MOSCOW — On Feb. 21, the Libyan air force swooped in on protesters in Tripoli, opening fire on a crowd that had joined the uprising against Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi. That same day, Boris Yakemenko, a high-ranking ideologist for the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, decided it was a good moment to offer his own take on events.
"Libyan leader Col. M. Qaddafi has shown the whole world how to treat provocateurs who aim for revolution, destabilization, and civil war," Yakemenko wrote in an essay titled "The Right Path," posted on his blog and on Nashi's official website.
"He started to destroy them. He used rockets and everything he has," Yakemenko wrote. "This is the most accurate path to ending American 'revolutionary' technologies."
His words would seem like the ravings of a madman -- if they did not ring so close to statements made by Russia's leadership since the unrest riling the Middle East broke out in January. Intrinsically frightened by revolution and by recent polls showing widespread agitation and mistrust of the government, the Kremlin is striking pre-emptively: hinting that the revolutions are Western-backed overthrows of troublesome regimes and issuing paranoid statements designed to shift the blame for Russia's ills away from itself.
Yakemenko is no outsider. He's one of the top officials in Nashi, the brother of its leader, and a member of the Public Chamber, a government oversight committee made up of presidential appointees. Nashi, the group he represents, is an explicitly counterrevolutionary body, formed by the Kremlin in 2005 in the wake of the so-called color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. In the West, those uprisings were viewed as two post-Soviet countries throwing off the remaining shackles of Russian influence. Inside the Kremlin, the color revolutions were seen as victories for Western spy agencies bent on bringing Russia to its knees.
"[At the time,] President Putin and other officials really used the rhetoric of 'the next day it'll happen in Moscow,'" said Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Nashi, which counts tens of thousands of Putin-loving youths as members, was designed to pre-empt that day.
But Nashi's representative wasn't the only one egging on autocratic dictators in the Arab world. As events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya unfolded, Russia's leaders remained uncomfortably quiet before responding with the same level of high-alert paranoia. Igor Sechin, a secretive deputy prime minister and one of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's closest confidants, used a rare interview to blame the unrest entirely on Google, hinting at the role of Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who anonymously ran a Facebook page that gathered thousands of supporters for Egypt's revolution. "We need to more closely examine what has happened in Egypt," he told the Wall Street Journal. "See, well, what senior managers of Google have been doing in Egypt, what kind of manipulations of the energy of the people took place there."
Hours after the interview was published on Feb. 22, President Dmitry Medvedev made his first statements on the unrest, warning that "fanatics" were attempting to come to power in the Arab world. "This will mean fires for decades and the spread of extremism," he warned.
Most striking, however, was Medvedev's remark that an unidentified "they" were preparing similar unrest at home.
"They have prepared such a scenario for us before, and now more than ever they will try and realize it," Medvedev said, without making any attempt to elaborate on who "they" might be. "In any case, this scenario won't succeed."