ThinkProgress

Inside the Russian effort to fuel American secessionists

Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s major indictment of the people and organizations behind Russia’s social media interference operations brought a wave of revelations. Its reference to a “real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization” who was in communication with the Russians, however, prompts a whole new set of questions.

The person mentioned by Mueller has not been named — even while the identities of other Americans are revealed — but one group seems to be feeling the heat. The Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), dedicated to breaking the state off from the rest of the U.S., issued a statement immediately following the indictment claiming they “had no knowledge of nor any involvement with the Russian-led efforts to influence the 2016 General Election.”

TNM is largely unknown outside Texas, but it is the foremost group advocating secession in the U.S. and one of the American groups with the most notable ties to Kremlin-funded actors in Russia. It was also one of the few American organizations that communicated directly with the Russian operatives behind the fake Facebook pages — and one of the only groups that the Russian operatives specifically advertised as partners.

The relationship shows how Russian operatives behind the fake Facebook accounts identified American counterparts and, in the case of secession movements in both Texas and California, how parallel interests in fracturing the U.S. created unlikely bedfellows. By elevating the Texas and California secession causes, Russian operatives hoped to help foment the type of secession crisis the U.S. hasn’t seen since the 1860s.

Lone Star links

In early 2015, a man ducked around amidst a coterie of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, differentiated only by his cowboy hat. Nate Smith had traveled to St. Petersburg to take part in one of the largest gatherings of far-right forces seen over the past decade. In a photo obtained by ThinkProgress, Smith can be seen grinning and glad-handing, featured by Rodina — a Russian party whose co-founder, Dmitry Rogozin, remains sanctioned by the U.S. — on its website.

While Smith maintained a low profile at the conference — especially in comparison to the former Ku Klux Klan lawyers and American white supremacists praising the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin — he nonetheless took the time to plug his cause in Russian media. In an interview with Vzglyad, Smith claimed that the U.S., under then-President Barack Obama, had transitioned into a “dictatorship,” adding that every member of the U.S. military originally from Texas would identify as “Texan” before “American.”

As Politico reported at the time, dozens of bots instantly pushed Smith’s message — which was also carried in Sputnik — with tweets about a “Free Texas.”

During the interview, Smith also mentioned one of TNM’s “friends”: a man, often spotted in well-tailored suits and crocodile shoes, named Alexander Ionov. As the head of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR), Ionov would later serve as one of the primary linchpins between Moscow’s cultivation of American secessionists — some of whom, both in California and Texas, reportedly received both funding and offers of coordination from the Russian operations detailed in Mueller’s recent indictment.

“Friends, colleagues, comrades! A new page is opening up in the struggle for the self-determination of nations.”

But that would come later, when Russia’s interference efforts took off in earnest. Back in 2015, a few months after Smith’s visit, Ionov organized his first “Dialogue of Nations” conference. Ionov’s AGMR hoped to cobble a grip of Western secessionists to spread the type of state fracture already underway in Ukraine, according to MeduzaPer the Guardian, the conference was partially paid for by a grant from Russia’s National Charity Fund — and as Vice would later report, AGMR’s office features a letter from Putin himself thanking Ionov for “work[ing] to strengthen friendship between peoples[.]”

Addressing a number of contingents from several countries, Ionov pointed to the camaraderie evident: “Friends, colleagues, comrades! A new page is opening up in the struggle for the self-determination of nations.” Smith and TNM, whom Ionov would later describe as his “big friends,” didn’t attend the 2015 conference, but a crew of oddballs from Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. black nationalist movement showed up.

Elsewhere, while Ionov’s first conference kicked off, a series of Russian operatives were simultaneously scouring for a number of English speakers to help flesh out a new, parallel program. They would be working on a different project that would complement Ionov’s efforts: an endeavor that would allow Russian operatives to reach directly into American homes, and convince them to organize on American streets.

Deep in the heart of Texas

Several aspects of the Russian Internet Research Agency’s operations on Facebook over the past few years remain a mystery. We still don’t know how many Americans followed these fake pages, or how many attended their events, or how many still have no idea that they’d unwittingly subscribed to a Russian front. Facebook has been silent, time and again, on these questions.

At one point in 2016, the Russian “Heart of Texas” Facebook page boasted more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.

But thanks to Russian journalists, we do know that one Facebook page outpaced the rest, at least as it pertains to political developments in the U.S. Per RBC, the Russian “Heart of Texas” Facebook page was the third-most popular of those uncovered thus far — and, with some 254,000 followers before it was pulled down, the most popular page devoted to “political questions.”

Indeed, at one point in 2016, the page boasted more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.

From the outset, the page’s target audience was clear. Much of the material — characterized by numerous typos and syntax errors — was geared to far-right Texans, railing against vegetarians and LGBTQ individuals, claiming that Texas is a “Christian state,” criticizing “Killary Rotten Clinton.” As one post memorably staked, “NO HYPOCLINTOS [sic] IN THE GOD BLESSED TEXAS”.

The Russian "Heart of Texas" page - with posts like this - managed to obtain more followers in 2016 than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.

Thus far, the main claim to notoriety from “Heart of Texas” stems from the May 2016 protest it managed to organize in Houston. Dubbed the “Stop Islamization of Texas” rally, the “Heart of Texas” page managed to coax a number of white supremacists — some armed with weapons like AR-15s — into downtown Houston, where they faced down a larger group of counter-demonstrators. Until Facebook’s announcement 15 months later, neither side realized that the initial protest had been plotted out of St. Petersburg.

Lost amid the coverage of “Heart of Texas,” though, is a second, broader round of protests the page planned across Texas in the days before the election. Reprising the odd English in other posts — these protests were awkwardly dubbed “Secede IF Hillary!” — and planned from Lubbock to San Antonio to Dallas, the Russian operatives called on followers to “open carry” and “make photos.” It’s unclear how many Texans actually showed up.

But we do know one thing, scraped from a screenshot taken of the page before it was removed: Unlike the May rally in Houston, the statewide rallies planned by Russian operatives pointed directly to coordination with the Texas Nationalist Movement. The “Heart of Texas” event page circulated a petition for followers and their “folks” to sign — which would then be “pass[ed]… to the TNM[.]”

TNM may not have participated in the rallies outright, and later stated that they declined the entreaties from “Heart of Texas,” but the Russian operatives had publicly announced that they would be running a petition drive on behalf of the Texas separatists — spreading the word and, most importantly, gathering names of potential supporters of some future fracture.

Second time’s the charm

While the “Heart of Texas” Facebook page was pledging to gather supporter information for TNM, the organization sent Smith back to Moscow in 2016 for the second annual “Dialogue of Nations” conference.

Or, rather, TNM accepted funding from the Moscow-backed AGMR to travel back to Russia. As TNM head Daniel Miller later related in an interview with Salon, AGMR — which had taken tens of thousands of dollars from the Kremlin — had helped fund the Texans’ latest voyage to Russia. (According to Ionov, about one-third of his group’s budget came directly from the Kremlin, while private donors in “Texas and other countries” provided the rest.) Miller confirmed the funding in a December 2016 interview with KQED, but “declined to say how much money the Kremlin gave” to the Texas Nationalist Movement.

As an analysis from BBC found, Twitter feeds“with ties to Russia pushed a huge Twitter trend in favor of” #Calexit.

Regardless of how much money TNM took from Russia, Smith reprised his role in Moscow, advocating for Texas secession and swapping tactics and encouragement with those from Spain, Ireland, and Italy. While he once more kept a low profile — TNM’s website didn’t even advertise Smith’s trip to Russia — he did describe the anti-American diatribes at the conference as “kind of awkward, I guess.”

However, at one point during his trip, Smith was spotted with a handful of other secessionists on Red Square, grinning with the Kremlin walls behind him.

The man who snapped the photo — a one-time far-right, anti-LGBTQ activist named Louis Marinelli — quickly eclipsed Smith when it came to the most identifiable link between Russia and American separatists. Where Smith kept his head down during the conference, Marinelli took the spotlight and ran with it.

In so doing, he would help catapult the notion of California secession, a so-called #Calexit, into mainstream American discourse — and then, by dint of his relations in Russia, do more damage to the cause of secession in the U.S. than anyone since Jefferson Davis.

Golden dreams

Marinelli, from the outset, seemed an odd choice to push for California’s independence. A former foot soldier for the vociferously anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, Marinelli originally hailed from New York, and, until recently, had lived longer in Russia than in California. (His wife is a Russian national.)

However, following a supposed political transformation, Marinelli decided that he should be the man to lead the charge for California independence — even it meant doing so while working as an English teacher in Siberia. With his travel to Moscow, according to LA Weekly, paid for by the Kremlin-backed AGMR, Marinelli declared that Californians had a “different worldview” than Americans. He further avowed that California was a “separate nation.”

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Marinelli’s U.S.-based team at YesCalifornia hung a public banner exclaiming that “California and Russia will always be friends!”

As such, it didn’t take long for Ionov to realize that California, rather than Texas, should be the horse to which he could hitch his project. Much of that, of course, had to do with the election: a Donald Trump surprise, shifting the momentum building in Texas over to California. Suddenly, #Calexit burst forth on social media: Not long after Trump’s victory, #Calexit jumped into one of Twitter’s most popular hashtags.

But that sudden surge, in a harbinger of ties that would later be revealed, wasn’t entirely organic. As an analysis from BBC found, Twitter feeds “with ties to Russia pushed a huge Twitter trend in favor of” #Calexit. A separate Twitter analysis found that YesCalifornia’s message was “amplified by many of the same accounts that infiltrated conservative Twitter communities and promoted a pro-Trump, white nationalist agenda.”

As the researchers added, the bots pushing the message from Marinelli — who himself admitted that he voted for Trump — appeared to primarily “function… [to promote] the Trump presidency and its agenda.”

Independent ambassadors

As these bots and Russian networks pumped out pro-#Calexit messages, Ionov found another means of supporting the dream of an independent California. In December 2016, in a space provided rent-free by the Kremlin-funded AGMR, Marinelli and YesCalifornia opened the first “Embassy of the Independent Republic of California.”

For good measure, Marinelli, already appearing weekly on Russian state media, described the Kremlin-funded AGMR as a “partner.”

Flanked by photos of Hugo Chavez and Bashar al-Assad, Marinelli — who had already compared a planned California referendum to the botched 2014 Crimean “vote” — sat alongside Ionov, announcing that the “embassy” would help fortify relations between Russia and California, with the hope of “gain[ing] Russian support for California independence.” (It didn’t go unnoticed in Russia that YesCalifornia’s platform for secession included removing California from NATO.)

The opening was, on its face, equal parts fantastical and farcical. In a photo obtained by ThinkProgress, the preparation for the opening of the “embassy” involved a person in a Barack Obama mask helping with decorations.

But around the time of the founding of the “embassy,” other aspects of a Russian campaign to target California separatists picked up. In December 2016, Marinelli let slip that he had begun working with the Russian Internet Research Agency — the same organization targeted in Mueller’s indictments — to push his messaging. According to KQED, Marinelli said that “he worked with [the IRA] to ‘raise awareness’ of Calexit goals.” (YesCalifornia has disputed KQED’s reporting.)

Simultaneously, Russian operatives from the IRA began pushing #Calexit on both Twitter and Medium — accounts that wouldn’t come to light until nearly a year later.

California implosion

While the “California Embassy” was opening, however, the political plates in the U.S. were shifting. Support for #Calexit may have spiked, but so too did an awareness that Russian operations had permeated the U.S., and potentially into the White House itself. Suddenly, odd ties with Russia became suspect. And it didn’t take long to place Marinelli’s ties to Moscow — the travel funding his group received from a Kremlin-backed front; the bots pumping out the #Calexit message — within the broader Russian disruption strategy.

Campaign finance regulators began making noise about potential violations. California newspapers, perking up at the state’s connection to Russia’s interference efforts, railed against Marinelli: The San Jose Mercury News called Marinelli’s project a “con,” while a fellow #Calexit supporter described YesCalifornia as a “Russian front organization.”

Battered by the criticism, YesCalifornia eventually dropped Marinelli, who announced he would be seeking Russian citizenship and no longer live in “occupied California.” YesCalifornia’s new head described Marinelli’s links in Russia as a “death blow” to his participation in the movement.

And just like that, Russia’s efforts at lending weight to #Calexit cratered. While Marinelli would later rejoin YesCalifornia in an advisory capacity, his ties to Russia have permanently tarred his movement. Somewhere along the way, the “California Embassy” in Moscow shuttered, with far less fanfare than its opening.

American union

Three years ago, Russian efforts at stoking American separatism appeared ascendant: whisking Texans to Moscow, opening a “California Embassy” in the Russian capital, unleashing the country’s bots and social media frauds to push the message of American disunion. Between Kremlin higher-ups blaming the U.S. for the Soviet Union’s dissolution to claiming Washington’s hand behind Chechnya’s independence movement, bolstering the effort to pry states off the U.S. was too good an opportunity to pass up.

Any momentum the Texas or California campaigns carried has been smothered by accusations of sedition.

As 2018 pushes on, though, it’s become increasingly clear that these efforts have blown up, and blown back in the faces of those pushing the message of secession.

Texas separatism is on the back burner, beset by new revelations from the special counsel’s office about potential ties to Russia, while the notion of #Calexit has effectively imploded. (Almost no one showed up at YesCalifornia’s Sacramento rally in support of secession earlier this month.) Any momentum either campaign carried has been smothered by accusations of sedition. Even the white ethno-state separatists who’d looked to Moscow for succor appear to be on their heels, disappointed with Trump and distracted by their own rounds of infighting.

Russian efforts, to be sure, have no shortage of Western secession movements to lean on (see: Catalonia). But dreams of American rupture are effectively dead, at least for the foreseeable future, thanks in large part to revelations of Russian involvement. Much like the questionable predictions of certain scions of Russian political science, American disintegration appears no closer to fruition than it was in decades prior, undone by a combination of travel to Moscow, embassies in Russia, and revelations that supporters were played by those sitting in computer banks in St. Petersburg — and that backers, since 2015, unwittingly played a small role in a far larger reality of Russian meddling efforts across these United States.

This article has been updated to reflect YesCalifornia’s dispute of KQED’s reporting.