The Russians Fighting for Ukraine
The Russians Fighting for Ukraine
A service member with the Freedom of Russia Legion under the Ukrainian Army is seen at his position near a front line, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, March 21, 2023. REUTERS/Alex Babenko
Q&A / Europe & Central Asia 19 minutes

The Russians Fighting for Ukraine

In March, units reportedly affiliated with the Ukrainian armed forces but composed of Russian citizens and others began making armed incursions into regions of Russia along Ukraine’s border. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts explain who these Russian combatants are and what they are doing.

How have Russian volunteers helped Ukraine’s war effort? 

In February 2022, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy created the International Legion of Foreign Nationals for volunteers who wanted to fight for Kyiv, Russians were among those who enlisted. While they constitute a minority of the more than 2,000 active-duty foreign combatants in the Legion – which also comprises fighters from Belarus, Georgia and Poland, as well as farther-off places like Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Israel, the United States and the United Kingdom – they have exerted an outsize influence.

Their origins and motives are diverse. Most of the recruits from the Russian Federation hail from the North Caucasus – majority-Muslim regions that have a long history of advocating for separation from the central government. There are also, however, ethnic Russians fighting on behalf of Ukraine. Some are simply sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause or see joining it as a part of their own struggle against Russian President Vladimir Putin. Others, however, are far-right activists who hope the war will end with not just the collapse of Putin’s government but also the creation of a new, ethnically homogeneous Russian state. While Kyiv harbours qualms about these enlistees’ ultra-nationalist leanings, they are the most battle-ready of the Russian units. They played the lead role in Ukraine’s incursions into Russian territory in March and June.

These manoeuvres on Russian soil had a limited impact militarily, but they revealed how ill prepared Russian forces were to defend their country’s borders, and thus may have boosted Ukrainian morale. That Russian nationals spearheaded the effort helped shield Kyiv from allegations that it was provocatively expanding the battlefield outside Ukraine. Indeed, Ukrainian officials claim that the Russian citizen units are rebel groups acting independently and merely informing the Ukrainian command of their actions – an assertion that strains credulity. Irrespective of the autonomy these Russian-led groups may lay claim to, the fact that they are fighting to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty delivers a potent public relations message.

How did these Russians come to be fighting for Ukraine?

Military service by Russians on the Ukrainian side dates back to Russia’s invasion in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea and intervened to aid separatists in the part of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas. Chechens and Dagestanis took up arms on behalf of Kyiv, forming the Sheikh Mansur Chechen Peacekeeping Battalion and the Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion. Both included personnel who had previously fought Russian forces in Chechnya and sought independence for parts of the North Caucasus. In addition to those hailing from the Caucasus, a few dozen Russian nationals joined a variety of volunteer battalions, motivated by personal ties to Ukraine, support for its independence and anger at the Kremlin’s aggression.

The number of recruits from Russia increased after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion in 2022.

The number of recruits from Russia increased after Putin ordered a full-scale invasion in 2022. Some are part of Ukrainian units, but many others are integrated into formations alongside people of similar origins. North Caucasians came to Ukraine not just from Chechnya and Dagestan, but also from European countries and Türkiye – reportedly including some who had fought in Syria. Among the newly formed North Caucasian units are the Special Purpose Battalion of the Ministry of Defense of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (the Russian acronym is OBON) and the Khamzat Gelayev Chechen Peacekeeping Battalion. Fighters from Dagestan formed the Imam Shamil Dagestan Volunteer Battalion. 

Overall, there are several hundred combatants who come from Russia and who fight in the International Legion; among them, soldiers from the North Caucasus outnumber ethnic Russians. Within this aggregate, there are at most 200 Russian nationals fighting for Kyiv as part of three non-Caucasian Russian units. These include the Freedom of Russia Legion (the FRL, also called Legion Svoboda Rossii), founded in March 2022; the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC, also called Russkiy Dobrovolcheskiy Korpus), created in August of that year; and the Siberian Battalion, reportedly formed in 2023. Today, these men and a small number of women include former fitness trainers, yoga instructors, computer programmers, a fight club organiser, former Russian military personnel, a restaurateur and a former FSB officer. Of these three units, the RVC is the only one that has unquestionably played a combat role since 2022.

What are the political leanings of these Russian units?

The RVC describes itself as a “military-political formation” within the Ukrainian armed forces, consisting primarily of “ethnic Russians” (read: white Christians). It seeks a Russia centred on Russian ethnicity and views the modern multi-ethnic Russian Federation as anathema.

According to Ukrainian journalists who have researched far-right movements and spoken to Crisis Group, the RVC core comprises 50 or so Russian citizens who previously served with the Azov Battalion, a volunteer unit formed by far-right Ukrainian nationalists in May 2014 to confront pro-Russian forces in Donbas. Azov’s first combat fatality was Russian nationalist Andrei Grek, nicknamed Balagan, who died in 2014. Sergei Korotkikh – a right-wing activist from Belarus and Russia known as “Botsman” – joined Azov that same year. Korotkikh’s move may have been influenced by his ties to Andriy Biletsky, leader of the far-right organisation called Patriot of Ukraine. Korotkikh, in turn, first invited Denis Kapustin to Ukraine, who was affiliated with a variety of Russian, Ukrainian and European right-wing groups before finally settling in Ukraine in 2017. Kapustin presents himself as a commander of the RVC. Under the moniker “White Rex” he registered an eponymous clothing brand and a company that organised martial arts tournaments, both of which relied on ultra-right political messaging in their advertising.

While the RVC is openly nationalist, the FRL and the Siberian Battalion present themselves as more inclusive, although the FRL’s leadership also has right-wing ties. Its deputy commander, Maximillian Andronnikov, known as “Caesar”, was a member of the nationalist paramilitary group Imperial Legion, the militant wing of the Russian Imperial Movement, a monarchist, ultra-nationalist and white supremacist organisation with ties to the Russian security services. (The Movement was designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. government in 2020, in the first such designation of a white supremacist group.)

The nascent Siberian Battalion, meanwhile, initially described itself as a union of fighters from Siberia and the Russian Federation’s far east. Now, however, it says it is a Russian volunteer army that welcomes all Russian citizens. Its reported commander is Vladislav Amosov, an ethnic Yakut and former Russian military intelligence officer who moved to Poland several years ago.

What operations do Russian units undertake? 

North Caucasus-origin troops have engaged in a variety of operations alongside other foreign legion and Ukrainian regular army forces in Ukraine, notably in Bakhmut, a town in the eastern Donetsk region, and in the Kherson region in the south. RVC and FRL leaders and personnel say they also have seen combat across the country, including in the Kyiv, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhya regions; in Bakhmut; and on the Black Sea island of Zmiinyi off the south-eastern coast. They also say they took part in amphibious warfare in Nova Kakhovka when Ukrainian special forces conducted a raid on the Russian-occupied left bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson. This breadth of activity seems unlikely given how small both groups are. It is possible – though it would be speculation – that Ukrainian military leaders were using these operations to simultaneously test and train Russian volunteers.

Russian citizen combat units have ... engaged in attacks on Russian territory.

Russian citizen combat units have also engaged in attacks on Russian territory. The FRL has claimed responsibility for diversionary actions such as blowing up rail supply routes, and both the RVC and the FRL have participated in raids in Russia. The first of these to be publicised took place on 2 March. A group of around 45 fighters crossed from Ukraine into two border villages in Russia’s Bryansk region – breaking through Russian fortifications and battling Russian forces along the way. They shot video footage of themselves in Bryansk and then returned to Ukraine. The RVC claimed responsibility. Subsequently, on 6 April, the RVC repeated its sortie into Bryansk, possibly killing a border guard. Then, on 22 May, the RVC and FRL carried out a larger joint raid in the Belgorod region, supported by artillery strikes launched from Ukraine. Fighting lasted into early June, and the FRL claimed to have taken control of the village of Novaya Tavolzhanka for several days before seemingly departing voluntarily. Local authorities declared a partial evacuation of border areas, and Moscow dispatched a unit of Chechen troops, Akhmad-Zapad, to help restore order.

The Russian units’ most significant military manoeuvre to date is also the most recent. After nearly three months without carrying out known operations, the RVC claimed responsibility for a 27 August attack on the Kursk military airfield in Russia that they carried out with Ukrainian security services. According to Ukrainian media reports, the Ukrainian military counterintelligence service performed a kamikaze drone strike on the airfield, destroying four Su-30 and one MIG-29 aircraft, the radar instruments connected to the airfield’s S-300 surface-to-air missile system and two Pantsir missile batteries. The RVC claims that they directed the drones from within Russia, having first crossed the border unhindered. Russian media has not mentioned an attack on the airfield, but it has reported that Russian forces shot down two drones in the Bryansk and Kursk regions, though not before buildings in Kursk suffered damage. More recently, on 4 September, the RVC claimed it had killed two Russian border guard officers during a raid in the Bryansk region, and on 27 September, an unknown number of Russian border guards in the Kursk region. 

Whereas raids in Russia have become almost a hallmark for the RVC and FRL, predominantly Muslim Russian-origin units had staged no such incursion until July. On 17 July, the Ukrainian armed forces’ intelligence directorate released a video clip showing Chechen fighters belonging to the OBON battalion ambushing a Russian military truck near the village of Sereda. There have been no additional reports of such activity since then. 

What was the military purpose of these raids?

The impetus behind the raids into Russia is likely multifaceted, but their effects have been limited. If Kyiv was seeking to compel Moscow to redeploy reserves to defend Russia’s borders or divert troops from other fronts ahead of a Ukrainian summer counteroffensive, it failed. Russia – which appears to see the raids more as a public relations than a security hazard – sent only small detachments of special operations forces to the border, even as it built up 100,000 troops in the north west of Ukraine’s occupied Luhansk region by mid-July.

Nor have these attacks, in and of themselves, particularly disrupted the Russian rear, at least until the August attack on the Kursk airfield. In their lengthy spring operation in Belgorod, the FRL and RVC say they destroyed or seized multiple Russian vehicles, captured numerous Russian soldiers (who were handed over to Ukraine in exchange for Ukrainian prisoners of war), and claimed to have killed several Russian combatants, including two colonels. They also reportedly damaged over 5,000 residential buildings in Novaya Tavolzhanka and Shebekino. It is not clear, however, how much of the destruction can be attributed to Russian-led forces as opposed to other Ukrainian units – not to mention the role the Kremlin’s own troops may have played as they attempted to repel attacks. In any case, the impact on battlefield dynamics has not been great.

The Russian units serve the Ukrainian government’s interests in several ways.

Still, as noted above, the Russian units serve the Ukrainian government’s interests in several ways. Using Russian citizen units to make incursions into Russia helps Ukraine make the case that it is not escalating the war, because ostensibly Ukrainian soldiers are not the ones breaching the interstate border. Also, the presence of Russians buttresses the message that Russians and Ukrainians have a shared interest in opposing Putin’s regime. Relatedly, the Ukrainian government and Russian combatants may hope that the raids recruit more volunteers to the Ukrainian cause. They have certainly drawn attention in Russia, despite attempts by television channels to keep them quiet. Whether these raids bring more recruits to the RVC, FRL or Siberian Battalion remains to be seen.  

The attacks have also revealed a lack of readiness on the part of Russian forces near the border. Indeed, prior to the start of the raids, the areas were basically unprotected. In early August, long after the RVC and FRL withdrew from Belgorod, authorities in Belgorod and Kursk began distributing firearms to local territorial defence units that they had created in late 2022, to prepare for possible invasion by Ukrainian troops, but had not yet armed. 

Why would Russian nationalists fight for Ukraine? 

Twenty years ago, Russian authorities saw advocates for an ethno-Russian nation-state as dangerous actors whom they sought to contain and control. In 2002, President Putin initiated amendments to the Criminal Code outlawing what the text called incitement to hatred or hostility. As a result of these changes, hundreds of Russian nationalists faced convictions and jail time. Meanwhile, Russian and Ukrainian far-right groups were developing in parallel, forging their own connections and often finding common cause in commitment to white supremacy, pan-Slavism, rejection of non-Christian immigrants and (in this respect mirroring Putin’s own views) opposition to LGBTQI+ rights.

Once war in Ukraine began in 2014, Russian nationalists split. The majority, who supported the Kremlin’s narrative that it was protecting Russian-speaking populations in Ukraine, travelled to fight alongside separatist forces in Donbas. In 2018, the Russian authorities, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people convicted under the Criminal Code amendments, partially decriminalised what they had previously termed extremism. As a result, policing of right-wing nationalism diminished and the state released a number of nationalist activists from prison early. While not initially intended as an olive branch to nationalists, these moves helped foster a rapprochement between the Kremlin and the far right that continues to this day: numerous Russian nationalists from such groups as the Rusich and the Russian Imperial Legion are fighting in the Russian military’s ranks.

Other nationalists, however, opted to fight for Kyiv, spurred by their frustration with the Kremlin’s neo-colonial vision for Russia, as well as personal relationships they had forged with Ukrainian nationalist groups. For example, Andrei Kuznetsov, a Russian exile in Ukraine, and Ukrainian nationalist Bogdan Titsky collaborated to create the Russian Insurgent Army (RIA) in 2014. At first, RIA members fought in the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists in Donbas. After 2015, when the latter group essentially dissolved, its activity shifting exclusively online, the RIA battled on. It claimed responsibility for attacks on Russian territory such as arson at a troll factory in St. Petersburg in 2016 and the assassination of a municipal deputy in the Novosibirsk region in 2017. It has not, however, been heard from since 24 February 2022. 

How are Russian citizen units integrated in the Ukrainian armed forces? 

Like other foreign recruits, Russian citizen combatants fight under the International Legion of Foreign Nationals umbrella. Crisis Group sources say just over 2,000 people serve in the organisation. The legion is a part of the Ukrainian armed forces and operates under the direct command of the Main Directorate of Intelligence within the Ministry of Defence. Russian citizens enter into contracts with the International Legion, receiving salaries, weapons and equipment from the Ukrainian armed forces. They undergo rigorous combat training in Ukraine, lasting two to three months. Those with prior experience in the Russian army have noted that the quality of training is superior to what they received in their homeland. The International Legion is subdivided into units reflecting, among other things, national and ethnic origin. This phenomenon is new: when Russia first invaded in 2014, most foreign fighters – with the exception of those from the North Caucasus – were fully integrated into Ukrainian volunteer forces.

The Legion’s units do not act independently of Ukrainian command and control – although they are loath to admit it. The RVC describes itself as a fully operational military entity with armoured vehicles, mortars and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as snipers, sappers and medical staff. It maintains a headquarters responsible for various civil functions, including media engagement through digital platforms. But according to those familiar with its operations, Ukrainian officers lead both the RVC and the FRL. Moreover, Ukrainian soldiers from other units are integrated into their ranks. Artillery support for both also mostly comes from the regular Ukrainian army.

Who recruits the Russian volunteers?

Much of the work to recruit Chechen and other Caucasian fighters is done by North Caucasus diaspora groups in Europe, which, according to Crisis Group sources, work with Ukrainian military intelligence. Chechens are recruited by the State Committee for the De-Occupation of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, an unrecognised government-in-exile headed by the London-based Akhmed Zakayev, whom the Chechen diaspora regards as its prime minister. He and his team view engagement in the war in Ukraine as an opportunity to constitute armed forces in support of their own endeavour. Their idea appears to be that the unit will first fight in Ukraine and later liberate Chechnya from what they call Russian occupation.

When it comes to other Russians, the Poland-based Civic Council, an opposition network, has dedicated itself to facilitating the relocation of Russian volunteers to fight in Ukraine. Founded in May 2022, the Civic Council has positioned itself as a community of Russian opposition activists, consisting of representatives from nine Russian regions. In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Civic Council argues that “the only adequate [Russian opposition] political activity is armed resistance to the Putin regime”, to include everything from “personal involvement in underground networks to financial assistance to militant groups”. The RVC joined the Civic Council as a member organisation in October 2022. The next month, the Civic Council announced it had established a mobilisation centre for Russians wishing to serve in the Ukrainian armed forces.

The Civic Council has helped prospective volunteers make their way to the Ukrainian International Legion.

Since then, the Civic Council has helped prospective volunteers make their way to the Ukrainian International Legion. According to its representatives, the Civic Council facilitates the departure of potential combatants from Russia. It then brings those select volunteers who are able to come to Poland, with most of them, it seems, arriving by crossing the Poland-Ukraine border. To protect candidates, the organisation does not vet volunteers until they have left Russia. Vetting – which includes interviews, documentation and lie detector tests – generally begins in Poland and is completed in Ukraine. Volunteers are assigned to units after they finish the process. The Civic Council also buys equipment for volunteers and organises their initial training, which includes the basics of small arms use and tactical combat casualty care. According to the Civic Council, the cost of training, logistics and equipment for a single volunteer amounts to approximately $5,000. The Civic Council relies on donations from Russians and citizens of other countries supportive of Ukraine and its mission.

In June, the Civic Council severed ties with the RVC. The two groups had fallen out as a result of RVC members’ disparaging and offensive remarks regarding liberals, LGBTQI+ people and people of colour. Volunteers from the political left and others representing ethnic groups also expressed reluctance to serve alongside Russian nationalists. In the immediate aftermath of this rift, the Civic Council said it would continue to support volunteers seeking to join the RVC in Ukraine. That assistance, however, has now ceased.

Instead, the Civic Council is helping establish the Siberian Battalion, which (if all goes according to plan) will welcome newcomers from Russia. The Civic Council told Crisis Group that it wants to focus its efforts on recruiting combatants whom people in Russia would view as defenders of their interests rather than a threat to their security; accordingly, it advocates that the Siberian Battalion adopt an inclusive approach, accepting individuals of diverse nationalities and ideological backgrounds. The only condition for joining, an activist told Crisis Group, should be tolerance vis-à-vis differing identities and political stances, alignment with the Civil Council’s goals, and recognition of the values laid out in the Convention of Human Rights adopted by the Council of Europe in 1950.

How are Russian volunteers viewed in Russia and by Russian opposition activists abroad?

In Russia, the moves by Ukrainian-allied Russian forces have sparked fear. In early March, when pollsters asked Russians open-ended questions about what events they had paid most attention to, 10 per cent of respondents mentioned the RVC raid in Bryansk. In this same timeframe, polls indicated rising levels of general anxiety among the public. Similar results emerged following the incursions into Belgorod in late May and early June.

Russian authorities have described RVC and FRL activities on Russian territory as Ukrainian-orchestrated acts of terrorism. Russia has also officially labelled the FRL as a terrorist organisation. Russian security forces have been actively searching for FRL supporters inside Russia. They claim to have detained people affiliated with the group. Although the RVC is not yet on Russia’s list of terrorist groups, Kapustin is classed as a terrorist and an extremist. A warrant has been issued for his arrest. The Russian Federal Security Service accuses Kapustin of masterminding the attempted assassination of pro-war oligarch Konstantin Malofeyev, as well as a failed plot to bomb an oil and gas facility in the Volgograd region. But for now, the Kremlin views Russians fighting on Ukraine’s side as more of an informational than a security threat.

The majority of Russian dissidents abroad ... still publicly oppose armed resistance to the Kremlin, advocating instead for civic action.

Russian opposition activists inside and outside Russia are also generally not fans. Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, one of Russia’s main opposition organisations, has distanced itself from the Russian combatants. The Foundation, and the majority of Russian dissidents abroad, still publicly oppose armed resistance to the Kremlin, advocating instead for civic action. They accuse Russian combatants and their supporters of inadvertently aiding the Kremlin by reinforcing its narrative that the Russian army is battling extremists and nationalists in Ukraine. Russians living in border regions have also expressed outrage that civilians and private property were harmed in the raids. 

But supporters of armed resistance to Putin’s regime do exist within the Russian opposition abroad, and their voices have grown stronger over the spring and summer after the RVC and FRL raids in Russia. The Russian opposition discussed this topic at a meeting in Brussels at the beginning of June. Since the failed Wagner Group mutiny toward the end of June, some Russian dissidents have started publicly stating that military resistance is the only way to change the government in Moscow. In October, the Free Russia Forum, an opposition organisation founded by chess champion Garry Kasparov, issued a statement expressing its support for Russians fighting on the Ukrainian side and announcing plans to raise funds for Russian combat units. Some of the Russian activists collecting money for these units and the larger Ukrainian war effort have told Crisis Group that the Russian diaspora public opinion leaders have ceased stigmatising them.

What could happen to these units in the long term?

RVC and FRL spokespeople have voiced ambitious plans to amass troops, advance on Moscow and liberate Russia from Putin’s regime. Kapustin laid out the RVC’s vision in an August interview, in which he spoke of exploiting future turmoil in Russia to occupy territory near the Ukrainian border, specifically in Belgorod and Bryansk, where the group would establish an autonomous enclave. Andronnikov of the FRL also says the combatants plan to take control of part of Russia and then somehow effect regime change in the rest. The Civic Council’s rhetoric is vaguer still, but this group also seems to envision forcible regime change in Russia.

The capacity of these units or the groups that back them to realise these aspirations is at present non-existent. For the ambitions to become more realistic in the future, not only would these groups’ numbers have to grow, but they would have to overcome divides among nationalists, liberals and adherents of other ideologies in their ranks. They would also have to gain support from the Russian opposition, both in Russia and abroad – not to mention develop a more coherent vision for how they might attain their goals.

Moreover, given that the RVC and FRL are part of the Ukrainian army and dependent on Kyiv for weapons and training, their options will be constrained by Ukrainian politicians and commanders. Kyiv’s primary goal remains to regain full control of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine can be expected to leverage the RVC, the FRL and any other Russian unit that may emerge in service of that goal. How Ukrainian commanders decide they can best do that will depend on how battlefield conditions evolve.

Meanwhile, given the protracted conflict looming over Ukraine, the Ukrainian army will need to constantly replenish its ranks to maintain an advantage over Russian forces deployed in the occupied regions. Sources involved in recruiting International Legion combatants told Crisis Group that the Ukrainian command favours creating a sizeable Russian corps therein. To do so, however, it will need to find numerous recruits and also be able to replace those it loses, including from among people still living in Russia. The recruiters say they expect soon to have more people in the pipeline than are now at the front. But until that happens, the project remains a plan on paper.

However large the force grows, the Ukrainian government and other supporters of these combatants will need to think about the broader implications of developing a large coterie of trained, battle-tested Russian citizens. Among other things, it is difficult to imagine any government, including that in Kyiv, publicly supporting the armed overthrow of the leadership of the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

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