Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, is experiencing unrest. The Russian Volunteer Corps (RVK) and the Freedom Corps of Russia claimed responsibility for the attacks there. Who are these paramilitary groups?
And the Freedom Corps of Russia claimed, on Tuesday, through its Telegram channel, that it crossed the border into Russia with the Russian Volunteer Legion and took control of several areas in the Belgorod region. Moscow now claims to have repelled the attackers.
Both paramilitary organizations include people who fled Russia to Ukraine and later joined these groups. The ideologies differ, but the goal is the same: to end Putin’s regime.
Deserted Russian soldiers
The Freedom Corps for Russia was founded shortly after the war broke out in Ukraine, in March 2022. Especially defective Russian soldiers joined. The group communicates with the outside world via Telegram, which can be found at @legionoffreedom. There they call on people to join the “armed struggle against the war criminal Putin.”
The Corps was (informally) incorporated into the Ukrainian Army. For example, I fought with the Ukrainian army in the Donbass during the offensive in eastern Ukraine. The group is led by Russian opposition member Ilya Ponomarev, who now resides in Kiev.
Most members remain anonymous for security reasons. Makes sense, says professor and military expert Chris Quentin (Royal Military School in Brussels). They are deserted soldiers, which is also a delicate matter in relation to their relatives in Russia. In addition to the soldiers, ordinary Russian emigrants also joined, including young people who wanted to avoid Russian military service.
Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis
Then the far-right Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK). These are also active Russians in Ukraine, but the composition is different. The militia was founded by Russian ultranationalists and neo-Nazis. At the helm is Denis Nikitin: a former martial artist with links to neo-Nazis and white nationalist movements in the West.
In March, the militia also crossed the border into the Bryansk province. In Russia, the propaganda machine went on immediately: according to Moscow, this was evidence that NATO was waging a proxy war through far-right groups.
The presence of the RDK in Ukraine also helps Putin legitimize the military operation in the country, which he says he wants to de-Nazise. He describes Ukraine’s government as “overtly neo-Nazi”.
Ukraine hands off both paramilitary groups to the outside world. An adviser to Ukrainian President Zelensky, Mychaglo Podoljak, says on Twitter that Ukraine is following developments in the Belgorod region with interest, but is not participating.
The only driving political force in a totalitarian country where screws reign supreme is always an armed guerrilla movement. # Ukraine Watch events in # Belgorod region #Russia Intently and studying the situation but has nothing to do with it. You know, tanks …
– ихайло Подоляк (Podolyak_M) May 22, 2023
This is practically different: Ukraine is arming militias, says Chris Quanten. Ukraine has less numerical strength than Russia: all armed forces are welcome. These men are not integrated into the regular units, but are deployed on a secondary front.”
It is possible to guess exactly how many men joined the militia, but it is not a matter of great numbers. “The RVK will consist of less than a hundred men, and the Russian Legion of two battalions of several hundred members,” says Quentin. So it comes to limited operations. “From a military point of view, these are small-scale attacks, they are pokes that are being executed.”
But effective micro-pokes: show the weakness of Russia. Crossing the border causes tension among the Russians: the population has been evacuated and Russia has sent troops to the Belgorod region. This weakens the Russian front in Ukraine. “This creates favorable conditions for Ukraine in view of the impending spring offensive,” Quentin adds.
The ticket circulating on Russia’s Freedom Corps Telegram account, a game plan to get to Crimea, is propaganda, according to the military expert. “With such limited force you will never advance as far as Crimea. What the Ukrainians fail at, they certainly will not succeed at.”
Both militias say they also want to go to Moscow to occupy the Kremlin. We shouldn’t take that too literally, Quentin says. “They are essentially calling the Russian people to revolt, and they want to create an atmosphere of uncertainty.” But he speculates that the organizations are not rooted in Russia and that the uprising has little chance of success. “They can count on a little support from the local Russian population.”
Western war equipment
Although the two paramilitary organizations were now repulsed, the news could still have dire consequences. Because if Ukraine arms the groups, is it with Western equipment?
Chris Quanten hypothesizes that the two organizations are equipped with old Russian material that Ukraine is still in possession of. But, he says, reports are now emerging that Russia’s Freedom Corps is equipped with an American vehicle. “This will be very annoying for Ukraine and the Americans,” the military expert predicts. The West has been clear: no Western war material has ever been deployed on Russian soil. ”
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