Why Fifth Column Statements Resonate
As we document in our new book, Putin’s harsh words fit into a larger tradition of political leaders who identify and vilify “fifth columns,” or individuals or domestic groups who work in cooperation with outside rivals. to undermine the national interest.
The phenomenon is arguably as old as accusations of treason, but the earliest known reference to a “fifth column” in English comes from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Use of the term in English peaked during World War II. world.
Many people know the idea of fifth columns as sleeper cells or spies hiding in enemy territory during wartime, ready to strike when activated. Yet politicians have historically invoked the fifth column in a wide variety of situations, even in times of relative calm.
The idea of ”enemies within” plays on our conscious or unconscious belief that those who are different from us can also be threatening. Politicians exploit these biases by invoking geopolitical or national security fears; in doing so, they deepen social cleavages and trigger group solidarity among those the regime considers “insiders.”
Fifth column claims resonate with the public who are already wary of the targeted ethnic or ideological group. For example, in the United States during World War II, the claim that Japanese Americans constituted a fifth column grew out of a pre-existing anti-Asian movement that had attempted to curb Chinese and later Japanese immigration. .
After the Pearl Harbor attack, anti-Japanese organizations lobbied politicians and agitated in the media. The Roosevelt administration undertook the mass internment of Japanese Americans – despite the fact that intelligence reports at the time found no credible evidence of large-scale espionage or sabotage.
The Lineage of Fifth Column Claims in Russia
Few countries, however, can match Russia’s obsession with fifth columns. In the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, exposing and persecuting capitalist “saboteurs” was a way for ambitious cadres to signal their loyalty to the communist system. During World War II, Stalin forcibly transferred entire ethnic groups to the Soviet hinterland on suspicion of complicity with external enemies. In the so-called Doctors’ Plot, Jewish doctors were arrested and tortured in response to an imaginary Zionist plot to assassinate Soviet leaders.
Putin invoked the fifth columns at various times during his presidency. More memorably, after staging a fraudulent election in 2011, he accused protesters on the streets of Moscow of serving American interests and responding to a cue from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Putin sought to discredit the protesters by accusing them of participating in demonstrations instigated by the United States, Russia’s main international adversary, and suggesting that they did not reflect popular attitudes. Putin concluded at the time that “we are obligated to protect our sovereignty and we will have to think about strengthening the law and making those who perform the tasks of a foreign government to influence internal political processes more accountable.” This rhetoric returned with the invasion of Ukraine.
This time, Putin went further, implying that the fifth column poses an existential threat to Russia and must be dealt with drastically. The Kremlin expanded its crackdown on anti-war protesters, censored the press more harshly and saw many Western companies leave the country.
In this context, Putin’s words imply that it is no longer enough to refrain from overt opposition. Now, any Russian who aspires to a Western way of life is automatically suspect. Putin doesn’t say what that entails, but it presumably means renouncing the middle-class consumerism that many Russians have come to enjoy and giving up aspirations to live in a tolerant, democratic country.
In the most threatening line of his speech, Putin asserted that a “natural and necessary self-cleansing” is necessary to “strengthen our country, our solidarity, our cohesion and our willingness to respond to any challenge”. Russians whose grandparents endured or perished in Stalin’s purges understand that this warning should not be taken lightly.
We don’t yet know if ordinary Russians will rally to these fifth-column accusations among them. Putin has been stoking resentment against liberal-minded Russians for years, appealing to older, less-educated, less-urban citizens who get their news from state television — and this group may take some pleasure in seeing those who are higher on the social ladder get caught down.
It is no coincidence that the cohort Putin focuses on for contempt had already soured on his leadership. If his goal is to intimidate his critics, to induce them to flee rather than face repression, he can succeed.
Putin’s future may rest with the rest of the Russian population who are not enticed by the West and who he believes embody the right kind of patriotic values. Putin is resorting to an old playbook. Invoking the fifth column allows leaders to divide their opposition, control public discourse and redefine loyalty in self-serving ways.
We do not yet know if this strategy will succeed this time. This rhetoric might not resonate with even Putin’s most loyal supporters if they have to endure Russia’s economic collapse and mourn the ever-increasing number of Russian soldiers dying on the battlefield.