The Trump administration on Monday designated a Russian ultranationalist group as a terrorist organization, citing its links to paramilitary training and efforts to recruit U.S. white nationalists.
The Russian Imperial Movement and three of its leaders were labeled specially designated global terrorists, said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator.
The designations include financial sanctions designed to freeze funding, limit travel and impose other restrictions on the group.
“These designations are unprecedented,” Mr. Sales said in a video announcement at the State Department. He said it was the “first time the United States has ever designated white supremacists [as] terrorists.”
The three leaders of the movement identified in the order were Stanislav Anatolyevich Vorobyev, Denis Valiullovich Gariyev, and Nikolay Nikolayevich Trushchalov.
Mr. Vorobyev organized the Russian Imperial Movement in 2002. The group claims to seek the restoration of the Russian Empire and Russian monarchy. Mr. Gariyev is part of its “Imperial Legion,” which conducts paramilitary training in Russia and abroad under a program known as Partisan, and Mr. Trushchalov is a leading figure in the movement.
The State Department said the Russian Imperial Movement was linked to paramilitary training for three Swedish ultraright activists who were later convicted of carrying out two bombings in Sweden, including a center for migrants in Gothenburg. Mr. Sales said the group’s overseas activities include offering paramilitary training to neo-Nazis and white supremacist organizations.
The group “plays a prominent role in trying to rally like-minded Europeans and Americans into a common front against their perceived enemies,” Mr. Sales said.
U.S. counterterrorism sanctions in recent years have overwhelmingly focused on Islamist radical groups and individuals.
The Russian Imperial Movement is among several nongovernmental groups that have been linked to Russian intelligence agencies and supported armed pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“The RIM is not an ordinary far-right organization, but a fascist paramilitary movement that poses a potential terrorist threat to democratic societies,” said Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political activist who monitors radical right-wing groups.
Mr. Shekhovtsov reported on his website that Mr. Vorobyov, the group’s founder, was spotted in Ukraine shortly after Moscow dispatched its “little green men” — Russian special forces troops operating without formal military insignia — to the operation to take over Ukraine’s Crimean region in 2014.
Mr. Shekhovtsov said the Russian Imperial Movement has positioned itself as an opponent of President Vladimir Putin but is active in sending fighters and equipment to Ukraine. The group seems to have a tacit agreement with the Kremlin to coordinate strategy, he said.
Mr. Vorobyov said in an email sent in April 2018 that the organization also seeks common cause with far-right-wing activists in the U.S.
“Of course, we also sympathize with all conservative and traditional political forces both in the world and in the USA,” he said. “We believe that the United States must return to traditional Christian values in order to remain a sovereign state.”
Mr. Sales made no mention of the Russian Imperial Movement’s efforts over the past year to offer training to American white supremacists.
According to a U.S. intelligence official, the FBI last year learned of the Russian movement’s efforts to recruit “alt-right” neo-Nazis in the United States. Members of the group contacted several people involved in organizing the Unite the Right rally in August 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where one person was killed and 40 others injured when one of the activists drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Several organizers of the rally would not say whether they were offered Russian Imperial Movement paramilitary training.
The FBI intelligence indicated that the group offered to send the Americans to Russia for the weapons and other paramilitary training as part of what the group calls its Partisan training.
The Partisan program has provided military-style training as part of what the group believes will be a future of global chaos. The group said in a statement in April when asked about its offer to train American right-wing activists that the Partisan course is “open to all.”
“But none of the American alt-right or other activists participated in it,” the statement said.
Matthew Heimbach, an alt-right activist who was an organizer for the Charlottesville rally, acknowledged having contacts with the Russian Imperial Movement in Europe.
Mr. Heimbach, who once headed the now defunct neo-Nazi group Traditionalist Worker Party, said he did not take part in the paramilitary training and believes no other Americans did either.
“I’ve never been involved in their paramilitary activities,” he said in an interview. “For us, the relationship has been to share political ideas.”
Mr. Heimbach said he hosted several representatives from the Russian Imperial Movement in the past and networked extensively during visits to Europe.
Among the chants during a Charlottesville rally on May 13, 2017, were “Russia is our friend,” “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.”
Asked about the FBI investigating alt-right groups, Mr. Heimbach said: “I do think the idea of a working political relationship between American nationalists and Russian nationalists would honestly frighten the FBI more than training with guns. Ideas are more dangerous.”
The activities of the Russian Imperial Movement in Europe were revealed during the investigation of three right-wing activists in Sweden: Viktor Melin, Jimmy Jonasson and Anton Thulin. The men were convicted of a series of bombings in 2017. All are linked to the neo-Nazi group Nordic Resistance Movement. Two of the men, Melin and Thulin, traveled to St. Petersburg several months before the bombings in late 2016 for the Partisan course.
The Russian Imperial Movement’s attempts to recruit Americans do not appear related to Moscow’s intelligence operations targeting U.S. elections. However, an FBI complaint in the case of a Russian influence operative, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, said Moscow is working to sow political unrest through social media by exploiting specific events such as the Charlottesville rally.
Ms. Khusyaynova is an accountant with the St. Petersburg-based troll farm Internet Research Agency. She was charged in September 2018 with conspiracy to influence elections in 2016 and 2018 in a case that grew out of the probe headed by Russia election interference special counsel Robert Mueller.