For Ukraine Military, Far-Right Russian Volunteers Make for Worrisome Allies
A group of fighters aligned with Ukraine, who had participated earlier this week in the most intense fighting inside Russia’s borders since the invasion, gathered the foreign and local press in an undisclosed location on Wednesday to celebrate, to taunt the Kremlin and to show off what they called “military trophies” from their incursion into their native land: Russia.
Their leader, Denis Kapustin, was proud that his force of anti-Putin Russians at one point controlled, he said, 42 square kilometers, or 16 square miles, of Russian territory.
“I want to prove that it’s possible to fight against a tyrant,” he said. “That Putin’s power is not unlimited, that the security services can beat, control and torture the unarmed. But as soon as they meet a full armed resistance, they flee.”
It was the rhetoric of a dissident freedom fighter, but there was a discordant note that emerged as clearly as the neo-Nazi Black Sun patch on the uniform of one of the soldiers: Mr. Kapustin and prominent members of the armed group he leads, the Russian Volunteer Corps, openly espouse far-right views. In fact, German officials and humanitarian groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, have identified Mr. Kapustin as a neo-Nazi.
Mr. Kapustin, who has long used the alias Denis Nikitin but typically goes by his military call sign, White Rex, is a Russian citizen who moved to Germany in the early 2000s. He associated with a group of violent soccer fans and later became, “one of the most influential activists” in a neo-Nazi splinter group in the mixed-martial-arts scene, officials in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia have said.
Mr. Kapustin has reportedly been banned from entering Europe’s visa-free, 27-country Schengen zone, but he has said only that Germany canceled his residency permit.
The fact that the group has garnered attention for its operation and revived coverage of the group’s ties to neo-Nazis is an awkward development for Ukraine’s government, particularly since President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has justified his invasion on the false claim of fighting neo-Nazis and made it a regular theme of Kremlin propaganda.
Most of the anti-Russian groups harbor long-term political ambitions to return home and overthrow the Russian and Belarusian governments.
“The Russian Volunteer Corps marches in and destroys the current government — that’s the only way,” Mr. Kapustin said earlier this year. “You cannot persuade a tyrant to leave, and any other force would be seen as invaders.”
In reality, far right groups in Ukraine are a small minority, and Ukraine has denied any involvement in the Russian Volunteer Corps or any role in fighting on the Russian side of the border. But Mr. Kapustin said that his group “definitely got a lot of encouragement” from the Ukrainian authorities.
Some on the far right in Russia long ago soured on Mr. Putin, particularly for his jailing of so many nationalists, but also for his policies on immigration and for what they perceive as granting too much power to minorities like ethnic Chechens. Since the 2014 Maidan revolution and the onset of war between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, many of them have made a home in Ukraine and are now fighting on the side of their adopted country.
The Russian Volunteer Corps, also known by its Russian initials R.D.K., was one of two groups of anti-Russian fighters that conducted a cross-border attack in the Belgorod region of southern Russia on Monday, engaging enemy troops over two days of skirmishing.
The aim of the incursions, the groups say, was to force Moscow to redeploy soldiers from occupied areas of Ukraine to defend its borders, stretching its defenses ahead of a planned Ukrainian counteroffensive, a goal which aligns with the broader objectives of Ukraine’s military.
The Russian Volunteer Corps also claimed credit for two incidents in the Russian border region of Bryansk in March and April.
The second group was the Free Russia Legion, which operates under the umbrella of Ukraine’s International Legion, a force that includes American and British volunteers, as well as Belarusians, Georgians and others. It is overseen by Ukraine’s Armed Forces and commanded by Ukrainian officers.
At the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Kapustin affirmed that his group was not controlled by the Ukrainian Army, but said that the military had wished the fighters “good luck.” There had been “nothing further than encouragement” from the Ukrainian part, he said.
“Everything we do, every decision we make, beyond the state border is our own decision what we do. Obviously we can ask our comrades and friends for their assistance in planning,” he continued. “They would say ‘yes, no’ and this is the kind of encouragement, help I was talking about.” That claim could not be independently verified.
Andriy Chernyak, a representative of Ukraine’s military intelligence service, defended Kyiv’s willingness to allow the group to fight on its behalf.
“Ukraine definitely supports all those who are ready to fight the Putin regime,” he said, adding: “People came to Ukraine and said that they want to help us to fight Putin’s regime, so of course we let them, same as many other people from foreign countries.”
Ukraine has called the incursions an “internal Russian crisis” given that the members of the group are Russians themselves.
Some analysts dismissed the significance of the R.D.K. as a fighting force even as they warn of the dangers they pose. Michael Colborne, a researcher at Bellingcat who reports on the international far right, said he was hesitant even to call the Russian Volunteer Corps a military unit.
“They are largely a far-right group of neo-Nazi exiles who are undertaking these incursions into Russian-held territory who seem far more concerned about making social media content than anything else,” Mr. Colborne said.
Some other members of the R.D.K. photographed during the border raid also have publicly embraced neo-Nazi views. One man, Aleksandr Skachkov, was arrested by the Ukrainian Security Services in 2020 for selling a Russian translation of the white supremacist manifesto of the shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 mosque worshipers in 2019. Mr. Skachkov was released on bail after spending a month in jail.
Another member, Aleksei Levkin, who filmed a selfie video wearing the R.D.K. insignia, is a founder of a group called Wotanjugend that started in Russia but later moved to Ukraine. Mr. Levkin also organizes a “National Socialist Black Metal Festival,” which began in Moscow in 2012 but was held in Kyiv from 2014 until 2019.
Pictures posted online by the fighters earlier this week showed them posing in front of captured Russian equipment, with some wearing Nazi-style patches and equipment. One patch depicted a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Mr. Colborne said the images of Mr. Kapustin and his fighters could damage Ukraine’s defense by making allies wary they could be supporting far-right armed groups.
“I worry that something like this could backfire on Ukraine because these are not ambiguous people,” he said. “These are not unknown people, and they are not helping Ukraine in any practical sense.”
Mr. Kapustin, who in addition to speaking Russian speaks fluent English and German, told reporters he did not think being called “far right” was an “accusation.”
“We have never concealed our views,” he said. “We are a right, conservative, military, semipolitical organization,” he said.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Andrew E. Kramer and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.