World·CBC Explains

What do we know about the Russian militia groups fighting their own country in the Ukraine war?

Cross-border attacks in Russia’s Belgorod region this week have brought attention to Russian militias that have been fighting against their own country, as it wages war on Ukraine.

2 groups of anti-Kremlin fighters say they are behind an incursion into western Russia

A group of men in green camouflage uniforms stand in front of and on top of a tank.
Fighters of the Russian Volunteer Corps and allied group, the Freedom of Russia Legion, stand next to a seized armoured personnel carrier during a presentation for the media in northern Ukraine, not far from the Russian border, on May 24, after hailing a brazen mission inside Russia as a 'success.' (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Cross-border attacks in Russia's Belgorod region this week have brought attention to Russian militias that have been fighting against their own country, as it wages war on Ukraine. 

The Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed they were behind assaults on villages in the western region, about 80 kilometres north of Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv.

The Kremlin describes those responsible for the attacks as "Ukrainian saboteurs" and claimed to have killed more than 70 members of the two groups combined, also referring to them as "Ukrainian nationalists." 

While they may be united in their anti-Kremlin mission, the factions appear to have much different origins and motives.

WATCH | Russian militia groups in Ukraine carry out operation inside Russia:

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What is the Freedom of Russia Legion?

First appearing in March 2022, the Freedom of Russia Legion — sometimes referred to as the Liberty of Russia Legion — is believed to have been formed by former Russian soldiers who defected shortly after Russia launched its invasion into Ukraine.

In a self-described "manifesto" posted on a Telegram channel linked to the group, the legion describes itself as opposed to the "tyrannical regime" of Russian President Vladimir Putin, blaming him for turning their country into a "pariah." 

"He has killed and continues to kill free Russians who are fighting against the dictatorial regime for the right to live freely, continues to kill thousands of civilians and hundreds of children in Ukraine," the group wrote in a post in Russian on the social media platform in April 2022. 

In February, a New York Times profile of the group reported it fights alongside the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine, which the Ukrainian government formed for foreign citizens "wishing to join the resistance" against Russia.

Some reports suggest it has 4,000 fighters in its ranks. 

On its website, the group said it fought in "small battle groups" last summer, and now was involved in the battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut.

Russia's Supreme Court has ruled that the Freedom of Russia Legion is a terrorist organization.

Who are the Russian Volunteer Corps? 

The International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine says it has nothing to do with the Russian Volunteer Corps (RVC), a militia group formed in August 2022.

The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which monitors extremism, described RVC's leader, Denis Kapustin, also known as Denis Nikitin, as a Russian neo-Nazi "who lived in Germany for many years" and trained young far-right extremists with the National Democratic Party of Germany. 

It is also reported that Kapustin has links to groups of soccer hooligans in Germany.

A man in a military uniform stands in front of the rubble of a destroyed building on an overcast day.
Caesar, a 50-year-old Russian who joined the Freedom of Russia Legion to fight on the side of Ukraine, stands in front of a destroyed monastery in Dolyna, eastern Ukraine on Dec. 26, 2022. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking to reporters this week, Kapustin described the RVC as "a right-wing, conservative, military, semi-political organization," saying its fight is against Putin and his state apparatus.

The Belgorod incursion may not have been its first. The group claimed to have entered the Bryansk region, which borders both Ukraine and Belarus, in both March and April.

Russia's Interior Ministry put Kapustin on a wanted list in March.

"I think you will see us again on that side," Kapustin said Wednesday, introducing himself to reporters by his nom de guerre "White Rex," which was also the name of the mixed martial arts brand he established in 2008.

"Our future plans are new territories of the Russian Federation, which we will definitely enter.… You should be just a little bit patient and wait just a couple of days," Kapustin said.

Did Ukraine or the U.S. support the incursion? 

Ukraine insisted it had no part in the raid, only saying that it involved Russians.

"Ukraine is watching the events in Russia's Belgorod region with interest and is studying the situation, but has nothing to do with it," said Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak.

The White House said it is investigating claims U.S.-supplied equipment may have been used in the operation.

Kapustin told reporters that RVC fighters had used U.S.-made armoured vehicles, and video verified by Reuters appears to back that up.

The Pentagon said it had not "approved any third-party transfers of equipment to paramilitary organizations."

WATCH | Ukraine's Zelenskyy secures more weapons to fight Russia:

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With files from Reuters and The Associated Press