25 May 2023

*  Feature Photo from the Liberty of Russia Legion and not the Russian Volunteer Corps

Ukraine does not take responsibility for the Belgorod Raid, stating that two Russian paramilitary groups were responsible – the Liberty of Russia Legion (LRL) and the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC). The Belgorod raid is part of Ukraine’s wider strategic and tactical goals by allowing this Russian paramilitary force to enter with an armoured column of nine vehicles creates panic. Russian media broadcasted that raid and footage of empty buses arriving in nearby towns to evacuate the civilians. These are images that President Putin cannot fully propagandise to the public. Moreover, now the Russian military has to see how it can deploy some forces to secure the border while also trying to deploy enough men and equipment for Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive. Wagern Group leader, Prigozhin, is using this moment to lash out at the Russian Ministry of Defence for failing to protect the country’s borders. A few days ago, Prigozhin stated that Ukraine’s military was the second strongest in the world, while the Wagner Group is the strongest — an obvious insult towards Russia’s military and government.

Who are the paramilitary groups?

The RVC has a more sordid past. It was founded in August 2022 and is headed by Denis Kapustin (aka Denis Nikitin), who has links with right-wing extremism with his Mixed Martial Arts tournaments in Europe. Nikitin has refuted these claims and says he is a “nationalist fighting for Russia that belongs to ethnic Russians”, according to Reuters. The group has fought throughout the Ukraine War in multiple battles including the siege at Mariupol. It should also be remembered that the Azov Regiment is also affiliated with far-right neo-Nazism. Purportedly though, one of the members of the RVC raid in Belgorod was arrested for selling the translated manifesto of the Christchurch shooter.

There have been concerns about right-wing extremists getting the training, weaponry and contact links to further aggression elsewhere. The use of explosives and light arms does pose a risk for right-wing extremism after the Ukraine War has ended, especially if the vision of these groups is not achieved or their legacy is not admired. In addition to this, going back to normal life after the war may push these right-wing extremists, some being Neo-Nazis, in conducting terrorist acts. A recent academic paper by Christian Kaunert, Alex MacKenzie and Sarah Léonard discusses how far-right foreign fighters in Ukraine could be a blind spot for the European Union.

LRL was created shortly after the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Freedom of Russia Legion has conducted multiple small raids in Russian territory. It is reported that the LRL fought alongside the Ukrainian Army in Donbas. However, it seems that one of the main roles is arson and sabotage in Russia. It does not appear to have links to right-wing extremism as the RVC does. The unit has been shrouded in mystery. It is part of the international legion but consists of Russians. The existence of the LRL was used as a propaganda tool in order to sway Russian troops to defect to Ukraine and purportedly some POWs do fight within this unit. It has attracted some recruits as a former Vice-President of Russia’s Gazprombank joined its ranks.

Ukraine’s Headache

If paramilitary groups continue with cross-border incursions, it will be a headache for the Ukrainian government. That does not mean that cross-border incursions do not occur. Recently, Ukrainian Special Forces destroyed two military watch towers in Troebortnoe, Bryansk Oblast. However, there has been a slew of agreements that donated military equipment to Ukraine will not be used by attacking Russian territory. NATO has been concerned about the risk of escalation. Ukraine has had to prove that it can use the weaponry that NATO supplied, and Ukraine has lobbied for more equipment. First, NATO sent anti-tank missiles such as the Javelin, and then was convinced that Ukraine could deploy artillery, then HIMARS, main battle tanks, Storm Shadow missiles and now potentially the F-16 fighter jet. Germany has been at the forefront of this wall of caution. The Leopard tank transfer is a prime example as Poland and Finland stated that they would transfer the tanks within a coalition, regardless if Germany gave approval or not. Germany capitulated after much diplomatic pressure and after main combat tank pledges from the UK and the US.

Cross-border attacks do occur and specialized Western technology has been used. There are multiple examples of this occurring, but the one that sticks in memory is the use of an American Switchblade drone at a Russian border checkpoint in Troebortnoe. It is a small and isolated incident and Ukrainian forces do deploy domestically-built drones for those incursions as well – a prime example would be the recent drone attack on a Crimean oil depot.

However, Ukraine’s headache is simple, but two-fold. The Belgorod raid demonstrated that Russian paramilitary groups could conduct raiding operations that are more sophisticated than simple arson and sabotage. The most glaring issue, of course, is if these paramilitary groups continue or expand their raids in Russia and use Western equipment. The imagery of Western armoured personnel carriers or other equipment invading Russia will not sit well with Ukraine’s NATO allies and there could very well be diplomatic repercussions. In fact, this is already happening, as Russia published two photos of abandoned or damaged US-made Humvees in Belgorod. The United States states that they did not approve of the transfer of equipment to paramilitary organizations, and that: “Our focus is on providing Ukraine with the equipment and training they need to retake their own sovereign territory — we do not encourage or enable attacks inside of Russia.” Arming paramilitary groups is one thing, but incursions into Russia’s sovereign territory go against the spirit of the agreements and NATO’s hesitancy of escalation. This very well could be a driving wedge for future support for Ukraine if these incursions continue.

Ukraine is arming neo-Nazi affiliated paramilitary groups for the defence of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion of the country. Ukraine has been doing this since Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas region in 2014. It is understandable that there is no end-game plan on what to do about these groups after the war has ended. How can there be a plan to disarm, delegitimise and reconcile extremists during a war? Although after the war, many of these fighters will either stay in Ukraine or go back to their home countries and may become violent actors. Actors who are used to combat, arson, sabotage and the trials and tribulations of war. It is doubtful that these individuals will have access to post-traumatic stress treatment facilities.

There have only been slight murmurings of opposition against this in the West.  Back in 2018, before Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, Canadian officials, who met with the Azov Battalion, feared the exposure by the media that they met with a unit with neo-Nazi roots. The fear was not only be linked to this group, but giving legitimacy to them, and the Azov Battalion posted social media posts. The EU Terrorism Situation and Trend 2022 Report stated that jihadist and right-wing extremism were the top two terrorist threats. Ukraine was mentioned in the report, but not to the full scale that this threat could become, but only time will tell.

Regardless, Ukrainian Armed Forces are going to have to weight the cost/benefit of paramilitary groups carrying out incursion raids on Russian territory. It does seem that Russia now has to juggle its defensive forces between Ukrainian frontlines and the homefront, but it may come at a cost further down the road for Western support of Ukraine.

Feature Photo: Liberty of Russia Legion – Belgorod announcement, Twitter, May 2023


By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]