Profile: Russian paramilitary groups fighting on Ukraine’s side

    ANALYTICS  24 June 2023 - 17:16

    Orkhan Jalilov

    In late May, the Freedom of Russia Legion (FRL/LSR) and Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC/RDK), two paramilitary groups of Russians fighting against Russia on the Ukrainian side, claimed responsibility for an armed incursion in Russia’s Belgorod region, right on the Ukrainian border. Following the attack, which prompted the evacuation of nine Russian villages, the groups declared their goals had been to “liberate Russia”.

    The Kremlin describes those responsible for the attacks as "Ukrainian saboteurs" and claimed to have killed more than 70 members of the two groups combined, referring to them as "Ukrainian nationalists". 

    This was not the first such raid by these Russian paramilitary groups. The two groups launched another raid on June 1 into the Shebekino area of Belgorod Oblast. A spokesman for the Legion said their goals were to draw Russian troops away from other parts of the front and to encourage rebellion against the Russian government.

    The two groups are based in and operate from Ukrainian territory and were infiltrating Russia from their base in the north-eastern Ukrainian region of Sumy. They claimed to aim at creating a demilitarised zone along the border, to stop Russian artillery firing at Ukraine from Russian territory. 

    Both groups were working "autonomously on the territory of Russia" and Ukrainian citizens were not involved, according to a representative of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry's Main Intelligence Directorate (HUR), Andriy Yusov.

    Freedom of Russia Legion

    First appearing in March 2022, the Freedom of Russia Legion — sometimes referred to as the Liberty of Russia Legion claimed in its first-ever Telegram post to be made up of Russian servicemen who had surrendered or defected to Ukraine.

    The group describes itself as "centrist" and "a volunteer formation fighting on Ukraine's side". The FRL's website says that the legion is "fighting in full cooperation with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and under the leadership of the Ukrainian command".

    The group uses a white-blue-white flag, which was proposed by a part of the Russian opposition as the flag of "free Russia". Its emblem features a clenched fist with the words "Russia" and "Freedom".

    In mid-March 2023, Russia's Supreme Court declared the FRL to be a “terrorist” organization, and the activities of the Freedom of Russia Legion are now prohibited on the territory of the Russian Federation.

    In their first news conference in April 2022, members of the FRL said that they had been taken prisoner and explained their motivation to fight alongside Ukrainian forces. In the same month, the FRL said that its units had set out to eastern Ukraine to participate in the battles after about two months of preparations. The group also called on Russian soldiers and officers to join the Ukrainian side.

    Last August, the FRL signed a declaration of cooperation in Irpin with the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC/RDK) and the National Republican Army, a Russian group allegedly waging a partisan war inside Russia, on their joint fight against the Russian forces. The organizations also agreed to create a political wing, to represent their interests and organize a joint information policy, led by Ilya Ponomarev, a dissident Russian ex-MP and now Ukrainian citizen.

    Some reports suggest it has 4,000 fighters in its ranks. In May 2023, the Legion spokesperson "Caesar" said the FRL had "several hundred" members and its own artillery, and outlined the unit's recruitment process which includes "several rounds of interviews, psychological tests and even a polygraph", before undergoing two months of training.

    According to Caesar, the legion boasts "several hundred" Russians who after two months of training were deployed in May to Ukraine's industrial Donbas region, which Moscow is trying to conquer.

    Some of its soldiers are now fighting in the town of Bakhmut on the eastern frontline, the scene of several months of fierce battles. Its members were trained by Ukrainian army instructors in late March, including on how to use UK-supplied next-generation light anti-tank weapons (NLAWs) and M72 grenade launchers.

    Russian Volunteer Corps

    Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), a right-wing militia group affiliated with the Ukrainian military, made the headlines on May 22 when its members crossed from Ukraine into Belgorod Region. The group also claimed responsibility for a March 2023 raid into the Bryansk region of Russia.

    In March, the Ukrainian media described the RDK as a "formation within the International Legion of Ukraine's territorial defence". Meanwhile, the International Legion said it has nothing to do with the RVC.

    The US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors extremism, described RVC's leader, Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, as a Russian neo-Nazi "who lived in Germany for many years" and trained young far-right extremists with the National Democratic Party of Germany. Russia's Interior Ministry put Kapustin on a wanted list in March.

    The group was formed in August 2022, to fight against the government of Vladimir Putin, is reportedly consists of Russian emigrants who are primarily united by their opposition to Putin. 

    The RDK was part of the 98th Azov-Dnipro territorial defence battalion of the 108th Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). The corps was made up of Russian volunteers, many of whom were involved in Ukraine's Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014 and fought on Ukraine's side in Donbas afterwards.

    Kapustin said in an interview, that the unit's strength was concealed under the term "corps" but another member named Fortuna put its number at about 120 people in November 2022, after the initial 10.

    The RVC uses the symbols of the Russian Liberation Army, which collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. Members of the group include former FSB agent Ilya Bogdanov and former actor Kirill Kanakhin.

    National Republican Army

    A group calling itself the National Republican Army (NRA) was one of the three groups that signed the Irpin Declaration in August 2022 pledging to fight Putin's Russia. The NRA claimed responsibility for the bombing in St Petersburg that killed pro-war blogger Vladlen Tatarsky (Maxim Fomin) on April 2.

    In August 2022, the group also claimed responsibility for a car explosion that killed Darya Dugina, the daughter of nationalist philosopher and ideologue Alexander Dugin.

    According to Ilya Ponomarev, a dissident Russian ex-MP, the NRA is also planning the attack and that "partisans" inside Russia are ready to conduct further attacks against high-profile, Kremlin-connected targets, including officials, oligarchs and members of Russia’s security agencies.

    In their manifesto, the group members said, "we, Russian activists, military figures and politicians, now partisans and fighters of the National Republican Army, outlaw the warmongers, robbers and oppressors of the peoples of Russia”.

    Some Russian-language social media users and bloggers express their doubts about the true nature of the group, claiming that it may be a hoax at best or a fabrication of the Russian security service, which would allow it to take even harsher measures in suppressing domestic opposition to the war.

    The group has an account on Telegram called "Rospartisan," and it acts as a collective voice of all resistance movements that emerged after the beginning of the war. It has more than 30,000 followers. The channel is dedicated to news related to all actions of resistance, not just across Russia but also on the frontline.


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