How Are Putin’s Far-Right Fans in the West Reacting to His War?
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest to “de-Nazify” Ukraine has found a fertile audience in the United States, especially online. For those of us monitoring the virtual spaces inhabited by far-right and white supremacist extremists, it is evident that Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been a major topic of conversation, with sharp disagreement. This isn’t surprising, necessarily. The individuals, groups, and networks that comprise the violent far-right online ecosystem have never been a monolith.
At their ideological core, these groups view the world — and the events taking place within it — through the lens of their political aspirations for the creation of a white ethno-state and the destruction of Western liberal societies. This violent cornerstone is a good starting point for understanding the narratives shaping the American far right’s online discourse around Ukraine.
When it comes to high-profile national and international events, these actors are inherently opportunistic and they look to the conflict in Ukraine from the perspective of how the crisis can serve and reinforce their own localized interests and aspirations for political violence at home, respectively. Many far-right extremist actors support Russia, some support Ukraine, and others are entirely agnostic to the outcome of the conflict, but root for bloodshed and anomie. For analysts watching their online activities right now, there are interesting observations from their narratives that can inform policymakers and security practitioners as they continue to grapple with an emboldened and increasingly transnational far-right — to which Moscow and its agents have given financial and other support since long before the war on Ukraine.
White supremacists see benefits in supporting Russia. First and foremost, they share a common enemy. The online ecosystem of white supremacy is flooded with rhetoric against a system they call “globalism.” This worldview, all too common in the extremist spaces that we study, declares that there is a nefarious global cabal that carries out the work of shadowy elites that control the economy and the media — extremist rhetoric against this “system” always includes racist and anti-Semitic references. In their struggle against this organized “anti-white” global conspiracy, white supremacists must fight the forces of Western liberal “degeneracy” that have taken over North America, Europe, Australia, and beyond. At the global level this conspiracy includes a range of international bodies like the European Union, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and NATO. Some see Putin as their savior from the fate of “white genocide,” motivated by a belief in “the Great Replacement,” wherein whites are supplanted and subsumed by minorities.
Many white supremacists both welcome and participate in Putin’s challenge to the Western liberal status quo and the rights-based international order. For years, Russia has been supporting political forces in the West to weaken and fracture states. This well-documented support has gone to right-wing populists across Europe and North America, as well as to some of the darkest elements in the far-right extremist space. This includes support to anti-LGBTQ+ ideology and a revanchist and chauvinist approach to foreign policy that many far-right extremists admire and seek to emulate. For example, take one disinformation narrative pushed by actors, likely backed by the Kremlin, which has found fertile ground online among U.S. far-right audiences: that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a chief mastermind and enabler of human trafficking rings in Ukraine. The false “evidence” levied against Zelenskyy includes the fact that he is Jewish — and thus part of the “global elite” — and that he is a supporter of rights for the LGBTQ+ community, who the Kremlin claims seek to exploit children in order to groom them. The latter narrative has a longstanding resonance within far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, which frequently employ this type of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in their propaganda.
For years, Putin’s sexist rhetoric and deliberately cultivated macho imagery have played into the hands of white supremacist extremists who share his disdain for women and gender equality. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a common talking point among white supremacists was how the U.S. military was being destroyed by diversity — how in meeting the needs of women, minorities, and gender non-conforming servicemembers, Western militaries were lowering standards and fighting fitness. The “ranks of wokeness” would be “owned” by Russia if a war were to ever take place, these white supremacists assured each other smugly. Indeed, numerous politicians and more mainstream media figures have also criticized the U.S. military as too “woke” in the face of Russia’s “masculine” military. White supremacy is rooted in misogyny, as is Putin’s worldview. Gender dimensions are notoriously overlooked in security, but it’s worth remembering that Ukraine has been a victim of Putin’s misogynistic rhetoric since the beginning of this conflict in 2014. White supremacist fanboys are decidedly quiet in the face of Russia’s poor military performance and strategic incompetence, speechless as they watch Ukraine’s diverse people’s army — grandmas included — gallantly stand up to the hyper-macho war machine that they had spent years rooting for. While their stunned silence on this topic is welcomed, a concern is that women will be punished and blamed for these losses, as is always the case with misogynists. After Ukraine’s women were perceived as having shifted the political balance toward the West and away from Putin in 2014, Russia’s state-sponsored media demonized and denigrated them. A close watch on the gender dimensions of this conflict — online and offline — is imperative as misogynistic narratives will be deployed against Russian and Ukrainian women who continue to stand up to Putin.
Moscow’s Support for Transnational Far-Right Extremists
Russia’s support to the transnational far right remains a key enabler of the global movement. In 2020, the U.S. State Department named the Russian Imperial Movement as a “specially designated global terrorist” group — the first time that the U.S. government has taken such measures against a far-right extremist group. The Russian Imperial Movement has served as a catalyst for politically motivated violence from St. Petersburg to Stockholm and beyond. With the Kremlin’s tacit approval, the group has efficiently built an infrastructure that has allowed it to expand its network and train terrorist operatives, as well as facilitate the Kremlin’s war in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s Wagner Group has long played a role in Russia’s hostilities in Ukraine, including alongside Russian Imperial Movement members, and Wagner-linked mercenaries have engaged in conflicts beyond Europe, including in sub-Saharan Africa, the Levant, South America, and the Maghreb. Wagner Group leaders and mercenaries have long shown signs of supporting and following neo-Nazi ideology, including the use of Nazi and other hate symbols on their clothing, on their military vehicles, and in markings left following their operations.
American neo-Nazis and ideologues have also found support for their cause from Russia. The Base is one such. It is a U.S.-based neo-Nazi militant organization with chapters across the world — it has been listed as a terrorist group by several countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, and has found a home in Russia. Since 2020, the American founder of the group, Rinaldo Nazzaro, has been directing the group from St. Petersburg, where the Russian government has turned a blind eye to his activities on their soil. (Chatter on extremist online channels suggests that Nazzaro may have stepped down from this role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)
Ideological Affinity for Russia Among the Far Right
To this end, individuals and groups in the far-right extremist space in the United States have long shown support for Putin. Notorious white supremacist Matthew Heimbach — a key organizer of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville — has previously hailed Putin as the “the leader of the free world.” On Putin’s war in Ukraine, take some recent commentary by another well-known American neo-Nazi. Reflecting on the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West and the withdrawal of Western businesses and media entities, as well as the exodus of many Russians seeking to flee the country, he celebrates the fact that Russia will be “purged of foreign elements.” His diatribe also includes hateful anti-Semitic language and hackneyed tropes about the “Zionist Occupied Government,” a favorite bogeyman of the far right. And, as usual, liberal philanthropist George Soros figures prominently in the far-right vitriol praising Putin and Russia. His words reflect a common sentiment among white supremacists and neo-Nazis that modern societies need to be cleansed of corrupting economic, social, and political forces and “degeneracy.” From the neo-Nazi social hygiene perspective, the departure of Western media, money, tech, entertainment — and even porn — is to be celebrated. Through this warped lens, they see their own violent political fantasies realized: “Me and the boys moving to Russia,” as one meme has it.
Among certain elements of the American political right, Putin has reached the level of an icon. At an America First Political Action Conference in late February in Orlando, FL, attended by two Republican members of Congress, the audience broke out into a chant cheering on Putin. The pro-Putin crowd is not simply relegated to the fringes, either. According to a January YouGov poll, Republicans have a more favorable view of Putin than they do of Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. On any given evening, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson can be found praising Putin and serving as a de facto mouthpiece for the Kremlin. Carlson’s show reaches millions of Americans and clips dominate conservative social media sites. On numerous occasions, Carlson has slandered Zelenskyy, labeling him “an obedient puppet of the Biden State Department,” while most of the world sees him as a Churchillian icon. Several leading Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have also failed to criticize former President Donald Trump’s effusive praise for Putin and instead have blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Biden’s weakness. A 2022 report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence says that Russia will probably work to “strengthen ties to U.S. persons in the media and politics in hopes of developing vectors for future influence operations.”
Anti-Putin, Anti-West, “Pro-White”
However, not all corners of the white supremacy online ecosystem support Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or believe they have something to gain from the power shifts that may result from a Russian victory. A Canadian neo-Nazi shared with his followers that Ukraine is becoming “a graveyard of the White race.” He states that both global forces — Russia and the West — are “anti-white,” and he warns his followers that support for Putin means that “Islamo-Eurasianism led by Russia and China can triumph.” His rhetoric builds on another common narrative among white supremacists: that Ukraine is caught between two “anti-white” imperialist empires — the West’s multicultural “globalist” degeneracy on the one hand, and Russia’s multicultural “Eurasianist” empire on the other. These neo-Nazis lament that whether they look east or west, multiculturalism, religious pluralism with Jews and Muslims, multi-ethnic diversity, and inter-marriage are allowed to take place. For them, Putin is a distraction from a “pro-white alternative.” At the narrative level, Putin’s justification for the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine didn’t sit well with some neo-Nazis: It is a “statement that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of nationalists,” observed one group.
In Scandinavia, the largest neo-Nazi organization in the region has determined that no side is worth the group’s official support. In commentary and statements posted online since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they have empathized with “both sides” of the conflict but implore their followers to see that neither side is worth dying for. Again, their organizational position ties into broader and well-established white supremacist narratives that lament so-called “brother wars.” This position posits that the movement cannot celebrate wars in which white men are killed by each other’s bullets, and white women and children — a scarce resource in their twisted worldview — are lost to conflicts among “brothers.” On the question of their members militarily supporting the fight in Ukraine, one Scandinavian neo-Nazi organization concluded that their members should “take part in the important struggle” at home.
It should also be acknowledged that far-right elements are present on the Ukrainian side of this conflict. While the Azov Battalion garnered much attention for its far-right ideology during the first battle with the Russians dating back to 2014, the current iteration of Azov is believed to be more nationalist, and less racially or ethnically focused, than in the past. While anti-Semitism could once again emerge as a serious problem for all sides involved in this conflict, it is crucial to keep things in perspective: Putin and the Kremlin are the primary purveyors of, and players stoking, far-right and white supremacist ideology to help achieve their own political gains. Typical of Kremlin disinformation, there is usually a kernel of truth in the propaganda about Ukraine’s far-right militias: Far-right extremists have fought and do continue to fight for both sides. What Putin doesn’t want you to know is that the lion’s share of these extremists fight under the banner of Russian imperialism.
Still, the propaganda and false narratives on Ukraine espoused by the Kremlin-backed or Kremlin-aligned disinformation apparatus serve to reinforce already existing extremist narratives on the far-right. One example is the highly visible “Ukraine Biolabs” narrative — a conspiracy theory amplified by likely Russian-backed actors online purporting that the United States is running secret biological laboratories in Ukraine to develop biological weapons there. This specific narrative not only seeks to justify Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine, but also plays into already existing extremist narratives in the United States that have been used to commit acts of violence. Analyzing artifacts within the “Ukraine Biolabs” narrative and how it has spread online since Feb. 24, it appears to be resonating chiefly with QAnon adherents, anti-government extremists, and COVID-19 conspiracists. For example, according to our monitoring and analysis, one sub-narrative within the “Ukraine biolabs” conspiracy theory alleges that children are trafficked to be experimented on inside these U.S.-run labs — a lie that is resonating with QAnon adherents and proliferating in QAnon groups online.
Keyboard Warriors or Real Threat?
These disinformation narratives pushed by Russia and other foreign adversaries ultimately seek to exacerbate societal fault lines and erode the trust in liberal democracy and the government, and should be considered a potent threat to international security.
The online cheerleading is mostly that, cheap talk from keyboard warriors keen to support “their side” in the latest flare-up of this long-running conflict. But while some of these disinformation narratives are overtly pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine, some are more insidious and aimed at stoking anti-government and anti-democratic sentiments that could motivate individuals to commit acts of violence. Far-right extremists use apps like Telegram to radicalize and recruit, identifying foot soldiers who are willing to travel to Ukraine. As in previous conflicts, online ecosystems can serve to amplify ideological narratives and offer logistical support to foreign fighters attempting to reach the battlefield. The online echo-chambers of far-right extremists are further reinforced by inauthentic behavior in the form of foreign influence outlets, sock puppet accounts, and bot networks from the Kremlin-backed and aligned disinformation apparatus, which pushes narratives aimed to exacerbate societal fault lines in the United States.
While the war is still in its early days, and the far-right extremist movement is far from monolithic in its views of it, the event will likely serve to invigorate extremists around the world, including in the United States. As they did with other world-churning events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the most insidious and violence-oriented extremists will harness Russia’s war in Ukraine to further advance their own hateful creed — whether in the form of online radicalization, nurturing transnational networks, or providing logistical support for individuals who travel to join in the fighting. It is imperative that the United States and allies remain vigilant against these developments and counter calls or attempts for mobilization to violence, whether through state-backed disinformation campaigns or monitoring extremists seeking battlefield experience.
Stephanie Foggett is the director of global communications at The Soufan Group and a resident fellow at The Soufan Center, focused on international security, counter-terrorism, and geopolitics.
Mollie Saltskog is a senior intelligence analyst at The Soufan Group. She provides research and analysis on special projects relating to national security, conflict analysis, geopolitics, modern disinformation, and counter-terrorism.
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. You can find him on Twitter at @ColinPClarke.
Photo by Anthony Crider