For the Ukrainian army, far-right Russian volunteers are worrying allies

Denis Kapustin, right in black, the leader of an anti-Putin group of ethnic Russians who has been identified as a neo-Nazi by the Anti-Defamation League, is interviewed and photographed by reporters in northeastern Ukraine, May 24, 2023. (Finbarr O'Reilly/The New York Times)

Denis Kapustin, right in black, the leader of an anti-Putin group of ethnic Russians who has been identified as a neo-Nazi by the Anti-Defamation League, is interviewed and photographed by reporters in northeastern Ukraine, May 24, 2023. (Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times)

A group of Ukrainian-aligned fighters, which earlier this week had been involved in the heaviest 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 show off what they call “military trophies” of their foray into their homeland: Russia.

Their leader, Denis Kapustin, was proud that his force of anti-Putin Russians at one point controlled, he said, 42 square kilometers (16 square miles) of Russian territory.

“I want to prove that it is possible to fight against a bully,” he said. “That Putin’s power is not unlimited, that the security services can beat, control and torture those who are unarmed. But as soon as they encounter total armed resistance, they flee.

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It was the rhetoric of a dissident freedom fighter, but there was a discordant note that stood out as clearly as the neo-Nazi Black Sun patch on the uniform of one of the soldiers: Kapustin and prominent members of the armed group he leads, the Russian Volunteer Corps, openly espouse far-right views. In fact, German officials and humanitarian groups including the Anti-Defamation League have identified Kapustin as a neo-Nazi.

Kapustin, who has long used the alias Denis Nikitin but usually uses his military call sign, White Rex, is a Russian citizen who moved to Germany in the early 2000s. He associated with a group of football fans violent and later became “one of the most influential activists” of a neo-Nazi splinter group on the MMA scene, officials in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia said.

Kapustin was reportedly banned from entering Europe’s Schengen zone without a visa, made up of 27 countries, but he only said that Germany had revoked his residence permit.

The fact that the group has attracted attention for its operation and revived coverage of the group’s ties to neo-Nazis is a delicate development for the Ukrainian government, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified its invasion with the false claim to fight neo-Nazis. and made it a regular theme of Kremlin propaganda.

Most anti-Russian groups harbor long-term political ambitions to return home and overthrow the Russian and Belarusian governments.

“The Russian Volunteer Corps comes in and destroys the current government – it’s the only way,” Kapustin said earlier this year. “You cannot persuade a tyrant to leave, and any other force would be considered an invader.”

In reality, far-right groups in Ukraine are a small minority, and Ukraine has denied any involvement in the Russian volunteer corps or any role in the fighting on the Russian side of the border. But Kapustin said his group “certainly received a lot of encouragement” from the Ukrainian authorities.

Some on the far right in Russia have long embittered Putin, particularly for his imprisonment of so many nationalists, but also for his immigration policies and for what they perceive as giving too much power to minorities like ethnic Chechens. Since the 2014 Maidan revolution and the outbreak of war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, many have called Ukraine home and are now fighting alongside their country. of adoption.

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

According to the groups, the purpose of the incursions was to force Moscow to redeploy soldiers from occupied areas of Ukraine to defend its borders, expanding its defenses ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive, a goal that aligns with larger goals. broads of the Ukrainian army.

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

The second group was the Free Russian Legion, which operates under the Ukrainian International Legion, a force that includes American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others. It is overseen by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and commanded by Ukrainian officers.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Kapustin claimed his group was not controlled by the Ukrainian military, but said the military had wished the fighters “good luck”. There had been “nothing but encouragement” from Ukraine, he said.

“Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond the state border, is our own decision. Obviously, we can ask our comrades and friends for help in planning,” a- he continued. “They were saying ‘yes, no’ and that’s the kind of encouragement, help I was talking about.” This claim could not be independently verified.

Andriy Chernyak, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, defended kyiv’s willingness to allow the group to fight on its behalf.

“Ukraine definitely supports anyone who is ready to fight Putin’s regime,” he said, adding, “People came to Ukraine and said they want to help us fight Putin’s regime. , so of course we left them, like many other people from foreign countries.

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

Some analysts have dismissed the importance of the RDK as a fighting force even as they warn of the dangers they pose. Michael Colborne, a Bellingcat researcher who reports on the international far right, said he was hesitant to even call the Russian Volunteer Corps a military unit.

“They are largely a group of far-right, neo-Nazi exiles making these inroads into Russian-held territory who seem far more concerned with creating social media content than anything else,” said Colborne.

Some other RDK members pictured during the border raid also publicly embraced neo-Nazi views. A man, Aleksandr Skachkov, was arrested by Ukraine’s security service in 2020 for selling a Russian translation of the Christchurch, New Zealand gunman’s white supremacist manifesto that killed 51 mosque worshipers in 2019. Skachkov was released on bail after serving a month in prison.

Another member, Aleksei Levkin, who filmed a selfie video wearing the RDK badge, is the founder of a group called Wotanjugend which started in Russia but later moved to Ukraine. Levkin also organizes a “National Socialist Black Metal Festival”, which started in Moscow in 2012 but was held in Kyiv, Ukraine from 2014 to 2019.

Photos posted online by the fighters earlier this week showed them posing in front of captured Russian gear, some wearing Nazi-style patches and gear. One patch depicted a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Colborne said images of Kapustin and his fighters could harm Ukraine’s defense by raising concerns among allies that they are supporting far-right armed groups.

“I fear something like this will backfire on Ukraine because they are not ambiguous people,” he said. “They are not strangers, and they do not help Ukraine in practice.”

Kapustin, who in addition to speaking Russian is fluent in English and German, told reporters he didn’t think being called a “far-right” was an “accusation”.

“We never hid our opinions,” he said. “We are a right-wing, conservative, military and semi-political organization.”

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