In 2018 Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote an important op-ed announcing “Racism is a national security issue.” Amplifying her message, Senator Kamala Harris explained “Russia was able to influence our election because they figured out that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia are America’s Achilles heel.” Russia was equipped to take advantage of these vulnerabilities because it has developed a national security toolkit that weaponizes racism and ethnic nationalism — along with sexism and anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice — to serve policy goals. In fact, promoting racism lies at the center of Russia’s strategy to undermine liberal democracy and strengthen authoritarianism.
Russia has sought to undermine liberal democracy because it views the spread of liberalism as an existential threat to its regime. Studies have found that illiberal social values, such as ethnic nationalism and racism, are correlated with illiberal political values like authoritarianism. Recognizing this connection, Russia fosters racism as an ideational vector to undermine liberalism and promote authoritarian values. Russia also leverages racism to support more immediate policy goals, as it did during the Cold War.
Russia’s promotion of racism includes the straightforward backing of white supremacist movements. As Shelby Butt and Dan Byman write “One of Moscow’s most pernicious efforts is its support for white-supremacist and other far-right groups, encouraging them with propaganda, providing them with a haven, and otherwise making them stronger and more dangerous.” Perhaps the most insidious approach Russia has used to promote racism and ethnonationalism is the bombing of refugees in Syria.
Studies have found that illiberal social values, such as ethnic nationalism and racism, are correlated with illiberal political values like authoritarianism.
Throughout its military intervention in Syria, Russia has deliberately bombed civilian spaces using non-precision munitions. Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove described these actions as the deliberate weaponization of migration, saying “I can’t find any other reason for them other than to cause refugees to be on the move and make them someone else’s problem.” One study found that even limited contact with refugees results in lasting ethnic or religious-based hostility. By seeking to make these refugees someone else’s problem, Russia fosters a climate of ethnic and racial hostility that undermines liberalism and supports policy goals.
Russia’s longtime policy goal of destabilizing the European Union received a major boost with the success of the UK’s Brexit referendum. The referendum, held in 2016, came amidst a European migration crisis caused in large part by the refugees Russia had played a role in creating in Syria. Pro-Brexit parties centered their message on the crisis, famously displaying a poster depicting a road full of migrants heading towards the UK. The strategy was successful, with studies showing that Brexit’s narrow victory was primarily the result of xenophobic attitudes.
Russia has also tried to advance its policy goals by fostering a climate of racial hatred in Germany and the US. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s decision to accept over 1 million refugees during the crisis served as the nucleus of an information campaign to topple her. Russia’s information tools exploited the darkest impulses of humanity, including a fake news campaign that claimed a man from “southern countries” who “barely spoke German” raped a German-Russian child. In the US, government officials are warning that Russia is planning to interfere in the 2020 presidential election by using white supremacists to incite violence and “inflame racial tensions.”
Across the West, Russia is boosting far-right white nationalist movements and politicians. Hungary provides evidence for why Russia believes fostering racism supports its core interests of undermining liberal democracy and strengthening authoritarianism. In the wake of the 2015 migration crisis, Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has centered his political career on antipathy towards refugees — whom he calls invaders. Orbán’s social illiberalism has translated into political illiberalism; he has increasingly transitioned Hungary away from democracy towards authoritarianism. For Russia, Hungary’s political transition is a major victory over liberalism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has demonstrated how Russia leverages ethnonationalism to undermine liberalism. In a trolling 2019 interview with FT, Putin said liberalism has become “obsolete” since “migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”
Russia’s weaponization of racism shows how the nature of foreign policy is evolving in the 21st century. Policymakers in liberal democracies need to recognize the changing landscape and adapt. This means not only fortifying their “Achilles heel” by addressing racial and social inequities at home, but also developing new foreign policy tools and new ways of thinking that facilitate effective policy responses abroad. The first step towards countering Russian aggression is to internalize Sherrilyn Ifill’s words: “It’s time to face the facts: racism is a national security issue.”
Ben Sohl (@ben_sohl) is a Master’s student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His research focuses on how new technologies are changing the way foreign policy is conducted.