Cross-border attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region this week have brought attention to Russian militias that have been fighting against their own country, as it wages war on Ukraine.
The Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed they were behind assaults on villages in the western region, about 80 kilometres north of Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv.
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, also referring to them as “Ukrainian nationalists.”
While they may be united in their anti-Kremlin mission, the factions appear to have much different origins and motives.
What is the Freedom of Russia Legion?
First appearing in March 2022, the Freedom of Russia Legion is believed to have been formed by former Russian soldiers who defected shortly after Russia launched its illegal invasion into Ukraine.
In a self-described “manifesto” posted on a Telegram channel linked to the group, the legion describes itself as opposed to the “tyrannical regime” of Russian President Vladimir Putin and blaming him for turning their country into a “pariah.”
“He has killed and continues to kill free Russians who are fighting against the dictatorial regime for the right to live freely, continues to kill thousands of civilians and hundreds of children in Ukraine,” the group, sometimes referred to as the Liberty of Russia Legion, says the post written in Russian on the social media platform in April 2022.
In February, A New York Times profile of the group reported it fights alongside the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, which the Ukrainian government formed for foreign citizens “wishing to join the resistance” against Russia.
Some reports suggest it has 4,000 fighters in its ranks.
The group said on its website it fought last summer in “small battle groups,” and now was involved in the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Russia’s Supreme Court ruled the Freedom of Russia Legion is a terrorist organization.
Who are the Russian Volunteer Corps?
But the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine says it has nothing to do with the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), a militia group formed in August 2022.
The U.S.-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.
It is also reported that Kapustin has links to groups of soccer hooligans in Germany.
Speaking to reporters this week, Kapustin described the RVC as “a right-wing, conservative, military, semi-political organization,” saying its fight is against Putin and his state apparatus.
The Belgorod incursion may not have been its first. The group claimed to have entered the Bryansk region, which borders both Ukraine and Belarus, in March and again in April.
Russia’s Interior Ministry put Kapustin on a wanted list in March.
“I think you will see us again on that side,” Kapustin said Wednesday, introducing himself to reporters by his nom de guerre “White Rex,” which was also the name of the Mixed Martial Arts brand he established in 2008.
“Our future plans are new territories of the Russian Federation, which we will definitely enter.… You should be just a little bit patient and wait just a couple of days,” Kasputin said.
Did Ukraine or the U.S. support the incursion?
Ukraine insisted it had no part in the raid, only saying that it involved Russians.
“Ukraine is watching the events in Russia’s Belgorod region with interest and is studying the situation, but has nothing to do with it,” said Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhaylo Podolyak.
The White House said it is investigating claims U.S.-supplied equipment may have been used in the operation.
Kapustin told reporter RVC fighters had used U.S.-made armoured vehicles and video verified by Reuters appears to back that up.
The Pentagon said it had not “approved any third-party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations.”