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What’s Behind Russian Support for World’s Separatist Movements?

MOSCOW — Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is just the beginning, if some in the Kremlin have their way.

Northern Irish, Scottish, Basque, Catalan and Italian secessionists have been invited to Moscow for a conference, partly funded by Russia, planned for August. They will mingle with Texan, Californian, Puerto-Rican and Hawaiian wannabe-separatists from all over the world, the conference organizer says.

“Our goal is to consolidate efforts based on international legal standards [and] to achieve the very democracy the European Union and the United States talk about, but [the democracy] in its true meaning,” Alexander Ionov, head of the Anti-Globalist Movement of Russia, which is organizing the event, told NBC News.

One of the international standards he referred to is to a nation’s right for self-determination that is part of the United Nations’ chapter.

Ionov said that the Russian government’s modest grant of $53,000 to accommodate dozens of guests will be supplemented by private donations from “Texas and other countries” that openly or clandestinely support the secessionist cause.

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Western leaders and Russia experts say the Kremlin backs fringe, ultra-nationalist and separatist parties to destabilize groupings such as NATO and the EU and to thwart U.S. missile defense installations that Moscow sees as a threat to its security.

They also say Moscow uses these movements to promote its political agenda, gain more political leverage within the EU and push for the lifting of Western sanctions imposed on Moscow after its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

President Barack Obama said in April that Russia’s Vladimir Putin "exploits" the EU migrant crisis because he is “not entirely persuaded” by European unity. In January, Congress instructed James Clapper, the U.S.’s director of national intelligence, to investigate how the Kremlin finances these parties.

“As it tries to rattle the cage, the Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both right-wing and left-wing anti-systemic parties throughout Europe,” Vice President Joe Biden said in his May 2015 speech at Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “President Putin sees such political forces as useful tools to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic which he can then exploit.”

Image: Meeting of Open Tribune council of experts discusses civil society in modern Russia
The director of the Institute of Political Studies, political scientist Sergei Markov at a meeting of the Open Tribune council of experts to discuss the issue of civil society in modern Russia. Anna Isakova / TASS via Getty Images

A Russian opposition leader claims the Kremlin’s new friendships reflect its political desperation to find political allies of any stripe.

“This is a diagnosis of international isolation,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former lawmaker who was evicted from the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, after longtime criticism of Putin’s policies. “Now we embrace the very people we had never wanted to share bread with.”

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Putin has a different take.

"Nobody wants to feed and subsidize weaker economies, maintain other states, entire nations," he said after the U.K.’s shock vote to leave the EU, known as Brexit. One of the arguments deployed by those who campaigned for Britain to leave was that wealthier countries contribute disproportionately more than their poorer counterparts.

A pro-Kremlin political analyst and former lawmaker called Russia’s new alliances with separatists "very useful" — but blamed the West for forcing Moscow to embrace their cause.

Image: President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin. MAXIM SHEMETOV / Reuters

“The EU [and] the U.S. push Russia to support all sorts of anti-establishment movements,” Sergei Markov told NBC News, referring to Euroskeptic and separatist groups.”

He echoed the Kremlin’s assertion that the West plots to weaken resurgent Russia by installing pro-Western governments in neighboring ex-Soviet republics such as Georgia and Ukraine, and by giving financial support to opposition movements, human rights groups and NGOs.

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Ionov, of the Anti-Globalist Movement, and Markov said the Kremlin does not finance foreign secessionist parties. Top Kremlin officials also denied the accusation, according to Russian media reports.

However, France’s far-right Euroskeptic National Front Party has admitted receiving $12.2 million loan from a Kremlin-affiliated bank in 2014, according to Bloomberg. And it asked for another loan of $27.7 million in February, the report added.

“I will look for funds where I know I might get them,” the party’s treasurer Wallerand Saint-Just told Bloomberg. “I found some financing there in 2014, so yes I am going to try again.”

The National Front did not respond to NBC News' requests for comment.

Moscow's conservative pivot

Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third presidency in 2012 was marked by a conservative pivot for Moscow. The Kremlin now extols Christian values, denounces Western influences and bans sex education in schools. This “traditional” worldview overlaps with efforts to restore Russia’s clout in former Soviet regions — such as Ukraine and Georgia —and forge ties with nationalist and fringe groups in Europe.

Image: Delegates listen to speeches during the 'International Russian Conservative Forum' in St. Petersburg
Delegates listen to speeches during the 'International Russian Conservative Forum' in St. Petersburg, Russia, 22 march 2015. ANATOLY MALTSEV / EPA

Boris Reitschuster, a veteran German journalist who authored several books on Russia, claims that the ties date back to the first years of Putin's presidency — and his past as a KGB spy in East Germany in 1985-1990, where he developed ties to the Stasi, the secret police.

“I think it started shortly after Putin came to power,” Reitschuster told the Voice of America in April. “He was a KGB man, and everything he is using now is the old methods of the KGB and the Stasi.”

One of these parties is the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, whose former leader Udo Voigt, a current member of the European Parliament, attended the International Russian Conservative Forum conference in St. Petersburg in 2015.

It welcomed fringe parties, Euroskeptic groups and separatists from Greece, Italy, Great Britain and the U.S. and was organized by Rodina — "Motherland" — a conservative nationalist party in Russia that has been accused of xenophobia and racism.

Rodina’s founder and de-facto leader, Dmitri Rogozin, served as Russian envoy to NATO and is now a deputy prime minister in Putin’s government in charge of defense, space and nuclear industries. He was barred from entering the EU and the U.S. for his role in the annexation of Crimea.

While supporting the far-right and secessionist groups abroad, Russia violently cracks down on domestic separatists.

After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow fought hard to contain Russia’s further dissolution by waging two wars against separatists in Chechnya and negotiating deals with the government in Tatarstan, an oil-rich, largely Muslim region on the Volga River that declared independence in the early 1990s but remains a Russian territory.

Neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalist groups mushroomed throughout Russia in the late 1990s, and some of these parties,such as the banned Northern Brotherhood, want regions with the dominant ethnic Russian population to form a separate state.

Meanwhile, a handful of activists in some of 85 Russian provinces with sizable Muslim, Buddhist or shamanist populations also advocate independence.

Dozens of ultra-nationalists and separatists have been convicted and jailed for “propagating” their views in recent years, Sova, a Moscow-based human rights group, said in a recent report.

“They support people like me abroad, and jail us here,” Dmitry Demishkin, a veteran skinhead and head of the nationalist Russkiye (Russians) party that has repeatedly been denied registration, said in July just days before he was sentenced to 15 days in jail for posting a swastika on his social networking page.

Image: Russian economy will overcome crisis in two years - Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses a questioner during his annual press conference in Moscow in December, 2014. SERGEI CHIRIKOV / EPA