Putin’s plot to get Texas to secede
By Casey Michel
For Moscow's right-wingers, payback means teaming up with a band of Texas secessionists.
Nathan Smith, who styles himself the “foreign minister” for the Texas Nationalist Movement, appeared last Spring at a far-right confab in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite roaming around in his cowboy hat, Smith managed to keep a low-key presence at the conference, which was dominated by fascists and neo-Nazis railing against Western decadence. But at least one Russian newspaper, Vzglyad, caught up with the American, noted that TNM is “hardly a marginal group,”and quoted Smith liberally on the excellent prospects for a partial breakup of the United States. Smith declared that the Texas National Movement has 250,000 supporters — including all the Texans currently serving in the U.S. Army — and they all “identify themselves first and foremost as Texans” but are being forced to remain Americans. The United States, he added, “is not a democracy, but a dictatorship.” The Kremlin’s famed troll farms took the interview and ran with it, with dozens of bots instantly tweeting about a “Free Texas.”
For Russians, this was delicious payback. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago, many Russians have come to blame the United States for their plight; a seething resentment over U.S. culpability in the loss of Russian national power is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin is so popular. It has only worsened since the United States has led an international effort to isolate and sanction Moscow over its annexation of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine. Thus, over the past 15 months there has been a sudden, bizarro uptick of Russian interest in and around the American Southwest, most notably Texas, where secessionist sentiment never seems to entirely die out (TNM’s predecessor group, the “Republic of Texas,” disbanded after secessionist militants took hostages in 1997). In a rehash of the Soviet Union’s fate, numerous Russian voices have taken to envisioning an American break-up, E Pluribus Unum in inverse — out of one, many.
Nor is Texas the lone region for which Russia has cast secessionist support since the Crimean seizure. Venice, Scotland, Catalonia — the Russian media have voiced fervent support for secession in all these Western allies. (Of course, Moscow’s mantra — secession for thee, but not for me — means you’d be hard-pressed to find any Russian official offering support for Siberian, Tatar, or Chechen independence.) “Since the destabilization of the West is on Russia’s agenda, they may try to reach out to the U.S. separatists,” Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher on Moscow’s links to far-right movements in Europe, told me. Russia wants a “deepening of social divisions in the American society, destabilizing the internal political life.” And certain Texans, rather than running from the taint of an authoritarian backing, have reciprocated.
As a political tack, none of this is completely new. Nearly a century ago, British codebreakers presented the American ambassador with a decrypted cable that came to be known as the Zimmermann Telegram, helping to cajole a recalcitrant United States into the Great War. And understandably so: In the deciphered text, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann alerted the Mexican government that, should the U.S. enter the war, “we shall give general financial support, and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer her lost territory of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.” President Woodrow Wilson’s pledge to forgo war evaporated overnight.
Just a few months ago, a cousin of the Zimmermann Telegram was delivered by a Russian government official, directed squarely at an American government once more waffling about military intervention in the European theater. The speaker of Chechnya’s parliament, Dukuvakha Abdurakhmanov, warned that should the U.S. increase its supply of arms to Kyiv, “we will begin delivery of new weapons to Mexico” and “resume debate on the legal status of the territories annexed by the United States, which are now the U.S. states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.” As to the putative destination for the weapons, Abdurakhmanov cited unspecified “guerrillas.” (Sealing his screed, Abdurakhmanov inexplicably cited Joe Biden as the creator of the current Ukrainian government.)
If his comment existed in a vacuum, Abdurakhmanov’s histrionics could be laughed off, another sign of Moscow’s ferment sapping logical discourse. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
It’s unclear just how high up these propaganda efforts go in the Kremlin. But it can hardly be an accident that last December, in the midst of the ruble’s parlous plummet, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at putative Western hypocrisy. “As soon as they succeed in putting [our bear] on a chain, they will rip out his teeth and his claws,” the president growled. “We have heard many times from officials that it’s unfair that Siberia, with its immeasurable wealth, belongs entirely to Russia. Unfair, how do you like that? And grabbing Texas from Mexico was fair!” No matter that the U.S. never wrested Texas from Mexico. No matter that such annexation took place under the 19th-century aegis of expansion and empire. The parallels, to Putin, are too good to pass up.
Russian state media, of course, took the Crimea-as-Texas analogy and sprinted off with it. According to Sputnik, the ballot-by-bayonet “referendum” in Crimea saw its historical precedent in Texas. “If one accepts the current status of Texas despite its controversial origin story, then they are more than obliged to recognize the future status of Crimea,” the outlet wrote. Again, if you overlook the reality that land grabs and forced annexations exist in a Victorian firmament, rather than a post-modern international order, then, sure, a faded parallel can emerge, but only if you squint past the prior 170 years of statecraft.
To be sure, Russian support for a disintegrated North American continent remains far from official policy. “It’s just another mischief-making gambit,” NYU professor and noted Russian commentator Mark Galeotti told me. “Nothing seriously to be worried about.” Still, the mere fact that such language is coming not simply from the Russian fringe but has begun percolating upward fits into a broader, darker theme. “[It’s] indicative of Russia’s current information warfare tactics,” Galeotti continued, “which are not so much positive — in the sense of wanting to, or expecting to make something specific happen — as negative, trying to spread discord, uncertainty and chaos so as to prevent the West in general, and the USA in particular, from being able to develop and maintain a strong consensus policy against Moscow.”
It’s no surprise why Texas stands at the fore of Russian rhetoric of boundary shifts and attendant hypocrisy. Among dreamscape secession movements in the United States, Texas remains foremost, with Alaska and Cascadia nowhere near the organizational capacities ringing the movement for Texas independence. Only Texas has independence movement meetings dismantled by federal officers. And Smith is right about one thing: Texas is a state where a near-majority of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Texan first, American second. Texas, to these Russian voices, stands as the logical first-past-the-post — the first state to reclaim an independence lost. A sort of Baltic on the bayou, so to speak.
Smith’s intra-Russian relations aren’t the only ones worth noting. Texan Preston Wiginton, a righteous racist and staunch supporter of white nationalist movements, has lived and cultivated extensive links in Moscow. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Wiginton has forged myriad relations with far-right Russian staples, writing that “Russia is the only nation that understands RAHOWA [Racial Holy War].” Among the most prominent neofascists with whom Wiginton has cultivated relations is none other than Alexander Dugin, a quack political theorist recently described by Foreign Affairs as “Putin’s Brain.” Dugin — currently under U.S. sanctions — remains best known for recently calling for a “genocide” of Ukrainians, but that did little to stop Wiginton from organizing a lecture at Texas A&M University a few weeks ago. Despite a petition to cancel the event, Wiginton found a willing audience and the event proceeded. The title of Dugin’s presentation: “American Liberalism Must Be Destroyed.”
And then there’s the guy who calls himself “Texas.” That’s all he goes by, a tow-headed, glassy-eyed 50-something currently working with the separatists in Ukraine, the only American apparently still fighting with Moscow’s favored sons. In a series of clips on YouTube, “Texas” shares a handful of confused factoids, mangling pronunciations and motivations alike. A 9/11 Truther, “Texas” claims the US exists under a fascist government — one led by a “monkey,” no less. “Texas” has quickly become something of a propaganda tool for the separatists, and has promised to lead the fight back to the States. According to separatist head Alexander Zakharchenko, “Texas” was undoubtedly raised by a “good mother.”
These are all relatively diffuse individuals, events, machinations — calls to arm Mexican guerrillas, calls to topple a fascist government. “Were the [Texas separatists] not both noisy and willing to play nice with Moscow, I doubt it would get much play,” Galeotti said. “It’s just another case of taking advantage of whichever ‘useful idiots,’ in Lenin’s phrase, happen to present themselves.” Nonetheless, given Russia’s murky support for groups bent on fracturing the European Union, a push to support those who’d splinter the US remains a logical extension.
Indeed, Putin’s hints at Texan statehood point to a theory passed through certain Russian academic circles over the past few years, preceding the post-Crimea questioning of sovereignty and statehood. Cheered primarily by Igor Panarin, a former KGB agent and head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic academy, the theory posits that a fractured United States, akin to the Soviet Union’s demise, would disintegrate entirely, with nearby nations hoovering the assorted states. (Russia, conveniently, would receive Alaska back into its fold.) The state leading the fractious charge? Texas.
And it’s this theory that, a century after Zimmermann’s Great War proposal, has begun seeping into Russian rhetoric, official and otherwise. As such, when the feds break up a meeting of Texas separatists, as they did in East Texas in February, you can count on Russian voices sounding the call to arms. Maybe Mexico won’t reclaim its lost lands, its Aztlan. Maybe Russia won’t reclaim its Alaska. But if we’re to believe Pravda, the venerated Kremlin mouthpiece, this raid can have only one logical conclusion: “These events can serve as a signal to start the collapse of the United States.”
They can only hope.
Casey Michel is a recent Master’s graduate from Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. His writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and Slate