How Russia Tries to Influence Social Discourse in the U.S.
The recent protests that have taken place across the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd have garnered attention all over the world and inspired similar protests in many other countries. These protests have also given critics and enemies of the United States a perfect opportunity to decry human rights abuses and racism in America. Russia, in particular, has taken advantage of the situation. Not only have senior government officials made critical public comments but, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence bulletin last month, Russia, China, and Iran, are each “employing state media, proxy outlets, and social media accounts to amplify criticism of the United States related to the death of George Floyd and subsequent events.”
While the protests certainly deserve attention and the issues of police brutality and systemic racism must be addressed, is it really Russia’s goal to see that happen? Is Russia actually “concerned about respect for human rights in every corner of the world”, as President Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated? Russia’s long history of human rights abuses at home and abroad–including brutality, extrajudicial killings, torture, racism, antisemitism, and xenophobia—suggest it is not actually concerned about respect for human rights. So what is Russia’s real goal in highlighting the human rights failures of the United States?
Russia’s Human Rights Record:
Russia has an abysmal human rights record which extends from the streets of her cities to the Caucasus, Syria, the Crimea, and beyond. There is near zero tolerance for minorities, particularly for those from the Caucasus, those from Africa, those who are mixed-race, who are Jewish, or who are LGBT. That is not to say that things are not changing in a positive direction. Perhaps expectedly, the attitudes and opinions of those residing in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are becoming more progressive.
Considering that those on trial must sit in cages in the courtroom, the number of Soviet people killed by Stalin and his policies, the autocratic rule of the Tsars and Emperors, authoritarian communist leaders, and two decades of Putin, it is not hard to believe the average Russian does not expect much in the way of human rights for themselves, much less expect their government to respect the rights of minorities. Journalists who speak out against the government, human rights activists, and progressive lawyers are still arrested, beaten, or killed and non-governmental organizations, including many churches, are harassed and fined. Conscripts in the Russian military are frequently hazed, sometimes to the point where they die or commit suicide. Furthermore, the government expends considerable effort concealing these facts. Russia’s history, though rightfully a proud one in many ways, is also the story of a people used to being subjugated, rounded up, beaten, tortured, or ‘disappeared’ for saying or thinking the wrong thing, and whose primary source for political information has historically often been propagandistic, state-run media.
Culturally, there are ingrained distinctions between ethnic Russians and non-Russians that run deep. When speaking with any number of people in Russia in the early 2000’s, I would regularly be told, for example, “Oh, he’s not Russian, he’s Jewish”, though the family of the person being spoken about had lived in Russia for multiple generations. I also regularly witnessed Central Asians being slapped around in metro stations or on the street by Militsiya (police) for no other apparent reason than their ethnicity. While I was of course shocked and sickened when I saw this, people walked past as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. In another example, a colleague of mine who was white and had adopted black children, was regularly taunted and harassed when out and about in Moscow. Occasionally they were threatened with physical violence, though, in those cases the perpetrators were most often skinheads.
Nationalist sentiments also run deep, and my experience living and working in Russia, as well as closely following Russia for over two decades, has shown me that Russians in general are willing to pay a high price in terms of a lack of individual liberties and rights in order to have a strong leader and be seen as a powerful nation on the world stage. If political opponents are jailed or mysteriously disappear, protests against their detention or disappearance are squashed and the protestors are sent to prison. Social media sites and other Internet fora used by dissidents are monitored and occasionally shut down. However, Russia is seen as a significant global power, playing an important role in Middle Eastern politics with their support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and expanding their territorial holdings annexing Crimea. For many Russians, this global influence is an acceptable trade-off for domestic authoritarianism.
Distinctions Between Russia’s Government and the Russian People:
A distinction must be drawn, however, between the Russian government and the Russian people. While there are still many who harbor racist and nationalist attitudes, we cannot overlook the many brave Russians who are pushing for change, protesting against the government, its corruption, and its human rights abuses. In advocating changes in these areas, they often become victims of the Russian government’s human rights abuses, as well.
The Russian government has exhibited a stunning ability and willingness to deny or whitewash their corruption and misdeeds, both to their own people and the rest of the world, in the face of overwhelming facts and evidence to the contrary. Russia’s messaging on the protests in the U.S. is a continuation of this policy: despite their own exceedingly poor human rights record, Russia is drawing attention to the United States’ failures. While the Russian government is guilty of the same offenses, the Russian Foreign Ministry has accused the United States of having problems with “race, ethnic and religious discrimination, police brutality, and bias of justice,” and has called on the United States to make improvements. The objective is clear: to foment further social unrest in the United States and divert the spotlight from themselves.
Unrest, division, racial tension, and societal upheaval in the United States benefits Russia and it is in their interest to exacerbate the situation. The greater the focus on problems in the United States, the lesser the focus on Russia’s efforts to silence dissent, censor private media, employ chemical weapons and bomb hospitals and schools in Syria, annex Crimea, and interfere in foreign elections. Given they continue to view the United States as their “glavniy protivnik” (“main enemy”), the Russian government believes that anything bad for the United States is good for them. Maintaining an adversarial relationship with the United States gives the Russian state continuing political relevance, particularly at home, but also on the world stage.
Tom Billard is a former senior operations officer and manager in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service with over 20 years of experience in Intelligence. Billard served in Moscow and ran the CIA’s Russian operations in headquarters. He is a Senior Consultant and Analyst for Strike Source.