When the Ukrainian military unit called Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC) briefly entered a Russian village in Bryansk Region near the Ukrainian border, the Russian authorities claimed that the attackers had killed two civilians and wounded a small boy called Fyodor Simonenko.
RVC is made of far-right personalities from Russia who have chosen to fight on the Ukrainian side because they regard Vladimir Putin’s regime as neo-Bolshevik and Russophobic. It rejected the accusations of targeting civilians in Bryansk operation.
But soon after the incursion, the unit’s commander, Denis “White Rex” Nikitin (his real surname is Kapustin), took to ridiculing the wounded boy online after Russian media revealed that he hailed from a Muslim family. Fyodor was brought up, it turned out, by a single mother of Crimean Tatar origin who emigrated to Russia from Tajikistan. One of Nikitin’s posts contained a photo of a family dressed in Tajik national costumes with stylised swastikas placed like halos above the heads of adults and children. The motto above the picture read: “Russia will be Aryan or lifeless”.
A racially pure Russia, cleansed from minorities and immigrants, is one of the most radical visions of the country’s future among those presented by various opponents of Putin’s regime. Extremist projects like this catch a lot of attention, in large part because Putin’s mainstream liberal opponents appear either short of ideas or audacity to spell them out while the war in Ukraine is still raging.
The little white men
A week after Bryansk incursion, Nikitin reposted a quote attributed to the Belgian Nazi leader Leon Degrelle, which prophesises that one day “a young Russian Bonaparte” will “emerge from the east and create a European unity, which Karl V, Napoleon, Hitler and Western Europeans, who fought together with me, failed to achieve”. Degrelle’s Walloon Legion was virtually wiped out by the Soviets in the North Caucasus. In Belgium, Degrelle was sentenced to death in absentia and his Nazi party, known as Rex, was disbanded. Rex happens to be Nikitin’s nickname.
Ever since moving to Ukraine in 2017, Nikitin was close to the Azov movement, which is what its leading figures call a host of political and paramilitary groups, as well as businesses, linked to what emerged in 2014 as the Azov battalion. The vision of a racially pure pan-European entity that begins in Ukraine before spilling into Russia and subsequently conquering the rest of Europe (in what the movement’s ideologists called Reconquista) was at the heart of the Azov movement’s political programme, as expressed by its ideologist Olena Semenyaka circa 2015.
The Ukrainian government distanced itself from the Russian Volunteer Corps, but not quite. A spokesman for Ukraine’s military intelligence (GUR), Andrey Yusov, called its members “one of those forces that will be shaping the future configuration of post-Putin Russia”. The Deep State, a Ukrainian war monitoring group, jokingly dubbed RVC “the little white men” in a reference to Putin’s “little green men” who occupied Crimea in 2014.
That RVC is linked to GUR is no secret. For once, it is part of the International Legion – a unit comprised of foreign volunteers who fight for Ukraine, which was set up under GUR’s auspices. RVC’s chief of staff, who goes by the callsign Fortuna, said in an interview that he took part in GUR’s operation to liberate Zmiinyi Island in the Black Sea from the Russians.
It is unclear to what extent RVC’s ideology is being sympathised with or shared by senior officers at GUR, which understandably welcomes any groups that help weaken or undo Russia. The office of GUR’s chief Kyrylo Budanov is famously decorated with the map of Russia divided into a multitude of imaginary statelets. A cake in the shape of that map was made for his last birthday.
RVC has a political wing called Civic Council which is based not in Ukraine but in Poland. The organisation positions itself as the official recruiter for the corps. The person in charge of recruitment is Denis Mikhaylov, a former Navalny co-ordinator in St Petersburg who fell out with the Russian opposition leader’s movement. In 2020, Navalny’s chief of staff Leonid Volkov told the BBC that he and his colleague suspected Mikhaylov of having been planted into their organisation by the Kremlin.
The main public face of the Civic Council is Anastasia Sergeyeva, who also leads a much better-known Polish organisation called For Free Russia. It strives to unite and help members of the Russian opposition who found themselves stranded in Poland. Its website lists the Polish foreign ministry and Warsaw mayor’s office, as well as British and Czech embassies in Poland, among its official partners.
Independent St Petersburg
RVC has a competing project which is also being developed in both Ukraine and Poland, although the existence of its military component is doubted by many.
Freedom for Russia Legion emerged as a brand in the spring of 2022, soon after the beginning of the all-out Russian invasion in Ukraine. Initially, it appeared to be the initiative of the GUR, which by that time began forming the International Legion. A GUR officer and one of the main spokespeople for the Ukrainian government at the time, Oleksiy Arestovych, was among its chief promoters.
Later, though, the fugitive former Russian Duma MP Ilya Ponomarev took lead in the project, at least publicly. Ponomarev is a former associate of Putin’s spin doctor in chief Vladislav Surkov, who escaped corruption charges in Russia (getting paid millions of rubles for several lectures at Skolkovo) by fleeing to Ukraine.
The other public face of the unit goes by the callsign Caesar. According to Ponomarev, back in Russia Caesar was close to the Russian Imperial Movement, but fell out with it long before it was designated by the State Department as a terrorist organisation for its role in training volunteers for pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.
There is nothing to be said so far about the “legion’s” battlefield achievements, but Caesar was co-opted by Ponomarev into the executive committee of the self-proclaimed Congress of People’s Deputies – a gathering he helped organise in Poland in November 2022. The committee also included several well-known personalities, like former Putin’s advisor Andrey Illarionov and ex-MP Gennady Gudkov.
The “congress” proclaimed itself Russia’s “transitional parliament” and adopted a declaration which called for denouncing the current constitution and introducing emergency law until new government bodies will be formed. It also called for an armed insurrection against Putin’s regime. Clarifying his intentions, Ponomarev wrote on Twitter: “There will be a junta – either Prigozhin’s or ours. Make you choices, Russians”. Yevgeny Prigozhin is the founder of Wagner Group.
The gathering drew ridicule from Russian independent media and senior opposition figures. “You are Surkov’s disgusting clown who represents no one”, Navalny’s chief of staff Volkov wrote on Twitter, addressing Ponomarev (Volkov resigned from his post later for unrelated reasons).
Last February, Ponomarev also featured prominently at another gathering, called Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, which took place inside the European Parliament in Brussels under the auspices of the parliament’s far-right faction, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). The group includes Poland’s ruling Law & Justice Party (PiS). As the name of the forum suggests, its participants advocate an eventual breakup of Russia.
The former Polish foreign minister and ECR’s current secretary-general Anna Fotyga opened the forum, which primarily drew little-known personalities who peddle exotic geopolitical projects like that of “Moscow Republic” or Ingria – an independent Baltic country to be formed around St Petersburg and based on the identity of near-extinct Finno-Ugric minorities living there.
Only a handful of participants represented non-virtual national liberation movements, like Chechen and Circassian, or indeed had any digital footprint to speak of. Those who did would make a few eyes roll in the Russian opposition circles.
Pavel Mezerin of the Ingria project used to be an aid to Yury Shutov – a former St Petersburg politician and a notorious gangster who died in 2014 while serving a life sentence for several contract murders. Shutov was also implicated in the assassination of the famous pro-democracy politician Galina Starovoytova, but as with many political assassinations in Russia that crime has been never completely solved.
In his address at the forum, Ilya Ponomarev said that the 34 regions, into which Russia would eventually break up, as per other speakers, will join the coalition of 54 states that form the Ramstein Group, a US-led coalition of the willing that delivers military aid to Ukraine.
Later though, when a Meduza correspondent approached Ponomarev to ask about these projected 34 states, Ponomarev dismissed the idea: “But this is crap [khuynya in Russian], why are we talking about crap?”
Courage to speak for Russia
It is in large part due to their exoticism and sheer lunacy that these kinds of projects catch the attention of the media. However, they hardly reflect the mood in Russia opposition circles, not to mention in Russia proper, including in ethnic regions. Russia is a nation state with an 80% ethnic Russian population. Most ethnic autonomies have a majority ethnic Russian population. Separatist sentiments are next to non-existent in real life.
Besides, the memories of the Soviet collapse in the 1990s are way too vivid, while the plight of Ukraine serves as a larger-than-life cautionary tale. There is broad understanding that a dissolution of Russia will lead to a civil war, the fear of which underpins Putin’s regime. If anything, the separatists’ projects help Putin to keep the regime intact and the opposition at bay.
But they betray the hopes harboured by at least some elements in the governments of Ukraine and Poland, far-right politicians elsewhere in Eastern Europe and their Western friends. The post-Russia forum featured British journalist cum politician Edward Lukas, as well as representatives of American think-tanks, the Jamestown and Heritage foundations.
The radicals are filling the vacuum created by the far more influential leaders of the Russian mainstream liberal opposition. The most potent organisation, Navalny’s movement, is undergoing an identity crisis with its leader languishing in jail and all the other main figures forced into exile. It keeps churning out corruption investigations into Putin’s entourage, but this subject has been largely sidelined by war. There is little new to be learned about the regime’s excesses.
More to the point, Navalny’s allies have announced the launch of clandestine cells of supporters inside Russia in place of its vast regional network which was undone by the regime. This is a renewed attempt to reach out to the country’s conformist majority – the only meaningful way of precipitating change in Russia. But the agenda on offer is limited to protesting about war and mobilisation.
The conformist majority could easily accept Russia’s military defeat in Ukraine – it has always been lukewarm about Putin’s military adventurism and the appetite for new territorial gains is minuscule, as per polls. But the threat posed by forces advocating civil war in Russia, like RVC, or the dissolution of the country, like the post-Russia forum, is something they need to be reassured about by both the Russian opposition and its Western partners. In the current circumstances, talking about these issues, not to mention advocating the interests of the future democratic Russia in the West, requires a lot of courage and skill. No one seems to be up to that task.
The Western ambiguity about the future of Russia is the Achilles heel of the Russian opposition. It is also Putin’s massive political asset. What kind of Russia does the West want? Democratic, prosperous and fully integrated in the EU and Nato, or weak and “contained”, as Western hawks call it to avoid the word “isolated”? Or would it rather have Russia disintegrate? None of the exiled opposition leaders appears to have the strength or audacity to engage in a difficult but meaningful conversation with Western governments on these issues.
Leonid Ragozhin is a freelance journalist based in Riga. Formerly at the BBC, Newsweek and Lonely Planet guides. He tweets @leonidragozin