Ukraine War: Friendly Fire at the polls: How Russian exile fighters are disrupting Putin's election charade

From Friday, Russia will play democracy again.

Ukraine War: Friendly Fire at the polls: How Russian exile fighters are disrupting Putin's election charade

From Friday, Russia will play democracy again. Due to the lack of real competition and thanks to selected competition, it is already clear that Vladimir Putin will remain Kremlin chief. Nevertheless, the outcome of the electoral fraud is seen as an important test of sentiment in the largest country in the world. After all, the propaganda machine that has been in constant operation since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine is supposed to guarantee the flawless image of a united Russia.

And what could disrupt this "special operations happy-go-lucky" illusion more effectively than Russians fighting on the enemy's side?

The defenders have now responded to the recent dark reports that Russian troops have advanced deep into Ukrainian territory with a counterattack. At the beginning of the week, the Ukrainians launched a wave of massive drone attacks, some of which reached far beyond the country's borders and primarily targeted fuel depots.

Far more prestigious, however, were advances just a few hours later on villages around the Russian border towns of Belgorod and Kursk. Because here the Russians are said to have been confronted not with unmanned attacks from the air, but with their own kind. As the Kremlin-critical Russian online magazine "Meduza" reported, citing military bloggers, among others, "armed groups in pickup trucks" crossed the border on Tuesday morning with the support of mortars and artillery - consisting of Russian exiled fighters.

Ilya Ponomaryov, a former member of parliament in Russia who has lived abroad for about ten years and now reportedly speaks for the partisan group Legion Free Russia, explained that forces from the Legion Free Russia, the Russian Volunteer Corps and the Siberian Battalion "worked as part of a joint Operation" entered the Kursk and Belgorod regions. Moscow later claimed to have prevented an advance into Russian territory, destroyed several tanks and killed hundreds of soldiers. This information cannot be checked. In any case, the Kremlin refuses to admit that Russian partisans are behind the attacks - instead they talk about "Ukrainian terrorist formations".

Such reports make an impression primarily because influential Russian military bloggers channel them past the Kremlin's propaganda filter. Of course, the Russian exile fighters did not choose the time for their advance by chance. “We’re going to vote,” one of its leaders sneered on Telegram earlier this week. As "Spiegel" reports, their goal is to put Putin in the Siberian penal colony "Polar Wolf" - the prison in which Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny recently lost his life.

The Russian militiamen, estimated to number in the hundreds each, have formed three groups:

Russian Volunteer Corps (RDK): The corps is fighting for "a Russian nation state in the regions inhabited by a majority of ethnic Russians," a member explained to the independent Russian online medium Sota in April 2023. The RDK is led by the German-Russian Denis Kapustin. The Moscow native, also known as Nikitin, is a prominent figure in the hooligan and right-wing extremist scenes. Kapustin had already moved from North Rhine-Westphalia to Ukraine in 2019 because his residence permit in this country had expired. In Germany, he attracted the attention of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, among other things, as the founder of the martial arts brand "White Rex" and as an organizer of events.

Legion Free Russia: According to its own information, the group was formed shortly after the start of the war, in spring 2022, to “fight together with the Ukrainian people against Putin’s armed gang.” Together with the RDK, the group claimed responsibility for the attacks on Belgorod in May 2023. Although they are fighting on the side of Ukraine, many members are (to put it mildly) through and through Russian nationalists. The right-wing sentiments of the exiles are in no way contradictory to their fight against their compatriots - on the contrary. It is still unclear to what extent the Legion and the RDK are integrated into the Ukrainian command structure. An exiled fighter with the code name “Fortune” told the AFP news agency a year ago that their actions would at least be coordinated with the Ukrainian army.

According to Kiev, all paramilitary groups act on their own initiative when they strike on Russian territory. "But they are citizens of the Russian Federation, and at home (in Russia) they have the right to do whatever they deem necessary in this situation to protect their civil rights and free their country from the Russian Putin dictatorship ", the channel "Ukraina 24" quotes the spokesman for the Ukrainian military intelligence service HUR.

Whether skirmishes on Russian soil make strategic sense remains to be seen. In any case, Kiev is probably more interested in sending a message to the Russians: namely, that Putin cannot protect his people and, above all, that not all Russians are behind the autocrat.

Sources: "Meduza"; CNN; "Newsweek"; BBC; "Kyviv Independent"; "Telegraph"; "Mirror"; AFP; Reuters