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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially positioned itself as a democratic, modern, and transformed state, striving to embrace Western values. But this game of “imitation” didn’t last long as Russia’s true commitment was rather quickly exposed to inheriting Soviet ideals, the exact opposite of democratic values. So this naturally resulted in a confrontation with what’s commonly known is the Western lifestyle.
The main problem of the Soviet way of life and the reason why millions of Soviets would flee country at the slightest opportunity was precisely that people sought to praise symbols and values that would ensure their rights and freedom rather than belittle the role of a human being in a society.
Neither the Soviet totalitarian regime of the 20th century nor the neo-totalitarian Russia today can boast of granting people such benefits so hundreds of thousands are still fleeing from Russia to obtain permanent residence permits or citizenship in Western states.
In turn, Russia, just like the USSR, allocated colossal funds to discredit the Western lifestyle, primarily through its massive media resources. Along with the growing revenues off of raw materials and superprofits from oil and gas sales, Russia has eventually created an extensive media and propaganda network that spread throughout Europe and “across the pond”, broadcasting even in the U.S.
However, Russia’s fight against Western values that Moscow believes pose the main threat to the neo-totalitarian regime, was not limited to the information front. Since 2014, this struggle has also been covering other spheres.
The Russian government has always considered civic protest the greatest threat to its very existence, therefore they’ve been constantly preparing to suppress any form of mass discontent — as severely as possible. The concept of Russian revolt, often merciless, is the Kremlin’s true nightmare. So the government has been working to first tone down the significance of such revolt in the minds of their own citizens and then to compromise it among western audiences.
The work to compromise protest sentiments in Russia began with infiltrating opposition ranks with puppet “leaders.” They were portrayed as truth seekers and fighters against the regime exploiting the nation, but in fact served as sewage to drain down protest flows. One of the highest-profile puppet opposition figures, who have for years prevented the unrest from developing into a full-fledged rebellion that would imply the dictatorial government toppling, was Alexei Navalny.
In turn, true opposition leaders who had remained outside the Kremlin’s grip would be physically eliminated. On February 27, 2015, Boris Nemtsov, who until then had been seen as untouchable in the Russian political hierarchy, was assassinated on the Moskvoretsky Bridge, just outside Kremlin walls in Moscow.
After the government has sealed full control of Russia’s protest potential, the propaganda machine went on to compromise the very concept of civic protest in people’s minds — first of all, targeting Russian audiences. To this end, propaganda pundits exploited the image of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, which in the Russian information space is often referred to as Maidan.
It is the Maidan, Russian propagandists tell their citizens, that led to those global challenges Ukraine had to address in 2014–2015, as well as the negative consequences that has since been affecting the country’s economy. At the same time, Russian propaganda turns a blind eye to the fact that the government of Viktor Yanukovych had been wasting thoughtlessly the country’s foreign reserves, leading the nation pretty much toward the edge of default — only to ensure further full dependence on Russia. Another fact that the Kremlin propaganda remains silent about is the Russian military invasion and occupation of part of the independent Ukraine’s territory.
Thus, the protest element, as an integral part of a healthy civil society, has been effectively distorted and compromised in the minds of Russians in the short period of time. Kremlin’s propaganda machine didn’t stop there and switched its focus onto the European Union’s bridgehead, where civil protest is one of the pillars of a democratic and free society.
Through its cells of assets operating in virtually every European country, Russia has radicalized protest phenomena across the EU. The most striking example was the Yellow Vests movement in France. What started as farmers’ strikes against higher gasoline prices has rapidly escalated into riots and clashes with the police in the streets of Paris. And it was the offshoots of Marine Le Pen’s National Association party, funded by Russia, that played the main role in that radicalization.
While Paris streets engulfed in smoke have taken a deep root in the minds of most Europeans, looted shops and police cars set ablaze across U.S. cities had an even more striking effect.
The death of African-American man George Floyd during the arrest routine has prompted massive protests that began as peaceful rallies. However, things went south shortly after groups of provocateurs with Antifa, a Russia-funded organization with branches all over the world, whose members were spotted undergoing military training with Syrian Kurds (who are also known to have been supervised by Russian intelligence since the KGB era). So as soon as Antifa got involved, Black Life Matters rallies took a sharp turn toward riots and overall chaos.
Thus, not only did Russia succeed in neutralizing the civil protest resource within own borders, they also managed to raise serious doubts regarding protests’ feasibility within the Western community.
Among Western values, traditionally unacceptable for Russia since the soviet period, is an extremely loyal attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees. Given a massive flow of people fleeing totalitarian regimes, not the other way round, the issue has always put the Soviet Union — and then Russia — in an extremely disadvantageous situation, both from moral and political perspectives.
Things changed in 2015 when Russia invaded Syria and this way significantly increased the refugee flow to the European Union. Along with ordinary Syrians who were massively fleeing from indiscriminate bombing and artillery attacks by Russian troops, the EU unwittingly embraced Syrian security agents and terrorists representing organizations controlled by the regime and its allies.
The Russian Federation had previously done a similar thing during the Chechen military campaigns. As civilians were fleeing from hostilities in a search of a peaceful place, among them were Russian assets with a certain legend and a specific mission. After the wars in Chechnya ended, it was the “despotic regime” of Ramzan Kadyrov that was put in place to serve such goals: the alleged opposition figures or ordinary people started fleeing from the republic and some of them eventually surfaced as culprits behind a number of terror attacks.
As a result, Russia in a fairly short time set up an ethnic network of human assets within the EU, to be used in the efforts to destabilize a region or radicalize protests. For example, as it happened in June 2020 in France’s Dijon, where a “gangster showdown”, as it was covered in local and international media, was in fact a controlled event involving the Chechen diaspora and coordinated externally.
At the same time, the flow of refugees amid Syria escalation is believed to have brought Russia the most benefits.
Firstly, it was about a U-turn on EU’s tolerant attitudes toward refugees and eventually emigrants as such, which has in certain areas even spurred racist and nationalist sentiments. In turn, a significant part of the EU nationalist organizations are also funded by Russia… This year came the reports that members of some European neo-Nazi groups even receive combat training in a paramilitary camp outside St. Petersburg.
Secondly, these complex efforts allowed Russia to bring to power in the EU member states a variety of populist and nationalist parties over which Moscow exercises effective control. By manipulating the issue of humanitarian crisis and artificially imposed anti-migrant sentiments, the Kremlin has molded among Europeans a condescending attitude towards immigrants, which was previously unthinkable in the EU, as well as brought to power a number of political forces preaching values that are in no way common for modern Europe.
The biggest problem in Russia is the absence of democratic elections, just as it was in the Soviet Union. This isn’t only about presidential or parliamentary elections, but also about referenda on issues vital for the state and society.
In fact, the very concept of a free and democratic choice has long ceased to exist in Russia. This year this fact was once again confirmed when a referendum to amend the Constitution and extend Vladimir Putin’s political life boiled down to a ridiculous circus show, with people casting ballots right in the driveways, on playgrounds, by garbage bins, and so on… At the same time, Russia has still a long way to go to tackle this concept in the minds of Western audiences. But it would be unfair to say that the ongoing efforts are totally fruitless.
The first attempt to neutralize freedom of voters’ choice Russia made in the occupied territories of Ukraine in 2014, through staging a sham referenda on Crimea accession to Russia and the secession of the so-called “DPR” and “LPR” from Ukraine. A completely fabricated referendum put to the test general feasibility of the very idea, as well as showed the degree of manipulation that can be applied in the process.
Later, Russia repeatedly meddled in campaigns and elections across the globe, including the EU and the U.S. There was support for a referendum on Scotland’s secession from the UK and Catalonia’s independence from Spain, setting-up and financing the Dutch vote on granting visa-free travel to Ukrainians, financing the campaign of the Italian Lega Nord party, financing and providing information support for Brexit referendum, interference in the electoral process in the Central African Republic and Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, South Africa, South Sudan, Congo, Chad, Zambia, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, and Mali… And the icing on the cake — interference in the U.S. presidential elections.
The scale of Russian manipulation of the electoral process around the world in an attempt to bring to power the leaders or parties convenient to the Kremlin is simply stunning. The funds that the Kremlin allocates to this end could have long covered the efforts to supply gas to the most distant parts of Siberia and even turn Yakutsk into another Dubai.
However, all these funds that could be used to improve the well-being of many Russians across the vast country are directed towards satisfying Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. And some of these efforts can’t be branded a failure. After all, as long as intelligence agencies in various countries report Russian election meddling, trust in those elections keeps wearing off.
In the eyes of an average European, the opposition is always a positive and trustworthy antagonist of the incumbent government. That’s largely because it allows itself voicing issues and acute topics that remain tabooed among political elites in power.
In fact, an opposition figure is a de facto political image, naturally requiring people’s support and approval (for standing strong, “one against all”), as well as some sympathy. In general, support and sympathy for those fighting windmills is another unshakable value in the collective West.
That is why it has become extremely important for Russia to put the opposition, both within its borders and beyond, at its service. Similar to the case of Alexei Navalny, the man acting under the FSB supervision in Russia, in other countries the Russian trace in opposition is no less impressive.
In Ukraine, since 2014, it’s the parties acting in the interests of the Russian occupying forces that have traditionally been called “opposition,” such as the Opposition Bloc, supervised by Russia’s GRU military intelligence, and the Opposition Platform — For Life party, handled by the Russian FSB security service.
The situation is likewise on the European bridgehead. For example, Italy’s Lega Nord, originally opposed to the incumbent government, came to power with the help of Russian funding, channeled through the GRU. Marine Le Pen’s National Association party in France has traditionally received funding from Russia to cover all its needs.
The most striking example of recent days is the so-called “opposition” in Belarus, which fully consists of figures affiliated with the Russian GRU.
By providing funding through its branches, with the most striking example being Gazprombank and media support for the so-called “opposition” candidates through Alisher Usmanov’s outlets, the Kremlin tried to bring politicians it controls closer to power echelons to pursue with the subsequent takeover of Belarus.
In fact, the Belarusian opposition never existed as such. From the very first days of its emergence it was nothing but a Russian agent network of candidates acting in Moscow’s interests.
The dilemma of the Western perception of Belarus unrest is that, according to the democratic values, the West cannot side with the dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, and neither can it refuse to give shelter to opposition figures who seek refuge, fleeing from the regime’s persecution.
Thus, the West has granted refuge and support to the opposition, which is, in fact, is a motley crew of Moscow-controlled figures, all playing their roles in Russia’s game of Belarus absorption. And while seemingly adhering to own ideals, the West has in fact contributed to the Anschluss of Belarus by the invader.
Over the past six years, having realized that it doesn’t have as much resources at its disposal as the Soviet Union had, Russia has directed almost all of its surplus, and later even plenty of budget funds, toward compromising Western symbols and values as much as possible… This was, is, and will be Russia’s long-term goal because this could help Moscow in the future to implement its revanchist projects worldwide with minimal resistance on the part of the united democratic community. After all, who says this united democratic community will surely survive Russia’s hybrid attacks?
This is difficult to deny: the success of the Russian neo-totalitarian machine to this end is obvious…