Jan 20, 2021 - Technology

How the far right made itself a Russian intel target

Illustration of the Russian flag with the Gadsden snake overlaid. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The bizarre story of Capitol rioter Riley June Williams is a full-circle moment for Russia as it looks for new ways to shore up its own influence by fueling the democracy-destabilizing ascendancy of a globally networked radical right.

The big picture: Five years ago, Russia used a network of bots and strategic hack-and-leak operations to embolden an unwitting U.S. far right. Now, at least one American extremist stands accused of willingly offering would-be material support to Moscow.

What's happening: Williams, according to court documents, helped lead the rioters’ charge upstairs toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, where Williams herself stole a laptop.

  • While a Pelosi aide said the computer was “only used for presentations,” any electronic device belonging to one of the most powerful people in the U.S. government is inherently sensitive, even if there is no classified information contained on it.

The intrigue: At least at a superficial level, Williams understood this too. According to a former romantic partner of Williams’ cited in court documents, the 22-year-old “intended to send the computer device to a friend in Russia, who then planned to sell the device to SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service.”

Reality check: This was a cartoonish plot with a very low chance of success, even assuming the SVR would be interested in the laptop — or would consider Williams’ offer credible.

  • But what’s interesting in the coverage of Williams’ alleged toying with profit-driven spying is what went unsaid: that someone on America’s extreme right would even consider betraying her country for Moscow.

Background: Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has turned toward a brittle ultranationalism that often frames Moscow as the last defender of “traditional” values against an effete and divided Europe.

  • Russia has built connections with far-right political movements across Europe, including in Italy and Austria; a Russian bank even lent the pro-Kremlin French extremist Marine Le Pen over $12 million dollars to shore up the finances of her political party.

Far predating the Trump era, American white nationalists began to view Russia as a natural ally, with prominent extremist Richard Spencer even calling Russia “the sole white power in the world.”

  • Far-right American activists have traveled to Russia to meet with radical politicians. And Rinaldo Nazzaro, a former Pentagon contractor who was the head of a violent neo-Nazi organization called “The Base,” now lives in Russia. He's now calling for “re-establishing secretive paramilitary training across the U.S,” in an effort to cultivate potential terror cells.
  • Even Nazzaro’s own allies in the U.S. were suspicious about who was supporting him and “joked he was part of the FSB ... suspecting he had orders to meddle with the American political landscape through the terror group,” writes Vice.

Russian propagandists — including those from Moscow’s intelligence services — have long understood the country’s appeal to European and American right-wing radicals and how to target these communities in its online disinformation campaigns, including, recently, on Gab and Parler.

  • Russian government-linked actors like the Internet Research Agency have also invested in online disinformation targeting left-wing news consumers.

The catch: It’s important not to overstate the degree to which malign foreign interests may be influencing American domestic politics.

  • The overwhelming majority of American right-wing radicals are entirely homegrown, and there is a long and shameful history of domestically generated white-supremacist violence that has stalked this country from its founding.

Yes, but: U.S. adversaries would be foolish not to try to take advantage of these domestic fractures. Russia has already internalized this lesson.

  • In Europe, current and former Russian military intelligence officials have been involved in training extremist groups in Hungary and Slovakia.

The bottom line: U.S. law enforcement officials mapping the networks of violent radicals that helped storm the Capitol — and the infrastructure supporting these individuals — may soon be faced with the prospect that what begins as a criminal probe may nevertheless leak into the hazier world of counterintelligence.

Go deeper