Most Americans don’t associate the Kremlin with innovation in any shape or form. They are not wrong about that. There is however one area of human activity where the Kremlin has been very successful, albeit in a deeply immoral and cynical way. We are talking about hybrid warfare: unannounced proxy wars using “rebels” and “separatists” in Ukraine, economic and energy wars with constant haggling with Europe over gas transport routes and prices, and the dirtiest of all, propaganda and disinformation attacks. These can be used in any combination, but the goal is always the same, to destabilize the enemy, create turmoil, and most importantly, always give themselves the cover of plausible deniability.
In the propaganda proxy wars, a favorite KGB trick was to hire opinion “shapers” from the opposing side to propagate Kremlin ideology outside of Russia, especially in western countries. Putin himself cut his teeth in the KGB’s so called Fifth Chief Directorate that was created in 1969 to counter political dissidents and other manifestations of political unreliability both domestically and abroad. With the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991, came the natural decline in many Soviet institutions. The Soviet KGB ceased to exist in November 1991 and, after years of reorganization and internal wrangling re-emerged as the FSB in April 1995 under President Yeltsin. One could argue that the FSB could never live up to the fame and glory of its creepy predecessor, in large part because they could no longer tap into the talent pool they used to take for granted in Soviet times, when Soviet people’s choices were limited and borders closed.
On a snowy Friday afternoon on February 20th in a small room at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM), a guest speaker from Russia, Boris Kagarlitsky, gave a lecture entitled “Russia, the West, and Ukrainian Crisis: Cold War simulations with no future…” to a small group of listeners. Mr. Kagarlitsky was introduced by his longtime friend and collaborator, UWM Africology professor Jeffrey Sommers, as a Russian dissident and an anti-oligarchic academic and activist. Indeed, Kagarlitsky introduced his view of the events in Eastern Ukraine as a fight between oligarchic clans both in Russia and in Ukraine. However, in the course of Kagarlistky’s lecture it became increasingly clear that he got his “facts” from Putin’s propaganda outlets like ITAR TASS and Russia Today and the like. Mr. Kagarlitsky concluded with the assertion that even though the Russian army is present on the territory of Ukraine, the Russian Federation should not be involved in the negotiation process, as the conflict in Ukraine is a “civil war”. According to Kagarlitsky, the conflict in Ukraine is going to last forever and Western political powers should not intervene, as they cannot help.
When participants tried to raise questions and clarify some of the most outlandish statements, both Kagarlitsky and Sommers got visibly agitated and shut the conversation down.
This bizarre event left us puzzled. A dissident spewing Kremlin propaganda? An American professor who deflects and avoids simple questions about the person he invited, as he put it “as a personal favor to him”. All of this forced us to research the persona of the speaker, as well as his inviting party from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
What we found was both shocking and unsettling.
It didn’t take long to discover that Mr. Kagarlitsky is regarded as a Kremlin mole by most reputable political left leaders in Russia. Russian journalists have established that Kagarlitsky has been working with the Kremlin since 2005, possibly earlier. His primary function has been to discredit and confuse the Russian left-wing movement outside the immediate circle of the Russian Communist Party.
Kagarlistky, who presents himself as a political prisoner and a dissident, in fact, was a witness for the prosecution during a KGB “show” trial of Mikhail Rivkin in 1983. Kagarlitsky’s testimony served as a breaking point in the trial that allowed the court to sentence Rivkin to 7 years in a prison camp and 5 years of exile. Kagarlitsky himself only stayed in prison for a year, but was very productive during his stay and managed to get a number of his fellow students in trouble with the KGB.
Kagarlitsky’s Post Globalization Initiative (PGI), where Sommers is listed as a Research Fellow and Expert, has been receiving grants from the Russian government, at least 3 Mln Roubles in 2010, 2.5 Mln in 2012 and 3.2 Mln in 2014.
A further piece of this stomach turning puzzle came to light when we found out that both Mr. Kagarlistky and Mr. Sommers attended a conference last July in occupied Crimea that was co-organized by PGI, Kagarlitsky’s organization, well represented by Russian fascists and nationalists and Kremlin-backed Ukrainian fringe groups. This “international conference” entitled “The World Crisis and Opposition in Ukraine” was held in Yalta on 6 -7 July, 2014. The stated purpose of the conference included providing additional arguments and emotional materials for western activists and intellectuals who support the anti-Ukrainian cause, demonstrating to the domestic (i.e. Russian) public the existence of powerful trends in western public opinion hostile to the current Russian campaign, and highlighting publications by conference participants in the western press and in the English-language section of the web to facilitate the dissemination of information which is positive for Russia.
Both Kagarlitsky and Sommers signed the Declaration issued by this conference that states in part, that the right-wing government in Ukraine has been given extensive “financial, diplomatic and military support by the US, UK and EU governments” in part because the US wants to open Ukraine up to NATO. In addition to the Declaration, the conference issued a Manifesto, according to which Ukraine is not a state, but a “territory between the European Union and Russia” and calling for the complete break up of Ukraine, or as they put it, “the liberation of Kiev from the gang of pedophiles, religious sectarians and other scum which occupies it, is one of the main goals of our campaign”.
Both Kagarlitsky and Sommers failed to mention any of the aforementioned facts in their introductions or any announcements for Kagarlitsky’s recent lectures at UW Milwaukee and UW Madison. To be fair, the lectures just like the presenters were incredibly dull and mostly went unnoticed, with hardly anyone attending. But since they were not really trying to get people in the door, the entire operation looks more like a boondoggle for a funding report rather than an attempt to change anyone’s mind.
Which brings us to the final point. We absolutely respect the mission of American universities to promote the freedom of expression. This is one of the key principles that separates modern America for all it’s flaws from Putin’s Russia. So the idea is not to eliminate dissent. On the contrary. We believe in the principles of academic integrity, a willingness to facilitate difficult conversation and a dedication to conducting research on controversial topics with the expectation of full disclosure and transparency.
In the end, both Mr. Kagarlitsky and Mr. Sommers distorted the facts concerning the Ukrainian-Russian conflict and presented positions without disclosing their true affiliations. What’s worse, they are not bystanders in this tragic farce of Russian propaganda wars, but active participants. Which makes both of them nothing less than Putin’s propagandists, hiding behind the fake facades of academics and independent experts.