- As Russia’s Ukraine invasion stalls, the Kremlin could call on militant groups to foment violence in the West, experts warn.
- A former US intelligence official warned of a likely bid by Russia to stir “political violence.”
- Two Russian groups currently fighting in Ukraine have ties to far-right groups in the US and Western Europe.
A steady supply of Western weapons has enabled Ukraine’s outnumbered military to hold back Russian forces and inflict thousands of casualties during the ongoing war.
But experts are increasingly concerned that as Russia’s invasion stalls, the Kremlin could choose to retaliate against the West not just through economic and diplomatic means, but also by inciting violent attacks at the heart of the NATO alliance.
The tool it could seek to exploit is a network of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in Russia, Western Europe, and the US with which it has cultivated ties for decades.
“They’ve done that before in much of Europe and I would not be surprised if they are doing that today — trying to get their intelligence services at the right moment to get these groups agitated,” Chris Chivvis, who served as the National Security Council’s intelligence officer for Europe from 2018 to 2021, told Insider.
He warned of a likely effort to stir “political unrest, political violence” and “get these groups agitated to achieve political effects in countries in Europe, and possibly the United States.”
Russia’s embassies in London and Washington, DC, did not reply to Insider’s request for comment. Insider was unable to contact the groups mentioned in this story due to the secretive nature of their operations.
Neo-Nazi militants fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine
The Kremlin has sought to portray its Ukraine invasion as a bid to “denazify” the country. But analysts say its forces are fighting alongside groups who openly espouse neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology — exposing the hollowness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda.
The groups have extensive ties to far-right extremists across the West, as well as deep connections with Russia’s military and intelligence services, experts told Insider.
They could offer the Kremlin a potential route for inflicting violence and chaos in the Western nations providing key diplomatic and military support to Ukraine, while maintaining plausible deniability, experts say.
I don’t think anything’s beyond the pale for Putin.Colin Clarke
One such threat is the Wagner Group, a mercenary force that has previously been deployed as a Kremlin proxy in conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Mali.
Its fighters have been linked to a string of atrocities in Ukraine, with German intelligence saying they were involved in the massacre of civilians in Bucha during the Russian occupation of the Kyiv suburb in March.
The group makes no secret of its espousal of Nazi ideology, with its leader, Dmitry Utkin, having been photographed with Nazi insignia tattoos, and its fighters decorating their vehicles with neo-Nazi runic symbols, according to a report by the Italian think tank ResPublica.
The Rusich, a Wagner affiliate deployed in Ukraine, also openly flaunts its ties with neo-Nazism, using a Slavic version of the Nazi Swastika, the Kolovrat, as its symbol.
Colin Clarke, the director of research at the Soufan Group, told Insider that the Kremlin could deploy fighters from Wagner to commit terror attacks in the West or commission fighters to encourage contacts in the West to commit violence on its behalf.
“The Russians send their own guys into Europe to whack people,” he said, referencing assassinations and attempted assassinations in countries including the UK and Germany that Western officials have linked to Russian security services.
“I don’t think anything’s beyond the pale for Putin. It’s just a matter of: Does this make sense tactically? And if you think about how much terrorism resonates, the psychological impact if that stuff starts happening, I think it’s a whole other dimension to this conflict,” he said of the possible effects of a Russia-instigated terror attack in the West.
But Jason Blatzakis, an expert of terrorism at the Middlesbury Institute, was skeptical that Russia would deploy fighters to commit direct attacks, saying it would mark a serious escalation in Russia’s confrontation with NATO allies.
Instead, he said, it was likely Russia would seek to stir chaos through “direct relations” between extremists in Russia and their counterparts in the West.
Many Western far-right and white supremacists revere Putin’s Russia, regarding it as a bastion of white identity. They see the Ukraine conflict as a civilizational battle between liberalism and Russia’s traditional, hierarchical system.
“I think what people need to be mindful of is that actually Russia is providing support that meets the legal definition of support to terrorism,” Blatkazis said of the ties between Russia and white supremacist groups.
Links to the West, including the US
The Wagner Group and its affiliates do not pose the only threat, with a rival organization having brokered alliances with violent right-wing extremists across the West.
Aleksei Milchakov and Yan Petrovsky — the founders of the Wagner-affiliated Rusich group — reportedly met at a training camp for the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), a white supremacist group dedicated to restoring the Russian empire.
The RIM has drawn dedicated extremists from across Europe and the US to its paramilitary training camp near Saint Petersburg as it aggressively cultivated international connections, security analysts say.
Like the Wagner Group, it is believed to have deployed fighters to Ukraine, with the group’s banner displayed by fighters in east Ukraine in a picture posted in the group’s Telegram channel reviewed by Insider.
Swedish officials said in a 2017 lawsuit that the group trained extremists from the far-right Nordic Resistance, who committed attacks on refugee centers in 2016, and has been linked to violent far-right plots in Germany and Spain. Also in 2016, RIM leaders traveled to the US, where they met US white nationalist figure Matthew Heimbach, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism said in a 2020 report.
The State Department in 2017 designated the RIM a terrorist group, the first time it had given the designation to a white-supremacist organization.
Despite the sanctions, Stanislav Vorobyev, the group’s leader, said in a recent interview on the “Verified” podcast that he remains in contact with far-right extremists in the US but gave no specific details.
Clarke said that a key concern was the potential Russian contact with groups such as Atomwaffen, a neo-Nazi terror group with cells in the UK and US, linked to a string of violent plots, and neo-Nazi groups in Nordic nations.
“The ultimate end game is they maintain these relationships because one day they might have to cash in their chips,” he said, describing the potential of a pro-Russian terror attack committed by an American as “our worst case scenario realized.”
He raised the prospect of the psychological impact that could be caused by “a neo-Nazi guy in Virginia launching an attack at the behest of the Russians and was maybe paid to do it or trained by them.”
“That’s a big deal,” he said. “That’s a really big deal.”