White nationalism has returned to the spotlight in the United States. Over the last decade, the United States witnessed the startling rise of the alt-right, and 330 deaths in the United States alone could be attributed to acts of right-wing extremism. The attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 and the events leading up to it have only highlighted the threat that these groups pose to US democracy.
White nationalist groups in the United States do not operate in a vacuum, however. The transnational connections between such groups—especially between organizations in the United States and Russia—are deeply troubling. In 2004, white supremacist David Duke called Russia the “key to white survival,” while another white supremacist, Richard Spencer, recently characterized Russia as the “sole white power in the world.” With Russian President Vladimir Putin serving as a beacon of hope for many white supremacists in the United States, it comes with little surprise that there are connections between the nationalist groups of both of these countries.
The transnational ties between white nationalists pose an important question: how do we curb the threat of violent extremism and its globalization? This article will examine how Russian white-supremacist organizations exert international influence, how extremist groups utilize social media, and how the United States can respond to curb the threat of transnational white supremacy.
Based in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is an extreme right, white supremacist militant organization. It is also one of the groups working to fuel white supremacy in the West. According to its spokesperson, RIM aims to “continue to establish contacts with right-wing, traditionalist and conservative organizations around the world to create a ‘Right-wing International.’” This effort has involved both visits by RIM representatives worldwide and social media campaigns aimed at sharing their message with a broader audience. For example, RIM organized the World National Conservative Movement (WNCM) in 2015, convening white nationalists worldwide against the West and values of liberalism. Aside from organizing these events, RIM representatives have been personally engaged with white nationalists worldwide, including visits to the United States. Such connections go back to 2017, when RIM officials visited US white nationalist Matthew Heimbach. Heimbach would go on to be one of the organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA.
Through these efforts, RIM has worked to strengthen transnational connections between white nationalist groups, creating a sense of mutual admiration for each other’s violent practices. Additionally, RIM has aggressively recruited individuals for its paramilitary Partizan course and trained them to fight alongside its Imperial Legion. The participants partaking in RIM’s camps have been linked to international terrorist attacks. For example, two Swedish neo-Nazis trained at RIM’s camps helped carry out bombings in western Sweden in 2017.
Many within the US intelligence community have highlighted the danger of white supremacists’ transnational connections. FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of the role of white supremacists in driving domestic terrorism, and the Department of Homeland Security identified Russia as the country working the hardest to provoke social and racial tensions in the United States. In April 2020, the Trump administration designated the Russian Imperial Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group, making it the first nationalist organization to be labelled as such.
With the designation as a SDGT, as well as the placement of RIM’s leaders on terrorist watch lists, there is hope that similarly violent and supremacist organizations will continue to be condemned. However, Russia’s response to RIM’s actions and the country’s own views on racial tensions in the United States complicates our understanding of white nationalism as an international phenomenon. As a representative from the SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, Alexander Verkhovsky, claims, Russian authorities know of RIM’s actions and tolerate it. Hence, even without direct support from the Kremlin, the lack of domestic counterterrorism pressures has allowed Russia to turn white nationalism into a tool against Western countries. In short, groups such as RIM inflame white supremacy in the United States, escalating tensions in the country and weakening people’s trust in democracy. Addressing these international influences is key to not just constraining white supremacy but also protecting democracy.
Building Ties Through Social Media
In understanding the transnational connections between white nationalist groups, it is necessary to consider the tool that has facilitated their growth—social media. Using social networks as a tool, groups like RIM have effectively wielded social media to recruit members and spread their ideologies.
Even as mainstream platforms such as Twitter began removing accounts affiliated with white supremacists, extremist groups and individuals are finding alternative safe havens to connect with one another and reach out to potential new members. Shifting social media platforms has come with varied success for these extremist organizations’ efforts. Telegram, which served as a haven for extremists, eventually changed their approach and deleted thousands of chats and channels associated with extremism. Other platforms, like Parler, have faced trouble as the rhetoric originating from some users and the connections it has had with violence in the United States, leading the platform to go offline for an extended period of time. While just a few examples, these efforts to continually find new spaces with looser restrictions on violent content confirm the importance of social media networks in maintaining and expanding these organizations.
Among others, RIM is an example of a white supremacist organization for which the use of social media plays a crucial role. From its VK page and its Imperial Legion and Partizan social media to its websites and Telegram channels, RIM boasts a robust social media presence. Even as its online content was forced to become more moderate following the designation of the group as an SDGT, pressures to inhibit this previously robust social media presence have been important in preventing the spread of these violent messages.
Just as white nationalism can be exploited as a tool to sow discontent, so can social media. Once again, Russia has chosen to exploit social media for its agenda. Russia’s Internet Research Agency turned to disinformation techniques through social media outlets during the 2020 election cycle, focusing on smaller platforms such as Gab and Parler that are more popular among far right individuals. While the turn to smaller social media platforms favored by the far right suggests that the strategy is not as effective anymore, the turn nonetheless highlights the effort being put in to incite chaos and further weaken trust in government among supporters of the far right.
The “soft” influence on public opinion by white nationalists worldwide is potentially as dangerous for US democracy as the overt violence of white supremacy. Even more troubling is the fact that these transnational connections are not fully understood. In some cases, connections between extremist groups are an issue of confluence, not influence. The fact that Russia did not directly create white nationalist violence does not excuse its actions to provoke further tensions and amplify racist ideologies. As more people in the far right begin to believe that “political solutions” are no longer viable, the increase in violent rhetoric opens the door for increased violence and division. Furthermore, the decentralized structure of social media, which allows individuals to freely connect with each other and consume information, makes it increasingly likely for “lone wolves” to resort to violence after consuming right-wing rhetoric.
Former President Donald Trump has faced criticism for underplaying and minimizing the threat of white nationalism in the United States, as well as its transnational ties. As Russia continued to stoke racial tension in the United States, it became easier for groups such as RIM to continue building connections worldwide.
The designation of RIM as an SDGT is but one step in fighting the threat of international white nationalism. A large portion of the conversation around white supremacy in the United States has focused on domestic social media and roots. Considering the potential for mutual admiration across borders by white supremacists only helps us better understand the ways in which social media facilitates these connections and the growth of these organizations. In addition, it also illuminates yet another danger of white supremacy, namely that it can be used as a tool to sow division by international players. Moving forward, working to better understand these transnational ties will ensure that these domestic roots do not strengthen and spread their pernicious influence.