The Trump administration on Monday designated the Russian Imperial Movement a terrorist organization, calling it the first time the label has been applied to a white supremacist group.
The ultra-nationalist group is based in St. Petersburg and believed to be responsible for training neo-Nazi militants in Western Europe, recruiting separatists to attack Ukraine and supporting election interference in the United States.
“These designations are unprecedented,” Nathan Sales, State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, said in a statement he read to a briefing room all but emptied by coronavirus restrictions.
“This is the first time the United States has ever designated white supremacist terrorists, illustrating how seriously this administration takes the threat,” Sales added. “This group has innocent blood on its hands.”
He cited a string of 2016 bombings in Sweden that targeted immigrants. The attacks were allegedly committed by two Swedes who received 11 days of paramilitary training from the Russian Imperial Movement.
Designating the group as terrorists — a tactic most frequently used for Islamic militant groups — allows the Treasury Department to blacklist the Russian Imperial Movement, seize any assets it has in the U.S., prohibit U.S. citizens from financial transactions with it and possibly bar its members from travel to the United States. It also denies members access to the U.S. financial system worldwide, which would make it difficult to move money, Sales said in a later telephone conference call.
The action taken Monday was authorized under an executive order President Trump signed last year that expanded the power to sanction foreign entities. Trump has been criticized for downplaying the gravity of white nationalist violence in the U.S.
In 2017 he declared there were good people “on both sides” of a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., that left one counter-protester dead.
In addition to the organization, its three top leaders were also sanctioned: Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valliullovich Gariev and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov.
They run at least two paramilitary camps in St. Petersburg, Sales said, “which likely are being used for woodland and urban assault, tactical weapons and hand-to-hand combat training.”
Sales declined to comment in detail on reports of the Russian Imperial Movement’s possible ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government or its military, except to say he hoped Moscow took the threat posed by the group “as seriously as we take it.”
Activists in Russia and human rights experts contend that Putin and his government at the minimum tolerate the paramilitary activities of the group because they further many of the Russian president’s foreign-policy goals, namely sowing dissension, confusion and fear in Western democracies.
“We are calling on the Russian Federation to live up to their commitments ... in counter-terrorism efforts,” Sales said. “We want to make sure that [this group] can’t commit deadly attacks in the homeland.”
Sales declined to present evidence of actions inside the United States by the movement, noting that news reports have indicated the group may have contacted like-minded white supremacist organizations in the U.S. He said there were growing indications that ultra-nationalists “interrelate and inspire” one another around the world.
The London-based Institute of Race Relations has reported that Russian fascists have been active in recruiting and proselytizing in several neighboring countries, such as former Soviet bloc members like Ukraine and Latvia, and elsewhere in Europe.
The leader of the Base, a notorious neo-Nazi group based in the United States, now reportedly resides in Russia. The FBI in recent months carried out arrests of members of the group or affiliated groups as concern mounted over white-supremacist terrorism that had often been overlooked or overshadowed by Islamic violence.
The State Department’s action won initial praise from Congress.
“But this is only a first step,” a statement from the office of Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) said. Rose is currently deployed with the New York National Guard fighting the coronavirus.
“The threats these groups pose are real, global in nature, and this designation gives our law enforcement the tools necessary to protect our homeland,” the statement added.