The weekend’s bloody chaos in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a far-right protest devolved into rioting and murder, has shaken the country and shocked the world. The bucolic college town was transformed into a charnel house when a right-wing young man barreled his car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19, six of them gravely.
The accused killer, James Alex Fields, age 20, was quickly taken into custody, and he turns out to possess all the expected traits: a young man with an unstable home life and mental health problems serious enough to have kept him out of the military, possessing an affection for Nazi memorabilia and views. These are precisely the sort of maladjusted young people—nearly all of them male—who under slightly different circumstances turn to jihadism. Our domestic radicalism problem knows no specific background, religion, or ideology.
The Charlottesville mayhem has concentrated minds on the continuing presence of the kook-right among us: angry young white men who assemble, brandishing flags of the Confederacy and Nazi Germany. Make no mistake: the weekend was their triumph, notwithstanding that most of them resemble cosplayers more than hard-bitten radicals. A movement which barely exists outside the Internet got a few hundred members together and garnered world attention.
The Nazified far-right thereby has joined the highly select pantheon of people whom President Trump won’t denounce no matter how badly they misbehave—whose only other member is Vladimir Putin. It bears examining whether Trump’s stunning silence may not be a coincidence.
Our extreme right, with very few exceptions, are super-fans of the Russian president, in whom they see a strong, traditional leader who runs the world’s only white nuclear-armed great power. Their websites brim with adulation for Putin as a demigod who resists the Western social justice agenda with more than words. That this depiction of Putin may not be entirely true matters not a whit to his ardent alt-right fans.
Although our country has always had white supremacists, Russia has given them renewed focus and energy, as well as a ready-made worldview. This take on the world includes overt white nationalism which despises the United States as a decadent and multiracial society. The Moscow menu suspiciously includes support for a range of foreign issues such as adulation of Bashar Assad and his nasty Syrian regime.
Assad just happens to be a Russian client, which explains why American neo-Nazis profess deep admiration for him and his bloody dictatorship, even though one wonders how many of these extremists could locate Syria on a map. True to form, young Mr. Fields posted a picture of Assad with the title UNDEFEATED on his Facebook page. Ideological synchronicity between the American neo-Nazis and the Kremlin approaches complete overlap.
Take the case of Richard Spencer, who was in Charlottesville as the de facto leader of the rising far-right in our country. Young and photogenic with his famously fashy haircut, Spencer too is a strong Putinphile, exuding praise for Russia and its strongman leader to anybody who will listen. His connections are more than ideological, however. His wife, Nina Kouprianova, is a Russian far-rightist herself with Kremlin connections.
To anyone versed in Russian intelligence tradecraft, Spencer and those of his kook-right ilk who espouse nakedly pro-Kremlin views, are at least agents of influence, to use the proper Chekist term. However, there are connections between Moscow and the Western far-right which are more troubling than mere ideological fellow-traveling.
In Europe, security services have tracked the activities of Russian military intelligence, known as GRU, and in recent years their operations have included violence. Russian football hooligans who caused mayhem in Europe last summer, leading to dozens of casualties, many of them seriously injured, included known Kremlin special operatives—some of them possessing GRU tattoos.
More ominously, GRU has been training and arming neo-Nazis in Europe, with sometimes lethal consequences. Last October, a Hungarian policeman was shot dead by István Győrkös, a far-right radical who had been running paramilitary training camps for neo-Nazis from Hungary and Germany. Győrkös had met frequently with GRU representatives, and these war-games were clandestinely supported by Moscow, Hungarian security officials quickly deduced, with Kremlin officials even taking part in the “training.”
This problem is hardly confined to Hungary. German counterintelligence has noted strange connections between GRU operatives and neo-Nazis in their country, using martial arts clubs as cover for recruiting Moscow-friendly radicals. Things have moved even farther along in Sweden, where a failed bombing of a refugee center in January turned out to be the work of two Swedish neo-Nazis who had received military training in Russia from GRU instructors.
There are no publicly known cases of American right-wing radicals receiving terrorist training from Russian intelligence, but this may only be a matter of time. Across Europe, Kremlin ideological outreach to far-right circles has led to military training and the supply of weaponry. The weekend tragedy in Charlottesville was at least partly inspired by Moscow’s propaganda. If we don’t start to take this problem seriously, like Europe we will soon be facing more and worse extremism with a distinct GRU footprint.
Therefore, it’s imperative that we tackle domestic extremists with our full counterintelligence arsenal, meaning identifying Kremlin secret operations which support the extreme right in our countrythen neutralizing the before this cancer metastasizes further. Although it’s painfully evident that the Trump White House will do no such thing, the longer we wait to tackle this problem, the worse it will get, and more lives will be lost.