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Russia’s Influence of Western Elites
Pro-Ukrainian statements aside, one’s political actions are formed by the company you keep.
There should be an expectation that whatever demand is not being met by the establishment, outsiders will look to whoever’s likely to help them make it a reality. Being the cowards they are, most “respectable” people will ignore these outsiders, leaving the gap of opportunity wide open for bad actors serving foreign interests to exploit. But these mainstream elites are just as pliable to foreign influence through running in the same social circles which is arguably far more dangerous at the moment than catering to groups who are less powerful.
It would not be wrong to associate Putin’s Russia primarily with supporting this latter group of political outsiders, however, as was the job of their KGB predecessor back during the days of the USSR with left wing radicals.
Today, Russia's "divide and conquer" strategy encompasses both the right and the left extremes of the political spectrum who share in Russia’s contempt for Western liberalism. Economic challenges and cultural cohesion emerge as primary concerns for the former, exemplified by nationalistic populist parties such as France’s Comités Jeanne, Italy’s Lega Nord, Germany’s AFD, and Austria’s Freedom Party. But so have left wing pro-migration parties been embracing the Russian bear hug like the Syriza of Greece, the Spanish Podemos, and Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD).
In the case of the latter, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder remains a party member to this day despite being good friends with Putin and having business ties to Russian energy companies.
But the SPD, though being one of the oldest Marx-influenced parties in the world, is considered “centrist” by European standards and very mainstream. This is where the greatest danger lies for the West when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, since it is not out of ideological compatibility as with the political fringe, but of moral cowardice and pliability through soft influence that the establishment parties have prolonged the Russian aggression and cost lives.
Among these cowards though, we should not be limited to only counting the politicians, but everyone who has a modicum of societal influence. Many of these are the same establishment people within Art, Fashion, and Entertainment, hated by the aforementioned fringes for being unprincipled sellouts dressed in today’s fashion of progressivism.
But people of this sort have been around forever and changing politics with the times only makes sense if you want to fit in and have money but lack a personality. This by itself is not a problem were they to just spend their time re-enacting “Eyes Wide Shut” every weekend, but unfortunately, the influence of these social elites does affect politics through friends with particular loyalties.
Such is the case with Dasha Zhukova, daughter of Russian oligarch Alexander Zhukov and ex wife of “Putin’s Wallet” Roman Abramovich and the mother of his two kids. Her social circle includes Oprah Winfrey, Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour and music magnate David Geffen among many of the beautiful people in the art and fashion scene, but also extends to the world of politics as well, specifically of the progressive pandering variety within the Western mainstream.
The title of “Putin’s Wallet” for her ex-husband (and still good friend) Abramovich should go for all the oligarchs including Dasha’s father as their money is actually Putin’s money.
This works through Putin’s circle receiving cushy government contracts paid for by the Russian people’s taxes, who are allowed to steal as much of it as they please in exchange for their loyalty to the regime. Money that was supposed to go towards the crumbling Russian infrastructure and healthcare instead ends up laundered by oligarchs through such channels as the art world, where Russian soft power gets directly in touch with the elites over champagne and caviar.
But since none of this money is theirs to begin with, Zukhova’s wealth from her oligarch ex husband as well as her oligarch father can only keep flowing if loyalty is maintained. And no doubt having access to the ears of policy makers within high society is a pretty great investment even if all it accomplishes is lowering commitment to the war effort.
Beyond Zukhova’s patronage, there is a rouges gallery of Russian oligarchs who are just as well connected. One such oligarch is Viktor Vekselberg with the world’s largest collection of Fabergé Eggs, who had loaned a special piece to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London last year. Another is Petr Aven, head of Russia’s largest commercial bank right up until this war, and an avid art collector whose works were lent to such elite institutions as the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Both of these men are currently under sanctions for their connection to the Kremlin in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while Vekselberg has the honor of being sanctioned for the 2014 invasion of Crimea as well.
This laundering of both money and reputation has been quite prevalent within the art world but is certainly not limited to it. As Casey Mitchel and David Szakonyi wrote for Foreign Policy back in 2020:
“Our analysis points to a glaring hole in the U.S.’s anti-kleptocracy efforts. Much as hedge fund managers, shell company operators, and realtors face no legal requirements to check their clients’ finances for potential signs of money laundering, so, too, are the institutions mentioned above—universities and think tanks, cultural institutes and foundations—perfectly free to receive funds with few if any questions asked. That is, unlike American banks, there are no due diligence requirements in the realm of charitable donations.”
The people operating these institutions are very much the same members of “The Cathedral” penned by monarchist and reactionary thinker Curtis Yarvin (also a Break The Rules regular known for his streams with Atlantic Council Fellow Vladislav Davidzon). According to Curtis, this classification means “the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.”
Contrary to a dictatorship where power is centralized like Putin’s Russia (of which Curtis is not a fan), our political institutions in the US are flexible enough to allow the kind of change we are currently seeing in recent Supreme Court decisions such as restricting use of race in college admissions, or on the more progressive side we’ve got states like Oregon paving the way in psychedelic treatments for PTSD.
The problem lies in the cultural institutions spread throughout America and Western Europe which fawn over regressive leftism while at the same time being too impotent to excise the cancer of Russian influence within their own ranks.
The quality within the mainstream Western elite that makes them so indecisive at a time when decisiveness matters the most is what makes the authoritarian right and left appear more seductive in comparison to those on the extremes who have unwavering principles, regardless of how deluded those principles may be. Projecting their ideal onto a regime mistakenly seen as the last bulwark against Western decadence, both ends of the political horseshoe proudly accept Russian support by comparison.
There are no doubt principled individuals within the aforementioned Western establishment, but so is the higher social cost that comes with offending the wrong people, be it raging social justice advocates or friends whose foundation is propped up by Putin’s money.
For readers within this elite (why are you not a Founding Member of this substack yet?) perhaps you are not powerful enough at the moment to influence others in parting with such financial rewards, but you still have the power to sway the opinion of those within the same circle.
And for those in similar circumstances among left or right leaning groups, there is less problem with resolve but it is of the illiberal mindless variety, which as stated earlier, groups supporting Ukraine into categories with “I support the current thing” cultural baggage attached.
The way forward is to divide good ideas from bad within both fringes as well as the mainstream, and then commit to those good ideas through personal influence. While it will rub the masses of all sides the wrong way, the ones who are capable of critical thinking will be inspired by your resolve and lend their support.
Things of this nature are never easy, but if our existence is a human test, then these are the moments we will ultimately be judged by.