here’s a well-researched article by Michael Carpenter that appeared in The Atlantic recently detailing Putin’s use of fringe groups to further his war on democratic governments around the world. It is important to understanding the vast scope of Putin’s ambition.
My earlier post focused on Putin’s most spectacular victory — the hacking of America’s 2016 election and the obvious weakening of our democracy as a result. Carpenter’s article suggests that the USA may be only a part of a massive global strategy being implemented by Putin to rain chaos on Western-style Democratic Republics around the world. It’s a lesson, in the information age, in how the weak and devious can conquer the strong and arrogant by leveraging the openness, tolerance for dissent, and free information flow of democracies themselves.
By amplifying particularly white male demographic angst, pumping them up on guns and training and purpose, validating their commitment to racial supremacy and anti-immigration violence, in far flung countries, Russia seems to have become the de facto leader and primary financier of the rise of right wing/nihilist populism throughout the world. Does Russian care about the actual issues that ignite and incite these proxies — guns, racism, misogyny, soccer? Hell no! The proxies are dupes, and their “issues” are merely weaponized bots to promote political division and fear, and destroy faith in the democratic process. That includes nuts in macho motorcycle and soccer clubs, as well as rabid gun owners of the NRA, and white supremacist fringe groups in the USA.
As the pattern of behavior comes clear, does it seem possible that these stratagems are now beyond opportunistic? Is it possible that Russia has already begun a planned, coordinated attack to destabilize democracy around the world and make way for authoritarian rule. Is Putin angling to be in command of this extremist army of kooks — even if only loosely in the beginning? Such a conjecture will not seem so absurd after reading Carpenter’s article.
Here’s the shocking opening:
“Deep in the forests of Slovakia, former Russian Spetsnaz commandos trained young men from a right-wing paramilitary group called the Slovak Conscripts. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, some of these freshly-minted paramilitaries went to fight with Russian forces in eastern Ukraine while others stayed at home to agitate against nato as a “terrorist organization.
On the streets of the French city Marseille, Russian soccer hooligans sporting tattoos with the initials of Russia’s military intelligence service, GRU, brutally attacked English soccer fans in June 2016, sending dozens of bloodied fans to the hospital. Alexander Shprygin, an ultranationalist agitator and the head of the All-Russian Union of Supporters (a soccer fan club that he claims was established at the behest of the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB), was arrested during the melee and deported from France.
In Budapest’s Fiumei Road Cemetery in May 2017, a Russian motorcycle gangcarrying giant red flags displaying the Soviet hammer and sickle rode up to a World War II memorial. Somewhat incongruously, the tattooed bikers, accompanied by pinstriped Russian Embassy diplomats, disembarked from their motorcycles to lay red carnations in front of the memorial and then posted a video clip of it online.
It seems almost too strange to be true: fight clubs, neo-Nazi soccer hooligans, and motorcycle gangs serving as conduits for the Kremlin’s influence operations in Western countries. It sounds more like an episode of The Americans with a dash of Mad Max and Fight Club mixed in. Yet this is exactly what is happening across Europe and North America as Russia’s intelligence services co-opt fringe radicals and angry young men to try to undermine Western democracies from within. And not just in the virtual world, but in real life.”
In the interest of economy, I will only add a few ideas to this report and its implications, keeping in mind the American experience so far…
- This war needs proxies. Russia is too weak to produce an army of infiltrators. As conceived and executed, this is a war conducted primarily by proxies — useful idiots — committing atrocities in their home countries on unsuspecting and baffled citizens. It’s not German military blitzkrieg, but it is a propaganda blitzkrieg that may have become equally threatening.
- The misbegotten and socially maladjusted are perfect proxies for Putin’s war. Putin’s entry point is the right-wing, alienated, white male sense of aggrievement and damage. Yes, the world is shrinking, and there will be more brown people in formerly white enclaves (and vice versa, of course). A certain type of aggrieved and angry cohort that just can’t get over that, has come out from under its rock, throughout virtually all democratic republics in the west, amplified a thousand-fold by propaganda and financial/organizational support from Russia.
- Hyper Partisanship in democratic systems create a perfect opening for Russian operatives to conduct their war against democracy as a “wolf-in-sheep’s clothing.” With free flow of ill-gotten money, and ill-intentioned propaganda disguised as “alternate facts,” in support of right-wing fringe groups, Russia gets away with injecting itself into national elections, particularly in hyper partisanized settings as “the enemy of my enemy.” (What else can explain the Republicans sudden embrace of Putin and Russian influence: they helped minority Republicans smear Hillary, suppress votes in key electoral states, and ultimately enact a right-wing wet dream of their long-held articles of faith. “So what,” Republicans ask, “if the ‘enemy of my enemy’ is also — and primarily — an enemy of western style democracies?”)
- Destroying common truths, manners and customs destroys democracies. For the war to succeed, the Russian calculation apparently goes, it is not necessary to produce a violent overthrow of the existing form of government. Destroying people’s faith in their government, and dismantling the norms and common unspoken compact between citizens in a democracy for fair representation of all, is enough to propel the collapse of democracies and the rise of authoritarian rule.
- Who stands to gain? And, last question, who better to direct this alliance of autocrats, their thinking goes, than Putin and his Russian kleptocracy, who financed, propagandized and supported the autocrats who rose out of the ashes of Western Democracies?
I will end this post here, because if you took the time to read Carpenters report… well it is a long-read. My next post will turn to the positive: some recommendations from a Radical Centrism perspective for how to create and encourage an active empowered citizenry that can take responsibility over the next few decades of rebuilding our trust and the norms and customs of a functional democracy.