The war between Russia and Ukraine escalated further this week when two armed groups crossed from Ukraine into the Russian province of Belgorod and briefly occupied a village before being driven out by Russian troops. According to the Russian government, 70 “terrorists” were killed in the process.
What makes this episode unusual is not the fact that it took place on Russian soil but that the “Ukrainians” in question appear in fact to have been Russians, albeit Russians fighting on the side of Ukraine. They were members of two groups, the Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), the latter of whom had undertaken a smaller, but somewhat similar, incursion into the Bryansk region of Russia in March of this year. The CBC reported the story as “Freedom Fighters Seize Small Part of Russia.” As so often, though, the reality is rather more complex than this headline suggests.
Little is known about the FRL, other than that it was founded by former Russian Parliamentary Deputy Ilya Ponomarenko. The organization’s Telegram channel has stated that its aim is “the preservation of a one and indivisible Russia within its 1991 borders,” a slogan clearly echoing that of the anti-Bolshevik White army of General Denikin in the Russian Civil War, “Russia, One and Indivisible.” One Legion member interviewed by CNN declared himself a “devoted member” of the Russian Orthodox Church and stated that “he misses the Tsarist era which predated the Soviet Union.” All this suggests a somewhat conservative and nationalist disposition.
The Russian Volunteer Corps is much more radical. Its leader, Denis Kapustin (who nowadays goes by the alias Denis Nikitin), is a one-time football hooligan whom the Guardian newspaper describes as “a Russian neo-Nazi who claims he once kept a framed photograph of Joseph Goebbels in his bedroom.” According to the Financial Times, Kapustin/Nikitin also goes by the nom-de-guerre “Rex” in honour of “his white nationalist clothing brand White Rex,” and is “a former mixed martial arts fighter with ties to neo-Nazis and white nationalists across the Western world.” In 2019, his far-right activities earned him a 10-year ban from the European Schengen zone. Since then he has lived in Ukraine.
The RVC is overtly ethno-nationalistic. The Russian language has two words for “Russians”—“russkie’ and ‘rossiyane.’ “Russkie” are ethnic Russians. “Rossiyane” are citizens of the Russian Federation, of any ethnicity. In a statement of its aims, the RVC declared: “We are ‘russkie’—we are not ‘rossiyane,’” and argued that the Russian Federation should be a “Russian [russkoe] national state” consisting of “predominantly ethnic Russian regions.”
The involvement of the RVC raises the interesting question of why far-right Russian ethno-nationalists would be fighting on behalf of Ukraine against their own country. According to the narrative commonly peddled by the Western media, Putin and the state he leads are “ultra-nationalist,” even “fascist.” Yet it seems that real Russian fascists don’t like him.
An explanation can be found in a speech Putin made last week in which he discussed the “State National Policy Strategy.” In this he commented that a growing majority of Russians identified first and foremost as citizens (in other words, as Rossiyane) and only secondly as members of this or that ethnic group (such as Russkie). This, said Putin, was a thoroughly good thing. He remarked that:
From generation to generation, our forbears worked together for the good of our common and vast Motherland and multiplied the spiritual heritage of a single state with the diversity of their languages and traditions, and formed its unparalleled multiethnic and multi-religious culture. Our state was built around values of multiethnic harmony. This is the bedrock foundation underlying our consolidation. … Our adversaries, that I mentioned earlier, people with neo-colonial mindsets—halfwits, in fact—are unable to realize that diversity makes us stronger.
Putin has said this sort of thing many times in the past. His government has been quite intolerant of Russian nationalism, fearing that it might incite ethnic conflict and so destabilize the country. In the 2010s, many Russian nationalists fell foul of laws outlawing extremist speech and were arrested. As a result, they tended to view Putin decidedly negatively. Following the invasion of Ukraine, some changed their minds and decided that Putin was after all on their side. Others like Nikitin, however, seized the opportunity to take up arms against him. For them, a smaller but ethnically more Russian state is preferable to a larger but more diverse one. Imperialistic projects, such as the Russian attack on Ukraine, are consequently viewed as undesirable.
While this may explain why members of the Russian far-right are willing to fight for Ukraine, it doesn’t explain why the Ukrainian state views them as desirable allies. They are, after all, not particularly interested in Ukraine itself. The reason may be purely pragmatic and cynical, based on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Contrary to Russian claims, the Ukrainian state is far from being fascist. Nevertheless, since the 2014 Maidan revolution, it has been more than willing to tolerate the far-right for the practical reason that it provides a strongly motivated source of military manpower. Likewise, the Russian militias help to fill the ranks.
The Russians also serve a political purpose. The Ukrainian government regularly says that it is fighting a purely defensive war, and is not interested in invading Russia. But launching attacks on Russian territory helps to divert Russian resources from other fronts and can be seen as demonstrating to the Russian people that Moscow is incapable of defending them. The Ukrainian authorities have rather implausibly claimed that the FRL and RVC are unconnected to them, and have described the attack on Belgorod province as an uprising of the Russian people within Russia. The Russian militias constitute a mechanism through which Kyiv can carry out such actions while denying that it is.
Kyiv’s previous dalliances with the far-right have produced short term practical military benefits, but have arguably been politically counterproductive in that they have helped to alienate part of the Ukrainian population while giving Moscow an opportunity to portray Ukraine as fascist. The same dynamic may now repeat itself. On the one hand, the attacks on Belgorod provide some tactical advantages to Ukraine. On the other hand, they enable the Russian authorities to paint Ukraine as a “terrorist state” and strengthen Moscow’s propaganda narrative that Kyiv is in league with neo-Nazis. Rather than weakening support in Russia for the war, these attacks may therefore have the opposite effect.
Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.