How Russia uses right-wing extremism as a cheap, deniable way to undermine Western countries
- The violent siege of the US Capitol on January 6 renewed attention on the increasingly prominent activities of right-wing extremists in the West and the role of foreign actors in supporting them.
- Russia hasn't been accused of stoking that siege, but Moscow does co-opt such groups to target the state's internal and external political enemies and to sow discord in rival countries.
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To undermine the West and increase its influence, Russia will continue to promote right-wing extremism in ways that largely stop short of direct support for violence by exploiting existing societal tensions and pro-Russia sentiment in certain circles.
The violent siege of the US Capitol on January 6 renewed attention on the increasingly prominent activities of right-wing extremists (RWEs) in the West and the role of foreign influence in peddling the ideologies that have fueled a number of lethal terrorist attacks in recent years.
US officials have not accused Russia of being behind the US Capitol insurrection, which was fueled largely by election grievances. However, Moscow's sustained efforts to undermine US democracy — most notably through its well-documented interference in the 2016 presidential election — raise questions about its complicity in indirectly strengthening the RWE movement behind the Capitol takeover.
At home, the Russian government tolerates — and in some cases, even tacitly endorses — the activities of RWEs to project influence and sow discord in the West.
Russian authorities tightly circumscribe the actions of domestic RWE groups and individuals, setting what they perceive to be a controllable level of activity that can be co-opted to target the state's internal and external political enemies. The interests of some Russian RWE groups sometimes conflict with those of the Kremlin, but the government still allows them to operate, as long as they don't threaten regime stability.
The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), for example, is a racist ultra-nationalist paramilitary group that envisions a return to the tsarist Russian imperial state. Despite this, however, the Kremlin still allows the RIM to operate training facilities and conduct outreach to like-minded groups abroad, as the RIM's fight against transnational liberalism and multiculturalism aligns with Moscow's foreign policy goals.
In the past decade, Russian authorities have also permitted right-wing domestic actors to host in-country meetings with their foreign counterparts.
- Last year, the United States designated the RIM and its leaders as global terrorists due to the group's links to violent RWE activities abroad. These activities have included recruiting Russians to fight in eastern Ukraine and providing paramilitary training to like-minded foreigners, including the two neo-Nazis who conducted a series of anti-refugee bombings in Sweden between November 2016 and January 2017.
- In 2015, RIM and Russia's right-wing Rodina party established the transnational conference named the "World National Conservative Movement" aimed at fighting against "liberalism, multiculturalism and tolerance."
- Various European RWE groups that have been directly tied to violence in the West, including the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, have traveled to Russia to attend forums hosted by Russian right-wing politicians. In January 2020, separate Western media investigations also revealed the US-based neo-Nazi group The Base was led by an American man who moved to Russia in 2018.
Russia also directly provides frequent ideological and financial, and at times direct tactical, support to a mix of right-wing forces abroad.
Kremlin-linked actors have routinely disseminated and proliferated right-wing propaganda that undermines Western liberal and multicultural values. Moscow's extensive meddling in the 2016 US presidential election demonstrated the varied methods the Kremlin and its proxies can use to bolster sympathetic, right-wing politicians and amplify RWE narratives that benefit Russia. Russia's meddling in European affairs, however, has arguably been more pervasive.
- Swedish security officials accused Russian proxies of interfering in Sweden's 2018 election — in which a political party with neo-Nazi roots gained a record number of legislative seats — by exploiting immigration concerns to promote anti-foreigner sentiments online.
- According to a Baltic media investigation, foundations linked to the Russian government secretly funded more than 40 nongovernmental organizations that promoted right-wing, anti-Western narratives in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania between 2012 and 2015.
- A 2018 investigation revealed that the Russian government secretly owned and managed a leading Baltic online news portal whose coverage often critiqued the West, promoted Russia and fanned regional ethnic tensions.
- In 2016, Russian security services were accused of working with local RWEs and an alliance of right-wing political parties in Montenegro to organize a coup and sow chaos during the country's parliamentary elections.
- Russian actors also offer overt and covert financial support to right-wing European political forces, typically in ways that avoid direct links to the Kremlin and explicit quid pro quo requests. In 2014, for example, a Russian bank gave France's right-wing National Front party a loan after its leader publicly supported Russia's invasion of Crimea.
The Kremlin's support for RWEs is part of its larger geostrategic objective to disrupt the Western liberal-democratic order by supporting extremist ideologies of all types, including left-wing ones. However, Moscow has prioritized promoting RWE groups in the West since they often have greater inherent sympathies for Russia compared with their opponents on the left.
As far back as 2004, American neo-Nazi leader David Duke characterized Russia as the "key to white survival." In more recent years, many other Western RWEs have also spoken approvingly of Russia. Such sentiments show Moscow that it can overcome its comparatively weaker military and economic position to undermine the Western order by exploiting existing pro-Russia RWE feelings in asymmetric ways that are less overt and require fewer resources.
- In 2019, a leader of the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany publicly called on Russia to "challenge Western liberalism on its own territory" and said Moscow could be "rest assured" that it would find "committed and courageous allies" among the party's supporters in this quest.
Russia's varied backing for right-wing extremism gives it relatively low-cost and deniable ways to pursue revisionist goals that would otherwise require much larger strategic investments.
Russian security services, for example, have taken advantage of a network of martial arts clubs in Europe and the United States that teach the Russian "systema" combat style to recruit, often unwittingly, agents of influence to disseminate extremist narratives, according to various media investigations.
The Kremlin has also used the Night Wolves — a right-wing Russian motorcycle group with pro-regime, anti-Western sympathies and offshoots throughout Europe — to pursue its goals at arm's length and minimal cost. The group has trained with European RWE paramilitary groups, provided visible demonstrations of support for pro-Russia politicians and held festivals to propagate anti-liberal and -multicultural ideas.
Moscow will soon face greater pushback from Washington, with its backing of RWEs only adding to a long list of grievances held by the incoming administration of US President Joe Biden.
Compared with his predecessor, Biden will be far more likely to publicly call out Russian support for RWE forces, particularly those tied to violence. Biden is also more likely to place greater emphasis on supporting European allies, which could reduce Moscow's ability to exploit divisions among Western leaders.
In addition, the Biden administration may take direct aim at Russia via policy responses, such as travel bans and/or financial sanctions, which could deter and disrupt some malicious Russian behavior supportive of RWEs.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin will continue to be able to use asymmetric methods to exploit Western societal tensions in ways that promote RWE groups and individuals (and their narratives).
There will forever exist a pool of people and entities in the West who, wittingly or not, provide avenues for Moscow to exert its influence through low-cost intermediaries that offer plausible deniability.
Most immediately, the aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic — including profound economic dislocation, social isolation and distrust of elites — provide grievances that the Kremlin can leverage to disseminate right-wing narratives to subvert Western solidarity.
In the long-term, Russia will be also able to exploit persistent political, economic and social frictions — such as wedge issues like national identity, race and immigration — to promote various right-wing actors that sow discord in Western societies and offer space for Russia to insert its influence.
- Last year, numerous security services and nongovernmental organizations reported that Moscow was using the COVID-19 pandemic to discredit Western governments' policies and performance, contrasting them with positive portrayals of Russia's response to the health crisis.
- Earlier this month, the United States announced sanctions against seven Ukrainian individuals and companies that were allegedly part of a "Russian-linked foreign influence network" led by an "active Russian agent" to feed disinformation to U.S. citizens designed to influence the 2020 presidential election.
- The violent siege of the US Capitol also demonstrates the extent of polarization that Russia can use to its advantage, including to build on existing online propaganda efforts to inflame domestic societal disputes.
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