For the Ukrainian military, far-right Russian volunteers are becoming anxious allies

A group of Ukraine-linked militants who earlier this week were involved in the fiercest fighting inside Russia’s borders since the invasion gathered foreign and local press on Wednesday at an undisclosed location to celebrate, taunt the Kremlin and display what they called “military booty” from their invasion of their native land: Russia.

Their leader, Denis Kapustin, was proud that his anti-Putin forces once controlled, he said, 42 square kilometers or 16 square miles of Russian territory.

“I want to prove that it is possible to fight a tyrant,” he said. “That Putin’s power is not unlimited, that the security forces can beat, control and torture the unarmed. But as soon as they meet with full armed resistance, they run.”

It was the rhetoric of a dissident freedom fighter, but there was also a dissonant note that came out as clearly as the neo-Nazi Black Sun patch on one of the soldiers’ uniforms. Kapustin and prominent members of the Russian Volunteer Corps armed group he heads are openly far-right. In fact, German officials and humanitarian groups including the Anti-Defamation Leagueidentified Mr. Kapustin as a neo-Nazi.

Mister. Kapustin, who used the pseudonym Denis Nikitin for a long time, but usually his military call sign, White Rex, a Russian citizen who moved to Germany in the early 2000s. He was associated with a group of violent football fans and later became “one of the most influential activists” in neo-Nazi splinter group in the mixed martial arts sceneThis was announced by officials of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Mister. It is reported that Kapustin forbidden from entering Europe’s 27-country visa-free Schengen area, but he only said that Germany had canceled his residence permit.

The fact that the group has brought attention to its activities and renewed coverage of the group’s ties to neo-Nazis is an embarrassing development for the Ukrainian government, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his invasion with a false claim to fight neo-Nazis. -The Nazis made it a constant theme of Kremlin propaganda.

Most anti-Russian groups have long-term political ambitions to return home and overthrow the governments of Russia and Belarus.

“The Russian volunteer corps goes and destroys the current government – this is the only way.” Mister. Kapustin said at the beginning of this year. “You cannot persuade a tyrant to leave and any other force will be treated as invaders.”

In fact, far-right groups in Ukraine are a small minority, and Ukraine denies any involvement with the Russian Volunteer Corps or any role in the fighting on the Russian side of the border. But Mr. Kapustin said his group “definitely got a lot of support” from the Ukrainian authorities.

Some of the extreme right in Russia have long been unhappy with Mr. Putin, especially for jailing so many nationalists, as well as his immigration policies and what they see as giving too much power to minorities like ethnic Chechens. After the 2014 Maidan revolution and the outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Donbass, many of them settled in Ukraine and now fight for their adopted country.

The Russian Volunteer Corps, also known by its Russian name RDK, was one of two anti-Russian militant groups that carried out a cross-border attack in the Belgorod region in southern Russia on Monday, engaging enemy troops over the course of two days.

The purpose of the incursions, the groups say, was to force Moscow to move soldiers from occupied areas of Ukraine to defend its borders, stretching out the defenses ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive, which is consistent with the broader mission of the Ukrainian armed forces.

The Russian Volunteer Corps also claimed responsibility for two incidents in the Russian border region of Bryansk in March and April.

The second group was Free Russian Legion, which operates under the auspices of the Ukrainian International Legion, which includes American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others. It is under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and under the command of Ukrainian officers.

At a press conference on Wednesday, M. Kapustin confirmed that his group was not controlled by the Ukrainian army, but said the military had wished the militants “good luck.” According to him, there was “nothing but encouragement” from the Ukrainian side.

“Everything we do, every decision we make, outside the state border, is our own decision about what we do. Obviously, we can ask our comrades and friends to help with the planning,” he continued. “They said ‘yes, no’ and that was kind of an encouragement, a help that I was talking about.” This claim could not be independently verified.

Andriy Chernyak, a spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence service, defended Kyiv’s willingness to allow the group to fight on its behalf.

“Ukraine unequivocally supports everyone who is ready to fight the Putin regime,” he said, adding: “People came to Ukraine and said they wanted to help us fight the Putin regime, so of course we let them, like many others. people from far abroad.

Ukraine has called the incursions an “internal Russian crisis” given that members of the group are themselves Russians.

Some analysts have dismissed the significance of the RDC as a fighting force, although they have warned of the dangers they pose. Michael Colborn, a Bellingcat researcher who writes about the international far right, said he hesitated to call the Russian Volunteer Corps a military unit.

“Basically it’s a far-right group of neo-Nazi émigrés who are making these incursions into Russian-controlled territory and seem to be far more concerned with creating social media content than anything else,” he said. Colborne said.

Some other RDC members photographed during the border raid also publicly supported neo-Nazi views. One man, Oleksandr Skachkov, was arrested by the Ukrainian Security Service in 2020 for selling a Russian translation of a white supremacist manifesto. shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 mosque worshipers in 2019. Skachkov was released on bail after spending a month in prison.

Another participant, Alexey Levkin, who took a selfie with the RDK symbol, is the founder of a group called Wotanyugend it started in Russia but later moved to Ukraine. Mister. Levkin also organizes the “National Socialist Black Metal Festival” which started in Moscow in 2012 but took place in Kyiv from 2014 to 2019.

Photos released by the militants earlier this week show them posing in front of captured Russian vehicles, some of them wearing Nazi-style patches and equipment. One patch featured a hooded Ku Klux Klan member.

Mister. Colborne said that the images of Mr. Kapustin and his fighters could damage Ukraine’s defenses by making allies fear they might support far-right armed groups.

“I worry that something like this could backfire on Ukraine because these are not ambiguous people,” he said. “These are not unknown people, and they are not helping Ukraine in any practical sense.”

Mister. Kapustin, who in addition to speaking Russian is fluent in English and German, told reporters that he does not believe he is being called a “far-right” “accusation”.

“We have never hidden our views,” he said. “We are a right-wing, conservative, military, semi-political organization,” he said.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Andrew E. Kramer And Oleg Matsnev made a report.