Do not believe Putin’s propaganda, there are far more neo-Nazis among the pro-Russians
By Federico Alistair D'Alessio
Since the beginning of the 2014 Donbass War, Vladimir Putin has asserted that Ukraine is ruled by neo-Nazis. He has reiterated this message before initiating a full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022. While it is true that some nationalist militias (such as the Azov and Aidar battalions) are fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, it is fair to say that Putin has a far bigger problem than Zelensky: as recently reported by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, there is abundant research demonstrating that Russia has been the home to several extreme right and white nationalist movements, deployed both domestically and abroad.
To begin with, Putin has a long history of collaboration with the radical right at home. The strategy of ‘managed nationalism’ was in fact introduced by the Kremlin to discredit and defeat political parties that opposed the regime throughout the years. This approach consisted in radicalizing and mobilizing nationalist militants against the opposition. One of the organizations involved between 2008 and 2011 was Russkii Obraz, a neo-Nazi group whose founders, Nikita Tikhonov and Ilya Goryachev, committed dozens of murders. They were also creators of BORN, a terrorist cell responsible for various targeted and high-profile assassinations. Some veterans of Russkii Obraz later played important roles to support Putin’s regime, such as Anna Bogachyova, who worked for the Internet Research Agency accused of meddling in the 2016 US election, and Aleksandr Matyushin, who spread terror among pro-Ukraine supporters in Donetsk prior to the start of the Donbass War in 2014.
Putin has also built close links with numerous far-right groups abroad, particularly in Europe where the Kremlin has been accused of funding much of the radical right. In fact, many white nationalist and fascist groups identify Putin's United Russia as their best ally and reference point. This includes terrorist groups such as the Base, founded by Rinaldo Nazzaro, who lives in Russia and often shows support to the regime.
Another factor that is always omitted by Russian propaganda is that, since the beginning of the conflict in Donbass, a greater number of far-right nationalists have joined the war on the side of Russia rather than Ukraine.
First and foremost, the ideologies of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) are reportedly based on an imperialist and ethnic nationalism characterized by a xenophobic rhetoric. In fact, separatists have been accused of kidnapping, beating and threatening members of other religious groups, such as Ukrainian Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants and Jewish people. A number of pro-Russian militias in Donbass are linked to the Russian Orthodox Army (ROA), an extremist group that originated from the split of the Russian National Unity (RNU), a now-defunct but somehow still relevant neo-Nazi and antisemitic organization. For instance, one of ROA’s commanders, Dmitri Boitsov, has been often instructed by former Pamyat member and founder of RNU Alexander Barkashov. Additionally, the self-proclaimed ‘People's Governor’ of the DPR is Pavel Gubarov, a former member of RNU. Already in 2014, at the beginning of the Donbass War, the Washington Post revealed that many soldiers fighting on the Russian side were former members or collaborators of RNU, most of which were directly recruited by and taking orders from Alexander Barkashov.
The Washington Post also reported volunteers coming from outlaw far-right groups such as the neo-Nazi organization Slavic Union and the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), whose leaders co-founded the Ethno-Political Association "Russians", which was also banned in 2015. The extremist website Sputnik and Pogrom has also allegedly been involved in the conflict by calling Russians to join a radical right militia that would later be known as the Batman Battalion, led by Alexander Bednov.
Another daunting presence is the resurrected Black Hundreds, an ultranationalist and anti-Semitic movement active in early 20th century’s tsarist Russia: the group participated in pro-separatist demonstrations distributing anti-Semitic flyers and tried to organize an uprising in Odessa back in March 2014. Before being deported by Ukrainian authorities, the leader Anton Raevskii also set up a military camp to recruit and train militants in order to allegedly start an offensive against Ukrainian bases and Jewish communities.
Training fields were also established in Russia by far-right group Eurasian Youth Union, led by neo-fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, often considered Putin’s brain behind the conflict against Ukraine and the West. Dugin’s philosophy was heavily influenced by conspiracy theorist and fascist intellectual Julius Evola, who also inspired other radical right figures such as Steve Bannon.
Russian Imperial MovementUSACanadaAmericanhas focusedIn fact, the founders of Rusich were formed in the training camps of RIM. Rusich is a contingent of the infamous Russian mercenary network Wagner Group, which has been employed to support pro-Russian forces in Donbass, where it is accused of significant human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, the group is linked to the radical right, as shown by the Slavic Swastika on their logo. Furthermore, the founder of the Wagner Group, former Russian soldier Dmitry Utkin, has reportedly chose this name after Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favorite musician.
The list of far-right organizations involved in the conflict alongside Russia is far longer if we consider other groups such as the Cossack unit Wolves’ Hundred, the Somalia Battalion, the Varyags, the Sparta Battalion, as well as nationalist militias from abroad: all of these groups are implicitly or explicitly linked to neo-Nazi and extreme right ideologies.
Ironically, even Igor Girkin, the man who allegedly convinced Putin to start the invasion of Ukraine back in February, is an ultranationalist and has become an idol among fascist circles.
As a result, despite pro-Russian propaganda describing Ukraine as a hotbed of neo-Nazis, evidence shows that Russian society and military have a far deeper problem with extremism. Moreover, what Putin described as a ‘de-Nazification’ of the country is more likely to reinforce ultranationalist sentiments both in Ukraine and Russia, rather than restrain them. The conflict may thus end up further radicalizing these nationalist movements, which in some cases were gradually distancing themselves from extreme ideologies.