Catalonia’s referendum is only the latest in a series of separatist movements to rear its head over the past few years. Last week, Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region held a decisive vote to separate, and before that, independence movements in Scotland, Flanders, Crimea and even California and Texas have gathered momentum. What these efforts have in common is that they tend to emphasize ethnic and linguistic ties at the expense of political structures, drawing on the doctrine of self-determination established by Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of the First World War.
Moments like this, according to traditional international relations theory, are ripe for “rising powers” — countries with an interest in redefining the balance of power in their favor. It is perhaps no surprise then that a second element many of these movements have in common is their patronage under a former superpower: Russia.
With this background, several curious facts about support for the Catalan movement — at least over social media — become clearer. Why, for instance, did some of the most influential Twitter accounts lending their support to the Catalan movement belong to individuals with no apparent connection to Spain, but considerable connections to Russia? According to trend analysis by the Australian company Fairfax Media, Twitter users the likes of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Wikileaks, and RT (Russia Today) ranked as the most widely-shared accounts for the hashtag #Catalonia.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais alleges that such popularity was not organic but rather a result of “bots,” automated accounts that retweet messages at a rate intended to amplify their reach and influence Twitter trends. Preliminary analysis by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab confirms that the retweet pattern exhibited by some of Assange’s tweets suggests manipulation: it spikes in the first minute at roughly one retweet per second, and then continues downwards thereafter (whereas unamplified tweets typically grow in traffic gradually over their lifetime). Moreover, El Pais claims (and the DFRLab confirms) that several news sites with ties to Russian intelligence amplified messaging pertaining to Catalonia with a distinct pro-independence bias from larger media sources like Sputnik and RT.
The extent of coordination between Assange, Snowden and Kremlin-backed media is not known, nor has connection been established between these patrons and the leaders of the Catalan independence movement. Indeed, it is unlikely that Puigdemont and other figures have made any active effort to secure Moscow’s support.
Russia has a history of backing separatist movements, both along their borders and in regions where they seem to have no apparent interest.
A media analysis by blogger Conspirador Norteño of trending hashtags related to various “exits,” including Britain’s Leave campaign and others, reveals that RT and Sputnik rank among the most prolific tweeters, even though none of the movements in question concern Russia directly.
— Conspirador Norteño (@conspirator0) September 10, 2017
This figure raises the question of why Russia is so interested in enabling the self-determination of nationalists around the world.
In Ukraine, its interests were more or less obvious: to punish and weaken a westward-leaning neighbor, to promote Russian-language nationalism, and to effectively secure warm water ports formerly under Soviet control.
Yet the Kremlin’s latest pet projects around the world don’t confer territorial, military, or evident political gains.
Even where international extremist movements are concerned, recent disclosures from Facebook make clear that Russian funding is not limited to right-wing ideas that appear to align with Russia’s own strand of nationalism, but rather the Kremlin’s reach extends across the political spectrum, to movements on both the far left and far right.
A perfect example of how diverse the beneficiaries of Russian financial and rhetorical support have become are the cases of “Calexit” and “Texit” — California’s and Texas’ leave campaigns.
Texan separatism is not a particularly new phenomenon, but California’s movement, officially known as Yes California, only picked up momentum in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election when many liberals and Clinton-supporters signed a petition calling for California to secede. Calexit, for which the platform seemingly consists of issues regarding environmental protection and healthcare expansions, makes a strange bedfellow alongside other Russia-backed alt-right groups in the United States.
Curiously, the founder of Yes California, Louis Marinelli, not only recently took a trip partially funded by Kremlin-connected groups to visit Red Square in Moscow, but he has actually been living in Russia for the past year. One such Kremlin-connected group provided space to open a Californian “embassy” in Moscow, although the office has since been closed down. (Marinelli recently left the Yes California campaign to live in Russia permanently.)
— Calexiteer (@LouisJMarinelli) September 26, 2016
What interest did a former Republican and non-resident of California such as Marinelli have in Californian separatism? Whether he was motivated by a real change of heart (Marinelli says he “consider[s][him]self to be a Californian”), a desire for fame or glory, or something more, the country who offered his cause patronage has several reasons to rejoice that many Californians, as one supporter posted on Twitter, want to “take [their]avocados and legal weed and go.”
They are perhaps the same reasons that led Russia to recognize contested border regions like Abkhazia or South Ossetia in Georgia, to provide support to Nagorno-Karabakh separatists on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or even to allegedly deploy social media bots behind the independence movement in Catalonia.
What Russian media’s interest in Spain suggests is that the country’s ambitions are not, as previously thought, driven by an ethno-linguistic fervour to unite the Russian-speaking ‘russkiy mir,’ nor even a revanchist dream of piecing together the Soviet Union.
By amplifying or at least concentrating on the events in Catalonia this weekend, Russian media advanced a number of short-term and long-term goals.
Most immediately, it helped fan the flames of chaos in a major western European country and potentially complicate Spain’s relationship with allies. More subtly, it harmed the democratic image of the West by portraying Madrid’s actions as violent, repressive, and illiberal.
Undermining the West’s democratic image is a key tool used by the Russian media in order to make what Cold War scholars call “whataboutisms” — relativistic justification for reprehensible behavior. Before you criticize Moscow’s actions in Crimea or Chechnya, what about Madrid’s in Catalonia? One can hear the next epigram quipping.
Finally, Russia benefits by spreading divisions in Western societies, particularly the kind of deep, class-based, cultural and ethnic animosities upon which both the Catalonian and Californian movements to some degree feed. None of this should be read to prejudice the validity of either movement but rather to warn both opponents and proponents that no matter which side one favors, our focus on internal divisions may be actively desired by powers hostile to Western democracy. The Kremlin has proven it cares less about the platforms of political movements than what they may bring: divisiveness, chaos, and uncertainty.
Sarah Manney is a senior studying political science. She is the founder and president of the European Security Undergraduate Network (ESUN). This is the second edition of “Cardinal Richelieu,” a weekly column in Stanford Politics, written by members of ESUN.
This column appears in the November 2017 issue of Stanford Politics Magazine.