(Foreign Affairs) How Enemies Within—Real and Imagined—Are Influencing Geopolitics
In the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has carried out a large-scale crackdown against citizens perceived as opposing the war. Russian President Vladimir Putin made his intentions clear in a speech in March, warning that the West “will try to bet on the so-called fifth column, on traitors—on those who earn their money here, but live over there. Live, not in the geographical sense, but in the sense of their thoughts, their slavish thinking.”
Putin’s rhetoric has been translated into official policy: dissidents and independent-minded Russians have been accused of advancing Western interests and working to undermine Russia from within. Some have been fined, imprisoned, or tortured. This campaign against supposed traitors has been mounted not only by the Kremlin’s agents directly but also by ordinary citizens who believe they are acting patriotically by turning on their neighbors and colleagues. The playbook is one that leaders are using in a growing number of countries, identifying and vilifying domestic groups purportedly working with external enemies to undermine the national interest—and then inciting the public to target them. In so doing, these leaders exploit preexisting prejudices, national security fears, and geopolitical rivalries to weaken domestic political opponents and boost the cohesion of “insiders” who support them.
Although the term “fifth column” wasn’t coined until the 1930s, the practice of identifying and targeting such threats is a far older phenomenon and arguably predates the nation-state. For much of history, governments have mostly dealt clandestinely with fifth columns rather than trumpet their presence for political gain. […]
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Harris Mylonas is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Scott Radnitz is Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
Recommended: Harris Mylonas and Scott Radnitz, “Enemies Within: The Global Politics of Fifth Columns,” Oxford University Press, Jul;y 2022