Human Rights & Democracy

February 2, 2022: Fishing in Troubled Waters: Russia and Culture Wars

Posted on February 02, 2022 at 12:00 AM

This week, as we focus on the dangerous situation caused by the Russian build-up on the Ukraine border and the efforts by the Biden Administration in the UN Security Council and in bilateral exchanges to counter Russian expansionism, we should not lose sight of a larger pattern of Russian aggression in the US and in allied countries.

President Putin of Russia has perfected an old Soviet Agitprop (agitation and propaganda) technique: identify fissures in foreign adversaries’ societies and exploit them by claiming sympathy with the underdog. During the Cold War, Soviet propagandists tried to pose as the natural ally and friend of minority groups throughout the world. “Fight your oppressors, and we will be on your side,” they claimed. Of course, the racist and unfree nature of the Soviet Union itself was glaringly evident, especially to students of color who took scholarships and endured discrimination and beating. Any inroads into progressive groups Soviets made were short-lived.

Since his assumption of power, Putin has played variations on this theme, posing now as the natural ally and friend of right-wing forces. He insists that Russia is a Christian country, dedicated to fighting dangerous decadent LGTB-Q forces, to encouraging the struggle of white ethnic groups overwhelmed by non-white immigrants, and to preventing liberal media that would subvert an understanding of these dangerous currents. This week, we have seen the partial success of his efforts.

A group of European Populist leaders—including Prime Ministers Orban of Hungary, Morawiecki of Poland, and French politician Marine Le Penn—met in Madrid over the weekend to express their support for the Russian-hyped anti-liberal agenda, defining as greatest threats not Russian aggression toward Ukraine but immigration, demographic decline, and the European Union. The right-wing embrace of these motifs is not exclusively European, of course.  Commentators in the US have embraced these European populists and repeated the Russian tropes. A prime example is Tucker Carlson’s “documentary,” Hungary vs Soros; The Fight for Civilization, which adds in anti-Semitic elements, as well. He also has criticized virulently the Biden attempts to stave off Russian efforts to subvert Ukraine.

What I think we can hope for, and work toward, is the eventual discrediting of this Russian propaganda, just as Soviet attempts to suborn the civil rights movement failed. We will come to see the Russian government as it is: a kleptocracy whose ruler and his inner circle are only interested in maintaining power and discrediting democratic forces that threaten their power domestically and prevent their efforts to subvert stronger adversaries abroad. To this end, the Biden Administration’s efforts to build pro-democracy alliances abroad, as well as to confront Russian aggression in Ukraine need our support and welcome. The United States is not perfect, but we should be committed to realism in our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the world as it truly is.

Cynthia Efird, Member, Foreign Policy & National Security Task Force

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