A group of Ukrainian-allied fighters, who earlier this week were involved in the fiercest fighting inside Russia’s borders since the invasion, gathered the foreign and domestic press at an undisclosed location on Wednesday to celebrate, to taunt the Kremlin and to show what happened. They called them “military trophies” from their incursion into their native land: Russia.
Their leader, Denis Kapustin, was proud that his force of anti-Putin Russians at one point controlled 42 square kilometers, or 16 square miles, of Russian territory.
He said, “I want to prove that it is possible to fight a tyrant.” Putin’s power is not unlimited, the security services can defeat, control and torture the defenseless. But as soon as they encounter complete armed resistance, they flee.
It was the rhetoric of a dissident freedom fighter, but there was a jarring note that stood out as clearly as a neo-Nazi Black Sun patch on a soldier’s uniform: Mr. Kapustin and leading members of the armed group he leads, the Russian Volunteer Corps, openly espouse far-right views. Indeed, German officials and humanitarian groups, Including the Anti-Defamation Leaguehas identified Mr. Kapustin as a neo-Nazi.
Mr. Kapustin, who has long used the alias Denis Nikitin but usually uses his military call sign, White Rex, is a Russian national who moved to Germany in the early 2000s. He associated with a group of violent football fans and later became “one of the most influential activists” in the A.J A neo-Nazi splinter group in the mixed martial arts sceneOfficials in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia said.
It was reportedly Mr. Kapustin banned He was prevented from entering Europe’s 27-country visa-free Schengen area, but said only that Germany had revoked his residence permit.
The fact that the group has captured attention for its operations and revived coverage of the group’s ties to neo-Nazis is an embarrassing development for the Ukrainian government, especially since Russian President Vladimir Putin justified his invasion on the false claim of fighting neo-Nazis. The Nazis made him a regular subject of Kremlin propaganda.
Most anti-Russian groups harbor long-standing political ambitions to return home and overthrow the Russian and Belarusian governments.
“The Russian volunteer forces are entering and destroying the current government — that’s the only way,” Mr. Kapustin said earlier this year. “You cannot persuade a tyrant to leave, and any other power will be seen as an invader.”
In fact, far-right groups in Ukraine make up a small minority, and Ukraine has denied any involvement in the Russian Volunteer Legion or any role in the fighting on the Russian side of the border. But Mr. Kapustin said his group “certainly got a lot of encouragement” from the Ukrainian authorities.
Some on Russia’s far right have long annoyed Putin, particularly because of his imprisonment of many nationalists, as well as his policies on immigration and what they see as granting too much power to minorities such as ethnic Chechens. Since the 2014 Maidan Revolution and the start of the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbass region, many have made home in Ukraine and are now fighting on the side of their adopted state.
The Russian Volunteer Corps, also known by its Russian initials RDK, was one of two groups of anti-Russian fighters that launched a cross-border offensive in Russia’s southern Belgorod region on Monday, engaging enemy forces over two days of skirmishes.
The groups say the aim of the incursions is to force Moscow to redeploy soldiers from occupied regions of Ukraine to defend its borders, and to expand its defenses ahead of the planned Ukrainian counterattack, a goal that aligns with the broader goals of the Ukrainian military.
The Russian Volunteer Corps also claimed responsibility for two incidents in Russia’s Bryansk border region in March and April.
The second group was the Free Russia 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 Armed Forces of Ukraine and commanded by Ukrainian officers.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Mr. Kapustin confirmed his group was not under the control of the Ukrainian military, but said the military was wishing the fighters “good luck”. He said there was “nothing other than encouragement” on the Ukrainian side.
“Everything we do, every decision we make, outside the borders of the state is our own decision of what we do. Obviously, we can ask our comrades and friends to help them plan.” “They’d say ‘yes, no’ and that’s the kind of encouragement, the help I was talking about.” This claim cannot be independently verified.
Andriy Chernyak, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence, defended Kiev’s willingness to allow the group to fight on its behalf.
“Ukraine definitely supports all those who are ready to fight Putin’s regime,” he said, adding: “People came to Ukraine and said they wanted to help us fight Putin’s regime, so of course we let them, like many other people from foreign countries.”
Ukraine has described the incursions as an “internal Russian crisis” given that the group’s members are themselves Russian.
Some analysts have denied the importance of the RDK as a fighting force even as they warn of the dangers they pose. Michael Colburn, a researcher for Bellingcat who reports on the international far right, said he was hesitant to even call the Russian Volunteer Corps a military unit.
“It’s very much a far-right group of exiled neo-Nazis who are making these incursions into Russian-controlled territory who seem more concerned about creating content on social media than anything else,” Colburn said.
Some of the other RDK members photographed during the border raid openly embraced neo-Nazi views. Ukrainian security services arrested a man named Aleksandr Skachkov in 2020 for selling a Russian translation of a white supremacist manifesto of the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter, who killed 51 mosque worshipers in 2019. Mr. Skachkov was released on bail after spending a month in jail.
Another member, Aleksey Levkin, who made a selfie video wearing an RDK badge, is the founder of a group called woutangogend which started in Russia but later moved to Ukraine. Mr. Levkin also organizes the National Socialist Black Metal Festival, which began in Moscow in 2012 but was held in Kiev from 2014 until 2019.
Pictures posted online by the militants earlier this week showed them standing in front of captured Russian equipment, some wearing Nazi-style patches and equipment. One patch depicts a masked member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Mr Colburn said the images of Kapustin and his fighters could harm Ukraine’s defense by making allies wary that they might support far-right armed groups.
He said, “I’m afraid something like this could backfire on Ukraine because these are not mysterious people.” “These are not faceless people, and they are not helping Ukraine in any practical sense.”
Mr. Kapustin, who speaks fluent English and German in addition to speaking Russian, told reporters he did not think calling him “alt-right” was an “accusation”.
He said, “We have never hidden our opinions.” “We are a right-wing, conservative, militaristic and quasi-political organization,” he said.
Thomas Gibbons NeffAnd Andrew E. Kramer And Oleg Matsnev Contribute to the preparation of reports.