In Historic First, U.S. Labels Russian White Supremacists a Terrorist Group
Officials say they have grown alarmed at the threat posed by right-wing extremists.
The Trump administration designated a Russia-based ultranationalist group as a foreign terrorist organization on Monday, a milestone that marks the first time the U.S. government has applied the label to a white supremacist group.
The State Department designated the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) and three of its leaders as specially designated global terrorists, calling it a historic step in the United States’ fight against foreign terrorist groups and white supremacists.
“These designations are unprecedented. This is the first time the United States has ever designated foreign white supremacist terrorists, illustrating how seriously this administration takes the threat,” Nathan Sales, the State Department envoy on counterterrorism, said in a briefing on Monday.
The designation follows a surge in deadly terrorist attacks from white supremacist groups in recent years, including a white supremacist killing 22 at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019, targeting Hispanics, and the deadly attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019 that left 51 dead and 49 injured.
It also marks a striking shift in tone for the Trump administration. President Donald Trump’s Democratic rivals have accused him of emboldening right-wing extremists through his rhetoric on immigrants and response to domestic terrorist incidents in the past. Following a violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Trump drew fire for saying there was “blame on both sides” and there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Alina Polyakova, the head of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said the new decision is aimed at helping the Trump administration deflect mounting criticism that the president is too soft on Russia or not doing enough to address white supremacist extremism. “From the administration’s point of view, this kills two birds with one stone,” she said.
The designation on RIM and three of its leaders—Stanislav Vorobyev, Denis Gariev, and Nikolay Trushchalov—means they will be blocked from the U.S. financial system and any of their assets in the international financial system subject to U.S. jurisdiction will be frozen. “We think that that’s going to make it substantially more difficult for them to move money throughout the international financial system,” Sales said.
Officials say the line between domestic white supremacist groups and foreign ones is blurring—adding new urgency to the task of tracking foreign white supremacist groups as domestic cases of terrorism grow.
“Every counterterrorism professional I speak to in the federal government and overseas feels like we are at the doorstep of another 9/11,” Elizabeth Neumann, a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional panel during a hearing on anti-Semitic and white supremacist terrorism in February. “Maybe not something that catastrophic in terms of the visual or the numbers but that we can see it building and we don’t quite know how to stop it.”
Sales said white supremacist extremism knows no borders. “The global white supremacist terrorist community is very much a transnational phenomenon,” he said. The man who carried out the mass shooting in El Paso later told investigators he was inspired by the Christchurch attacks—representing “a bloody and grisly demonstration of how these networks interrelate with one another and inspire one another,” Sales said.
Some U.S.-based white supremacist groups have ties to Russia, though it’s unclear whether or how those ties extend to the Russian government. This year, U.S. authorities rounded up members of the Base, a violent white supremacist organization, in Georgia, Maryland, and Wisconsin. The leader of that group, Rinaldo Nazzaro, is an American directing the group from Russia who has attended Russian government security exhibitions, as the BBC reported in January. RIM members have visited the United States, though their ties to U.S. extremist groups remain unclear.
Some experts say the Russian government is actively cultivating ties among right-wing extremist groups to undermine Western democracies. “It has both turned a blind eye to far-right paramilitarism within its own borders and actively cultivated neo-Nazism in the West. These decisions align with its broader project to sow discord in Western democracies and influence transcontinental relations, despite its relatively weak military and economy,” Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault and Joseph Stabile of Georgetown University wrote for Just Security in February. “Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for right-wing violence in the West constitutes an element in his broader destabilization campaign.”
Identifying the direct links between the Russian government and right-wing extremist groups in the West can be difficult to track, Polyakova said. “But still it’s very clear that Russia has become a place that is seen as a safe haven for these groups, and it has encouraged them as well and used them for political ends,” she said.
RIM, which seeks to create an ethnic Russian empire, rose to prominence in 2015 because of its role in recruiting volunteers to fight alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, said Anton Shekhovtsov, an external lecturer at the University of Vienna. While the Russian government and state media have sought to overplay the influence of Ukrainian far-right groups in a bid to undermine the country’s pro-Western reform movement, the Kremlin has tolerated its own domestic extremist groups, including RIM, where they further Russia’s goals of sowing chaos in Ukraine, said Shekhovtsov, the author of Russia and the Western Far Right.
“[T]hey are not legally sanctioned and cannot be really considered Kremlin proxies either,” said Michael Carpenter, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia and Eurasia. “It’s more of an adversarial symbiosis. Under the watchful eye of the [Russian] secret services, many of these extremist groups are given a great deal of latitude to interact with neo-Nazi and far-right extremist groups in the West—but only as long as they don’t cause too much trouble in Russia.”
Polyakova warned that the new designation might embolden the Russia-based extremist group, rather than lead to its demise. “This is the great irony. Being put on the U.S. sanctions list has become a point of pride for some people in Russia. To have the U.S. recognize you, as an individual, as a threat … could be a powerful recruiting tool for this group few had heard of before today,” she said.
The State Department’s designation on Monday stems from new counterterrorism authorities that Trump released last September. At the time, a senior State Department official called it “the most significant update to our terrorism sanctions authorities since the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.” The order allows the State Department to designate leaders and individuals in terrorist organizations who have trained to commit acts of terrorism—not just ones proved to have been involved in prior terrorist attacks.
“Thanks to this order, the State Department can now designate groups and individuals that participate in training to commit acts of terrorism. We can also designate the leaders of terrorist groups, without needing to show that they were involved in particular attacks,” Sales said.
In the United States, violent white supremacist activities have surged in recent years. According to data from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization that tracks anti-Semitism and other forms of extremism, domestic extremists killed at least 42 people in the United States in 17 separate incidents last year, one of the deadliest years on record. “As is typically the case, the extremist-related murders of 2019 were overwhelmingly (90%) linked to right-wing extremists. All but one of the incidents had ties to right-wing extremism,” according to an ADL report.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer