The Kremlin’s Plot Against Democracy
How Russia Updated Its 2016 Playbook for 2020
Schadenfreude is a staple of propaganda, and so one might expect that Russia’s state media is enjoying the spectacle of the most serious American unrest since the 1960s. Surely, one might assume, Russian pundits are seizing the opportunity to tap into American grievances, foment conflict, and call out U.S. hypocrisy.
There has indeed been some of that. But far from delivering any unified message to the world or to its domestic audience, Russian state media, through some of its popular television talk shows, has been airing debates about Black Lives Matter that betray a great deal about how the Kremlin views itself and the fragility of state power.
The word for unrest in Russian is bezporyadki—literally, “disorder.” Much like the similar myatezh, or “rebellion,” the word carries deeply negative connotations. Many Russians see protests and rebellions as likely to end poorly, even if they do occasionally accomplish their aims: such, after all, has been Russia’s experience. The Kremlin views both the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as catastrophes for Russia, from points of view domestic and geopolitical. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said as much. Moreover, the thinking goes, if protests are unlikely to yield good things, then they are unlikely to be driven by genuine sentiment. The prevalent, cynical view holds that protests are usually the product of shadowy subterranean conspiracies aimed at capturing state power.
Take Russia’s Channel One, one of the two main federal channels (almost all are state controlled). The mainstream of thought that the channel airs tracks with what I often hear when talking to Russian officials and policymakers. Russian pundits on Channel One talk shows have interpreted the American protests much the way they would view Russian ones. Russian television portrays both Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the police and government responses to them as the products of a cold calculus on the part of political parties. Some suggest that Democrats and their covert proxies are seeking to undermine the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump; others point the finger at the Trump administration itself, desperately grasping for any means to remain in power. Talk shows from the rowdy, combative Vremya Pokazhet (Time Will Tell) to the more analytical Bolshaya Igra (Big Game) have analyzed all possible drivers of the protests but one: genuine popular sentiment against injustice.
Talk shows have analyzed all possible drivers of the protests but one: popular sentiment against injustice.
Discussions on Vremya Pokazhet during the first days of the protests centered around what Russian pundits call “political technologies,” meaning underhanded manipulation and intrigue. Discussants saw the events as a race war reflecting deep-seated American social ills—but the real question was which political party benefited most from stoking and organizing protests ahead of the presidential election. There was no party line: rather, each pundit seemed to have a pet theory. The host of Vremya Pokazhet genuinely sympathized with the kneeling, weeping mayor of Minneapolis: “If I was a cynical journalist, I’d say he’s doing it for the cameras,” he said on the air. “But I won’t. I can see that he is genuinely grieving.” Parliamentarian Vyacheslav Nikonov, speaking on Bolshaya Igra, disagreed, calling the mayor’s act a “hypocritical performance.” Other commentators on the show were quick to disagree.
The recurring question of cui bono—and the accompanying notion that powerful beneficiaries with murky agendas were stoking the unrest—gained prominence as the days went by. “Who is using the protests to advance their agenda?” the Bolshaya Igra announcer asked by way of opening the program’s June 6 episode. On Vremya Pokazhet on June 5, the military analyst Vladislav Shurygin said he was “watching who was stoking [and hyping] the protests—these are forces against Trump.” The discussion descended into a heated tactical debate about how many “divisions” Black Lives Matter had and to what extent they “listened to the commands” of whoever was organizing them. Notably, those organizing forces were never identified—just assumed. Finally, Alexander Khinshtein, an outspoken nationalist pundit and the deputy chair of the State Duma security committee, simply admitted: “I don’t believe in genuine protest.”
“Where is the law enforcement?” Khinshtein went on to ask. On Russian state TV, discussion of the police response to U.S. protests has veered from restrained and levelheaded, in the early days, to dismayed and alarmed as the discussants perceived the U.S. government to be losing control. A June 1 segment of Vremya Pokazhet featured a Russian television journalist who was sprayed with tear gas while reporting from Minneapolis. The reporter took great pains to remain impartial, insisting that “not all police were acting like this” and generally talking down the host’s description of police brutality.
Russian television talk shows have stopped strikingly short of a wholesale condemnation of police brutality. On episodes of both Vremya Pokazhet and Bolshaya Igra, participants heatedly debated whether the violent use of force, against George Floyd or against the crowd into which police cars drove in Brooklyn, was warranted. But commentators discussed police tactics with an almost chilling “both sides” impartiality, debating during one segment whether an old man the Buffalo police threw to the ground had initially provoked the officers.
From the perspective of the Russian government, the job of the police is to prevent disorder.
Denouncing U.S. police brutality would appear to be an easy score for Russian pundits. After all, Russian political culture has long thrived on calling out U.S. hypocrisy about human rights abuses. But although some commentators have played that card, the theme has not featured prominently in the coverage or discussion of the U.S. upheaval.
The reason for this omission may have less to do with views of the United States than with the role of the police in Russia. From the perspective of the Russian government and those sharing its statist views, the job of the police is not to protect human rights—it is to prevent disorder. Russian media and government spokespeople, therefore, were not horrified by U.S. police brutality so much as by police unprofessionalism. The problem, in other words, wasn’t that the police were violent—it was that their violence was making the protests and disorder worse. The police, as commentators discussed on a June 5 episode of Vremya Pokazhet, had lost control—a reflection of a government succumbing to disorder.
To understand that thinking about the role of the police, I spoke to a prominent veteran police officer in Moscow. “Where police act lawfully, there are no problems,” he said. His assessment cut both ways: police officers had lost all power, in his view, when they knelt in front of protesters—but they had lost all control when officers resorted to brutal force. “Why choke a man for nine minutes?” he asked. “Just handcuff him and put him in a paddy wagon, that’s it.”
Recent events in the United States have ignited the worst fears of many Russians close to the Kremlin. These fears, in turn, stem from cynical conceptions about state building: that the only way to maintain order is to hold onto power at any cost, that there are always forces seeking to wrest that power away, and that the most one can do is to calculate who is behind what plot in order to preempt such machinations from succeeding. That calculus is, in essence, the problem Russian talk show discussions are dedicated to working through.
If even a superpower such as the United States is succumbing to disorder, Russian pundits seem to worry, where does that leave us? Speaking on Bolshaya Igra, the prominent senator Alexei Pushkov underlined, in part to preempt speculation that Moscow was gloating, that Russia favors stability. “Instability is contagious,” he added. This concern is genuine, and I have often heard it from insiders and officials here in Moscow. The Kremlin doesn’t so much fear that protests and unrest could spread to Russia (although television coverage has noted, with some bemusement, how they have spread to Europe). Rather, it calculates that an unstable United States will be harder to deal with. “In my opinion, Moscow is still not sure who is more advantageous to us, Biden or Trump,” a Russian legislative aide told me. “We are trying to work that out. Unrest and instability certainly don’t help. We don’t want to have to work with an unpredictable and unstable government.”
The Kremlin’s efforts to suppress popular protests in post-Soviet states and its intervention in Syria are consistent with this attitude toward disorder and instability. Consistent, too, is the grim idea that only powerful forces with calculated agendas—and not sincere rallies for justice—are strong enough to cause the kind of unrest in the streets and the disarray within law enforcement that, as Russian state television sees it, has gripped the United States. The irony is that for years now, many in the United States have blamed domestic instability on outside forces such as Russia. This thinking is a symptom of that same cynical misconception about state building: that disorder is always the result of a cunning plan by your adversary rather than the mess that you made yourself.
The Kremlin calculates that an unstable United States will be harder to deal with.
There is a certain circularity to the logic and a double standard, at least on the Russian side. Putin believed that Russian anti-Kremlin protests in 2011–12 were the work of the U.S. State Department. Russian agents then sought to meddle in U.S. politics as payback. But Moscow holds a deep-seated conviction that the United States is the more powerful and cynical party. Political insiders deny any substantial Russian interference in U.S. politics— if any occurred, they maintain, its effects pale in comparison with the powerful internal forces shaping the U.S. political landscape. Russian efforts certainly weren’t aimed to install Trump in the White House, which came as an utter surprise to Moscow, but to show that Moscow, too, could reach overseas.
The current disarray in the United States doesn’t seem to be something that Moscow would wish on its friend, frenemy, or adversary. In 2015, surveying the chaos in the world, Putin used a UN General Assembly address to blame the United States, asking it, “Do you realize what you have done?”
Recently, Putin chalked the American unrest up to “deep internal crises,” adding that “the interests of party groups were placed above the interests of the people,” such that the government had lost control. The images he now sees on television from the United States and the news he reads in his press briefings must seem to him exactly like the kind of disorder he warned against. He certainly doesn’t seem to be smiling.
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