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Seventy years ago, western spy services realised they had been infiltrated by moles working for the Kremlin. Western communists, such as British double agents Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, felt an ideological loyalty to Russia.

We may be living a repeat, with the difference that today’s moles are extreme rightwingers. The problem transcends Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old US airman who likes guns and racist chat, recently arrested under suspicion of leaking secret documents about the Ukraine war. From Brazil to Germany, the far right appears over-represented in spy services and militaries. That threatens both Ukraine’s war effort and western democracy.

The Putin-friendly far right peaked politically in 2016-18 and rarely wins elections any more. The most that some far-right officials can now achieve is sabotaging liberal policies.

Take the case of Carsten L, who worked for Germany’s foreign intelligence service. Last September, he was appointed head of personnel security, overseeing security checks for the service’s 6,500 employees. Just before Christmas he was arrested, accused of passing state secrets to Russia. It emerged that L, too, had made racist comments, saying refugees should be shot. And according to German public TV channel Das Erste, he had made donations to Alternative für Deutschland, the Putin-friendly far-right party.

L isn’t alone. In 2020, Germany’s defence minister announced reforms of the military Special Forces Command, the KSK, following “many suspected cases of extreme-right attitudes and deficient loyalty to the constitution”. But among the 25 conspirators arrested after an attempted coup last December were several former KSK soldiers. 

Much of the French military (and police) is far right. In April 2021, on the 60th anniversary of the failed French “generals’ putsch”, hundreds of military veterans, including 20 retired generals and 18 serving officers, signed an open letter warning that “Islamist” aggression might start a “civil war”. An opinion poll suggested most voters agreed.

Today, some French soldiers sympathise with Russia against Ukraine. Vice-admiral Patrick Chevallereau explains: “A Russophile sentiment has long existed within part of traditionalist France, from which certain officers have come: that a ‘holy Russia’ . . . constitutes a kind of civilisational ally against an ‘Islamist’ and conquering south.” Chevallereau adds that many French officers oppose Nato, sometimes from frustration at having worked there without speaking its operational language, English.

Far-right western officials could intervene in their own countries, too. The chief threat isn’t from military coups. The closest to that in a democracy recently was January’s far-right Brazilian coup attempt, after which President Lula accused the armed forces of collusion. Notably, the battalion meant to guard the president did not repel the attacks. The retired general who headed the government’s security unit resigned last week after video showed him roaming the presidential palace, while some of his agents served water to the attackers.

Some far-right leaders bypass the army and cultivate personal militias. Israel’s national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is creating his own national guard. Cas Mudde, a political scientist who studies the far right, warns: “Arguably, the most powerful violent far-right group in the world is the RSS, a paramilitary organisation with a claimed membership of five to six million, which is very close to India’s ruling BJP.” Then there are the US militia groups, led mostly by military veterans, which took part in the failed coup of January 6 2021.

Dangers remain. Next year’s US elections will be decided by a few swing states. A Republican secretary of state (three elected in the past year deny the 2020 results) could throw its votes to Donald Trump. Protests might be quelled by the National Guard, which contains many from the Trumpiest demographic: white men. As French historian André Loez notes, revolutions, from Russia in 1917 to Egypt in 2011, are generally decided by the choices of security forces.

The scenario of armed far-rightists enabling domestic takeovers feels more plausible than western moles defeating Ukraine. In 2021, I published a biography of British KGB double agent George Blake. He and others sent the KGB more secret western documents than it could handle. But after Blake fled to Moscow in 1966, he discovered a Russian weakness: “If the intelligence service gave information that didn’t match the boss’s view, then either that information wasn’t passed on, or it was changed so that it did match the boss’s view. So he was never correctly informed.” Let’s hope Vladimir Putin ignores today’s western helpers.

Follow Simon on Twitter @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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