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NDAA: Russian support for US extremists a ‘significant risk’

Bill would require the Pentagon to report Russian support for “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks"

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Jan. 30, 2020. On Monday he called Russia-backed extremist groups "an emerging national security threat."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Jan. 30, 2020. On Monday he called Russia-backed extremist groups "an emerging national security threat." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Amid bipartisan concerns that Russia’s spy agency may have paid Afghan insurgents to kill U.S. troops, a new Senate report says Russian support for extremist groups in America and Europe is a major new threat.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill would require the Pentagon to report to Congress on the extent of Russian support for “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremist groups and networks in Europe and the United States” — and what can be done to counter it. The Pentagon review must be at least partly unclassified, the committee’s bill said.

The Senate panel’s report called Russian backing for Western extremists a “growing national security threat.”

“Russia’s continued support of such groups or networks, whether through direct support, information warfare operations to amplify and inflame ethnic and religious tensions, and tolerating their operations on Russian soil, poses a significant risk to societal stability and democratic institutions in Europe and the United States,” the committee wrote.

Senate debate underway

The requirement for a Pentagon assessment of the threat is just one of hundreds of provisions packed into the more than 1,000-page bill, which would authorize $731.3 billion in defense programs.

The Senate is debating the measure this week and senators planned to adopt as soon as Tuesday a package of 79 uncontroversial floor amendments, including one that would authorize U.S. intelligence agency programs in fiscal 2021.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said in a floor speech on Monday that extremist groups, including those that might be backed by Moscow, represent “an emerging national security threat, not simply a law enforcement problem.”

Moreover, Reed said, “Russia and Russian agents or entities are working to advance Russian strategic objectives by co-opting, supporting and amplifying these groups to sow divisions and threaten our democratic institutions.”

Rising white supremacist groups

The Senate report’s mention of foreign-funded ultranationalists occurs not only amid the reports of Russian bounties for killing U.S. troops. It also is set against a backdrop of a reinvigorated debate about race in America, one that is happening at a time when right-wing extremist groups are surging in the United States.

The number of U.S. white nationalist groups, in particular, grew 55 percent from 2017 through 2019, to 155, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The State Department said in April it was naming the Russian Imperial Movement ultranationalist group as a terrorist organization — the first time a white supremacist group had been so designated.

The Washington Post reported in April that top members of two far-right U.S. groups — Unite the Right and the New Century Foundation — met with leaders of the Russian Imperial Movement in recent years.

The FBI was reportedly investigating possible ties between the Russian group and a U.S. racist group called The Base, according to press reports.

It is not clear whether the Russian Imperial Movement is funded by Russian authorities. But U.S. officials have told reporters that the government of President Vladimir Putin has at a minimum tolerated the group’s activities, which have included fighting alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine and backing neo-Nazis in Scandinavia.

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