Three years ago I met Oleg Kalugin, the ex-KGB general whose well-known case of defection earned him the ire of the Russian authorities. In an interview, Kalugin once stated his belief that Vladimir Putin was “a temporary twist in history”, and perhaps this belief is why he found so much support among his American associates. I personally spoke with Kalugin on the future of Russia and its people, he told me it would be inevitable that Russia would collapse and break apart. Knowing the consternation that Americans often come to when dealing with the New Russia, is this the implicit goal of the Atlantic powers?
Even with the experience that Mr. Kalugin acquired in his time working for Soviet intelligence, he could not have not predicted Putin’s rise to power, describing the President as “a mere operative, one of the 3,000 who walked along our corridors”. It was twelve years ago that General Kalugin was found guilty in absentia for high treason. A known critic of the Putin administration, he became a naturalized citizen of the US and has remained there since. It seems like US government officials and turncoats alike are betting on the collapse of Russia, and it’s not uncommon to hear about a “crumbling” Russia from media commentary. But why does this mentality remain, and why are so many hopeful for the demise of the Russian state?
At the time of my meeting with Kalugin, before Ukraine and before Syria, I found no credence in spy’s forecast. Today the world has set its sights on Kiev as the cornerstone in determining who will take the lead in defining the century. Lines are being drawn and the terms of the game are being set. Make no mistake, a contest for hegemony is underway, and actions take precedence over ideology. Russia is not surrendering, and it is prepared to challenge the West in a way that perhaps only China has also done. Today, Ukraine is where methods of exerting influence from either side are put to the test. As propaganda becomes more sophisticated, the ways in which competing powers confront each other evolve as well. This much is certain: the protests on Kiev’s Maidan cannot be taken for face value.
What can be said of the nationalists of Ukraine, whose employment of Nordic symbols and rhetoric runs directly opposed to some of the stated goals of the country’s new leadership? Although the Maidan riots began as the result of many groups participating, the breakthrough of Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) as the face of the Ukrainian uprising has attracted political fanatics of the right from other parts of the continent to join the protests. This was a deliberate move on the part of outside elements to lend them exposure and resources, knowing that European nationalists are usually on the side of Russia against the West. The matter is currently one of the most divisive topics among reactionary and nationalist political circles at the moment, and it has almost succeeded in undermining Putin’s most profound forms of overseas support. For all of the Russian media’s claims that the Ukrainian nationalists are the Wahhabists of Europe, the conclusion has solid premises, as unfortunate as that may sound. How is inviting foreign elements to fight in Kiev different from radical Islamists from the UK and US joining their brothers in Syria?
There is also the testimony of a former activist from Pravy Sektor, who admits the group’s cooperation with American military officials in (allegedly) trading looted documents for money, or the presence of Chechen militants side-by-side with the Pravy Sektor protestors on the Maidan. From a diplomatic perspective, even the Pravy Sektor’s meeting with Israeli officials wouldn’t have seemed so suspiscious if it wasn’t announced with enthusiasm from the group’s leadership. Respectable far-right organizations from other countries, such as Hungary’s Jobbik, have condemned them. But this is a sidenote in a time of soft power. Political extremists are now convenient tools of geopolitical influence, regardless of what the they themselves might think.
The amount of attention vested in the situation in Ukraine, especially from the US government itself, suggests that there are more interests at stake than merely allowing Ukraine access to the European Union. In December, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland bragged that America invested five billion dollars over two decades toward a “democratic Ukraine” while urging the government to “listen to its people,” all while standing in front of the logos of Chevron and Exxonmobil. Her flagrant disregard for EU interests in relation to Ukraine, revealed in her now-notorious phone conversation with the US Ambassador in Kiev, confirms Washington’s own less-than-altruistic ambitions for the country.
But the US and its economic assets could never gain leverage in Ukraine simply on their own; even John Kerry’s promise of billions in future investments cannot happen immediately. This is why men like Oleg Kalugin are so highly valued – their use of politics as a tool of subversion is an alternative to outright war. Indeed, the predictions that Russia’s involvement in Crimea would not lead to war are so far correct, but the potential is building. The division of Ukraine shows what political factionalism is capable of: the coordinated efforts of Leftists, gay activists, EU businessmen, ultra-nationalists, Jewish organizations, various churches, Chechens, Tatars, and still others demonstrate how external forces manipulate affairs of state. None of the aforementioned groups would normally have anything to do with each ther, and while some of them may be conscious of their role as pawns in a global game of influence, they can do little about it but fight on. I am reminded about another former Soviet spy I knew of, one based at the University of California, Berkeley during the 1960s, whose efforts to agitate radical college students into social unrest enjoyed some success. He too, eventually defected. Nevertheless, the methodology was effective.
I once stood on the Maidan nearly half a decade before it became what it is today, before outside players were involved to the degree they are now. It’s sufficiently clear that the unrest in Kiev is an engineered uprising, the likes of which have been seen as recently as Syria and as far back as Guatemala. For all of the manufactured regime changes across the world since the Second World War, the US has relied on a single factor to achieve these revolutions – the uncertainty and desperation of a people faced with adjusting to a rapidly-changing market and global environment. But viewing the masses gathered in Odessa, Simferopol, Kharkov, Donetsk, Sevastopol, and elsewhere, we see this is not the case in Ukraine. As some journalists have remarked, it was the people, not the police, who took back government buildings from the Kiev-based opposition. These are not pro-government “titushki,” as the opposition would label them, but the people, and they have spoken. These are the citizens who believe the Russian and Ukrainian people are one, a more genuine assertion of identity as opposed to the arbitrary goals of a political party.
There is, however, an almost unanimous agreement on the corruption of Yanukovych’s presidency, something which is undisputed even by the Russian government. Why would the people of Ukraine ask to join the European Union now, anyway? The East has shown itself to be a formidable player in international politics while the other side faces endless scandals and crises. Furthermore, the relationship between many Ukrainians with Russia goes beyond short-term economic goals; it is cultural. Insult is added when the West supports the ultra-nationalists behind the violence and mends their reputation, considering the emphatic efforts of elites to ‘fight hate’ in their own countries while simultaneously supporting it elsewhere.
A genuine cause for concern must arise when two global superpowers are so closely opposed to each other. Recall that the presence of Russian soldiers securing key infrastructure in Crimea echoes the events of 1999 in Pristina, when Russian paratroopers took control of an airport, resulting in a standoff with NATO. But a war is too costly. Defeated presidential candidates Clinton, McCain, and Kerry (among other politicians) have spoken harshly about the Kremlin’s involvement in Ukraine, at times making stale and hypocritical comparisons to past historical events. Critics, meanwhile, have noted Washington’s relative impotence as a global leader and Obama’s inability to seriously confront Putin’s actions.
Should we be afraid? If my experiences with spies, defectors or otherwise say anything, then yes, we should be. The situation can be described as the Man in Berkeley’s activities on a grand scale. Consider how both the government and media outlets played to the liberal sentiment of the American people during the Sochi Olympics, to the point that any semblence of failure or shortcoming at the events was desperately sought after while violent illiberal political groups have been receiving support and aid from the West in Ukraine and elsewhere. Nothing is as it seems. Action trumps ideology, and in this instance, the critical mass of the Maidan was wielded by the Western powers. Military threats are a last resort for NATO and the US; the true goal of their designs is subversion.
Speaking on the events of the Maidan, Dmitry Dyomushkin, leader of the ethnopolitical movement ‘Russians’ and a noted supporter of Chechen independence, has urged other nationalists in Russia to support the Maidan protestors and encouraged the distancing of Ukraine from Russian affairs. This would seem odd for a man that stands behind the Russian Imperial flag, but his sentiment is shared by other figures in the nationalist sphere. Nationalism is a historic facet of the Russian mind, an inescapable fact, and today’s nationalists want their country to take an even more conservative turn than it already has. Yet this can be exploited, much as ethnic sentiment in Ukraine has been used against Ukrainians. The nationalists are already willing to come out and stand with Leftists and Communists against Putin, as was the case in 2012. If proper scrutiny is not given to the development of nationalism in Russia, the politics of pride, once used to advance the interests of the state, will be used against it.
Radical Islam has been used against Islamic states, so it cannot be excluded that subversion in Russia will arise with the face of fierce nationalism or religious fanaticism, and in the case of Doku Umarov and Dmitro Yarosh, it already has. At this point, it is necessary to understand how propaganda has changed over the last century, because many approach the concept with 20th-century conceptions. We should look beyond the flags and shields and try to ascertain the true ideology of the people actually running the uprising.
Mr. Kalugin knows things I do not, and was his prediction of Russian balkanization an informed warning or an angst-ridden reaction to his conviction for treason back in Moscow? The resurgence of Russia is a “temporary twist” perhaps in the eyes of the West, whose drive to exert influence across the entire globe is now impeded by this counterbalance. The example of how Pravy Sektor has been used for harmful ends is an unwelcome warning to many of its would-be supporters, but it is a warning nonetheless.