Could Charlottesville open a door for Russia?
By Asha Rangappa
President Donald Trump's failed response following the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, by Nazis and the KKK was not only unpresidential, it also highlighted again the problem of Russia.
This is because throughout Europe an expanding and persistent link exists between extreme right-wing hate groups and Russia. Although there is no evidence to date that Russia is directly supporting extreme right groups in the United States, this established connection, when viewed through the lens of Trump's response to Charlottesville, suggests an opening for Russian intelligence to use domestic hate groups as a vehicle for escalating their active measures inside the United States.
While the dominant chant during the tiki-lit march on Friday was "You will not replace us," there was another refrain as well: "Russia is our friend." Such unabashed admiration for Russia is not surprising, given that militant Russian nationalism -- the idea that political scientist Richard Arnold describes as tying "a desire for ethnic greatness to the greatness of the state" -- mirrors the goal of hate groups to reclaim white superiority in the United States as well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's traditionalist-nationalist rhetoric, which blames secularism, diversity and internationalism for the weakening of Western democracies, gives voice to the grievances that American hate groups have felt for so long.
Russia has taken advantage of its exalted status among right-wing extremists to expand its influence throughout Europe. Western intelligence services have determined that right-wing movements in their countries have received financial support from Putin and in some cases, like Hungary, arms and training from the GRU, Russia's military intelligence organization. Russia hasdenied tampering.
With the growing momentum white supremacists have in the United States under the Trump administration, it's not inconceivable that Russia could attempt to support similar operations here, particularly given the ties that already exist between leaders of white supremacist groups and the Russian government. Richard Spencer, for example, who helped organize the Charlottesville protest and is an avid admirer of Putin, married Nina Kouprianova, a Russian propagandist whose writings (under the pen name Nina Byzantina) mirror the Kremlin's rhetoric, according to the Daily Beast. It's been reported that they are separated, which Spencer denied when speaking at Auburn University in June.
Kouprianova also reportedly denies being a member of any white nationalist movement, but expressed sympathy for movements that "challenge the dominant and globally oriented post-liberal ideology." And Spencer himself, along with former KKK leader David Duke, has close relationships with Alexander Dugin, whom Newsweek describes as a Russian "ultranationalist"with ties to Russia's foreign intelligence chief. Both Spencer and Duke have also used Russian state-sponsored media to propagate their extremist views. These connections create a ready-made entry point for Russian intelligence to directly engage with domestic hate groups and take their disinformation campaign a step further -- toward destabilization.
Unfortunately, under our current circumstances, stopping a Russian effort like this in the United States would be difficult. Although the FBI has a broad counterintelligence mandate, hate groups enjoy constitutional protections that make them presumptively off-limits for counterintelligence investigations. The reason lies in the FBI's checkered past: From 1956-1971, the FBI ran a domestic spying program called COINTELPRO, which focused on illegally monitoring, infiltrating, and disrupting American political organizations including the KKK, communist groups and civil rights groups, among others.
The Church Hearings in Congress, which followed the program's exposure, resulted in the creation of the Attorney General Guidelines, rules that significantly restrict investigations that may impinge on activities protected by the First Amendment. Even when these groups cross the line into criminal and even terrorist activity, these same constitutional protections prevent law enforcement from investigating them as aggressively as international terrorist groups.
This vacuum creates a perfect opportunity for Russian intelligence. Apart from exploiting the openness of KKK and Nazi groups to Russian propaganda that supports their ideology, Russia could also funnel financial support to these groups to intensify their activities with little fear of detection.
Russia has another good reason to believe its efforts would be fruitful: The Trump administration no longer includes white supremacist groups as a threat in its Countering Violent Extremist program under the Department of Homeland security, so these groups can continue to expand virtually unchecked.
Given Russia's role in fueling right-wing extremism around the world, our concern over President Trump's mixed signals about hate groups should go beyond how he directly responds to events like Charlottesville. It opens the United States up to broader risks as well. His implicit endorsement of domestic right-wing extremism is a green light for Russia to extend its destabilization campaign here, if it hasn't done so already.
The Russian cloud over the Trump administration never seems to disappear.