NATO is still working to stop Russia’s aggression in Ukraine by imposing sanctions, applying political pressure, providing weaponry, and supporting the Ukrainian economy. Outside of rhetoric and more vehement words and actions on the world stage, Moscow’s direct response has been minimal. Yet, Russia has increasingly utilized soft and robust measures to incite conflict and retaliate because it is evident that Europe is the alliance’s weak spot. The far and extreme right in Europe, which has frequently moved in a pro-Russian direction, is a critical channel that Moscow may use.
Wave of terror in the EU
It is unlikely that any Russian support for these groups will be apparent. A series of letter bombings that occurred in Spain late last year may be a sign of things to come, according to the New York Times. U.S. intelligence initially connected the bombings to a Russian intelligence operation collaborating with extreme right-wing actors. Still, the bombs were traced to a lone individual partially motivated by Russian propaganda. The German “sovereign citizens” or “Reichsbürgers,” plotting to topple the government before their capture in December 2022, contained further traces.
The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) political party had attempted to get in touch with Russian authorities to ask for assistance in stabilizing their administration after seizing power. Moscow has long maintained connections with various elements of the right wing in Europe, from mainstream politicians to outlawed terrorists. This is a perfect environment for Russian interference given the societal tensions already present in Europe.
Russia is already equipped to respond to these threats. The Russian Imperial Movement (RIM) is a global far-right movement that was added to the US government’s list of specially designated terrorist organizations in April 2020. As then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted, the U.S. action was “the first time in history” that the U.S. government has “recognized a white supremacist group.”
According to later reports, the organization has established training facilities in St. Petersburg for right-wing extremists from Sweden, Germany, Slovakia, Finland, and Denmark. One of the Swedes, Anton Thulin, belonged to the Nordic Resistance Movement and was imprisoned in 2017 for detonating a bomb at a Gothenburg refugee facility. His squad carried out three attacks; the other two targeted refugee centers and a Swedish left-wing organization. Thulin traveled to Poland after being freed to pursue further training.
The link between Russia and the German Reichsbürger plan is tenuous but yet there. In that case, it appears that one of the conspirators had previously belonged to the AfD, a far-right political group that Moscow had personally supported. Network members are accused of trying to establish direct contact with Russia to win favor (the Kremlin denied playing any role). In a different recent instance, it appears that the AfD helped Russia hire a senior German intelligence official who gave it information regarding the war in Ukraine.
While mainstream politics try to distance themselves
The power of these mainstream pro-Putin politicians has partly diminished as a result of the conflict in Ukraine; given the unfavorable public perception of what Russia is doing in Europe, it is more difficult to keep general support while endorsing Moscow. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni made a point to emphasize Italy’s support for Ukraine, and Matteo Salvini, who made headlines for wearing a pro-Putin T-shirt in parliament, canceled a trip to Moscow that he had planned for June 2022, despite having also stated that he believes sanctions against Russia will harm Italy. However, Italy’s current government coalition members have openly supported Putin.
The political tide in Europe is currently turning against Russia and those who support it. Nonetheless, amid the extreme fringe, supporting organizations and people continue to give Putin a means to destabilize Europe; some extremists are receiving military instruction and gaining combat experience in Ukraine.
Photo: imago images//Rolf Zöllner