Russian propaganda has been actively discussing the United States’ National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, released by the White House on June 15. Russian outlets claim that now “anyone in America can be labeled a terrorist,” including, purportedly, ordinary people who oppose the government, the current administration, capitalism or globalism (YouTube, June 25). Kremlin-connected media is also promoting the narrative that “the doctrine will be used by the White House to persecute political opponents, in particular supporters of ex-president Donald Trump” (RT, June 16).
This disinformation campaign follows a traditional propaganda playbook long utilized by Moscow (see Hot Issue, August 13, 2014), whereby individual words are taken out of context and given a meaning completely divergent from what was intended in the original document. In fact, the fundamental difference between the Russian and US approaches to countering domestic terrorism and violent extremism is that the United States—unlike Russia (see EDM, November 25, 2014, March 21, 2017, August 1, 2017)—has no legal concept of “extremist views” that would, in and of themselves, entail criminal punishment. In the US, criminal charges can be lodged only for specific acts of violence or proven intent to commit violence. Therefore, the Strategy, while listing the most frequent motives for committing terrorist acts, does not distinguish between deliberately destructive and benign motives, which, in a moderate form, can be acceptable and legitimate (Whitehouse.gov, June 15). So, for example, US law enforcement monitors not ordinary people opposed to abortion but radical groups intent on blowing up abortion clinics and killing doctors to protect unborn babies. It was in this context that the document mentions negative attitudes toward globalism, capitalism and other subjects.
Such close Russian media attention to what is happening in the United States, along with these propaganda outlets’ incessant attempts to distort the US reality, directly stem from the desire of the Russian authorities to exploit such developments as justification for domestic reprisals against their own citizens. Unsurprisingly, immediately after the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Russian officials bluntly declared that the United States had lost the right to criticize Russia for violations of human rights or to demand that these rights be observed. “America no longer charts the course [on civil and human rights] and, therefore, has lost all rights to set it—and even more so, to impose it on others,” said Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Federation Council (upper chamber of the Russian parliament) Committee on International Affairs (Vesti, January 7). “The United States can no longer impose electoral standards on other countries and claim to be the world’s ‘beacon of democracy,’ ” echoed Leonid Slutsky, the chair of the State Duma’s (lower chamber) Committee on International Affairs (Vesti.ru, January 7).
Russia’s approach to dealing with terrorism and extremism fundamentally differs from US policy. In the Russian Federation, not only are certain organizations recognized as “extremist” but so are views that often have nothing to do with violent ideology—such as support for federalism (see EDM, July 19, 2017). Accordingly, all people who voluntarily or even involuntarily broadcast such viewpoints automatically become criminal suspects. After the Moscow City Court declared Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation an extremist organization (RIA Novosti, June 9), not only the group’s employees but also those who donated to it were threatened with criminal prosecution (Deutsche Welle—Russian service, May 17). Among the most absurd such cases, observers have pointed to criminal charges filed for reposting on social networks memes related to the television show Game of Thrones, which authorities deemed “insulting to religious feelings,” and photographs of the 1945 Moscow victory parade because those images contained “propaganda involving Nazi symbols” (DP.ru, October 3, 2018).
According to information collected by the Sova Human Rights Center in 2020, despite the partial decriminalization of the legal article that punishes “incitement to hatred or enmity,” there is a growing and alarming trend of interference by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the investigation of such criminal cases. As the Sova center notes, “the number of people convicted for speaking out in public remains too high” (RBC, February 27, 2020). It is especially striking that against the background of such intolerance of ideological dissent at home, Russia actively maintains ties with US- and European-based right-wing radicals and supports them (Radio Svoboda, August 15, 2017; see EDM, September 5, 2014 and May 23, 2019).
Attempts by Russian officials and propagandists to find justification for their actions in the events happening in the US reveal not only tactics for distorting information but additionally the strong dependence of Russian policy on the United States. In other words, this propaganda approach is not only about using the United States as a convenient “external enemy” for the patriotic mobilization of Russians but also reflects the authorities’ habit of developing domestic policy with an eye toward the US: imitating it, acting to deliberately spite Washington (for scoring domestic points), or hoping to leverage its internal activities against the US. Presumably, at least some Russian officials and security officials who persecute dissidents sincerely believe that they are imitating the United States, where, in their opinion, dissenters are also being persecuted (Zvezda.ru, January 17).
A number of experts note that a similar irrational dependence is manifested in foreign policy: for example, with Russia seeking rapprochement with China not so much out of national interest as out of the desire to defy the US. Some analysts point out that this results in the Kremlin actually “handing over” the country to China, falling into a dangerous dependence on Beijing both in the economic sphere and in the field of technology (Ghall.com.ua, April 28; see EDM, July 8).
The above does not mean that the US Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism may not have its own shortcomings. Even before its publication, experts from the RAND Corporation expressed concern about that the document’s listing of motives of ordinary people in connection with terrorism could unreasonably broaden the circle of extremists (Rand.org, February, 24). Nevertheless, these problems are currently of a social rather than law enforcement nature—which is a significant difference from the situation in Russia.