Is Russia Behind a Secession Effort in California?

The Calexit campaign aims its pitch at progressives, but sports some curious ties to Moscow.

David McNew / Reuters

Last month, I asked Los Angeles Times readers to imagine how they would react if Donald Trump tried to kick California out of the union. After all, if not for the Golden State, he would have won the popular vote, Blue America would lose its biggest source of electoral votes, the Senate would have two fewer Democrats, the House would lose 38 more (along with 14 Republicans), and the U.S. would be a lot less ethnically diverse. It’s easy to imagine some on the alt-right preferring that future, even as most liberals and progressives would recognize it as a catastrophe.

And yet, I observed, the people presently working to bring about a “Cal-exit” by gathering signatures for a 2018 ballot measure that would start the secession process are pitching their efforts in language designed to appeal to the state’s progressives––and tapping into the anger that many Californians feel toward the president. “Californians are better educated, wealthier, more liberal, and value healthcare and education more than the rest of the country,” Marcus Ruiz Evans, one of the leaders of the Yes California Independence Campaign, declared in one op-ed. “Our views on education, science, immigration, taxation and healthcare are different.”

I spent the balance of my op-ed alerting my fellow Californians to the weakness of the substantive case for secession. A post-exit California would not be a stable political entity, and the pro-secession campaign’s arguments don’t pass the laugh test.

Here, I want to observe that their effort doesn’t pass the smell test, either.

The San Jose Mercury News took note of this in a November 26, 2016 article that began:

After a Manhattan billionaire led a wave of working-class discontent to the White House, perhaps it’s fitting that the two men steering a left-leaning movement to get California out of Donald Trump’s  America lack liberal bona fides. Louis Marinelli and Marcus Evans were both registered Republicans two years ago when they formed what is now known as Yes California, a homegrown separatist movement. At the time, the 30-year-old Marinelli, who grew up in upstate New York, had spent more years living in Russia than the Golden State.

And Evans, 39, briefly hosted conservative talk radio shows in his native Fresno. In an interview this past week, Evans wouldn’t say if he voted for Trump, but he insisted that he doesn’t fit the bill of a right-wing radio blowhard.

Is the separatist movement “home grown”? I am not so sure. On December 13, 2016, KQED’s The California Report delved deeper into those Marinelli ties to Russia:

On paper, the leader of the California secession movement lives in an apartment complex near San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood. But in reality, the Calexit campaign is being run by a 30-year-old who lives and works in a city on the edge of Siberia. Louis Marinelli heads the secessionist group Yes California. Following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the organization has gone from an unknown fringe group to one discussed seriously in mainstream media.

What has not been discussed as prominently is Marinelli’s deep ties to Russia. A former right-wing activist from Buffalo, New York, Marinelli first moved to Russia almost a decade ago. He studied at St. Petersburg State University, the alma mater of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He returned to the United States to campaign against LGBTQ rights as part of the National Organization for Marriage. Marinelli then returned to Russia. He would marry a Russian citizen, and the couple moved to San Diego, where Marinelli launched a political career based on a platform of California secession.

“I immigrated to California, and I consider myself to be a Californian,” Marinelli says from his apartment in Yekaterinburg, a city of about 1.4 million just east of the Ural Mountains and about 1,000 miles from Moscow.

That brings us to Moscow itself.

On December 18, 2016, Russia Today, a media outlet controlled by the Kremlin, reported that “a campaign calling for the independence of California from the United States has opened an ‘embassy’ in Moscow. The movement, Yes California, is hoping for a ‘Calexit’ break from the US. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Louis Marinelli, leader of the movement, said the embassy will not deal with diplomatic issues, but will act as more of a cultural center that will educate Russians about California's history, boost trade ties and promote tourism.”

How does a fledgling secession movement with little grassroots support afford a Moscow “embassy”? Snopes says a group funded by the Kremlin is letting them use the space for free.

Over the weekend, Marinelli gave a television interview to MSNBC host Alex Witt. “Do you think people might grow skeptical and concerned that this movement is just part of a bigger strategy by the Kremlin to destabilize the West?” she asked.

“Sure, we believe that’s certainly a reasonable skepticism for people to have,” Marinelli said, “but the truth of the matter is that the American government has for a long time tried to rally the American public against Russia no matter what the issue is.”

That wasn’t quite a denial, was it?

“There’s always some kind of common enemy that the American government tries to align our people against and usually that enemy is Russia. So it’s kind of nonsense in my opinion,” he added. “The truth of the matter is that our embassy in Russia is a people’s embassy. It’s a cultural center. We’re going to have an important exhibit there exhibiting the history of California civil rights. And we’re going to be using our California embassy here in Moscow as a platform to demonstrate to the people of Russia our values in California and the story of our history and our culture.”

The odds are against California voting to cleve itself from the United States. “The measure would ask voters to remove a reference in the state’s Constitution to California as an inseparable part of the U.S., and set a second vote, for March 2019, that would ask, ‘Should California become a free, sovereign and independent country?’” The New York Times notes. “But backers need to collect 585,407 valid signatures, a daunting task.”

The odds against the United States permitting the Golden State to exit are even longer.

The secession movement is nevertheless worth watching in a world where Britain is parting ways with the European Union, Trump is the president of the United States, and Vladimir Putin’s Russia would love nothing more than to sow chaos in America’s largest state, regardless of whether the Kremlin is already involved or not.

“People who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements—and even giving them a boost—is a part of a very real strategy,” Politico writes. “Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at turmoil in the U.S., but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West—most especially those who would fracture the United States in a reprise of the Soviet Union’s demise, over a quarter-century later.” If nothing else, Californians should think long and hard before signing that petition. It may turn out that there are multiple levels of mischief nested inside of it.