The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
The past decade has seen a notable spike in incidents of far-right terrorist violence around the world, from the 2011 attack in Norway that left 77 people dead to the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in 2019 that killed 51. Americans have mourned slaughters at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, and a predominantly Black church in Charleston in 2015, among other white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant assaults. Far-right activists have recently marched in U.S. cities to protest the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump, engaging in street brawls, stabbings, and shootings. People across the globe are waking up to the general threat of far-right violence, but another troubling development has not won commensurate attention: the penetration of these extremists within the ranks of law enforcement and the military—the very institutions charged with keeping the public safe.
Newspaper investigations and government probes in Germany this year uncovered organized networks of far-right sympathizers in the rank and file of the country’s security services. Last month, military intelligence officials questioned eight individuals, including German soldiers, who are suspected of involvement in an antigovernment “sovereign citizen” movement. Lawmakers sounded the alarm: “There isn’t any room in the military for enemies of the constitution,” the country’s defense minister said. Germans are reckoning with the problem of far-right extremism within their country’s military, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement.
The United States, however, has evinced no similar recognition of the problem of far-right penetration into its army and police. Former FBI agent Michael German correctly described the U.S. government response as “strikingly insufficient” in a report that the Brennan Center released on the subject in August. Nearly 15 years earlier, an FBI bulletin warned of the growing “threat of white nationalists” who might deliberately infiltrate the police, disrupt investigations, and try to recruit fellow officers. That warning was not heeded. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, right-wing violence has grown precipitously in the United States in the last six years, accounting for the great majority of known terrorist plots and attacks in the country. U.S. officials must take this threat to national security as seriously as their German counterparts have done, or they risk imperiling the constitutional protections that law enforcement and the military are sworn to uphold.
For decades, German authorities viewed far-right and white-supremacist extremism within the military and security services as a matter of a few bad apples. But there is now a growing realization that this presence is in fact widespread and has coalesced into organized networks. In late November, German authorities conducted two investigations that identified 26 soldiers and nine police officers who organized and participated in chat groups that shared far-right and anti-Semitic content.
The investigations came on the heels of a domestic intelligence agency report that documented more than 1,400 cases of right-wing extremism in the police and intelligence services over the past four years. Earlier in 2020, Germany’s Defense Ministry identified 20 far-right extremists within a platoon of the country’s elite antiterrorism and rescue Command Special Forces. The authorities disbanded the platoon—but not before 48,000 rounds of ammunition and more than 135 pounds of explosives had gone missing from the unit’s arsenal.
In 2017, a German soldier posed as a Syrian refugee and planned a “false flag” terror attack that would be blamed on Islamist extremists. Far-right groups and political parties seized on the 2015 refugee crisis, in which nearly one million mostly Muslim asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in Syria and elsewhere sought refuge in Germany, to spread Islamophobic and anti-immigrant ideas and promote xenophobic policies. Germany’s annual domestic intelligence report released this July documented a more than 50 percent increase in the number of right-wing extremists in the country since 2014. The German minister of the interior stated that right-wing extremism represented the “biggest security threat to the nation.”
A German minister insisted that right-wing extremism represented the “biggest security threat to the nation.”
That threat has increasingly manifested within military and law enforcement communities. Over the past two years, the German media has documented numerous instances of far-right extremism in the army, police, and security services, including reports of officers participating in racist and neo-Nazi online chat groups and revelations of a group of soldiers and police officers gathering weapons in preparation for the apocalyptic collapse of the state order—for which they had ordered hundreds of body bags and quicklime and used police databases to create target lists of 25,000 pro-refugee politicians.
Germans are more attuned than many others to the threat of white supremacist and right-wing extremist ideas due to the history of the Holocaust and the resulting restrictions on speech and symbols affiliated with the Nazi Party. Police are trained to assess crimes for right-wing extremist motivation, which makes it more likely that they will recognize extremist ideologies within their own ranks. German domestic intelligence agencies track not only the criminal acts of extremists but also the precise number of extremists believed to be present in the country, issuing an annual public report that breaks down the numbers by ideology as well as by how many individuals are considered high risk for violence. In 2017, the country implemented the strictest legislation in the world regulating hate speech on social media platforms. And in late November, the German federal government passed the most sweeping set of measures against racism and right-wing extremism in modern German history, earmarking more than one billion euros over the next three years to fund 89 specific programs, including enhanced cooperation between security authorities, the judiciary, and state and civil society organizations and more research on preventing radicalization.
Some critics still question the effectiveness of Germany’s response to right-wing extremist involvement in the armed forces and police, calling for leaders to acknowledge that the problem has moved beyond individual cases into networks of extremists that, at the very least, demand additional investigations by federal authorities. German authorities have insisted, for example, that less than one percent of the members of the military and security services are engaged in far-right extremist activities. But given the power such officers hold over communities, along with their extensive training and access to weapons, any extremism within these ranks is a cause for concern. The domestic intelligence agency report warned that “state and society are in considerable danger if an official who is armed becomes an extremist.” Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer called for such people to be held to account, declaring that “every case is a scandal.”
The rigor and determination of the German response far exceeds that of U.S. attempts to get a handle on far-right extremism in the military and law enforcement. The scale of the problem in the United States became clear this summer. The police murder of George Floyd in May touched off Black Lives Matter protests that generated significant backlash from the extremist fringe, including from militant far-right activists with backgrounds in the military. An army reservist and two veterans were arrested in Las Vegas for plotting violence against a Black Lives Matter protest there, while an active-duty air force sergeant with ties to the so-called Boogaloo scene—a movement of gun-rights activists and white supremacists who seek to start a civil war—went on an eight-day rampage of shootings and attacks in which he murdered a federal security guard. Across the country, officers were caught on video or police scanners during Black Lives Matter protests acting in ways that favored white militias, vigilantes, and armed counterprotesters.
The problems go deeper than individual bad actors in local departments and units. In 2019, ProPublica revealed that nearly 10,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents—including the agency’s director—were members of a Facebook group that shared racist, anti-migrant, and misogynistic memes and content. Another report found hundreds of active-duty and retired police officers in racist and extremist Facebook groups—revelations that led more than 50 local police departments to initiate investigations, resulting in at least one case in which an officer was fired for “violating department policies.”
These findings highlight racism within law enforcement at a time when the public is reckoning with its prevalence in police dealings with Black and brown Americans. Police practices reflect an environment in which such troubling attitudes can flourish. Gauging just how systemic the problem is, however, remains difficult, in large part because the U.S. government has refused to commit to the kinds of comprehensive investigations now underway across the Atlantic. The lack of available data to assess the scope of far-right activity in law enforcement and the armed forces fuels the perception that the problem is limited to a few bad actors who need to be rooted out—and that notion hurts both law-abiding members of the police and military as well as citizen groups seeking real reform.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the American public has reason for alarm. Some law enforcement officers are active members of hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan in Florida and the neo-Confederate League of the South in Alabama. The Oath Keepers, a private militia group founded in 2009, claims to have tens of thousands of members who are current and former law enforcement officers and military veterans, comprising some two-thirds of its membership.
Vigilantes, extremists, and would-be terrorists are attracted to joining the police and the armed forces because they see themselves as warriors who can act heroically in defense of their communities. The 17-year-old police youth cadet who allegedly shot and killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August had traveled there to support local police officers during Black Lives Matter protests. A local militia group in Kenosha had called for “patriots” to come “take up arms and defend our city tonight from the evil thugs.” The same bravado extends to other kinds of militants. Prior to killing 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016, the shooter who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, or ISIS, had twice failed out of law enforcement and police academies and was employed as a security guard.
The experience of soldiering may make some veterans susceptible to far-right recruitment. Soldiers are trained to dehumanize enemies and see conflicts in binary “us versus them” terms that make sense on the battlefield but leave veterans vulnerable to extremist propaganda in the civilian world. Army veteran and white supremacist Timothy McVeigh was responsible for the worst domestic terrorism attack in U.S. history, taking the lives of 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The experience of soldiering may make some veterans susceptible to far-right recruitment.
Of course, the vast majority of law enforcement officers and members of the armed forces are not extremists. Indeed, the diligence of law enforcement has been essential to preventing violent extremist attacks, such as the recent kidnapping plot against the Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. But Americans should still be concerned that some police officers and soldiers—who are charged with safeguarding the population—actively participate in extremist groups.
The pressure for a more comprehensive response in the United States is growing. Two congressional hearings in 2020 in the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Reform investigated incidents of white supremacy in the military and white supremacist infiltration of local police departments. Members of Congress are calling for more transparency from military and law enforcement leaders. In July, more than three dozen lawmakers from both parties wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper to ask him to review and clarify his department’s policy on the involvement of active-duty personnel in “extremist and white supremacist ideology and activity.” That same month, Representative Pete Aguilar, Democrat of California, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Defense Department to report each year to Congress “every incident of white supremacist activity” in the agency. This provision was in the NDAA that passed in the House of Representatives in December. Representative Brad Schneider, Democrat of Illinois, proposed an amendment to the NDAA which would have required the reporting of white supremacist infiltration in uniformed services and federal law enforcement agencies, but it was removed before the bill made it to the House floor for a vote. Last year, a similar provision in the NDAA aimed at “keeping white nationalists out of the U.S. military” was edited to use vaguer phrasing about screening enlistees for “extremist and gang-related activity.”
Federal agencies have not always been as helpful as they could be. The FBI refused to attend a September 2020 House subcommittee hearing on the infiltration of white supremacist views and networks in local law enforcement, which Chair Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, noted in opening remarks was because the bureau claimed that there was no evidence of this being a “widespread problem.”
The United States has much to learn from the German approach to combating white supremacist extremism, even though it is rooted in the particular experience of rebuilding democratic institutions after the Holocaust. German authorities understand security work as integral to protecting democracy and defending the constitution, whose first article calls on “all state authority” to respect and protect human dignity. Since 1956, the German military has had a specialized unit charged with countering extremism within the army, conducting investigations and removing soldiers from active duty if they are confirmed to harbor extremist views; its public website prominently displays the number of suspected cases investigated each year. Local police agencies have dedicated commissioners for extremism and for anti-Semitism.
Similar efforts in the U.S. are nascent, including a new New York Police Department unit to monitor and prevent extremist violence. But the United States lacks Germany's data collection about far-right extremism nationally and within the military and law enforcement. The Department of Justice and the Department of Defense should be required to report data on relevant incidents to Congress or to civilian oversight committees convened by the federal government. Given the particular susceptibility of veterans to far-right recruitment, the government should devote more resources to supporting their reintegration after service through counseling and the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological needs. Veteran support organizations and local law enforcement agencies should receive staff training to better recognize warning signs of extremist radicalization and know how to gain access to further resources and help.
Scrutinizing right-wing extremism in the military and law enforcement has its risks. Investigations can drive extremists further underground, where they operate in ways that are harder to monitor. But extremist ideas and groups cannot be left to operate unchecked within the very organizations charged with protecting the population, including its most vulnerable citizens. For the future of multicultural democracy, extremism in the military and law enforcement must be treated like the threat to national security that it is.
COVID-19 Has Been a Boon for Far-Right Extremists