Many of them are motivated by their opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship, with the war in Ukraine providing them with the most direct and dramatic battlefield to oppose the Kremlin.
Many of the fighters are Russian nationalists who believe in close affinity between the Russian and Ukrainian nations and who think that Putin is a lethal threat to both entities.
Their existence also discredits incessant Kremlin propaganda that Russian speakers are being persecuted in Ukraine.
Two of the most prominent Ukrainian nationalist groups, the Dnipropetrovsk-based Right Sector and the Kharkiv-based Patriot of Ukraine – the core of the Azov Regiment — are mostly Russian-speaking. The units include many ethnic Russians, both Ukrainian-born and Russian-born, testimony to the centuries of interlocking blood ties between Russians and Ukrainians.
One of the Right Sector’s Russian fighters, Ilya Bogdanov, hails from Russia’s Pacific coast city of Vladivostok and has been involved in the nationalist movement since he was 14. He told the Kyiv Post that he had been friends with Primorye Partisans, Russian nationalist guerillas who killed police officers in 2010 for serving the Kremlin regime. From 2005-2014, Bogdanov worked as an officer in Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet KGB. He was deployed to fight Islamist insurgents in Dagestan in 2010.
He said that, before getting fired by the FSB, he sympathized with Ukraine’s 2013-2014 EuroMaidan Revolution because he hoped that a similar uprising would take place in Russia. “I felt like the unhappiest person in the world because the revolution that we had dreamed of passed us by,” he said.
He took action by joining Ukrainian voluntary fighting battalions on the frontlines in August. He became one of the most famous “cyborgs” – a popular term for Ukrainian soldiers who heroically defended Donetsk Airport before it was destroyed and overrun by Kremlin-backed forces in January.
Another Russian fighter, whose nom-de-guerre is Varyag (Varangian), is training in Kyiv before going to the war front. He fears retribution if he is publicly identified by name.
Varyag used to run a nationalist group in Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast and served in the country’s navy.He says that he fled Russia in November after authorities opened a criminal case against him for reposting a video that authorities claimed had incited ethnic hatred.
Right Sector fighter Ilya Bogdanov (right), a Russian and former Federal Security Service officer, with his comrade in arms.
Pomor, a nationalist from Murmansk Oblast, is also training to fight in the war. Like Varyag, he would not disclose his name for fear of reprisals.
Pomor left Russia in September after authorities started a criminal investigation against him for inciting hatred towards United Russia, the country’s ruling party.
“We fought against stupidity and meanness,” Pomor said. “There we fought against the mean part of the nation politically, and here we can fight them physically – with weapons in our hands.”
For him, the war is more of a civilizational and political conflict than an ethnic one.
“This is not a Russian-Ukrainian war,” Pomor said. “This is a war between vatniks (a common term for Russian imperialists) and non-vatniks, Putin and anti-Putin.”
But Varyag admitted he likes war.
“I’ve always felt an urge to fight,” he said. “But I was not able to go to Chechnya or Kosovo.”
He also said he wants to “clean up the mess” caused by Russia’s aggression.
“I’ve been fighting against Putin’s anti-Russian regime since I came of age,” Bogdanov said. “It’s a fake. It’s pseudo-totalitarian and pseudo-fascist, and fascists there are not real. Everything is unreal there.”
He also said that he was inspired by the “atmosphere of freedom” in Ukraine and saw his conflict with Russian imperialists as one between progress and barbarianism.
“When we’re fighting a war of symbols, others are developing technologies worldwide,” Bogdanov said. “I support all people who want to move ahead and develop. And I have little in common with those who want to degenerate and think in the categories of the previous century.”
Pomor voiced similar ideas: “We are not xenophobes or chauvinists… A Soviet chauvinist blames someone else – he wakes up at home and there’s a lot of rubbish and empty bottles everywhere, and America is to blame. A proper nationalist admits his nation’s mistakes and tries to correct them.”
Bogdanov said all of his nationalist friends initially supported the EuroMaidan Revolution. But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, most of them became imperialists and went to fight on the side of the separatists. Only a minority supported Ukraine.
The FSB initially coordinated a campaign to send mercenaries to Crimea, he said.
“A friend came up to me and said ‘Let’s go to Crimea. We can shoot Tatars there’,” Bogdanov added. “Everyone went (to fight). It was impossible to be left aside.”
Six of Bogdanov’s acquaintances are fighting for the combined Russian-separatist forces in Luhansk Oblast. When he was based at Donetsk Airport’s measurement tower, some of Bogdanov’s former friends came there specifically to target him.
“Putin cleverly used the Black Hundred imperial archetypes (a reference to the xenophobic Black Hundreds in the Russian Empire),” Bogdanov said. “Every Russian is indoctrinated starting from the cradle with the ideas of Moscow as the third Rome and war against the whole world.”
Bogdanov said that he used to be a supporter of Black Hundreds and a skinhead but now he defines his views as “moderately conservative” and is against any totalitarian regime.
It is easier for Russian nationalists to fight for Kremlin-backed separatists because they get paid well, have no problems crossing the border and don’t lose their citizenship, he said.
Bogdanov mentioned a surreal situation when some Russian nationalists went through territory controlled by separatists in Donetsk Oblast to fight for the Right Sector. They ended up enrolling in separatist forces because they didn’t let them cross the frontline.
One of the separatists Bogdanov knows well is his former best friend, a guy named Fyodor.
“My last contact with Fedya was in November, when he said he had peed on an Aidar Battalion soldier’s corpse,” he says. “His main argument against Ukraine is that ‘you are ruled by Jews.’”
Bogdanov said there are about 50 Russians in the Right Sector’s military unit and the same number at the Azov Regiment.
But Artyom Skoropadsky, the Right Sector’s spokesman and also a Russian citizen, said that there are about 50 fighters from Russia and Belarus in the unit. Like all other applicants, the Russian fighters have been checked by Right Sector’s security unit, he added.
One of the Right Sector’s Russian fighters, Samurai, is a former officer of the Special Rapid Response Unit, a part of Russia’s Interior Ministry.
There has been talk of creating a separate “Russian corps” at Azov. So far the Russian fighters have created an informal group called the Misanthropic Division. There has also been a failed attempt to create the Sever Battalion in Chernihiv Oblast with a Russian company as part of it.
There is also Yulia Talopa, a 19-year-old Russian-born sniper in the Aidar Battalion and some Russian fighters in the Donbas Battalion, Varyag and Pomor say.
If they go back to their homeland, Ukraine’s Russian fighters face criminal cases for being mercenaries and for extremism.
Yet the fighters are also having problems legalizing their presence in Ukraine. Bogdanov got Ukrainian citizenship earlier this year, but most of his fellow Russians have received neither citizenship nor refugee status.
Ukrainian law bans combatants from being officially registered as refugees.
Skoropadsky said, however, that the Right Sector would apply to the Presidential Administration to get Ukrainian citizenship for its Russian soldiers. The Verkhovna Rada on April 23 approved the first reading of a bill making it easier for foreign fighters to get citizenship.
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