Politics & Government

Russia supports the far-right in Europe. What about here?

White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.
White nationalist demonstrators use shields as they guard the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. AP

Moscow announced plans Thursday to shut down an American neo-Nazi website that moved to a Russian domain after being booted earlier in the week from its U.S. web address.

It was a smart public move, but behind the scenes, Russia’s interactions with far-right movements are far friendlier. Indeed, they have been supportive.

In Poland, police recently arrested a man believed to be a spy for Russian intelligence who was also known to work closely with far-right political parties in Germany and Poland. In France, far-right nationalist and anti-immigrant political party, the National Front, has been widely reported to receive millions in financial support from Russia.

And in Hungary in 2016, after a shootout ended with police arresting a 76-year-old Hungarian National Front member, police explained that his group had been working with Russian intelligence officers who went so far as to set up mock combat exercises for training.

Linda Curika, a spokesperson for NATO Strategic Communications in Latvia, said Russian support for extremists is all part of a Kremlin strategy “to weaken political support for the European Union and NATO.”

Given Russia’s twin goals of convincing its own population that the West is not worth emulating and weakening foreign organizations it sees as a threat, officials in NATO, Europe and the United States are now wondering whether Russia is somehow linked to American extremists.

“There is a clear ideological link between American white supremacists and the European far-right,” Curika said. “Ideological support, that is easily seen. The money is more difficult to trace.”

Certainly, U.S. groups interact with the European far-right groups that Russia is reported to financially support.

Peter Kreko, the director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest, said finding the tracks of Russian support to America is quite difficult. The fact that they swiftly booted The Daily Stormer out of their internet space indicates they want to avoid, at least, public support of American hate groups.

The official Russian statement, from Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, says: “We support a prompt decision of the (Russian communications oversight agency) to divest this website of its domain in Russia.”

Kreko said, however, that Russian support for the far right across Europe comes in many forms, and some of those have been extended to American groups, such as secessionist organizations from the far left and far right.

Kreko said Moscow rolls out the red carpet for visiting extremist leaders and provides ideological support. “Putin has become the front-man of the international anti-human rights movements,” Kreko said.

He noted that well-known U.S. racist Richard Spencer, who was in Charlottesville during the deadly white supremacist rally last weekend, “is well connected to Russian far-right players, such as Alexander Dugin.”

“I have not seen any clear indications of financial support toward genuine extreme-right groups. But there can be some connections,” he said. “It would not be a surprise though. Russian media likes to report about the U.S. far-right to make the claim that the U.S. is a country where Nazism is virulent. Plus the far-right organizations are traditionally the perfect targets for active measures, for obvious reasons.”

Mark Pitcavage, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the financing of white supremacist groups in the United States is always difficult to track.

“In a general sense, they’re broke,” he said. “They don’t have money for anything, usually. And they don’t really have the ability to raise money.”

He said most members of white supremacist organizations are poor, and the organizations are therefore also poor. Some exist solely on dues collected, but “that doesn’t amount to much.”

For instance, while considered one of the more well-financed groups in recent white supremacy history, the Church of the Creator (later renamed the World Church of the Creator), split in 2002 because of a disagreement over $8,400. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the white supremacists who took part in the Charlottesville protests used PayPal to raise money for their participation. Experts note that neither example speaks to vast stores of wealth.

There have been a few exceptions. Ben Klassen, the founder of the Creator group, was “moderately wealthy” from a career in Florida real estate and, allegedly, a patent he held on either an electric toaster oven or can opener, though Patent office officials did not find his name in their records. Klassen created a Nazi-esque belief system based entirely on race. A Southern Poverty document notes that in his system, “Jews and non-whites are considered subhuman ‘mud races’ who conspire to subjugate whites.”

He used some of his wealth to publish books on what he called a coming racial Holy War and “The White Man's Bible.” When the church collapsed, long after his death, thousands of the remaining copies of his books were sold in bulk for $300 by a former member.

Harold von Braunhut, the inventor of Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs who died in Maryland in 2003, was known as an active supporter of the Aryan Nations. A New York Times obituary on him said he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A Washington Post article on him in 1998 noted he refused to talk about his beliefs, but he dedicated a portion of the proceeds from another invention of his, a telescoping metal baton called the Kiyoga Agent M5, to the legal defense fund of Aryan Nation founder Richard Butler (who died in 2004). The Post reported that Braunhut had instructed white supremacists to put the letters “AN” on their order forms to aid Butler.

Beyond that, various racist and anti-Semitic groups have raised money selling music through record labels such as White Power, Tightrope, Panzerfaust and Resistance. A Southern Poverty Law study asserted that sales of the “hate-rock” of these labels have made hundreds of thousands of dollars for various groups. There are book sales, as well.

And then there is crime. There’s the legend of what happened to $3.6 million taken by white supremacists back in an armored car robbery, as well as reports of frequent smaller scale robberies, and, of course, drug sales.

Some of the groups exist as communes, meaning whatever the members earn puts money in the coffers of the organization.

While this might leave U.S. hate groups open to Russian funding, it’s been shown that funding isn’t really needed. Many European and American hate-groups view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a hero, even if he isn’t funding them. Russia is just as content to watch as groups create the chaos they believe benefits them.

Russia wants to influence our decisions,” Janis Sarts, another NATO spokesperson, told German media, “and make us incapable to take decisions in the first place.”

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews