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How Putin Stirs Up Conflict Using Bikers, Militias, and State-Controlled TV

A new report maps Moscow’s evolving strategy of blending military force with grassroots advocacy.


It couldn’t have unfolded any better for the Kremlin.

In late February 2014, the Russian Community of Crimea, a pseudo-NGO largely funded by Moscow, appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials to prevent a potential “genocide of the Russian people.” Shortly after, reports of looming ethnic cleansing in the Ukrainian peninsula dominated the Russian airwaves. A few days later so-called “little green men” in Russian military uniforms took control of airports. On March 1, 2014, the Russian parliament authorized sending its troops into Ukrainian territory. By March 18, the annexation of Crimea was complete.

This is how Crimea was taken without a shot — and Chatham House, a London-based think tank, sees Moscow’s conquest of the Ukrainian territory as a textbook example of Moscow’s evolving strategy of blending military force with grassroots advocacy by ostensibly independent groups that are actually in the pocket of the Kremlin. The organization maps Moscow’s new approach in a new report.

“Their purpose is to project Russian ‘soft power’ abroad and help turn the hearts and minds of citizens in neighbouring countries towards accepting Russia’s supremacy,” said the report.

The report’s author, Orysia Lutsevych, told Foreign Policy that Moscow is increasingly using state-controlled media organizations and pseudo-activists working for the Kremlin to create friction and stir up conflict in neighboring countries to justify increased Russian involvement in the nation’s internal affairs.

“Russia wants to have its sphere of influence, and one way or another it will find a way to attain it,” Lutsevych said. “What the Kremlin is doing is less using soft power and more using soft coercion.”

Using civil society groups to advocate a country’s foreign policy wasn’t a tool invented by Russia, but it is increasingly integral to Russian foreign policy. The United States funds democratic civil society groups around the world and China invests heavily into Confucius Institutes, which promote Chinese language and culture. But Russia, says Lutsevych, has taken the concept to a new level.

“The goal isn’t to look at the local agenda and see where the Russian experience can fill a void. It’s simply to promote the Kremlin’s agenda and amplify it,” she said.

The origins of this emphasis on controlling information and using proxy groups to change public perceptions began in the chaotic aftermath of the color revolutions in former Soviet countries: the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. These events were widely viewed by the Kremlin as being fomented by American NGOs and exaggerated by U.S. media companies working at the behest of Washington.

In response, Moscow moved to create a network of advocates and activists to promote its nativist policies under the guise of the “Russian World,” a term defined by Putin as people in neighboring countries who feel culturally close to Russia.

These foundations and groups have close connections to the FSB, one of the KGB’s successors, and are funded by both the Kremlin itself and private individuals close to the Kremlin, according to Lutsevych. The groups vary in their function from humanitarian assistance to paramilitary training, and notably include the Night Wolves, the motorcycle club that Putin famously rode with in 2011.

According to the report’s estimates, these organizations received in total around $130 million per year from the Russian government for projects in former Soviet countries like Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine, as well as in Balkan countries like Bulgaria and Serbia. The Night Wolves themselves received $500,000.

“They have been very effective with such little funding,” Lutsevych said. “This shows you just need a small minority and then can magnify them with state-controlled television and social media.”

Yet despite Russia’s apparent triumph in Crimea, its push for greater control over Ukraine as a whole have been less successful. Following the outbreak of fighting in April 2014, Russian-backed separatists called for the founding of Novorossiya, a region loyal to Moscow stretching from the Russian border into southeastern Ukraine. However, with the exceptions of rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk, the pro-Russian message was not as warmly received as expected, and the majority of the area remains loyal to Kiev.  

“The partial failures in Ukraine have stirred discussion whether this was effective enough or whether they should invest more,” said Lutsevych.

In early April, Moscow announced that it would be looking into ways to adjust its foreign policy moving forward. The exact changes have not yet been made public, but the lessons from Ukraine are likely to weigh heavily into the new approach.

“Do they want to be aggressive or try to project influence more subtlely? They chose a harsh line in Ukraine and it has isolated them,” Lutsevych said.

Photo credit: ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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