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Inside Russia’s alliance with white nationalists across the globe

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Over the past few years, Russia’s links with the Western far-right have popped up in any number of socio-political developments, on both sides of the Atlantic. Fake social media accounts and marches with tiki torches. Presidential elections and international conferences. Propaganda overlap and relations with those circling the White House.

While Marine Le Pen, whose National Front obtained a loan outright from a Russian bank, failed in her bid to lead to France, and while the jury’s still out on the effect the fraudulent Russian Facebook and Twitter accounts actually had, it’s clear that the ties between Russian operatives and far-right activists and movements throughout the West have strengthened recently. But getting a handle on the depth, as well as the impact, of the links between the Kremlin and the white nationalists and fundamentalists who would inject Putinist illiberalism into the West has proven difficult.

Thankfully, Anton Shekhovtsov – a visiting fellow at Austria’s Institute for Human Sciences, and someone who has chronicled Russian and Western far-right to a greater extent than any other researcher – has just finished off Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, a book examining both the history and current status of these ties.

ThinkProgress spoke with Shekhovtsov about the Soviet history with Europe’s hard-right, how Russia’s 2014 Ukrainian invasion changed everything, and where these ties go from here.

You’ve written plenty on the topic of Russia and the Western far-right elsewhere, and you’re widely regarded on the topic, but why did you feel the need to put this into book form in 2017?

Anton Shekhovtsov’s new book chronicles the rising ties between the Kremlin and the far-right in Europe and the U.S.

I started working on the book in 2014, and I covered some of the topics already in 2013. I have a background in researching Russian nationalism, but also the far-right in the West, so I thought in 2014 it was it was high-time that I combine these two fields of expertise and do a longer piece on the relations between these two entities. But not only the nationalist circles in Russia, but also Russian officials and bureaucrats and politicians who would be considered part of the Russian mainstream.

Was there something in 2014 that prompted the idea for a book? Or was this more of a cumulative effect and outgrowth of your work and events you were watching?

That was the period when – because of the annexation of Crimea and because of the Russian-Ukrainian war – the contact between Russia and the far-right in the West, they became too obvious to ignore. The Ukraine issue played an important role in the activization of those relations – these were people who would be invited to be invited to the Russian media, both international and domestic, to justify Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. So that became too visible to ignore.

I wanted to dial back to the Soviet era, the Nikita Khrushchev era. One of the most widely cited moments in reviews on your book is an instance in 1959, in which KGB agents were revealed to be spraying swastikas on synagogues in West Germany. From your perspective, would you consider that operation a success? And what did that operation say more broadly about relations under Khrushchev between Moscow and the Western far-right?

So that operation was the result, actually, of a failure by the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe to somehow hinder the process of West Germany joining NATO. If we look at the period before 1955, when West Germany joined NATO, the Soviet Union cooperated and collaborated with the far-right neutralists in West Germany who were against West Germany joining NATO.

So when the Soviet Union failed and when their far-right allies failed in keeping West Germany out of NATO, the Soviet Union decided to undermine the credibility of West Germany. And that was quite a successful operation in my view, because West Germany was indeed for some time isolated. This operation resulted in, for example, some British and other businessmen minimizing their business relations with West Germany, or with West German companies, so there was indeed this feeling that maybe German neo-Nazism was on the rise. It did damage West Germany in the sense of foreign policy and business ties. And I think that operation – it was not really isolated, because the KGB, the Soviet Union, used the same tactics, for example, before the Olympic Games in the U.S. to damage the image of the United States.

Some of those operations were detailed in the Mitrokhin Archive – before the 1984 Olympics, the KGB forged letters from the KKK, saying “This is a white man’s country,” “This is a white man’s Games,” etc.

Right, exactly. This operation with the KKK, it’s reminds of the same swastika operation in West Germany at the end of the 1950s.

And how did relations between Moscow and the Western far-right change from Khrushchev to the [Leonid] Brezhnev and [Mikhail] Gorbachev eras? Or did they change?

I think after the 1950s, after the 1960s, I think the Soviet Union was not that interested in collaborating with the far-right. They would still work in most cases with the communist and socialist parties, so those became the main allies, or the main collaborators with the Soviet Union. Maybe there’s still something to be uncovered. There was an investigation about neo-Nazis in East Germany, and some investigative journalists alleged that [Vladimir] Putin himself might have been involved in various operations, active measures, in East Germany that would include some far-right activists. It’s still very much under-researched, but from what I gather the contacts in the 1970s, 1980s, they were not as active as they were immediately after the Second World War.

I think one of the things you make clear in your research is that while relations began developing once more in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it wasn’t necessarily a top-down, Kremlin-led initiative, so much as a bottom-up, almost subterranean development of relations, far from any kind of official policy.

Absolutely. The Kremlin was not interested in those relations until, I would say, the beginning of the second term of Vladimir Putin as president in 2004.

Do you think Kremlin higher-ups were simply unaware of those ties developing in the early 1990s? Or did they think it wasn’t any use to them, or something they wanted nothing to do with?

In my opinion, Russia under [Boris] Yeltsin, and even during first presidential term of Putin, they wanted to develop ties more with mainstream forces – and they were succeeding, especially in the 1990s. They were considered in the West as a striving democracy that was reforming itself, and the Kremlin was not interested in those marginal politicians. Even during the second presidential term of Putin, these contacts and these relations were not as significant as they are now. So it developed very slowly, very gradually – but the period we live in now, it started from 2012.

And that 2012 turn obviously parallels Putin’s return to power, which was based not on economic growth, but based on “traditional values,” a domestic nationalism – which seems like an extension, or at least something that shares overlap, with the resurgence of those ties with the Western far-right. But what about the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia? There seemed a realization in the Kremlin that they’d lost the international narrative on that, and they needed a new push in the information space that saw things like the change and growth of RT afterward – is that related to these ties with the Western far-right?

The war in Georgia in August 2008 played a very important role in the reconceptualization of Russian international media, because as you correctly said there was a feeling in expert circles that Russia lost the international information war. And they decided basically to re-imagine their international media, like Russia Today, also the radio station Voice of Russia, so they went from soft power to, say, dark power. To re-conceptualize the international media meant that they would be talking more about how the West is bad, rather than saying that Russia is good.

In order to promote this message, they of course encountered a problem: not many people – activists, politicians, experts – would be ready to support that message. But then they realized they could count on the far-right, and 2008-2009 was the time when the Russian media increasingly stated to engage with the far-right in Europe, in the U.S., and present them as commentators or experts. That was a crucial moment.

In terms of this engagement, or re-engagement, with the Western far-right, obviously the far-right encompasses plenty of figures and groups. Are there any actors or organizations that stand out for setting a pattern or precedent in terms of ties with Russia?

I would draw on two examples, and I would say that the Kremlin, or even the Russian media, could count on political forces in the West that were ready to cooperate with Putin’s Russian even before Putin’s Russia was ready to do that. I want to stress that there is an agency on the part of the far-right in the West – it’s not that the Kremlin is actively trying to manipulate them, but they’re ready to be manipulated. So the two examples would be first the Freedom Party of Austria, that was very much ready to provide the narrative and message that Russia was interested in, but also some fringe circles in France that appeared as organizations in 2008, 2009, and they appeared only because of the Georgia war. And one of their aims or objectives to promote the war with Georgia.

There’s been plenty of coverage on Russia’s ties with the far-right in Europe over the past few years – with the National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria – but I was wondering: In your research over the past few years, was there anything that stood out that may have been the most under-reported aspect of the relationships, like the agency you just mentioned on the part of these far-right groups?

I think that that was the most problematic feature in the coverage, especially in the media – not from experts, but from the media – that they consider these relations as a sort of one-way type of relationship, that the Kremlin is manipulating them, or that the Kremlin was behind all those initiatives.

But this is not true. First, there were a lot of initiatives coming from the far-right, and second, unfortunately the knowledge of Russian politics, of how Putin’s Russia functions, is generally too low in Western media. One thing that they don’t realize is that the Kremlin makes only very important decisions – but many of these relations that have been developing since 2008, or 2011-12, these relations were operated not by the Kremlin but by people who wanted to produce a result coming from those relations that they could sell to the Kremlin. They would be pro-Kremlin, obviously, or pro-Putin, but they wanted those relations to succeed and then sort of sell it to the Kremlin in exchange for better access to resources. So a lot of these relations were operated and developed by, say, freelance activists or pro-Kremlin politicians.

That description of freelance activism sounds like the types of relationships Western secession movements have developed with Russian operatives, when it didn’t necessarily begin as a top-down, Kremlin-led initiative but kind of a middle-up initiative that the Kremlin eventually began funding. So on that point, and turning to the American context, we have white nationalists like Matthew Heimbach describing Russia as the “leader … of the anti-globalist forces around the world,” and Richard Spencer leading a group of white supremacists chanting that “Russia is our friend!” How much of this is simply noise, and how much of this should we pay attention to, and even be concerned by?

Noted American white nationalist Matthew Heimbach has described the Kremlin as white nationalism’s “most powerful ally.” (CREDIT: AP/STEVE HELBER)

Well, I believe that absolutely you should keep an eye on them. But I would say that partly all these narratives – about Russia is our friend, or other pro-Putin or pro-Russian sentiments that they have – they don’t really point to any significant relations these neo-Nazis and the Russian regime.

I think one example would be when the Daily Stormer registered in the .ru zone, and they published this piece, which I found quite funny, that said [Donald] Trump called Putin and Putin gave them this registration. This is trolling! They were trolling mainstream media, because mainstream media is so crazy about the Russian interference – which was indeed the case – but this is part of the alt-right trolling. And they’re very good at it. So I think sometimes chants like “Russia is our friend” is part of the trolling. Of course, there is ideology, because they truly believe Russia is a white country that is against globalization, and against, say, Jewish conspiracy, or the New World Order. But partly this a trolling.

You just mentioned that these far-right figures view Russia as a “white country” – do they really have no idea how diverse Russia is, either in terms of ethnic makeup and religious views? Do they just have no idea how multi-ethnic, multi-confessional Russia is?

Some of them are aware. If you look at website like Counter-Currents, which is a website run by an American far-right activist, they look at Russia as a white country but they understand Russia is ethnically and culturally diverse. But then you have people like Richard Spencer, and I truly believe that within more these extreme neo-Nazi circles, their education is quite low, and they simply don’t understand what Russia is.

I truly believe that within more these extreme neo-Nazi circles, their education is quite low, and they simply don’t understand what Russia is.

One of the points you’ve made is that, yes, these relationships have developed, and yes, there’s this aspect of legitimization and mutual reinforcement. But the success the Kremlin was hoping to achieve by now, in a certain sense, hasn’t actually come, whether it’s elections in Austria or France – or even with Trump, given that sanctions remain and that the U.S. is no closer to recognizing Russia’s claims in Crimea. Is there a sense in Moscow that these ties with far-right actors haven’t panned out? 

The Kremlin and people close to the Kremlin always consider national contexts, so it was quite clear to me that in 2016 the Kremlin was eager to support Francois Fillon in France, rather than Marine Le Pen, because Fillon as a presidential candidate would have won the second round against Le Pen. But then [Emmanuel] Macron became the main candidate, and [Moscow] had to support Marine Le Pen as the only pro-Russian presidential candidate. I’m saying this because even when they don’t succeed in one thing, they would try two things. They would establish good relations with the mainstream forces, but they would still keep contacts with the far-right at least on median level, just in case.

So these unsuccessful operations in France – they didn’t hinder attempts to influence German elections, and I think the relatively high percent that the Alternative for Germany party got in recent elections, they are partly the success of various Russian actors interfering in the German election. AfD got more votes than it would have been able to obtain because it managed to mobilize the Russian-speaking population in Germany, at least part of them, and I presume we could say that the additional 2 percent that AfD got was due to these operations and this mobilization of Russian-speakers.

So even though Le Pen lost, and the Trump presidency hasn’t been what the Kremlin hoped for, there’s little reason to think these ties, and efforts to encourage Western far-right actors, won’t dissipate anytime soon?

No, no – they will not disappear. Because in the broader war with the West, they are not limited to these operations with the far-right. There are other operations. There are business ties, with businessmen who don’t care about foreign policy as such, and there is an information war using some other actors in the West. So it’s just part of the broader war of the West.

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