Last week, October 28, Czech President Miloš Zeman welcomed a delegation of representatives of a pro-Russian organization of Crimean Tatars. During the meeting, he reportedly declared that Crimea is part of Russia (Radio Prague, October 31)—exactly what Moscow wants to hear. The Czech president’s spokesperson officially denied the reports and reiterated that the annexation of Crimea “was and is illegal” (Ukrinform.net, October 31). Regardless of what Zeman may or may not have said during the meeting, the visiting Crimean Tatar delegation to Prague is only the latest example of Vladimir Putin’s use of a technique pioneered by Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka at the dawn of Soviet power: setting up fake or at least completely controlled pro-Russian organizations to mislead the West and, at the same time, divide diasporas and even, on occasion, people in their homelands about what is going on.
Ukrainian commentator Vitaly Portnikov points out that what Putin has done in this case is nothing new, even if many in the West fail to recognize that reality. His action plan “is quite simple and no different from the actions of Soviet special services and propagandists regarding territories within or in ‘the sphere of influence’ of the USSR [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]. First, fake organizations are created, which are to replace real political parties and social organizations”; then these groups, which can be fabricated at any time, are used for Moscow’s purposes (Krym Realii, October 31).
Now, the Ukrainian commentator continues, Moscow is using this technique with the Crimean Tatars—and is doing so with remarkable success, creating from nothing “an artificial competition” in the minds of many between real Crimean Tatar leaders like Mustafa Cemilev (Dzhemilev) and “useful idiots” like those Zeman received and whose arguments he allegedly accepted. It would be bad enough if the scandal that stemmed from the visit in Prague were a one-time instance or if it were only about the Crimean Tatars, but it is neither. Moscow has been using this technique repeatedly in Crimea since it occupied the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, and it has been doing something quite similar with other nations inside the Russian Federation, including most prominently the Circassians and the Chechens.
Crimean Tatar journalist Zarema Sentablayeva traces the history of Moscow’s actions in this regard in her homeland (Krym Realii, October 31), noting that the Russian occupiers have devoted enormous efforts to create fake pro-Moscow organizations and install loyalists in them, including Seytumer Nimetullayev of the Kyyrym Birligi group, who met with Zeman. He and others have also taken part in meetings in Turkey and at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), claiming with some success that they and their pro-Russian positions are the voice of the “real” Crimean Tatars, while Cemilev and those who have led the national movement there for decades are marginals and hires of foreign states.
Kyiv officials have denounced Moscow for creating and using such supposedly independent groups. Anton Korinevich, the permanent representative of the Ukrainian president for Crimea, for example, said, after the Prague meeting, that “such organizations are actively being used by the occupying state to show that ‘everything is fine in Crimea’ and that ‘no one is violating the rights of the Crimean Tatars.’ ” But in fact, he continues, “only the Mejlis and the Kurultay can represent the Crimean Tatar people at meetings, and only Ukraine as a sovereign state can represent Crimea internationally (Facebook.com/anton.korynevych.75, October 30).
The Russian government has done even more in this direction with the Circassians and the Chechens. Moscow has created a list of Circassian groups it controls to undermine those that reflect the views of the Circassian nation. They routinely meet with and insist to leaders of the countries of the Middle East, including Turkey and Syria (where many in the Circassian diaspora live), that they and not any other Circassian organizations are the “true” voice of that nation. Asker Sokht of Krasnodar’s Adygey Khase says it is “no secret” what is going on; but nonetheless, Moscow is having some success with its claims (Paragraphs.online, May 21; Kavpolit.com, April 6).
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, acting as Moscow’s agent, has done even more in this direction regarding the Chechen diaspora in Europe. He has created a series of fake organizations that present themselves as refugees despite the fact that their members go back and forth to and from Chechnya and argue that European countries should deport those who are not cooperating with these groups. Again, they are having success, and ever more European countries are refusing to accept new Chechen refugees or even expelling those already there (Kavkaz Realii, August 3; Novaya Gazeta, July 28).
None of this should come as a surprise: Putin is simply reaching back to the earliest days of Soviet power and to Dzerzhinsky’s Operation Trust as a model. That operation, typically referred to as just “the Trust,” was a Soviet false flag campaign designed to penetrate, disorder and ultimately hamstring the military wing of the first Russian emigration by suggesting that there was an underground monarchist organization within Soviet Russia that the emigration should take direction from (“The Trust,” The Security and Intelligence Foundation, July 1989). Most leaders of the Russian emigration and many European intelligence services fell for the ruse. When the Trust was exposed for what it really was in 1927—a revelation Moscow itself appears to have had a hand in—many assumed the Russian intelligence services had suffered a serious defeat and would not use this technique again. But in reality, the exposure gave Moscow another victory as it discredited all those who had believed in it.
Now, almost a century later, the Kremlin is using the same tactics and, so far, is enjoying similar success. In large part, this is because few remember the Trust or recognize the ways Putin is using that model—not only with ethnic groups but with use of the Russian Orthodox Church and various political bodies as well (Harbin.lv, October 24, 2018).