Hollywood celebrities don’t come cheap. But the Kremlin sometimes gets a special deal.
Russia has appointed Steven Seagal, a martial-arts instructor and film star, as an unpaid ambassador. He was not, presumably, hired for his analytical or drafting skills, two of the main requirements of conventional diplomacy. But he scores highly on another front: networking. Mr. Seagal has befriended President Vladimir Putin, whom he called “one of the great living world leaders.” In 2013 he brokered meetings between Russian officials and American lawmakers to discuss counter-terrorism cooperation in the wake of the Boston bombing. The 66-year-old black belt (that’s Mr. Seagal, not Mr. Putin, who is 65), will be responsible for what the Russian foreign ministry calls “humanitarian” relations with the United States. In other words, he is part of the Kremlin’s soft-power offensive in the West.
Russia’s ability to attract such assets (others include Gerard Depardieu, Roy Jones Jr., and Mickey Rourke) is striking. Gangsters and communists were once Hollywood scriptwriters’ staple villains. Modern Russia’s kleptocracy and Soviet nostalgia should be targets for action heroes, not temptations. But the Russian regime’s loudly pronounced hostility to Islamist terrorism, however empty in practice, chimes well with modern machismo. So does its social conservatism. American men feeling bruised by the #MeToo movement may feel at home in a country where misogyny attracts laughs rather than censure. (Mr. Seagal calls the anti-harassment campaign a “witchhunt” and faces numerous sex-abuse claims; he denies wrongdoing.)
But the Kremlin’s ability to attract washed-up celebrities is less important than how it deploys them. Russia’s links to foreign far-right groups go back to the 1990s (ask the Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians). Subversive tendrils of influence have spread to biker gangs, anti-crime vigilantes, paintball aficionados, gun-rights activists, and martial arts groups. In this world, Mr. Seagal can be genuinely useful. Imagine, for example, a Russian-sponsored martial-arts contest in the U.S., with the aikido master as judge or prize-giver. That would offer Russia a bridge into popular culture and to mainstream conservative politics.
The paradox here barely needs stating. One vector of Kremlin influence is cultivating the anti-American left in Europe and Latin America. Another is building ties to American über-patriots, who in some cases are so keen on their own country’s uniqueness and greatness that they question the whole idea of leadership based on collective security. Some of Russia’s foreign friends would be more likely to share a punch-up than a beer or a podium.
None of that is much comfort for Western security planners. Russia’s aim is usually to stoke polarization and mistrust, rather than to favor any particular party or cause. This activity is sometimes clandestine, though it all too often escapes the notice and scope of our counter-intelligence and criminal justice agencies. But it can just as well be open.
In response, one option is visa sanctions. Countries like Estonia and Ukraine banned Mr. Seagal after he took part in 2014 in a rally organized by the pro-Kremlin biker group, the Night Wolves, in Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea. Consumers can boycott his films, though his recent direct-to-video productions need little encouragement on their journey to obscurity.
Mr. Seagal’s activities in the U.S. will deserve and gain careful and critical scrutiny. Under American law he may have to register as a foreign agent as he goes about his work. The filings will be interesting. But unlike pro-Western Russians, he will not face bureaucratic bullying, physical intimidation, or murder. Nor should he. That he can lobby freely and effectively for a hostile foreign state is in a way a sign of our weakness. But it also displays our strength.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.
6 August 2018