The Kremlin’s official recognition of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” (DPR, LPR) on Monday, February 22, further aggravated the confrontation between Russia and the West. As if preparing for such a scenario, Russian ideologists and propagandists had recently come up with a new justification for the need for such a global standoff. Over the past weeks, the myth that Russia is somehow under the “yoke” of the United States comparable to the Mongol-Tatar yoke of the 13th century has become a popular propaganda construction. According to this concept, without a “victory” over the West and the overthrow of the “yoke,” the country cannot move forward (YouTube, February 2).
The propagandists assert that this yoke finds form in Russia’s responsibility to “pay tribute” in the form of money the Russian elite take abroad, plundering the country. It is difficult to argue with the latter part of the statement, with only the caveat that the key positions in the Russian elite are occupied by former members of the Soviet special services (siloviki), and not at all by “protégés of the West.” According to a report prepared by journalists five years ago, former KGB officers not only hold key posts in the federal government (up to, of course, the president) but also head many regional gubernatorial offices (Сurrenttime.tv, March 16, 2017).
As noted by Ukrainian political commentator Vitaliy Portnikov, former Soviet siloviki actively collaborated with organized crime beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming part of the criminal world. It is they, rather than young reformists, who organized the pillage of Russia, with no interference whatsoever from the West (Glavred.info, December 15, 2015). Moreover, as noted by Western researchers, the act of laundering Russian money through European and North American banks has primarily harmed the West itself, corrupting it (ВВС—Russian service, June 10, 2020). However, the falsehood of rich Russians “plundering the country” as a form of submission to the “Western yoke” fell on fertile ground among the wider Russian public: the narrative resonated with persistent distrust of the West and the domestic media’s and politicians’ habit of blaming outside forces for Russia’s internal problems (Ridl.io, January 12, 2022).
Another element of the “yoke,” according to the propagandists, is the Central Bank of Russia (CBR), which the disinformation narrative is currently accusing of being a direct instrument of the West, intended to slow the development of the country (YouTube, February 10). Among the claims against the financial institution, cited by pro-Kremlin experts, is its policy of storing the value of the country’s gold and foreign exchange in dollars and euros, holding assets in countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia, limiting credit resources for most branches, and not providing credit to finance the Russian budget deficit (Telegra.ph, February 3).Without a final and total victory over the West in the current confrontation, it will be impossible to change the CBR’s policies, the narrative concludes.
Russian economist Vladislav Inozemtsev agrees that the critical points made about the Bank of Russia, are somewhat correct regarding monetary policy. Unlike many other central banks, the CBR is inexperienced in securing an optimal money supply and tries to combat inflation only through interest rate hikes (among G20 central banks, it is one of the few that keeps the key rate above official inflation figures). The CBR neither conducts a proactive policy nor engages in quantitative easing experiments: gold and foreign exchange reserves account for 81.2 percent of its balance sheet compared to a mere 3.4 percent of the US Federal Reserve’s (Author’s interview, February 15, 2022; Cbr.ru, July 13, 2021).
But the expert emphasized that none of this has anything to do with foreign influence: CBR management is simply too cautious to increase the money supply since it believes this will destabilize the ruble exchange rate and promote inflation. “If the CBR is to be considered a ‘non-sovereign’ institution, I would say its stance is threatened not by either the US or the European Union, but by China,” Inozemtsev argued. The expert recalled that while the Chinese yuan currently makes up less than 2.5 percent of global foreign exchange reserves, its share in the CBR’s reserves exceeds 13 percent, thus making it the holder of a staggering 30 percent of all Chinese currency held on the balance sheets by all the central banks in the world (Cbr.ru, January 30). So, if the CBR’s policies reflect Russia’s dependence on foreign countries, it is rather on China than the US, the economist summed up (Author’s interview, February 15). A similar trend was noted by other observers last year, indicating that the Bank of Russia increased the shares of gold and the Chinese yuan in its assets in 2020 (Banki.ru, July 2, 2021).
The third element of the “yoke,” according to the Russian propaganda narrative, are “systemic liberals.” This strand fits the growing impression that the “siloviki tower” (i.e., the Kremlin) is trying to exploit its confrontation with the West to destroy domestic opponents among “unpatriotic” oligarchs and former security officials. In this regard, the attacks on retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who wrote an appeal against invading Ukraine and called on President Vladimir Putin to resign, are quite revealing (see EDM, February 8). State Duma (lower house of the Russian parliament) Deputy Yevgeniy Fedorov, for instance, almost immediately called the retired general a traitor (YouTube, February 9). Other radical media outlets went even further, accusing Ivashov of being a liar, provocateur (Zavtra.ru, February 7) and a Western “sleeper agent” (Amdn.org, February 9).
Along with this, the Russian media space is currently brimming with new attacks against the “moderately liberal” party “New People,” which entered the State Duma and voted against the February 15 appeal to the president to recognize the Moscow-backed DPR-LPR separatist “republics” (Politnavigator.net, February 15). Such attacks almost surely are designed to intimidate not only specific people but also the groups whose interests they express, including the business community. It seems that anyone inside Russia who opposes the aggressive policy of the Kremlin can now expect to be declared a “traitor” who promotes the interests of the “Western yoke.”