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What will become of Putin’s useful idiots? Ideological traitors could be left to rot

Putin has invited anti-woke Westerners to move to Russia (Getty Images)

Putin has invited anti-woke Westerners to move to Russia (Getty Images)


July 6, 2023   5 mins

Just outside Moscow, Russian migration lawyer Timur Beslangurov is looking for residents for his new Potemkin Village. But unlike the fake one supposedly constructed by Russian nobleman Grigory Potemkin to impress Catherine the Great, Beslangurov’s village and its inhabitants will be quite real.

Planned for the Serpukhov district south of Moscow, it is to be a home for Western expatriates who are tired of the “radical values” of their supposed democracies. “Today, they have 70 genders — and who knows what will come next,” Beslangurov reportedly told a conference in St Petersburg. He claims they have identified around 200 “normal people” to move there, mainly Christians fearing the end of their faith in the West.

There is already a small community of Westerners in Russia: some, such as Australian John Helmer, have been there since the Cold War, while others have emigrated more recently, including ex-cop and fugitive Floridian John Mark Dougan, who skipped town just as the FBI was about to arrest him on hacking charges. Even more have arrived in the past year, firmly picking a side in the war against Ukraine, as ex-US soldier John McIntyre did. This rump of foreigners is more critical to upholding President Vladimir Putin’s legitimacy than it is given credit for.

The Russian-based Canadian Eva Bartlett, for example, uses her social media channels to advance the idea that the fighting in Ukraine is a “US proxy war against Russia”, and that Western media and US intelligence agencies are covering up “the fact that Ukraine is committing genocide”. She vents to her 150,000 followers on Twitter, and another 32,000 on her Telegram channel, and is still promoted by far-Left groups in Canada. Meanwhile, Thomas Röper, the German-Russian editor of a pro-Russian blog, whose YouTube channel has 120,000 subscribers, has travelled throughout Russian-occupied Ukraine at the invitation of Moscow, even serving as an “international observer” for sham referendums held in the Donbas region.

McIntyre, for his part, was initially fighting alongside the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, the unit defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Then, earlier this year, he deserted, only to pop up in Moscow not long after. He claims to have been spying for Russia from the very beginning.

Russia has been only too happy to give these figures a home and a platform. Bartlett and Röper are both frequent contributors to the RT propaganda network, and were also invited, alongside Dougan and several other Westerners, to testify before the International Public Tribunal on Ukraine: a series of hearings, run by a Russian government body in Moscow, that have accused Ukraine of war crimes and developing biological weapons.

In some cases, these influencers reinforce Russian foreign policy. Bartlett, for example, has toured Syria at the invitation of Bashar al-Assad, and helped peddle the idea that rebels and internationally respected medics launched chemical weapons attacks inside Syria, rather than the Syrian military. It’s a thoroughly debunked allegation that aligns closely with the obfuscation pushed by the Russian government and its client, al-Assad.

In other cases, they reinforce the idea of Putin as a benevolent actor. Over the past year, the President’s personal future and the longevity of his kleptocratic regime have been shaken to the core: beset by a stalled invasion; destabilised by an aborted coup; and frustrated by the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens fleeing his partial mobilisation. Throughout it all, Moscow has tried to project not just strength and stability, but the idea that Russia is a guiding beacon for the rest of the world, a symbol of traditional values.

This certainly works in Africa and the Middle East, where Moscow’s social values, particularly around religion and sexuality, better reflect the cultural norms than does Western decadence. It also aligns well with the American and European Right. Tucker Carlson has frequently held up Putin as an antidote to America’s wokeness. In France, Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour have both, at various times, hailed Russian values. And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has styled himself after the Russian dictator, lamenting that his nation is under assault by Western liberalism.

All of this is to Putin’s benefit. The idea that Westerners themselves are validating Putin’s warnings about the moral decay and irreligious apostasy of Nato countries is useful to the Kremlin. The idea that some of those Westerners would come to Russia to fight, even die, for Putin’s political project is even more compelling.

Take Dougan. He told me last year that he planned to help train the Russian-backed separatists. “The Donetsk People’s Republic have captured a bunch of the Javelin missiles sent to them by the American government,” he told me on a video call from Moscow. “When I was in the United States Marine Corps, I happened to be an anti-tank assault man. And my goal is to teach them how to use these missiles to defend themselves… I’m going to give them a way to fight back.” While he declined to confirm if he ever actually went to train them, he did say that, more recently, he had trained with Chechen fighters. (“Those guys are awesome shooters,” he told me this week.)

The West has, for now, opted to ignore this small cohort of Putin propagandists, probably just a few hundred strong. But even that small cohort wields outsize influence. And if it wanted to, could the West act against them? Western states do carry a legal prohibition of sorts on joining a foreign conflict, absent a declaration of war — these laws, however, are selectively and rarely enforced.

In March 2022, American law professor Dakota Rudesill called on the US government to offer some clarity as to who may, or not may not, run afoul of the Neutrality Act in Ukraine. That clarity never came. Rudesill tells me that it is still unclear whether it is legal to travel to Russia to join the fight. Given how much evidence has been posted on social media about these foreign volunteers, he says: “I am confident that a fair number of Americans who have joined the fight on both sides could be charged if the Justice Department as a matter of prosecutorial discretion decided to do so.”

Clearly, the Biden administration is unlikely to target anyone fighting alongside Ukraine. But, Rudesill says, a future administration could break with Biden’s pro-Ukraine stance. Without clarity on the law, he says, the Department of Justice could “start prosecuting Americans who have been resisting the invasion”.

Congress could modernise the law — both by updating the Neutrality Act to reflect modern realities, and by expressly forbidding Americans from joining foreign wars, while also specifically exempting those fighting for Ukraine. (Such a bill, to provide legal cover for the Ukrainian volunteers, has already been introduced in the House of Representatives.) The UK’s Foreign Enlistment Act, and similar legislation in its former colonies, is equally antiquated and selectively enforced, but still in effect.

There are other legal mechanisms to draw on. Western sanction laws are probably the most practical: many of those living and working in Russia are, almost certainly, in violation of them. The European Union has classified the Russian government as a state sponsor of terrorism, and there is a movement afoot to have the US follow suit. Such a designation would come with a spate of legal prohibitions. The United Kingdom is getting ready to classify Wagner Group as a terrorist entity, and other countries are considering following suit. That could mean anyone fighting alongside them could be prosecuted much like those who joined the Islamic State.

Ukraine may also insist on trying some of the fighters for war crimes, even if they are American, Canadian or European. There is also some precedent in the country for prosecuting propagandists if they are found guilty of inciting genocide.

When the West was called upon to repatriate its citizens who had joined Islamic State and wreaked havoc in Syria and Iraq, it — by and large — shirked its responsibility. As a result, tens of thousands of foreigners have been left to rot in the Middle East. Some are former combatants, whom, even years later, Western governments are still disinterested in prosecuting. Others are women and children who had no hand in the fighting or brutal violence, and yet many states still refuse to take them back.

With this in mind, Western countries ought to clarify the situations in which their citizens could face prosecution for their participation in Putin’s war. This may, in some cases, be purely academic: they may simply never leave Russia again. But as Yevgeny Prigozhin’s march on Moscow showed, the Russian state may be less stable than we thought. And if the President were to fall, what would become of his useful idiots. Suddenly, that brand new Potemkin village might not look quite so appealing.


Justin Ling is a freelance journalist based in Montreal. His Substack is Bug-eyed and Shameless.

Justin_Ling

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Sayantani Gupta Jafa
SG
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
9 months ago

I can’t believe I am reading this in ” free speech” Western media and not a Soviet Pravda or Tass or Xinhua news agency. So anyone who opposes a proxy NATO war and the Democrat Deep State is a Putin shill. Maybe that’s why RFK Jr is raising record funds or is he too a Russia hand?
Atrocious nonsense article

Ian Johnston
IJ
Ian Johnston
9 months ago

I couldn’t agree more.

Unherd has a broken brain when it comes to Ukraine, sadly.

David Adams
DA
David Adams
9 months ago

Read the article. The author doesn’t call anyone a Putin shill, still less a traitor as some of the more dramatic commenters are saying.

He is reporting the facts about and presumed motivations of Westerners who move to Russia to support the Russian state. The worst he calls them is “useful idiots”.

The only clear opinion he expresses here is that the law should be clarified so that individual Westerners involved in foreign wars know what they’re getting into.

Last edited 9 months ago by David Adams
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
SG
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
9 months ago
Reply to  David Adams

Maybe they feel Russia is fighting a just war. And there is no denial that Ukraine has battalions proudly displaying Nazi insignia who are even invited to speak at US universities. The author is descending into unreason when he attacks anyone with a different view as an ” useful idiot” deservous of being locked up. Troubling rationale for self proclaimed upholders of ” liberty” and ” free speech”. Definitely double standards for someone like me from the Global South . It’s “show me the cause and I show you the label”typical of Western humbug.

Last edited 9 months ago by Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
SG
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
9 months ago
Reply to  David Adams

Maybe they feel Russia is fighting a just war. And there is no denial that Ukraine has battalions proudly displaying Nazi insignia who are even invited to speak at US universities. The author is descending into unreason when he attacks anyone with a different view as an ” useful idiot” deservous of being locked up. Troubling rationale for self proclaimed upholders of ” liberty” and ” free speech”. Definitely double standards for someone like me from the Global South . It’s “show me the cause and I show you the label”typical of Western humbug.

Last edited 9 months ago by Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Liam Brady
LB
Liam Brady
9 months ago

I really wish, the fools who bang on about a nato proxy war, could explain how USA apparently lured poor, dear Putin into invading Ukraine. Anyhow, when this war is over and Ukraine have won, the Putin supporters will feel SHAME and embarrassment for decades.

Mike Michaels
MM
Mike Michaels
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam Brady

Maybe by ripping up past treaties and expanding NATO borders ever eastward. Or maybe it was staging the coup that led to the clown and coke head being installed as leader. Ukraine are not going to win without taking the whole world down. Which, at the moment, appears to be the plan.

Mike Michaels
MM
Mike Michaels
9 months ago
Reply to  Liam Brady

Maybe by ripping up past treaties and expanding NATO borders ever eastward. Or maybe it was staging the coup that led to the clown and coke head being installed as leader. Ukraine are not going to win without taking the whole world down. Which, at the moment, appears to be the plan.

Ian Johnston
IJ
Ian Johnston
9 months ago

I couldn’t agree more.

Unherd has a broken brain when it comes to Ukraine, sadly.

David Adams
DA
David Adams
9 months ago

Read the article. The author doesn’t call anyone a Putin shill, still less a traitor as some of the more dramatic commenters are saying.

He is reporting the facts about and presumed motivations of Westerners who move to Russia to support the Russian state. The worst he calls them is “useful idiots”.

The only clear opinion he expresses here is that the law should be clarified so that individual Westerners involved in foreign wars know what they’re getting into.

Last edited 9 months ago by David Adams
Liam Brady
LB
Liam Brady
9 months ago

I really wish, the fools who bang on about a nato proxy war, could explain how USA apparently lured poor, dear Putin into invading Ukraine. Anyhow, when this war is over and Ukraine have won, the Putin supporters will feel SHAME and embarrassment for decades.

Sayantani Gupta Jafa
SG
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
9 months ago

I can’t believe I am reading this in ” free speech” Western media and not a Soviet Pravda or Tass or Xinhua news agency. So anyone who opposes a proxy NATO war and the Democrat Deep State is a Putin shill. Maybe that’s why RFK Jr is raising record funds or is he too a Russia hand?
Atrocious nonsense article

Rod McLaughlin
RM
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago

I’m no more a ‘traitor’ to Ukraine than I am to Israel. I’m not Ukrainian nor Israeli. Yet I have to pay tribute to support these countries, toward one of which I’m indifferent, and the other, hostile. If anyone’s a traitor, it’s the people who make me pay these taxes.

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
9 months ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

I couldn’t agree more. Why am I (and the rest of the British people) continually shaken down, under the implicit threat of State violence, by the thieving HMRC to fund these BS neoliberal forever-wars while our schools are grossly under-funded and the roads a mess of tyre-bursting potholes?
It is sickening.

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Joy
Julian Moruzzi
JM
Julian Moruzzi
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Oh you poor thing, so oppressed!

Julian Moruzzi
JM
Julian Moruzzi
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

Oh you poor thing, so oppressed!

Liam Brady
LB
Liam Brady
9 months ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

As a high earner and therefore a high taxpayer, I have no objection with this government spending a tiny percentage of my taxes to try to halt a GENOCIDE in Europe. However, I am sickened that two thirds of my taxes go to paying an appalling health service and a welfare system that rewards idleness.

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
9 months ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

I couldn’t agree more. Why am I (and the rest of the British people) continually shaken down, under the implicit threat of State violence, by the thieving HMRC to fund these BS neoliberal forever-wars while our schools are grossly under-funded and the roads a mess of tyre-bursting potholes?
It is sickening.

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Joy
Liam Brady
LB
Liam Brady
9 months ago
Reply to  Rod McLaughlin

As a high earner and therefore a high taxpayer, I have no objection with this government spending a tiny percentage of my taxes to try to halt a GENOCIDE in Europe. However, I am sickened that two thirds of my taxes go to paying an appalling health service and a welfare system that rewards idleness.

Rod McLaughlin
RM
Rod McLaughlin
9 months ago

I’m no more a ‘traitor’ to Ukraine than I am to Israel. I’m not Ukrainian nor Israeli. Yet I have to pay tribute to support these countries, toward one of which I’m indifferent, and the other, hostile. If anyone’s a traitor, it’s the people who make me pay these taxes.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
9 months ago

No mention that many of the ‘idiots’ are people who have fallen foul of the military-intelligence dictatorship running the US. Dougan for example was investigated and probably framed because he knew too much about Epstein and the compromising videos of politicians and others having sex with underage girls – videos now presumably held by the FBI in a deep vault – and his own investigation into the unexplained assassination of Seth Rich – probably carried out to protect the Clinton crime family.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
9 months ago

No mention that many of the ‘idiots’ are people who have fallen foul of the military-intelligence dictatorship running the US. Dougan for example was investigated and probably framed because he knew too much about Epstein and the compromising videos of politicians and others having sex with underage girls – videos now presumably held by the FBI in a deep vault – and his own investigation into the unexplained assassination of Seth Rich – probably carried out to protect the Clinton crime family.

Dermot O'Sullivan
DO
Dermot O'Sullivan
9 months ago

Would the following piece on Navalny’s situation have any impact on those who believe Ukraine should not be supported against the Putin regime?

Navalny and his family filed a lawsuit against his penal colony, demanding that Alexei be allowed visits from his loved ones. He has not seen his wife, children or parents for over a year. Even phone calls are prohibited for him, and his time for writing is being increasingly limited. Under the law, even the most dangerous criminals are allowed to communicate with their loved ones, but Navalny receives special treatment in the penal colony — they have been torturing him with solitude for months now. Here is what Alexei himself wrote about the lawsuit: I know all about our judicial system, so I have no illusions about this. It’s a matter of principle: I have the right to see my relatives at least a couple of times a year. It’s also a matter of the future: someday, even if it’s years from now, these cases will be reviewed by a fair court. So I would like that future fair court to have all the necessary files at hand.

Dermot O'Sullivan
DO
Dermot O'Sullivan
9 months ago

Would the following piece on Navalny’s situation have any impact on those who believe Ukraine should not be supported against the Putin regime?

Navalny and his family filed a lawsuit against his penal colony, demanding that Alexei be allowed visits from his loved ones. He has not seen his wife, children or parents for over a year. Even phone calls are prohibited for him, and his time for writing is being increasingly limited. Under the law, even the most dangerous criminals are allowed to communicate with their loved ones, but Navalny receives special treatment in the penal colony — they have been torturing him with solitude for months now. Here is what Alexei himself wrote about the lawsuit: I know all about our judicial system, so I have no illusions about this. It’s a matter of principle: I have the right to see my relatives at least a couple of times a year. It’s also a matter of the future: someday, even if it’s years from now, these cases will be reviewed by a fair court. So I would like that future fair court to have all the necessary files at hand.

Andrew Boughton
AB
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago

Does the author have any personal connections with people in Ukraine or Russia?

Andrew Boughton
AB
Andrew Boughton
9 months ago

Does the author have any personal connections with people in Ukraine or Russia?

Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Conclusion in last para isn’t justified by what’s said prior to it.

If anything from Western governments perspective, it’d be better to keep the whole thing very cloudy, since leaving them to rot is certainly a warning, may well be intentional, and who actually wants these people back?

Last edited 9 months ago by Dumetrius
Dumetrius
D
Dumetrius
9 months ago

Conclusion in last para isn’t justified by what’s said prior to it.

If anything from Western governments perspective, it’d be better to keep the whole thing very cloudy, since leaving them to rot is certainly a warning, may well be intentional, and who actually wants these people back?

Last edited 9 months ago by Dumetrius
Katherine Finn
KF
Katherine Finn
9 months ago

*”uninterested”. “Disinterested” means impartial, unbiased. “Uninterested” means having no interest in something.

Katherine Finn
KF
Katherine Finn
9 months ago

*”uninterested”. “Disinterested” means impartial, unbiased. “Uninterested” means having no interest in something.

Emmanuel MARTIN
EM
Emmanuel MARTIN
9 months ago

This is funny speculation until you remember European courts have been forcing French government to repatriate jihadi families who went to join ISIS with their familes.
I really doubt this precedent can be ignored.

Emmanuel MARTIN
EM
Emmanuel MARTIN
9 months ago

This is funny speculation until you remember European courts have been forcing French government to repatriate jihadi families who went to join ISIS with their familes.
I really doubt this precedent can be ignored.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

IDK. The author seems to be getting a little ahead of himself here. I have mixed feelings about the west using the invasion as pretext for a proxy war, but I have zero sympathy and little interest in the handful of malcontents who have sided with Putin. There will be multiple ways to bring justice to these people should they decide to ever return home.

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

What do you mean ‘bring to justice’? Despite their long-term strategy of encirclement and ‘regime change’, Balkanisation and resource-extraction (openly admitted 30 years ago in the form of the Wolfowitz Doctrine), the USSA (and its UK puppet) are not yet formally at war with Russia. If a free-born citizen of either chooses to soldier for a foreign government – whether it be the Swazis, Nepalese or the French – then it absolutely no legitimate business of the Justice (!) Dept or the CPS.
Of course, both these entities lost all legitmacy years ago: for 30-40 years now, they have been little but bludgeons to batter or intimidate the Deep State’s ideological enemies.
And whaddya mean, ‘propagandists’? People who happen to see the world differently from Nancy Pelosi, Larry Fink and Bill Kristol? People who – by departing a west that disgusts them – are making Stumbly Joe & Co ‘look bad’?
In any case, the new refuseniks taking refuge in the nation of Russia aren’t the ‘idiots’ here. No, Ling, the idiot here is you – and a delusional one at that. $40 trillion in US Govt debt, now, and where has the money gone? Where has the industry gone? Where have middle class standards of living gone, you neoliberal stooge? What is the Goldman Sachs-Blackrock-Biden regime, if not ‘kleptocratic’?
You sneer at the critics of western degeneracy, but it is an empirically observable fact that they are absolutely correct. Just look at Portland, Marseille, Malmo, Molenbeek… even Lausanne now, FFS. State-sponsored Stonewall indoctrination of children. A whole month of every year of Pride Inc. Record taxes and potholed roads. More mass immigration, when the voters have been saying NO for years. Falling incomes. Beggars everywhere. Nut Zero about to make it all far worse. ‘The West’ is turning into a poor, angry, lawless third world wasteland right before our eyes.
Not a problem they have in Russia, though. But thanks for the Serphukhov tip: I’ll be looking into that…

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Joy
Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

If you hate the moral degeneracy taking place in the west right now, move to Poland or Hungary. I was talking to a friend just yesterday who is contemplating moving to Thailand for that very reason. Don’t move to Russia and shill for Putin. I might have concerns that the west is using Ukraine to fight a proxy war, but that’s not a justification for Putin invading another country.

Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago
Reply to  Peter Joy

If you hate the moral degeneracy taking place in the west right now, move to Poland or Hungary. I was talking to a friend just yesterday who is contemplating moving to Thailand for that very reason. Don’t move to Russia and shill for Putin. I might have concerns that the west is using Ukraine to fight a proxy war, but that’s not a justification for Putin invading another country.

Peter Joy
PJ
Peter Joy
9 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

What do you mean ‘bring to justice’? Despite their long-term strategy of encirclement and ‘regime change’, Balkanisation and resource-extraction (openly admitted 30 years ago in the form of the Wolfowitz Doctrine), the USSA (and its UK puppet) are not yet formally at war with Russia. If a free-born citizen of either chooses to soldier for a foreign government – whether it be the Swazis, Nepalese or the French – then it absolutely no legitimate business of the Justice (!) Dept or the CPS.
Of course, both these entities lost all legitmacy years ago: for 30-40 years now, they have been little but bludgeons to batter or intimidate the Deep State’s ideological enemies.
And whaddya mean, ‘propagandists’? People who happen to see the world differently from Nancy Pelosi, Larry Fink and Bill Kristol? People who – by departing a west that disgusts them – are making Stumbly Joe & Co ‘look bad’?
In any case, the new refuseniks taking refuge in the nation of Russia aren’t the ‘idiots’ here. No, Ling, the idiot here is you – and a delusional one at that. $40 trillion in US Govt debt, now, and where has the money gone? Where has the industry gone? Where have middle class standards of living gone, you neoliberal stooge? What is the Goldman Sachs-Blackrock-Biden regime, if not ‘kleptocratic’?
You sneer at the critics of western degeneracy, but it is an empirically observable fact that they are absolutely correct. Just look at Portland, Marseille, Malmo, Molenbeek… even Lausanne now, FFS. State-sponsored Stonewall indoctrination of children. A whole month of every year of Pride Inc. Record taxes and potholed roads. More mass immigration, when the voters have been saying NO for years. Falling incomes. Beggars everywhere. Nut Zero about to make it all far worse. ‘The West’ is turning into a poor, angry, lawless third world wasteland right before our eyes.
Not a problem they have in Russia, though. But thanks for the Serphukhov tip: I’ll be looking into that…

Last edited 9 months ago by Peter Joy
Jim Veenbaas
JV
Jim Veenbaas
9 months ago

IDK. The author seems to be getting a little ahead of himself here. I have mixed feelings about the west using the invasion as pretext for a proxy war, but I have zero sympathy and little interest in the handful of malcontents who have sided with Putin. There will be multiple ways to bring justice to these people should they decide to ever return home.

Simon Blanchard
SB
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

I’d be more interested in rooting out Putin’s useful idiots in the British establishment, most notably Boris Johnson and his pals. And please, no lectures about “world-leading” support for Zelensky. That was simply opportunism.

Simon Blanchard
SB
Simon Blanchard
9 months ago

I’d be more interested in rooting out Putin’s useful idiots in the British establishment, most notably Boris Johnson and his pals. And please, no lectures about “world-leading” support for Zelensky. That was simply opportunism.