The political atmosphere during Trump’s presidency was saturated with the suspicions of Russian involvement in Trump’s victory that have culminated into the Mueller investigation and almost a thousand-page report that has not supported the conspiracy allegations. Trump’s last days in the office were not less McCarthyist and devoid of Russia rhetoric, with speaker Nancy Pelosi referring to the Capitol break-in as a “gift to Putin” and the rioters as “Putin puppets” (Coleman 2021). Regardless of whether Trump had or didn’t any connection to the Russian political leadership, this narrative will always follow his presidency. Nevertheless, such indiscriminate Cold War-era rhetoric is very dangerous because it distorts the domestic nature of problems and exaggerates the Russian threat. The Russian regime itself is a great example of this – as if in the looking mirror the United States is seen by Russia to be meddling in its political life and plotting conspiracies.
In 2017, the Director of National Intelligence released a report in which RT, an international TV network funded by the Russian government, was implicated in aiding the Kremlin’s efforts to influence the outcomes of the U.S. Presidential election (Office of the Director of National Intelligence 2017). The network was soon obliged by the U.S. Justice Department to be registered as a foreign agent, which would require RT to disclose its financial sources and label its content appropriately (United States Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs 2017). As expected, Russia reciprocated. The chairman of the State Duma, Viacheslav Volodin, declared that “mirror proposals” would need to be formulated in order “to protect thecitizens of our country from undisguised interference that the American media have deployed in Russia today” (“Володин поручил разработать «зеркальные меры» против американских СМИ” 2017). Although Russia already had a law on foreign agents by then, which emerged because of the political protests of 2011-2012 and targeted non-profit organizations with foreign funding, the 2017 amendments to the law targeted primarily the media (Ridgwell 2018). Passed in 2020, recent amendments have tightened the law and opened many more opportunities for its abuse – even those who have loose relation to people “acting as intermediaries” for a “foreign source” can be labeled foreign agents (Federal Law No. 481-FZ, 10). As an analysis in Meduza put it, “participation of a person in an event of a non-profit organization who is a “foreign agent” may be the basis for being included in the number of “foreign agents.” The fact that women’s rights organization «Насилию.нет» and its member, Apakhonchich Darya, have been designated as foreign “media agents” demonstrates that the notion of political activities may have a broad interpretation, and private citizens who shed light on acute social problems without a relation to the media may be labeled foreign agents (Tumakova 2021). Considering the title of foreign agent has a highly negative connotation in Russia – a euphemism for the word spy, being branded as one is a liability for whoever comes at justice of the law. The “foreign agent” law has long overgrown its tit-for-tat purpose and instead created an instrument for silencing opinion-makers and reinforcing a sense of a breached fortress rather than a besieged fortress filled with agents of the hostile West.
“Gosdiep” and Protests
The U.S. State Department is one of the central antagonists in the Russian mainstream media. In Russia, the agency is known as “gosdiep” – the portmanteau of Gosudarstvenny Departament. Thanks to propaganda, “gosdiep” has acquired a connotation of a sort of a spyagency that finances and hires foreign agents – mainly members of the Russian opposition – for clandestine operations. The talks about gosdiep’s interfering pop up every time protests erupt in Russia. The mass protests in Khabarovsk, which started in the summer of 2020 in response to the arrest of the krai’s governor, have reportedly served the interests of the U.S. State Department who, as Russian TV channel Russia 24 claimed, used their Russian proxy to “раскачать обстановку” – to destabilize the situation in the region (Россия 24 2020). The most recent protests following the arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny allegedly have even deeper American involvement. The U.S. Embassy warning about the upcoming protests in support of Navalny was interpreted by the Russian Foreign Ministry as «установка или инструкция» – directive or instruction – for the protesters (Zakvasin and Komarova 2021). RT reinforced this position, reporting that the actions of the US Embassy are America’s rehearsal for further interfering in Russia’s political life during Russian parliamentary elections in 2021 (Zakvasin and Komarova 2021). A Russian senator Andrey Klimov (2020) once expressed even bolder allegations, claiming that the United States will attempt to interfere in 2024 presidential elections: “[In the US] a lot of money was allocated to train personnel for the “color revolution” in Russia by 2024 and to fool our fellow citizens through foreign media and social media.”
The use of the narrative about American involvement through Russian propaganda plays an important role in the delegitimization of protest and opposition. Framing protest as an instrument of political influence by the foreign governments allows for the distortion of the domestic nature of discontent and discredits political opposition as having a hidden unpatriotic agenda. As a result, the discourse on corruption and injustice shifts to the realm of national security issues, rebranding dissent into adversary’s weapon of influence.
Coleman, Justin. 2021. “Clinton: I Would Love to See if Trump ‘Was Talking to Putin the Day That the Insurgents Invaded Our Capitol.” The Hill, January 15, 2021. https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/534767-clinton-i-would-love-to-see-if-trump-was-talking-to-putin-the
Federal Law No. 481-FZ dated 30 December 2020 “On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation in terms of Establishing Additional Measures to Counter Threats to National Security.” http://publication.pravo.gov.ru/Document/View/0001202012300001?index=9&rangeSize=1
Office of the Director of National Intelligence. 2017. Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf
Ridgwell, Henry. 2018. “Russia’s Foreign Agent Law Has Chilling Effect On Civil Society Groups, NGOs.” Voice of America. January 24, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/europe/russias-foreign-agent-law-has-chilling-effect-civil-society-groups-ngos
Tumakova, Irina. 2021.“«Тут же мне начали писать странные люди, что я шпионка, что родину продавала»” [“‘Immediately strange people started writing to me that I was a spy, that I was selling my homeland’”]. Новая Газета, Januaary 13, 2021. https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/01/13/88682-tut-zhe-mne-nachali-pisat-strannye-lyudi-chto-ya-shpionka-chto-rodinu-prodavala
United States Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs. 2017. “Production Company Registers Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act as Agent for the Russian Government Entity Responsible for Broadcasting RT.” November 13. 2017. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/production-company-registers-under-foreign-agent-registration-act-agent-russian-government.
Zakvasin, Alexey and Komarova, Elizaveta. 2021. “«Установка или инструкция?»: как в России отреагировали на публикации дипломатов США с поддержкой незаконных митингов” [“Directive or instruction?”: How did Russia react to the publications of US diplomats supporting illegal rallies”]. RT, January 24, 2021. https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/825255-protesty-rossiya-posolstvo-vmeshatelstvo-ssha“486заседание Совета Федерации [486 sitting of the Federation Council
], The Federation Council of The Russian Federation. July 15, 2020. (testimony of Andrey Klimov) http://council.gov.ru/activity/meetings/117997/transcript/
Володин поручил разработать «зеркальные меры» против американских СМИ” [“Volodin Instructed to Develop “Mirror Measures” Against the American Media”]. РБК. November 10, 2017. https://www.rbc.ru/rbcfreenews/5a0564c79a794706963e05/?utm_source=amp_textincutes
“Очень скоро вы (да, именно вы) сможете стать «иностранным агентом» — даже этого незаметив. Что?” [“Very soon you (yes, it is you) will be able to become a “foreign agent” without even noticing it. What?” ]. Meduza. December 4, 2020. https://meduza.io/cards/ochen-skoro-vy-da-imenno-vy-smozhete-stat-inostrannym-agentom-dazhe-etogo-ne-zametiv-chto
Россия 24, “Королева” металлолома и “Тимофеевские”: подробности дела Фургала – Россия 24.” [“‘Queen’ of scrap metal and ‘Timofeevskie’: details of the Furgal case – Russia 24”], July 19, 2020, video, 9:08, https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=472&v=uZIGoJZk7z8&feature=youtu.be.