top of page

U.S. Labels Russian White Supremacists a Terrorist Group

The designation of the Russian Imperial Movement reflects growing concerns among U.S. officials about violent white supremacists with transnational links.

Members of the Russian Imperial Movement at training base in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2015. Credit...Olga Maltseva/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is expected to announce on Monday that it is designating an ultranationalist group based in Russia as a terrorist organization, according to officials. It is the first time the government will apply the label to a white supremacist group.

While the label of specially designated global terrorist has been frequently used for Islamist extremists, there have been growing concerns among U.S. officials about violent white supremacists with transnational links over the past five years. In 2018, the White House added that threat to the government’s National Strategy for Counterterrorism.

“These designations are unprecedented,” said Ambassador Nathan A. Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator. “This is the first time the United States has ever designated white supremacists as terrorists, and this illustrates how seriously this administration takes the white supremacist terrorist threat. We are doing things no previous administration has done to counter this threat.”

The State Department’s designation for the organization, the Russian Imperial Movement, sets up the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to block any American property or assets belonging to the group. It will also bar Americans from financial dealings with the organization and make it easier to ban its members from traveling to the United States.

The United States is also designating three of the group’s leaders — Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valliullovich Gariev and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov — as individual terrorists who will face similar sanctions, the officials said.

The authority for either the Treasury Department or the State Department to deem a group or an individual a specially designated global terrorist traces back to an executive order issued by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. President Trump in September signed an executive order expanding that authority to cover groups that provide training for terrorists even if the groups are not directly linked to any attack.

The system parallels in some ways but is different from when the government designates a group as a foreign terrorist organization, which has separate criteria and applies only to groups rather than individuals.

Ambassador Nathan A. Sales said the United States government was continuing to look for other white supremacist groups or individuals who met the criteria for sanctions. Credit...Yara Nardi/Reuters

The move could cut against criticism that the Trump administration has played down the threat of white nationalist violence for political reasons, based on the so-called alt-right’s support for Mr. Trump and his statement in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

The Russian Imperial Movement is not considered to be sponsored by the Russian government, officials said, although President Vladimir V. Putin has tolerated its activities and it has helped advance the Russian government’s external goals by recruiting Russian fighters to aid pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The group has also helped support neo-Nazi organizations in Scandinavia, which dovetails with the Russian government’s broader pattern of trying to stoke internal divisions, including along racial lines, and sow chaos in Western democracies.

In 2017, the Russian Imperial Movement came up at a trial in Sweden of three men who were accused of plotting bomb attacks targeting asylum seekers. Prosecutors said two of the defendants had traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to attend 11 days of paramilitary training at a camp operated by the group, fueling their radicalization.

Mr. Sales said the group operated two facilities in St. Petersburg that offered paramilitary training to neo-Nazis and white supremacists. He said the United States had assessed that the camps were “likely being used for woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons and hand-to-hand combat training.”

Mary McCord, a former head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said that until now, the counterterrorism sanctions system had overwhelmingly been used against Islamist extremist groups. She called its expansion to a white supremacist group significant.

“It is important,” she said. “Far-right extremist causes, in particular white supremacy and white nationalism, have become more international. It is appropriate for the State Department to have been scrutinizing whether there are organizations that meet the criteria for that designation because with it, the organization becomes poison in terms of doing business with it or providing funds, goods or services to it.”

The move is also another example of the Trump administration expanding its use of the power Congress granted to the executive branch to impose sanctions on groups by designating them foreign terrorist organizations. Last year, under a separate authority, the United States designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an arm of the Iranian military, as a foreign terrorist group — the first time it gave that label to a nation-state entity.

Concerns have been escalating for several years that there is a growing transnational white supremacist or alt-right movement, as illustrated by the 2019 mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an Australian man who streamed the killings of 51 people on Facebook Live.

Against that backdrop, national security officials are said to have been searching for a neo-Nazi-style group that the U.S. government could designate as a foreign terrorist organization.

One challenge to finding an appropriate candidate was that designating a group with significant American ties would also raise major First Amendment issues, officials said. Although a Russian Imperial Movement member has visited the United States, the organization does not appear to have domestic members. It is not clear if the group has provided training to U.S.-based neo-Nazis.

Fighting domestic terrorism, including violent white nationalists, has become a priority for the F.B.I. Federal and local authorities have made a wave of arrests in recent months, targeting members of two neo-Nazi groups called Atomwaffen Division and The Base.

The F.B.I. has been investigating whether the leader of The Base, who lives in St. Petersburg, has any ties to the Russian government’s security or intelligence services, former law enforcement officials said.

Mr. Sales said they were continuing to look for other white supremacist groups or individuals who met the criteria for sanctions, but declined to comment on any specifics.

The designation of the Russian Imperial Movement would make it easier for the F.B.I. to open sanctions-evasion investigations into Americans who appear to have ties to the group, just as it can with Islamist groups like Al Qaeda, the Islamic State or Hezbollah.

The Trump administration is preparing to unveil the move under the banner of combating “racially or ethnically motivated terrorism.” The F.B.I. refers to such groups as racially motivated violent extremists, which have committed the “most lethal incidents among domestic terrorists in recent years,” the F.B.I. said last year in congressional testimony.

Charlie Savage is a Washington-based national security and legal policy correspondent. A recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, he previously worked at The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald. His most recent book is “Power Wars: The Relentless Rise of Presidential Authority and Secrecy.” @charlie_savage • Facebook

Adam Goldman reports on the F.B.I. from Washington and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. @adamgoldmanNYT

Eric Schmitt is a senior writer who has traveled the world covering terrorism and national security. He was also the Pentagon correspondent. A member of the Times staff since 1983, he has shared three Pulitzer Prizes. @EricSchmittNYT

A version of this article appears in print on April 6, 2020, Section A, Page 24 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Prepares to Sanction Russian Nationalist Group as a Terrorist Organization.

Copyright 2020 The New York Times Company

Follow Genocide Watch for more updates:

  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon
  • Grey YouTube Icon
bottom of page