Once again, Moscow is winking at a long-shot breakaway movement in the U.S.
On a sunny late September day, a trio of tourists gathered on Moscow’s Red Square. Well-dressed, carrying a Russian flag, the visitors bunched in front of the Kremlin’s walls to snap a selfie. Like so many others before, the man taking the photo, Louis Marinelli, took to his Twitter account, and shared the shot for the world.
But Marinelli wasn’t your average American tourist, and neither were his friends. That weekend, Marinelli was ensconced in a conference room in the capital, where he delivered a speech for an unusual cause: the secession of California from the United States. “As not only a representative of the nation of California, but also as the founder and the leader of the independence movement as recognized by the state of California itself, it is my honor to speak on behalf of my people at this conference on the right of self-determination,” Marinelli told his audience. “Our campaign exists to explain why we should free ourselves from the shackles of statehood, and instead embrace the freedoms of nationhood.”
Marinelli, 30, was an unlikely messenger for the “Calexit” cause. He doesn’t live in California. He lives in Yekaterinburg—about 1,000 miles from Moscow—with his Russian wife. But it was not surprising that he had found a platform for his YesCalifornia movement in Moscow. Secession is a popular topic here—as long as it’s from someone else’s country. The Dialogue of Nations Conference, which attracted separatist-minded contingents from Ireland, Spain and Italy, was hosted by a man named Alexander Ionov, whose group had used money from the Kremlin to pay the travel expenses of one of Marinelli’s pals from Red Square: Nate Smith. Smith is one of the leaders of Texas Nationalist Movement that’s pushing to—you guessed it—break away from the United States.
The strategic advantage of making an argument for the secession of an American state to an audience in central Moscow is hard to gauge; after all, it’s voters in the States who would decide this matter. But the value to Russian interests seems more obvious, at least in the estimation of the leader of a separate and competing California secession movement, who actually lives in the state.
“YesCalifornia isn’t a Californian movement,” said Jed Wheeler, the general secretary of the California National Party. “YesCalifornia is a movement whose optics are all designed for a Russian audience to reinforce [Vladimir] Putin, by talking about…how terrible America is, and reinforcing [the idea that] Putin is this great guy who is admired all over the world.”
While the conference was going on, of course, the Kremlin-led hacking campaign against the Democratic National Committee was having its effect on the American presidential election, a provocation that has unwound relations between Moscow and Washington (with the exception of the president-elect) to their lowest levels since the pre-Gorbachev days. Since the election, while Washington (again with the exception of the president-elect) debates what the response should be for Russia’s meddling in the American political process, Marinelli and his handful of supporters are flaunting their ties with Russia, or at least the ones they hope to build. To that end, in mid-December, Marinelli held a news conference, helpfully covered by the state-run RT television station, declaring the opening of a “California Embassy” in Moscow.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as nonsense driven by publicity-hungry amateurs, but people who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements—and even giving them a boost—is a part of a very real strategy. Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at turmoil in the U.S., but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West—including, most especially, those who would fracture the United States in a reprise of the Soviet Union’s demise, over a quarter-century later.
Marinelli is by no means the first North American separatist who’s caught Moscow’s eye. In the late 1960s, the Kremlin considered cultivating Quebec separatists to further its own geopolitical ends, but eventually opted for more conventional means during the Cold War. For the past few years, however, those close to Moscow—including those whose books remain assigned to students at Russia’s General Staff Academy—have been constructing ties with white ethno-state separatists: the same brand that backed Donald Trump with such fervor in the presidential election. Recently, Russia’s gaze has fallen primarily upon Texas. As POLITICO Magazine found in mid-2015, actors tied to the Kremlin had begun cultivating links with higher-ups at the Texas Nationalist Movement, the most prominent separatist group in Texas. Russian backing for the cause ranges from meetings in St. Petersburg to chat about secession to Russian bots tweeting exhortations to “Free Texas!” There are even instances of local Russian officials barking calls to arm Mexico to reclaim territory lost to the U.S. (The second-most-popular Texas secessionist Facebook page, with its mangled English and Russian grammatical constructs, may well be a Kremlin Astroturf operation.)
But where the Texas Nationalist Movement has sought to blur its links in Moscow—you’ll find little public information about Smith’s visit to Russia in September—Marinelli hasn’t been nearly so coy about his Russian ties. Not only does Marinelli readily acknowledge he lives in Russia, but he has compared his planned California independence referendum with a Crimean “referendum” that was recognized by only a handful of tin-pot dictatorships. Marinelli has further compared his appeals to the Kremlin to, curiously, American revolutionaries’ pleas to Paris, positioning himself—or his Russian contacts—as something of a redux of Marquis de Lafayette.
But Marinelli’s rise to the forefront of the YesCalifornia campaign over the past few months has been unexpected for a handful of other reasons. Up until a few years ago, Marinelli—who, along with other YesCalifornia supporters, did not return multiple requests for comment from POLITICO Magazine—placed himself firmly on the theologically conservative end of the spectrum, working with the National Organization for Marriage to oppose same-sex marriage. Homophobia certainly has its supporters in the upper reaches of the Kremlin, but Marinelli has since recanted his views, making him far more palatable as an advocate for secession in one of the most liberal states in America.
That’s not the only puzzling thing in Marinelli’s background. He’s originally from New York, and up until 2014 he’d spent more years living in Russia than living in California. When he first latched onto the California independence movement, other members of the secession push quickly butted heads with Marinelli and his beliefs. Marinelli “seemed like bad news,” the California National Party’s Wheeler told POLITICO Magazine. “At the point where Louis Marinelli came out as an anti-vaxxer—he believes that vaccines are a federal government conspiracy—I said, ‘I want nothing to do with you—you’re freakin’ radioactive.’” While the California National Party, which models itself on the Scottish National Party, maintains a raft of progressive policies, ranging from infrastructural upkeep to universal health care, party higher-ups quickly realized that Marinelli’s views didn’t gel with the group’s political ends. Marinelli, after all, claims he supported Bernie Sanders’ candidacy during the 2016 Democratic primaries but admits that he voted for President-elect Trump in the general election. As Wheeler said, “Louis used [Hillary Clinton’s candidacy] as his excuse to say, ‘Oh, well I’m Bernie or bust, and this is my bust—and I’m moving to Russia.”’
Marinelli’s official reason for moving to Yekaterinburg, according to interviews he’s given to Russian media, stems from immigration issues for his wife, who is a Russian national. (“That’s bullshit,” Wheeler said, pointing out Marinelli’s inability to find a job in California.) Marinelli made the move sound like it was more principle than paycheck, telling Kremlin-funded RT that he “could no longer live under an American flag.”
Whatever the reason for the move, Marinelli quickly found a welcome in Russia from Ionov, the 20-something head of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a group that describes its mission as “support[ing] countries and peoples who are opposing the dictates of a unipolar world and seeking an alternative agenda.” Ionov also maintains ties to Rodina, a group founded by Kremlin Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and sits on the board of the Anti-Maidan organization, a group led by one of Putin’s friends that seeks to squelch anti-Kremlin rhetoric.
Ionov has organized at least two secessionist conferences in Russia since 2015. (For Ionov and his group, there’s apparently little difference between pushing secession in the West and advocating nominally anti-globalist positions.) The first conference featured representatives from Puerto Rican, black nationalist and Hawaiian independence movements—the latter of which was led by a convicted felon who’d spent 13 years in prison for stealing more than half a million dollars—alongside Irish splinter groups and Catalonians from Spain. This year, though, Ionov managed to land tens of thousands of dollars in Kremlin financing, enough to help expand his secessionist roster.
The Russian flag flies at half mast at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco, California on Dec. 29, 2016.
The Russian flag flies at half mast at the Consulate-General of Russia in San Francisco, California on Dec. 29, 2016. | Getty
In September, sitting next to their counterparts from Italy’s far-right Northern League and Moldova’s separatist Transnistria region, Smith and Marinelli offered their spiels for their Russian audience. (At this point, the only U.S. secession movements, out of about half a dozen notable ones, that lack any clear Kremlin links are the so-called Cascadian (West Coast liberals who are toying with a bid to join Canada) and Alaskan groups.) In an interview with Salon following the conference, a representatives from the Texas Nationalist Movement offered the first, firm tie between Kremlin monies and American separatists, admitting that Ionov’s group helped finance the Texans’ travel to Moscow.
In an interview with POLITICO Magazine, Ionov feigned surprise that those in the West would view his conferences—and his funding from the Kremlin—as cause for concern. “We’re working within the frame of international laws, and don’t want to violate international laws,” Ionov said. “I don’t understand why Western media says I want to destroy the West, or make U.S. states secede from the country.”
The notion, he said, that he’s a “Kremlin puppet, sent by Putin to destroy the West, is ridiculous.” (As Vice’s Alec Luhn found, Ionov’s office features a letter from Putin, thanking him for his “work to strengthen friendship between people.”)
Of course, Putin’s attaboy hasn’t stopped Ionov from offering his services to Western secession movements—while completely ignoring Russian separatists from places from Karelia or Siberia, who continue to be fined and jailed for their views. That’s because, for Ionov, such Russian separatist movements don’t actually exist.
“Nowadays,” Ionov told me via email over the summer, “the so-called Russian secession movements were artificially created by US intelligence in order to destabilize [the] political situation. … The western secession movements exist as an opposition to US imperialism, violence and hatred. And all of them love us, Russians, because we are good, kind and beautiful:))).”
Indeed, the notion that Russia is guiding American secessionist movements is, on its face, farcical; such movements, especially in Texas’ case, predate both Putin and post-Soviet Russia alike. But that doesn’t make the links—financial and otherwise—any less glaring. If anything, these ties are only growing. While a Trump victory may have taken the wind out of the sails of those who would like to return Texas to nationhood, interest in California’s independence push has spiked following the November election. Trump booster and Silicon Valley mogul Peter Thiel told the New York Times last week he is a proponent of secession. (“I think it would be good for California, good for the rest of the country,” Thiel said. “It would help Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign.”) And thanks to the efforts of both Marinelli and Ionov, California now has its first, if unofficial, “embassy” abroad—located in, of all places, Moscow.
Backed by photos of Putin, Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro and Muammar Qadhafi, Marinelli and Ionov officially unveiled the “embassy” in mid-December, pitching it as “bridge between California and Russia” and a way to “gain Russian support for California independence.” While the “embassy” won’t be issuing passports or visas anytime soon, the sham operation represents the most formal tie between Russia and those who’d wish independence for California. For good measure, Ionov sent me a photo of an “activist” wearing an Obama mask, ironing a tablecloth in front of a sign welcoming visitors to the “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California.”
And the action in this strange drama isn’t confined only to Russia.
A few weeks ago, members of YesCalifornia, meeting in San Francisco, attempted to hang a one-story-high banner highlighting the Kremlin’s support for their movement. (Their efforts were thwarted by an “undercover police officer,” a YesCalifornia rep later said.) As featured on a Russian propaganda outlet, the banner, unfurled by a pair of Marinelli’s colleagues, declared that “California and Russia will always be friends!”—and included, at the top, a larger-than-life shot of Putin, winking at those passing by.
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