Vladimir Putin
Credit: Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons

Back in July 2016, when it was first rumored that Russia was involved in the hacking and release of DNC emails, Max Fisher connected the possibility to a 2013 Russian military journal article.

“The very rules of war have changed,” Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, wrote in the Military-Industrial Courier.

The Arab Spring, according to General Gerasimov, had shown that “nonmilitary means” had overtaken the “force of weapons in their effectiveness.” Deception and disinformation, not tanks and planes, were the new tools of power. And they would be used not in formally declared conflicts but within a vast gray between peace and war.

Those ideas would appear, the next year, in Russia’s formal military doctrine. It was the culmination of a yearslong strategic reorientation that has remade Russian power, in response to threats both real and imagined, into the sort of enterprise that could be plausibly accused of using cyberattacks to meddle in an American presidential election.

Almost a year before the release of the DNC emails, Adrian Chen reported on the activities of the Internet Research Agency, which would become the focus of one of Robert Mueller’s indictments. Those were some of the first publicly recognized signs that Russia had begun to implement this new doctrine here in the United States.

However, the overall strategy doesn’t seem to be limited to cyber intrusions. Going back to at least 2014, there are signs that Putin and his allies were connecting with various groups that make up the Republican base of voters and eventually formed the most loyal Trump supporters. Last April, Rosalind Helderman and Tom Hamburger documented how, by 2015, Russians had established ties with two of these groups.

The burgeoning alliance between Russians and U.S. conservatives was apparent in several events in late 2015, as the Republican nomination battle intensified.

Top officials from the National Rifle Association, whose annual meeting Friday featured an address by Trump for the third time in three years, traveled to Moscow to visit a Russian gun manufacturer and meet government officials.

About the same time in December 2015, evangelist Franklin Graham met privately with Putin for 45 minutes, securing from the Russian president an offer to help with an upcoming conference on the persecution of Christians. Graham was impressed, telling The Washington Post that Putin “answers questions very directly and doesn’t dodge them like a lot of our politicians do.”

Recently at lot of questions have been raised about whether the NRA became a front-group for Russian money that supported the Trump campaign. Denise Clifton and Mark Follman have put together an excellent timeline of how ties between Russia and the NRA developed over the years. But before Franklin Graham traveled to Moscow and met with Putin, he had become a fan. Back in March of 2014, after Russia began to overtly crack down on homosexuals, Graham wrote:

Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue—protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda—Russia’s standard is higher than our own?

In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.

Graham even went so far as to praise Putin for his support of Assad in Syria.

I have never heard Putin quote the Bible, but during his 2012 election campaign, he met with church leaders in Moscow and vowed to protect persecuted Christians around the world. That is one justification for his support of the Assad regime in Syria.

Syria, for all its problems, at least has a constitution that guarantees equal protection of citizens. Around the world, we have seen that this is essential where Christians are a minority and are not protected. The radicals in Syria want an Islamic constitution based on sharia law.

Christians have lived in Syria since the time of Christ. The Apostle Paul was on the road to Damascus when he met Christ. Christians in Syria know that if the radicals overthrow Assad, there will be widespread persecution and wholesale slaughter of Christians.

Graham is not the only white evangelical leader to sign on the the Putin bandwagon. Casey Michel documents how Russia became the leader of the global Christian right. That is quite an about-face from the days when the Soviet Union was seen as a threat by these same groups for their spread of “godless communism.” But Putin has been working on that transformation for a while now, starting with his embrace of the Russian Orthodox Church. His rhetoric about the West shifted as well.

“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” he said at a conference in 2013. “They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious, and even sexual … They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.” By succumbing to secularism, he noted on another occasion, the West was trending toward “chaotic darkness” and a “return to a primitive state.”

What struck me about Putin’s attempt to woo gun rights activists as well as the Christian right is that he was zeroing in on the groups that Barack Obama talked about in 2008 in a way that got him in a lot of trouble. Here is what he said:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

The media zeroed in on “they cling to guns or religion.” But apparently Putin also noticed the bitterness Obama was talking about and set his sights on exploiting it. To do so, there is another group he reached out to. They are the ones Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables” during the 2016 campaign.

As the Ukranian crisis was unfolding in 2014, a meeting of white nationalists was taking place in Hungary, to which Putin sent his own emissary.

The white nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute is holding a conference in October in Hungary that will feature Alexander Dugin, a Russian nationalist thinker who is increasingly popular in Kremlin circles.

Richard Spencer, the president of NPI and a former writer at the American Conservative, said the conference, which will also feature figures from the ascendant European far right, would be the first of its kind for NPI outside the United States. It’s part of an effort to reach out to “European traditionalists” all over the world, he said, and the relationship with Dugin is just beginning: a publishing arm attached to NPI will publish a book this fall by Dugin, who this week called for Ukraine to be “cleansed” of the Ukrainian “race of bastards.”

In March 2015, the white nationalists gathered in St. Petersburg.

American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor and Sam Dickson, Council of Conservative Citizens member and lawyer for the Ku Klux Klan, joined some of Europe’s most extreme right-wing fringe at the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg last weekend.

The event, which took place at a Holiday Inn on Sunday, centered around the preservation of “national identity and culture” by embracing Christian traditions and denouncing globalism, multiculturalism and American influence. But in reality, it was further evidence of a strengthening alliance between American extremists and their European counterparts.

Moscow has also been busy embracing secessionists. At a Dialogue of Nations conference in Moscow in September 2016, one of the headline speakers was the founder of the YesCalifornia movement, Louis Marinelli.

Marinelli, 30, was an unlikely messenger for the “Calexit” cause. He doesn’t live in California. He lives in Yekaterinburg—about 1,000 miles from Moscow—with his Russian wife. But it was not surprising that he had found a platform for his YesCalifornia movement in Moscow. Secession is a popular topic here—as long as it’s from someone else’s country. The Dialogue of Nations Conference, which attracted separatist-minded contingents from Ireland, Spain and Italy, was hosted by a man named Alexander Ionov, whose group had used money from the Kremlin to pay the travel expenses of one of Marinelli’s pals from Red Square: Nate Smith. Smith is one of the leaders of Texas Nationalist Movement that’s pushing to—you guessed it—break away from the United States.

While Russia was developing the technology to implement the cyber activities that have been the focus of so much of our attention since the 2016 election, it is important to keep in mind that they have also been developing person-to-person ties with the part of the Republican base that would be crucial to electing Donald Trump: gun activists, white evangelicals, and white nationalists.

There are those who have questioned why these groups remain loyal to the president as the facts emerge about his relationship with Russia. The reason is obvious. For several years now Vladimir Putin has been busy courting groups that as recently as 30 years ago would have happily taken up arms (literally) against the “evil empire.” They now see their interests aligned with his.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.