Russia could exploit its ties with US white nationalist groups to encourage election violence, experts warn
- Russia could exploit its influence with white nationalist groups in the US to foment election day violence, terrorism experts have told Business Insider.
- In recent years, the Russian Imperial Movement has formed ties with US white nationalists, and spread racist propaganda and conspiracies on social media.
- The movement was recently designated a terror group by the US State Department.
- Experts believe that the Kremlin provides tacit support to violent white nationalists as part of a strategy to internally fracture western nations.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Russian extremists could exploit their ties with white nationalist groups in the US to foment violence around the presidential election, terrorism experts have told Business Insider.
They warned that Russia's influence with white nationalists in the US is growing. They say that Russian propaganda and disinformation targeting extremists who believe that progressives are plotting to steal the election could inspire violence.
The fear of election-day violence is already having consequences. US state-level officials are preparing for potential violence, as are companies like Facebook, which has a contingency plan to slow inflammatory content.
The experts Business Insider spoke to said that Russian extremists — with the Kremlin's tacit approval — could seek to exploit existing tensions to help them spill over into violence.
"Russia wants chaos and violence serves that, violence divides, violence reduces trust in institutions," said Daniel Byman, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute in an interview with Business Insider.
Jason Blazakis, a professor of terrorism studies at the Middlebury Institute in California, said that Russia is seeking to "light the fuse" of US white supremacy.
Blazakis told Business Insider: "It is in the Russian Federation's strategic interests to create a politically unstable United States. Cyber and disinformation efforts targeting the radical right in the United States remain part of the tool-kit — a kit that is being used to light the fuse of white supremacy."
How Trump laid the ground for extremism
The 2020 presidential election is proving the most contentious in recent history. President Donald Trump has spread groundless accusation that Democrats are plotting to steal the election, and has been accused of offering encouragement to far-right and white nationalist groups.
In turn, they have taken encouragement from the president's anti-immigrant policies and his willingness to stoke white grievances.
Far right so-called militia groups have said they will heed Trump's call for supporters to monitor polling stations.
One such group is accused of plotting to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, in testimony to Congress in September warned that racist extremists are the most urgent domestic terror threat in the US.
For years, ties have been forming between white nationalist groups in the US and Russia, the experts said. US extremists have long seen Russia's President Vladimir Putin as a bulwark against what they regard as the forces of decadent liberalism. Neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach, one of the organisers of the 2017 Charlottesville white nationalist rally, in 2017 described Putin as "the leader of the free world."
Alex Newhouse, who researches online white nationalist propaganda, also at Middlebury, said the reverence US white nationalists feel for Russia exposes them to manipulation.
"One of the scariest parts of the developments in the information space and the extremism space over the last five years is the gradual — the pretty significant but gradual increase in pro-Russian sentiment among American white nationalist groups," he said.
"And that is a very specific trend that needs to be addressed. Because it does open them up to influence and manipulation."
The Russian Imperial Movement
The relationship between Putin's Russia and America's resurgent white nationalists goes further than expressions of admiration or ideological affinity. Experts say that groups have for years been building alliances in an effort to form an international white nationalist movement.
One is the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), which in April became the first white nationalist organisation to be designated a terrorist group by the US State Department.
Operating paramilitary training camps outside St Petersburg, the group aims to re-establish the old Tsarist Russian empire. According to CounterExtremism.com, the group blames western culture for the "destruction of the family and healthy moral values" through "abortion, propaganda of debauchery and acceptance of sexual perversions."
Heimbach, the Charlottesville organizer, met with RIM leaders in the wake of the rally. They had travelled to the US to broker alliances with white nationalist extremists. Heimbach at the time told Think Progress that the movements shared a commitment to "conservative reactionary politics, spiritual revival, and nationalist principles."
Blazakis, the academic, said: "RIM has worked hand-and-glove with US-based white supremacists.
"They've invited US-based far-right ideologues to conferences to exchange ideas and tradecraft. There have long been efforts between US-RIM extremists to coordinate messaging. This is emblematic of the transnational nature of the RIM."
Heimbach in April claimed to have renounced white nationalism, and his Traditional Workers Party has folded. Business Insider was unable to reach Heimbach for comment. A source who monitors counter-extremist groups told Business Insider that he has been keeping a low profile.
In Europe, neo-Nazi extremists are known to have received training at the RIM's camps, where Russians have been trained to fight in Ukraine and Libya, according to the Warsaw Institute's Russia Monitor project.
Two members of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement in 2016 and 2017 bombed a left-wing cafe and refugee center in Sweden, and tried to bomb a campsite housing refugees. They were found to have received training at a RIM camp outside St Petersburg, according to Swedish prosecutors.
The group has also formed ties with extremists in Poland, Spain, Bulgaria and Austria at meetings and far-right conferences. The German government told Focus magazine in June that two neo-Nazis attended RIM training in camps in Russia, which according to the State Department involves "woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons, and hand-to-hand combat training."
Blazakis said that the RIM operates with the blessing of Russian officials, even if they do not always see eye-to-eye.
"It is my assessment that the Russian Federation, at a minimum, implicitly supports the RIM. The RIM operates safe havens and training camps within the Russian Federation and does so with impunity. These training grounds have been an important avenue for far-right extremists to train," he said.
Elizabeth Grimm, an associate professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, told Business Insider that supporting extremists abroad is a way that "Russia seeks to sow discord in liberal democracies from inside the countries themselves."
"By highlighting divisions and hatreds that already exist in societies (including but certainly not limited to the United States and Europe), Russia advances its goal of undermining the liberal order while also maintaining plausible deniability of these efforts."
Another recent case appears to show a direct connection between Russia's intelligence agencies and extremism in the US.
In January, the Guardian reported that a suspected member of neo-Nazi group The Base told investigators that he believed the group's leader, Rinaldo Nazzaro, was a Russian agent.
Law enforcement sources backed the man's claim.
How Russia hosts and boosts conspiracy theories
In the febrile atmosphere ahead of the US election, Russian extremists have a unique opportunity to exploit their growing influence on US white nationalists.
This could be leveraged, say Grimm and Blazakis, through connections formed in training camps and far-right conferences, or through the dissemination of racist conspiracy theories and election disinformation on social media.
Grimm said, that prior to its classification as a terror group, RIM ran a sophisticated social media operation, spreading racist propaganda and conspiracy theories in English on YouTube and Facebook.
Since the designation, social media companies have acted to remove its channels, but the group maintains an active presence on the Russian social media site VK, and encrypted messaging app Telegram.
A study by the Middlebury Institute earlier in the year found the RIM spreading COVID-19 disinformation, and propaganda hostile to LGBTQ people and the antifa movement.
Reports have found that many extremists who were kicked off mainstream social media platforms migrated instead to Russian ones, including people from the US, UK and Germany
Blazakis also pointed to the Russian state's role in boosting the QAnon conspiracy theory, the sprawling online movement that believes that "deep state" operatives are plotting against Trump. The conspiracy has inspired violent crimes by several followers and is openly supported by some Republican candidates.
Newman said that his own research had found that QAnon rhetoric is "rapidly merging with anti-Semitic and white supremacist rhetoric on big social media platforms and Russian-language communities." Civil rights non-profit the Southern Poverty Law Center last year found increasing overlap between the propaganda of so-called militia groups and QAnon.
On extremist online forums, links between white nationalists in Russia and the US are extensive, he said.
He cited leaked data from the Iron March white supremacist forum that showed "pretty significant patterns of reaching out and cross pollination, so to speak, between American white nationalists, white supremacists; and Russian and Ukrainian white nationalists and white supremacists."
'Playing with fire'
The Trump administration's response to these threats has been piecemeal.
Earlier in September a whistleblower at the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) said that Trump officials had told analysts to downplay the threat from Russia and white nationalist extremism.
The State Department referred Business Insider to the FBI for comment on the combined threat posed by white nationalist extremists and Russia. The FBI declined to comment. The DHS did not respond to a request for comment.
President Trump's continuing reluctance to condemn white nationalist groups, meanwhile, has been interpreted by extremists as a call to action. And the president publicly castigated FBI director Wray for addressing the threat posed by Russian interference in his congressional testimony.
With Biden currently leading in the polls, Byman said that Russia is taking a big gamble in its support for white nationalists — a gamble that could backfire if an atrocity by a far-right extremist is linked to Russia, or one of the white nationalist groups in its borders.
"What happens if we find that there is an individual who was triggered by something Russia-linked? What does that mean? Does it simply get lost in the noise? Or is it that Russia becomes responsible for the deaths of several Americans?"
"I think that Russia is playing with fire, and under Trump that hasn't been a big deal, because he has downplayed it. But under a traditional Republican or someone like Joe Biden it'd be a much bigger deal."
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