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Why Russia cultivates foreign fringe groups like the California secessionists

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08.05.2017

(Slate) — In late December, surrounded by a handful of reporters, an American named Louis Marinelli held the floor in a mid-size office in Moscow.

Flanked by photos of Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, Marinelli railed against American hegemony, listing complaints ranging from Washington’s foreign policy to the difficulties of the U.S. immigration system.

These factors—as well as the fact, as he said elsewhere, that he could “no longer live under a U.S. flag”—had led him to move to the southern Urals.

On that day, nearing the end of 2016, Marinelli unveiled his primary project. With its logo emblazoned on a banner unfurled behind him, Marinelli welcomed visitors to the “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California.”

Marinelli was the self-appointed “leader” of the California secession movement, known colloquially as #Calexit. His group, YesCalifornia—which Marinelli left in April, announcing amid a flurry of negative publicity that he’d be moving to Russia permanently—had gained certain steam following the November election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, pushing to place a question on California secession on the state’s 2018 ballot.

As strange as the notion of a “California Embassy” opening in Moscow might seem, Marinelli’s movement is not an isolated phenomenon. Backed by a Kremlin-funded group that had spent the prior two years helping secessionist groups in a number of Western countries organize and network, Calexit is just one example of an understudied, underappreciated relationship between Moscow, Kremlin-tied actors, and the American fringe—both far-right and far-left.

Much like the types of relations Moscow has both pursued and encouraged among the European fringe, a parallel network of quixotic secessionists, religious fundamentalists, white nationalists, and far-left activists from the U.S. have flocked to Russia.

And Moscow, via both funding and proxies, has been only too eager to return the support, looking to exacerbate American domestic divisions in order to distract and hamper Washington, sapping American energies that could have been spent elsewhere.

As with their European counterparts, the diffuse American groups and movements linked to Russia share little policy overlap. Nonetheless, they each pursue end goals that, unsurprisingly, match Moscow’s fractious policies.

And while it’s the relationship between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign—as well as all that has followed—which has understandably generated substantial coverage, the relations between Russia and the Western fringe show little signs of slowing anytime soon.

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Moscow’s interest in these groups is, in a sense, understandable. There’s a widespread belief in Russia that it was the United States, despite its official policy to the contrary, that pried apart the USSR, stoking nationalist elements in Ukraine and elsewhere in pursuit of Soviet fracture. Kremlin higher-ups continue to state that the U.S. would prefer a world without Russia. (No matter that a Russian disintegration would present any number of tortuous problems.) As such, looking to deter the U.S. elsewhere, Moscow-tied actors have fanned domestic divides, forcing American officials to keep their gaze inward.

Likewise, and especially after Putin’s 2012 return to the presidency, Russia has attempted to morph into a conservative, illiberal bastion for all those opposing liberal American power. The transformation takes any number of forms: spearheading anti-LGBT and anti-abortion legislation; pushing nominal “traditional values;” dissolving the distance between church and state. (At least for

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