The United States on Monday branded a Russian far-right organisation a terrorist group, the first time it has targeted purported white supremacists with action frequently used against jihadist groups.
The move comes after ambivalent messages about white supremacists by President Donald Trump, who notoriously defended participants in a neo-Nazi rally.
The State Department said the Russian Imperial Movement runs two paramilitary training camps in Saint Petersburg and has pulled in neo-Nazis from across the Western world, including Swedish militants who carried out violent attacks.
“This is the first time the United States has ever designated white supremacist terrorists, illustrating how seriously this administration takes the threat,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator.
“We are prepared to target any foreign terrorist group, regardless of ideology, that threatens our citizens, our interests abroad or our allies,” he said.
The Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders were blacklisted as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, meaning that they will not be admitted to the United States and that any US assets they hold will be blocked.
The designation also aims to have a chilling effect on banks and other institutions overseas unlikely to want to deal with a US-described terrorist group.
Sales said that two extremists from Sweden, known for its generosity toward refugees, traveled in August 2016 to Saint Petersburg to undergo 11 days of paramilitary training with the group.
They returned to Sweden and carried out a series of attacks including a bombing outside a migrant center in Gothenburg that gravely injured one person, the State Department said.
“This group has innocent blood on its hands,” Sales said.
‘Nonsense,’ leader says
The monarchist movement has deployed volunteers to fight in nationalist causes, including on behalf of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
“It’s incredible. It’s nonsense, of course,” Denis Gariyev, one of three leaders put on the blacklist, told AFP of the designation.
“In the same way you could recognise tens of thousands of volunteers as terrorists. Yes, we took part as volunteers,” he said of the group’s participation in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
He denied that the group promoted racial supremacism, saying: “We couldn’t do so because we are an Orthodox organisation.”
“This is politics. Probably they want to use us as a bogeyman. They need an ‘image of the enemy,’ after all,” he added.
The group’s website says its militants train in martial arts and knife-fighting in the belief that “not being a warrior for a modern man in Russia is criminal weakness.”
A Russian court in 2012 banned a group website as extremist, according to the justice ministry, but Moscow has not designated the group as a whole as terrorist.
Sales said that white supremacists around the world have increasingly been interconnected.
Last year a gunman targeting Hispanics killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and said he was inspired by the white supremacist who massacred Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Sales said the State Department had seen reports that the Russian Imperial Movement “reached out to Americans or even travelled to the United States,” although he did not draw a link to any incidents.
Trump himself has faced widespread criticism for his uncritical treatment of white supremacists as well as his rhetoric that demonizes non-white immigrants as criminals.
In 2017, Trump said that neo-Nazis whose march in Charlottesville, Virginia devolved into violence included “very fine people.”
Violent hate crimes in the United States soared to a 16-year high in 2018, including a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue, according to the FBI.
Sales said that Monday’s designation was made possible after an order by Trump that allows designation of terrorists based on their training activities, not necessarily participation in violence.
Despite the calls on Russia to act, the United States itself does not designate domestic groups as terrorists, owing largely to the US Constitution’s broad guarantees of freedom of speech.