Despite Vorobyov’s bravado, the designation is likely to hinder RIM’s moves to forge ties with far-right groups in the United States and Europe, and frustrate its efforts to persuade foreign ultranationalists to travel to Russia for combat training.
Links to war in Ukraine
The designation also comes amid concern over increasing violence by far-right groups, as militant Russian ultranationalists dream of creating a worldwide movement.
One of the first to congratulate the organization after the U.S. terrorist designation on April 6 was Igor Girkin, a former Russian intelligence officer charged with murder by Dutch authorities in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. Girkin also faces sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.
Girkin, who calls himself Igor Strelkov, played a key role in Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and was commander and defense minister in the separatist Ukrainian region of Donetsk.
“I take the opportunity to congratulate my esteemed comrade-in-arms of RID on receiving a high award — official recognition of their ‘terrorist organization’ by the enemies of Russia and the Russian people,” Girkin wrote on social media, using the Russian acronym for RIM.
RIM, which describes itself as a Russian Orthodox monarchical movement, often posts anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT tropes. Its themes include the collapse of Russia under incompetent and corrupt elites, and a coming clash of civilizations. The State Department’s move against RIM was its first designation of an extremist far-right group as a terrorist entity, reflecting growing concern about violence by such groups.
The State Department also designated as terrorists three associated individuals: Vorobyov and colleagues Denis Gariev and Nikolay Trushchalov.
Not a priority for Kremlin
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not know enough about RIM to comment.
“Since 2015 I would say that this Russian Imperial Movement has been posing an increasing threat to European societies,” said Anton Shekhovtsov of the University of Vienna, who is an expert on Europe’s far right. “Many things can be dangerous for Western societies but at the same time useful for the Kremlin, like RIM.”
But he said Russian President Vladimir Putin and Peskov probably were not paying any attention to a fringe group such as RIM.
“I don’t think that either Putin or Peskov are dealing with these questions. It’s just below their radar,” he said. “They deal with much more significant things.”
But RIM’s interests have at times closely matched the Kremlin’s.
Its members fought alongside pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. It offers paramilitary training in urban warfare, such as that it provided to two members of a Swedish neo-fascist group who were sent to prison in 2017 over bomb attacks.
“RIM is a dangerous extremist organization that is involved in training white supremacists to participate in violence both inside and outside of Russia,” says a statement by the California-based Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counter-Terrorism. It adds that the group has propagated disinformation about covid-19.
“The fact that we were put on the list was a good advertisement for us. [President] Trump has increased our popularity,” said RIM’s leader, Vorobyov. “We have received letters from many countries, letters of support saying that this decision was not fair and that ‘we support you.’ ”
Social media accounts closed
The group tried to leverage its notoriety for recruiting, but its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages were shut down after the U.S. terrorism designation. Russia’s Internet control and censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, then blocked access to RIM’s website. The group’s VKontakte and Telegram accounts are still active.
Gariev, a history graduate, openly runs an associated paramilitary course, Partisan, in deserted buildings outside St. Petersburg, where participants learn to use combat tactics and sniper and Kalashnikov rifles. There is a strict ban on alcohol and cursing.
“I was put on the sanctions list, but I don’t know yet what the risks for me are. I have no idea. We’ll live and see,” Gariev said in an interview.
Vorobyov saw the designation as related to Trump’s bid for reelection and his efforts to garner support. “He wants to present himself as a fighter against racists, and he also needs to look good to the Ukrainian diaspora,” Vorobyov said.
But he said the blocking of the website was “a major blow. . . . Many materials, books, publications, archives and articles were all on one site, and now they are destroyed.”
The group’s Russian bank accounts also have been blocked.
Gariev said the terrorism designation was “a big surprise. Probably they decided to put our movement on the list of terrorist organizations because we took an active part in the events in Donbass,” he said referring to the war in eastern Ukraine. “But the main reason for putting us on the list, in my opinion, is our Christian position.”
Trushchalov said he left the organization last year and declined to comment further.
U.S. and European travels
Until now, Vorobyov has been able to travel freely around Europe as part of his group’s efforts to forge links with foreign far-right groups.
In 2015, he was part of a conference of international far-right groups in St. Petersburg. That September, he visited the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden, donating an unknown amount of money. Two months later, he was at a gathering of right-wing extremists in Madrid.
In November last year, he traveled to Vienna for a congress hosted by the monarchist Black-Yellow Alliance at Parkhotel Schönbrunn, a restored former guesthouse for the palace of Emperor Franz Joseph I, ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
RIM has made overtures to American groups, too.
Matthew Heimbach, a Unite the Right organizer, met RIM representative Stanislav Shevchuk in Washington and in Gettysburg, Pa., in 2017. Jared Taylor, who runs the website American Renaissance, traveled to the St. Petersburg conference in 2015.
In 2014, RIM’s paramilitary wing, the Imperial Legion, fought in eastern Ukraine on the side of pro-Russian separatists. The movement trained several hundred volunteers to fight in eastern Ukraine. One member, Alexander Zhuchkovsky, led an operation to send supplies, including radios, uniforms, cellphones, drones, binoculars and even items as banal as soap, batteries and toothpaste to support the fighters. In 2014 he told Der Spiegel he had raised about $485,000 for the effort.
The war, in which 13,000 people have been killed, drags on, with recent renewed peace efforts faltering.
RIM also drew notoriety for training two members of the Swedish neo-fascist organization Nordic Resistance who were later convicted of bomb attacks on a left-wing bookstore and two centers for asylum seekers in Gothenburg.
Russia has long bolstered far-right fringe groups in Europe, including ultranationalists in Slovakia, Hungary, Montenegro and Bosnia, as part of the Kremlin’s strategy of sowing discord and instability in Europe.
In its search for voices supporting Kremlin policies, Russia also has courted more-mainstream far-right politicians in Europe such as France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Rally party.
Europe’s ultranationalists often express admiration for Putin, who styles himself a virtuous model of traditional Russian manhood, rejecting same-sex marriage, LGBT rights and liberalism. In contrast, RIM abhors Putin and the oligarchic elite that sustains him.
Vorobyov acknowledges that the “reward” of the terrorism designation could cause problems with Russian authorities.
“I don’t know what the reaction of Russian authorities will be. If they take this issue seriously, we might have problem with our activity here in Russia,” he said.
Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.