For Moscow's right-wingers, payback means teaming up with a band of Texas secessionists.
Nathan Smith, who styles himself the “foreign minister” for the Texas Nationalist Movement, appeared last Spring at a far-right confab in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite roaming around in his cowboy hat, Smith managed to keep a low-key presence at the conference, which was dominated by fascists and neo-Nazis railing against Western decadence. But at least one Russian newspaper, Vzglyad, caught up with the American, noted that TNM is “hardly a marginal group,”and quoted Smith liberally on the excellent prospects for a partial breakup of the United States. Smith declared that the Texas National Movement has 250,000 supporters—including all the Texans currently serving in the U.S. Army—and they all “identify themselves first and foremost as Texans” but are being forced to remain Americans. The United States, he added, “is not a democracy, but a dictatorship.” The Kremlin’s famed troll farms took the interview and ran with it, with dozens of bots instantly tweeting about a “Free Texas.”
For Russians, this was delicious payback. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago, many Russians have come to blame the United States for their plight; a seething resentment over U.S. culpability in the loss of Russian national power is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin is so popular. It has only worsened since the United States has led an international effort to isolate and sanction Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine. Thus, over the past 15 months there has been a sudden, bizarro uptick of Russian interest in and around the American Southwest, most notably Texas, where secessionist sentiment never seems to entirely die out (TNM’s predecessor group, the “Republic of Texas,” disbanded after secessionist militants took hostages in 1997). In a rehash of the Soviet Union’s fate, numerous Russian voices have taken to envisioning an American break-up, E Pluribus Unum in inverse—out of one, many.
Nor is Texas the lone region for which Russia has cast secessionist support since the Crimean seizure. Venice, Scotland, Catalonia—the Russian media have voiced fervent support for secession in all these Western allies. (Of course, Moscow’s mantra—secession for thee, but not for me—means you’d be hard-pressed to find any Russian official offering support for Siberian, Tatar, or Chechen independence.) “Since the destabilization of the West is on Russia’s agenda, they may try to reach out to the U.S. separatists,” Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher on Moscow’s links to far-right movements in Europe, told me. Russia wants a “deepening of social divisions in the American society, destabilizing the internal political life.” And certain Texans, rather than running from the taint of an authoritarian backing, have reciprocated.
As a political tack, none of this is completely new. Nearly a century ago, British codebreakers presented the American ambassador with a decrypted cable that came to be known as the Zimmermann Telegram, helping to cajole a recalcitrant United States into the Great War. And understandably so: In the deciphered text, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann alerted the Mexican government that, should the U.S. enter the war, “we shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer her lost territory of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.” President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge to forgo war evaporated overnight.
Just a few months ago, a cousin of the Zimmermann Telegram was delivered by a Russian government official, directed squarely at an American government once more waffling about military intervention in the European theater. The speaker of Chechnya’s parliament,Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, warned that should the U.S. increase its supply of arms to Kyiv, “we will begin delivery of new weapons to Mexico” and “resume debate on the legal status of the territories annexed by the United States, which are now the U.S. states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.” As to the putative destination for the weapons, Abdurakhmanov cited unspecified “guerrillas.” (Sealing his screed, Abdurakhmanov inexplicably cited Joe Biden as the creator of the current Ukrainian government.)
If his comment existed in a vacuum, Abdurakhmanov’s histrionics could be laughed off, another sign of Moscow’s ferment sapping logical discourse. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
It’s unclear just how high up these propaganda efforts go in the Kremlin. But it can hardly be an accident that last December, in the midst of the ruble’s parlous plummet, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at putative Western hypocrisy. “As soon as they succeed in putting [our bear] on a chain, they will rip out his teeth and his claws,” the president growled. “We have heard many times from officials that it’s unfair that Siberia, with its immeasurable wealth, belongs entirely to Russia. Unfair, how do you like that? And grabbing Texas from Mexico was fair!” No matter that the U.S. never wrested Texas from Mexico. No matter that such annexation took place under the 19th-century aegis of expansion and empire. The parallels, to Putin, are too good to pass up.
Russian state media, of course, took the Crimea-as-Texas analogy and sprinted off with it.
According to Sputnik, the ballot-by-bayonet “referendum” in Crimea saw its historical precedent in Texas. “If one accepts the current status of Texas despite its controversial origin story, then they are more than obliged to recognize the future status of Crimea,” the outlet wrote. Again, if you overlook the reality that land grabs and forced annexations exist in a Victorian firmament, rather than a post-modern international order, then, sure, a faded parallel can emerge, but only if you squint past the prior 170 years of statecraft.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he still shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."