Hundreds of Russian citizens are fighting as volunteers on the Ukrainian side, according to media reports. Who they are and what are their hopes for the future of Russia?
“A dream come true — I am now in the Freedom of Russia Legion,” says Igor Volobuev, once a vice-president at Russia’s state-owned Gazprombank. The Legion’s Telegram channel has details of quite a few Russians who have defected to Ukraine and even revealed their names.
The Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps are two groups comprising mainly Russians but who are fighting on Ukraine’s side.
On Monday, fighters from these units shelled the Russian region of Belgorod in what Andriy Yuzov from Ukraine’s Intelligence Directorate told the Suspilne public broadcaster was an “operation to liberate these territories from the so-called Putin regime.”
There has been awareness of the Freedom of Russia Legion since at least the beginning of April 2022. It was apparently formed by captured Russian soldiers who switched over to the Ukrainian side, but also of volunteers with Russian passports.
It is made up of about 500 men, according to Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of the Russian State Duma who represents the unit. He was the only Russian lawmaker to vote against the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and went into exile in 2016.
The Russian Volunteer Corps has existed since August 2022 but the number of men is not known. However, a fighter who goes by the name “Cardinal,” whose military ID was presented to DW, said it had the same tasks as a company — which can have 30 to 150 men.
One of the co-founders, Denis Kapustin, a businessman who is known as being part of Russia’s far-right movement and uses the pseudonym Denis Nikitin, said late last year that the Russian Volunteer Corps had been working with the Ukrainian army since the fall.
On social networks, the Russian Volunteer Corps says that all its members hold right-wing conservative views. “Cardinal” sees Russia’s future in a “true nation-state of Russians in the original Russian territories — taking into account the territorial integrity of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as neighboring countries.”
“We want to establish a state for Russians that lives in peace with all thenations that surround it,” he insists.
The members of the Freedom of Russia Legion do not publicly express their political views. Ilya Ponomarev has said that there is in fact no dominant ideology and the unit is a prototype of the future army of the Russian Federation, with the advantage of being neither on the left nor right, neither liberal nor conservative. He argues that members are united by the idea of opposing Russia’s aggression.
Dissolve or preserve the federation?
The Russian Volunteer Corps is part of the Civic Council, a new Russian emigrant association founded in Warsaw, whose main public face is Anastasia Sergeyeva, until recently the head of the Poland-based For a Free Russia association. She said that the Civic Council had members from the constituent republics of the Russian Federation who supported the right of self-determination for their peoples.
On YouTube, the Civil Council has posted video messages to Chechens and Circassians, urging them to fight for Ukraine and campaign for the independence of their republics. One of Sergeyeva’s tasks is to seek private donations to finance the Civil Council’s work and the training of new fighters.
Ponomarev told DW at the end of 2022 that he had held talks about cooperation with representatives from various countries and media outlets. Unlike the Russian Volunteer Corps, which is not against regions seceding from the Russian Federation, the Legion says that its goal is to “preserve a united and indivisible Russia within the borders of 1991.” However, it says that regions should be given far-reaching powers and their ethnic identity should be preserved. The Legion is also raising funds and welcomes all donations — in cryptocurrency
Recruitment of fighters
Before the Russian Volunteer Corps began its cooperation with the Civil Council, it only accepted Russians who were already abroad. Many, according to their own statements, had fought in the Donbas on the side of Ukraine in the Azov Battalion since 2014.
Today, the Civil Council functions as a kind of recruitment center and according to Sergeyeva men are now accepted directly from Russia. Volunteers are asked to fill out an online questionnaire or write to an encrypted mailbox. “Further communication takes place via secure systems that we suggest,” said Sergeyeva without going into details.
For its part, the Freedom of Russia Legion initially only recruited Russian prisoners of war who had changed their views, said Oleksiy Arestovych, a former advisor to Ukraine’s presidential office, but that it now accepted men who were still in Russia.
Prospective members are asked to send their resumes and copies of a whole host of documents, including their ID to a ProtonMail mailbox. The admissions process includes a lie detector test, as well as psychological tests and aptitude assessments.
Ever since an unsuccessful merger of the two in August last year, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Freedom of Russia Legion have been wary of one another — something they avoid showing.