For Ukraine Military, Far-Right Russian Volunteers Make for Worrisome Allies

A group of Ukraine-aligned fighters, who had engaged earlier this week in the heaviest fighting inside Russia’s borders since the invasion, gathered local and foreign press at an undisclosed location on Wednesday to celebrate, mock the Kremlin and show what they called “military trophies” to their foray into their homeland: Russia.

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

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

It was the rhetoric of a dissident freedom fighter, but there was a jarring note that emerged as clearly as the neo-Nazi Black Sun patch on the uniform of one of the soldiers: Mr. Kapustin and leading members of the armed group he leads, the Corps. of Russian Volunteers openly defend far-right views. In fact, German officials and humanitarian groups, including the Anti-Defamation Leaguehave identified Mr. Kapustin as a neo-Nazi.

Kapustin, who has long used the alias Denis Nikitin but normally goes by his military call sign, White Rex, is a Russian national who moved to Germany in the early 2000s. violent football and later became “one of the most influential activists” in a Neo-Nazi splinter group in the mixed martial arts sceneofficials from the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia have said.

According to reports, Mr. Kapustin has been forbidden to enter the Schengen zone of 27 countries without a visa from Europe, but he has only said that Germany canceled his residence permit.

The fact that the group has drawn attention for its operation and revived coverage of the group’s ties to neo-Nazis is an uncomfortable development for the Ukrainian government, particularly since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia justified its invasion with the false claim that he fights neo-Nazis. -Nazis and made it a regular subject 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 advances and destroys the current government; that’s the only way,” Kapustin said earlier this year. “You can’t persuade a tyrant to leave, and any other force would be seen as trespassing.”

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 “definitely received a lot of support” from the Ukrainian authorities.

Some on the far right in Russia have long been angry with Putin, particularly for jailing so many nationalists, but also for his policies on immigration and what they perceive as giving too much power to minorities like the ethnic Chechens. Since the 2014 Maidan revolution and the start of the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, many of them have settled in Ukraine and are now fighting on the side of their adopted country.

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

The aim of the raids, the groups say, was to force Moscow to redeploy soldiers from occupied areas of Ukraine to defend its borders, stretching its defenses ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive, a goal that aligns with the army’s broader goals. from Ukraine.

The Russian Volunteer Corps also claimed credit for two incidents in Russia’s Bryansk border region in March and April.

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

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

“Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond the state line is our own decision of what we do. Obviously we can ask our comrades and friends for their help in planning,” he continued. “They would say ‘yes, no’ and this is the kind of encouragement, help that I was talking about.” That 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 all those who are 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 the we left, as did many others. people from foreign countries.”

Ukraine has called the raids an “internal Russian crisis” since the group’s members are Russian.

Some analysts dismissed the importance of the RDK as a fighting force, even as they warned 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 far-right group of neo-Nazi exiles who are making these incursions into Russian-controlled territory and who seem far more concerned with creating content for social media than anything else,” Colborne said.

Some other RDK members photographed during the border raid have also publicly adopted neo-Nazi views. A man, Aleksandr Skachkov, was arrested by the Ukrainian Security Services in 2020 for selling a Russian translation of the white supremacist manifesto of the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 mosque worshipers in 2019. Mr. Skachkov he was released on bail after spending a month in jail.

Another member, Aleksei Levkin, who shot a selfie video with the RDK badge, is the founder of a group called wotanjugend which started in Russia but later moved to Ukraine. Mr. Levkin also organizes a “National Socialist Black Metal Festival”, which started in Moscow in 2012 but took place in kyiv from 2014 to 2019.

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

Colborne said the images of Kapustin and his fighters could harm Ukraine’s defense by making allies wary that they might be supporting far-right armed groups.

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

Kapustin, who in addition to speaking Russian is fluent in English and German, told reporters he did not believe being called an “extreme right” was an “accusation.”

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

Thomas Gibbons Neff, Andrew E. Kramer and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.