A U.S. intelligence community assessment obtained by Yahoo News concluded that the Russian government is providing “indirect and passive support” to neofascist groups operating in the U.S. and elsewhere, but stops short of accusing the Kremlin of supplying financial or material assistance to Western extremist groups.
The Kremlin “probably tolerates some private Russian entities’ support” for U.S. and European white nationalist groups “because it aligns with Kremlin efforts to aggravate societal fissures in the West,” states the report.
Russian neofascist groups have attempted to recruit and provide paramilitary training to North American and European extremists in order to “expand their reach into the West, increase membership, and raise money,” according to the unclassified July 2021 intelligence report.
The support of Western neofascists by Russian extremists “poses a potential threat to Western security by encouraging and enabling attacks on ethnic minorities and government facilities,” states the report, which is titled “Russian Federation Support of Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists.”
But the report, which was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence with input from the CIA and the FBI, also says the U.S. government lacks “indications of direct Russian government support” for foreign white nationalist groups.
Russian state-backed online influence operations do, however, “amplify politically divisive issues” that likely help in “the radicalization and recruitment efforts worldwide" of white nationalist groups, the report states.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
Russian extremist groups are actively training foreign white nationalists, the report states. One Russian neofascist group, the Russian Imperial Movement, has overseen paramilitary instruction for European extremists at its Russia-based camps, and has tried to recruit Americans to train there, according to the report.
The State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement as a terrorist group in April 2020. The organization “actively supplies paramilitary training to foreign nationals for possible future attacks in their respective home countries or on the battlefields of Ukraine,” according to a May 2021 Customs and Border Patrol bulletin obtained by Yahoo News.
Another Russian extremist group with foreign connections, the neo-Nazi Rusich Reconnaissance and Sabotage Group, sent members to fight in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, according to the intelligence community assessment.
Rusich recently hinted on social media about its plans to return to eastern Ukraine, according to the New America Foundation. Rusich is closely aligned with Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group, according to New America.
While the report describes the Russian government’s support for these extremist groups as “indirect and passive,” this is a “distinction without a difference,” said a former senior CIA official.
“When you look at the number of Russian neo-Nazis that are actively infiltrating, or looking to digitally infiltrate U.S. groups,” said the former official, “at some point, if it’s so pervasive, and the Russians aren’t doing anything to stop it, is that really materially different from the big stamp coming down from the sky and saying, ‘We approve?’”
Western fears about the growing links between domestic far-right extremists and their ideological allies in Eastern Europe aren’t limited to Russia. For years, the U.S. has tried to map connections between white supremacists in the United States and foreign groups.
Now, with the looming threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, U.S. officials are scrambling to identify and track American white supremacists who might seek to travel to the region to fight on either side of the conflict there, according to three current U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.
“There’s real concern here that this is another Syria,” said a current senior law enforcement official, referring to how the Middle Eastern country’s civil war turned into a training ground for foreign extremists.
Over the past several years, foreign fighters have flocked to join both sides of the Ukraine conflict. Since 2014, over 17,000 fighters from more than 50 countries have traveled to Ukraine, including far-right extremists, according to a 2019 report by the Soufan Group.
Worries about Ukraine becoming a vortex for extremists have “been a long time coming,” said the senior law enforcement official. “Wherever there is conflict there are people who want to join in and be a hero — so now we have a conflict, and now we have a real problem.”
The Azov Movement, a Ukrainian extremist group, has enlisted American white supremacist fighters to travel to Ukraine “to receive training, indoctrination, and guidance in asymmetrical warfare,” according to a January 2020 CBP intelligence bulletin obtained by Yahoo News.
CBP did not return Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Leaders of two American white supremacist groups, the Rise Above Movement and the Atomwaffen Division, as well as other known or suspected American white supremacists traveled to Ukraine to train with the group, according to the bulletin.
With the easing of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, U.S. officials have also become increasingly concerned about the movements in and out of the U.S. by associates of the Russian Imperial Movement, according to the May 2021 CBP bulletin.
The State Department’s designation of the Russian Imperial Movement as a terrorist group gives law enforcement more power to investigate Americans associated with the organization inside the United States. But since other Russian and Ukrainian far-right groups are not officially designated as terrorist organizations, this complicates tracking their suspected U.S.-based associates, according to the senior law enforcement official.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has had its own clashes with Russian white nationalist groups, experts say. While the Kremlin has taken a passive stance toward Russian neofascists' outreach to North American or European extremists, it has sometimes forcefully suppressed domestic groups — including by imprisoning their leaders — if it believes they are becoming too influential at home or are ideologically unreliable, according to the intelligence report and former CIA officials.
The war in Ukraine caused a major fracture in the Russian white nationalist movement, say experts, with “pan-Slavist” Russian extremists denouncing the Kremlin’s actions during Russia’s initial 2014 incursion, and facing the Kremlin’s wrath thereafter. The Russian intelligence services “absolutely crushed the pan-Slavist Nazis” during this period, said a former CIA official.
Other Russian extremists got the message, or saw the invasion of Ukraine in a different light. Some Russian white nationalists began funneling money to help send volunteers to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, said a second former CIA official.
But extremist paramilitaries quickly found themselves in a morass in Ukraine, according to the former official. “These guys were in no shape or form to go up against a military,” said the former official.
The extremists did not endear themselves to their ostensible Russian government allies, either. The Russians looked at them as a “thorn in their side” and “sent them home,” said the former CIA official. Alternatively, Russian officials forbid some troublesome Russian extremist fighters from returning to Russia, forcing them to stay in the part of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia insurgents, according to a former senior CIA official.
By 2015, Russia had also started stifling some domestic neo-Nazi groups’ use of Russian social media sites, which made the Kremlin’s laissez-faire attitude toward foreign extremist groups operating on these same platforms particularly notable, recalled the first former CIA official.
By the time former President Donald Trump was sworn in, CIA officials were “really concerned” about the growing relationship between Russian extremists and their Western counterparts, according to the former senior agency official. The CIA declined to comment.
At the CIA, these connections were seen as “a sufficiently problematic new wrinkle that they were making the point of publishing on it at least a few times a year,” said the former official.
Given the larger issues around Russia and the Trump administration, he added, it “was a fraught time to relay that message.”